Podcast: A graphic novel about Marcus Aurelius

Rob and Massimo talk to Donald Robertson, the author of the graphic novel Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. What were the challenges of presenting history and philosophy in pictorial form? Was the emperor Hadrian really such a bad character? Why did Marcus appoint his son Commodus to succeed him? Join us for these and many other questions about Stoicism and how to write about it. (listen at Anchor)

How to keep an open mind with Sextus Empiricus

by Massimo Pigliucci

What do you know? Not much, and you?

That was the tagline of a Public Radio International comedy quiz show that ran for three decades hosted by Michael Feldman (and which is now a podcast, of course). But it could just as well describe the skeptical philosophy known as Pyrrhonism.

Named after Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BCE), Pyrrhonism was the original western version of Skepticism. Unfortunately for us, Pyrrho apparently never wrote anything. His student, Timon of Phlius, did, but most of his works are now lost. As a result, one of our major sources on the whole philosophy is Sextus Empiricus (late second and early third century), the author of the famous Outlines of Pyrrhonism, which has been translated into modern language by Richard Bett for Princeton University Press’ ongoing Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series.

The essence of Pyrrhonism is that our unhappiness is rooted in the fact that we are too attached to all sorts of opinions we have no business being attached to, because they are about “non-evident” matters, i.e., broadly and imprecisely speaking, matters that are not obvious to the senses (like: it’s day now!) or to basic reasoning (like: 2+2=4). One example might be any broad statement about what does or does not make people happy. (Did you catch the irony?) … (continue at Substack)

Suggested reading: Is spreading medical misinformation a doctor’s free speech right?

by Steven Lee Myers

When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that would punish California doctors for spreading false information about Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, he pledged that it would apply only in the most “egregious instances” of misleading patients.

It may never have the chance.

Even before the law, the nation’s first of its kind, takes effect on Jan. 1, it faces two legal challenges seeking to declare it an unconstitutional infringement of free speech. The plaintiffs include doctors who have spoken out against government and expert recommendations during the pandemic, as well as legal organizations from both sides of the political spectrum.

“Our system opts toward a presumption that speech is protected,” said Hannah Kieschnick, a lawyer for the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in favor of one of the challenges, filed last month in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

That lawsuit and another, filed this month in the Eastern District of California, have become an extension of the broader cultural battle over the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to divide Americans along stark partisan lines. … (continue at The New York Times)

Book to consider: The Bookshop

by Penelope Fitzgerald

In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop – the only bookshop – in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors’ lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence’s warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn’t always a town that wants one.

[Get the book here.]

What criterion for knowledge?

by Massimo Pigliucci

There is a problem in epistemology—the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge—that has been raised more than two millennia ago and just doesn’t seem to go away. Here is how the problem, in a nutshell, is rendered by Andrew Cling in his contribution to the edited collection Skepticism—From Antiquity to Present: To know a proposition, we must first know a criterion of truth. To know a criterion of truth, we must first know a proposition. Therefore we cannot know any proposition or any criterion of truth.

To put it differently, the so-called problem of the criterion comes about because (i) whatever answer we give to the question “what do we know about X?” presupposes an answer to the underlying question “how do we know about X?” But (ii) we cannot answer the second question without answering the first one. Which means we can’t really answer either. Ergo, (iii) we don’t know crap, unless we are willing to (iv) engage in circular reasoning in which a proposition is justified by a second proposition, which is then justified by a third one, and so on, until we encounter a proposition that can only be justified by a previous one; or (v) we are okay with an infinite series of justifications, in which the first proposition is justified by a second one, which is justified by a third one, and so on and so forth, forever. … (continue at Substack)

Book to consider: Memorabilia

by Xenophon

An essential text for understanding Socrates, Xenophon’s Memorabilia is the compelling tribute of an affectionate student to his teacher, providing a rare firsthand account of Socrates’ life and philosophy. The Memorabilia is invaluable both as a work of philosophy in its own right and as a complement to the study of Plato’s dialogues. The longest of Xenophon’s four Socratic works, it is particularly revealing about the differences between Socrates and his philosophical predecessors.

Far more obviously than Plato in the dialogues, Xenophon calls attention in the Memorabilia to his own relationship with Socrates. A colorful and fully engaged writer, Xenophon aims above all to convince his readers of the greatness of Socrates’ thought and the disgracefulness of his conviction on a capital charge. In thirty-nine chapters, Xenophon presents Socrates as an ordinary person and as a great benefactor to those associated with him.

[Get the book here.]

Suggested reading: Plato was not White

by Nathan P. Gilmour

Another teaching semester is about to ramp up, and as is often the case, I have some Platonic dialogues lined up to teach. I’ve taught at least one dialogue in almost every semester since about 2005, and on the campus of Emmanuel College, where I’ve taught since 2009, people who know about me at all know about me as “that Plato guy.” My sense is that the relatively few people who know about me on the Internet regard me likewise.

Perhaps that professional investment in Plato (personally, I’m more of a postmodern Augustinian with leanings towards MacIntyre’s brand of neo-Thomism) has made me more irritable than I should be when the old Athenian ends up in the crosshairs of well-meaning folks who wish to set right the balance of power and take away the overlordship (I prefer that Anglo-Saxon compound word to the Hellenism “hegemony,” and I grant the irony) from “dead white males.” I think the political questions there are fascinating, but a matter of some historical import gets in the way of the politics, if one isn’t careful: Plato wasn’t White. … (continue at The Christian Humanist)

The philosophy of football

by Massimo Pigliucci

The football (i.e., soccer, for Americans) World Cup is in full swing. Setting aside the more than justified controversies about FIFA, the organizing body, and Qatar, the hosting country, I’ve had some time to reflect on the game itself from a bit of a detached perspective. After all, Italy didn’t make it to the tournament this year, so I’ll have to wait until the 2026 edition in North America (a joint US-Mexico-Canada effort) to see the Azzurri in action again. Fate permitting.

I’d like to analyze the idea of football—seen from the point of view of a player—in Stoic terms, because I think football embodies many of the lessons of Stoicism itself. Which is a bit ironic, given that the ancient Stoics taught us not to give a damn about games, and especially not to care about which team may or may not win. Epictetus admonishes:

“When the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk.” (Encheiridion, 33.3) … (continue at Substack)

How to be free, Epictetus style

by Massimo Pigliucci

Epictetus was a late first century and early second century slave-turned-teacher and Stoic philosopher. He literally changed my life. His Discourses were the first book from original sources that I read after discovering Stoicism as a practical philosophy, and it struck me like a ton of bricks. But in a good way. I immediately responded to Epictetus’s sense of humor, which often borders on sarcasm. I appreciated his no-nonsense talk to his students, the fact that he doesn’t pull punches, that he calls it as he sees it. But most importantly the fact that his philosophy is arguably the most useful form of Stoicism, which in turn is the most useful of ancient philosophies.

(I wrote three books on Stoicism based on Epictetus: How to Be a StoicA Handbook for New Stoics, and A Field Guide to a Happy Life.)

What better way, then, to begin this occasional series of commentaries based on the excellent “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers” books put out by Princeton University Press, than with Anthony Long’s translation of Epictetus’s Encheiridion, retitled “How to Be Free.” Long is arguably the foremost scholar on Epictetus, and his introduction to the famous manual for a good life (as well as to a few selected excerpts from the Discourses) is well worth the price of admission. … (continue at Substack)

Profiles in Skepticism: the Cyrenaics

by Massimo Pigliucci

The Cyrenaics were the original hedonists, far more so than their more successful later competitors, the Epicureans. Their creed was that pleasure is the only true good, and by pleasure they meant physical and immediate. No delayed gratification for them, and no fancy intellectual stuff either. The Cyrenaics were the true sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll practitioners of the ancient world!

Yet Richard Bett, in his chapter in the collection Skepticism: From Antiquity to Present, considers the possibility that the Cyreanics were also skeptic, at least when it came to their epistemology, their theory of knowledge.

Sextus Empiricus, the major exponent of the Pyrrhonist school (well, other than Pyrrhus himself!) disagreed. He pointed out, to begin with, that the goal of a Cyrenaic life was pleasure, while the goal of a Skeptic life is ataraxia, freedom from worry. But that, frankly, is neither here nor there. Ataraxia is no more inherently a skeptical goal than virtue or pleasure. Just consider that the Cicero, a prominent member of the other school of Greco-Roman skepticism, the Academics, thought that the goal of is to live virtuously, similar to what the Stoics also maintained. … (continue at Substack)