The Quest for Character, audio excerpt

Enjoy this audio excerpt from my forthcoming book (out next week!), The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders.

What Socrates’s greatest failure reveals about an ancient question: Can we teach our leaders to be better people?

Is good character something that can be taught? In 430 BCE, Socrates set out to teach the vain, power-seeking Athenian statesman Alcibiades how to be a good person—and failed spectacularly. Alcibiades went on to beguile his city into a hopeless war with Syracuse, and all of Athens paid the price.

In The Quest for Character, philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci tells this famous story and asks what we can learn from it. He blends ancient sources with modern interpretations to give a full picture of the philosophy and cultivation of character, virtue, and personal excellence—what the Greeks called arete. At heart, The Quest for Character isn’t simply about what makes a good leader. Drawing on Socrates as well as his followers among the Stoics, this book gives us lessons perhaps even more crucial: how we can each lead an excellent life.

Available September 27, 2022 from Hachette Audio as a digital download, and in Print and Ebook from Basic Books.

[get the book here; listen to the audio reading by Alan Carlson here]

Book to consider: How to Be Authentic

[Books I’ve read that I think may be of general interest. See also my book club entries under essays.]

In an age of self-exposure, what does it mean to be authentic? “Authenticity” has become attenuated to the point of meaninglessness; everyone says to be yourself, but what that means is anyone’s guess. For existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, authenticity is not the revelation of a true self, but an exhilarating quest towards fulfillment. Her view, central to existentialism, is that we exist first and then spend the rest of our lives creating—not discovering—who we are. To be authentic is to live in pursuit of self-creation and self-renewal, with many different paths towards diverse goals.

How to Be Authentic is a lively introduction to Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of existentialism, as well as an exploration of the successes and failures that Beauvoir and other women have experienced in striving towards authenticity. Skye C. Cleary takes us through some of life’s major relationships and milestones: friendship; romantic love; marriage; children; and death, and examines how each offers an opportunity for us to stretch toward authenticity. While many people don’t get to choose their path in life—whether because of systemic oppression or the actions of other individuals—Cleary makes a compelling case that Beauvoir’s ideas can help us become more conscious of living purposefully, thoughtfully, and with vitality, and she shows us how to do so in responsible ways that invigorate every person’s right to become poets of their own lives.

[Get the book here]

Book to consider: Anger, Mercy, Revenge

[Books I’ve read that I think may be of general interest. See also my book club entries under essays.]

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE–65 CE) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, dramatist, statesman, and adviser to the emperor Nero, all during the Silver Age of Latin literature. The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca is a fresh and compelling series of new English-language translations of his works in eight accessible volumes. Edited by world-renowned classicists Elizabeth Asmis, Shadi Bartsch, and Martha C. Nussbaum, this engaging collection restores Seneca—whose works have been highly praised by modern authors from Desiderius Erasmus to Ralph Waldo Emerson—to his rightful place among the classical writers most widely studied in the humanities.

Anger, Mercy, Revenge comprises three key writings: the moral essays On Anger and On Clemency—which were penned as advice for the then young emperor, Nero—and the Apocolocyntosis, a brilliant satire lampooning the end of the reign of Claudius. Friend and tutor, as well as philosopher, Seneca welcomed the age of Nero in tones alternately serious, poetic, and comic—making Anger, Mercy, Revenge a work just as complicated, astute, and ambitious as its author.

[Get the book here]

Book to consider: Medieval Philosophy

[Books I’ve read that I think may be of general interest. See also my book club entries under essays.]

Peter Adamson presents a lively introduction to six hundred years of European philosophy, from the beginning of the ninth century to the end of the fourteenth century.

The medieval period is one of the richest in the history of philosophy, yet one of the least widely known. Adamson introduces us to some of the greatest thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition, including Peter Abelard, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Roger Bacon. And the medieval period was notable for the emergence of great women thinkers, including Hildegard of Bingen, Marguerite Porete, and Julian of Norwich.

Original ideas and arguments were developed in every branch of philosophy during this period – not just philosophy of religion and theology, but metaphysics, philosophy of logic and language, moral and political theory, psychology, and the foundations of mathematics and natural science.

[Get the book here.]

Book to consider: That one should disdain hardships, the teachings of a Roman Stoic

[Books I’ve read that I think may be of general interest. See also my book club entries under essays.]

Stoicism is rather popular these days. This is, perhaps, not surprising, given that we live in turbulent and unpredictable times, precisely the sort of climate that triggered a flourishing of practical life philosophies during the Hellenistic period during which Stoicism emerged as one of the dominant traditions. That one should disdain hardships: the teachings of a Roman Stoic is a reissue of a translation by Cora E. Lutz of the lectures and sayings of the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, which was originally published in 1947 in the Yale Classical Studies series and is now accompanied by a new, very useful introduction by Gretchen Reydams-Schils. It ought to be in the library not only of classics scholars and philosophers but also of anyone seriously interested in the study and practice of Stoicism.

Musonius was born around 20–30 CE in Volsinii, in Etruria, and he died as late as 101 CE. Although he was one of the most influential teachers of Stoicism during the first century, he is nowadays known mostly because of one of his students, Epictetus, the slave-turned-teacher who famously said, “It isn’t death, pain, exile or anything else you care to mention that accounts for the way we act, only our opinion about death, pain and the rest” (Discourses I, 11.33). You can very clearly see Musonius’ influence on Epictetus throughout the collected 21 lectures and assorted fragments. Like Epictetus, Musonius touches on a bewildering variety of topics, often surprisingly practical ones. He discourses not only about training oneself in philosophy, how to tackle exile, and how to educate women, but also about what we should eat, what sort of house we should keep, and even how we should cut our hair!

We are told, for instance, that the philosopher should prefer inexpensive, nutritious food that is easy to find and to prepare. No gourmet meals for the Stoic! Why should that be? Because every time we sit at the table, we have a chance to practice one of the cardinal virtues: temperance (with the other three being practical wisdom, courage, and justice). Temperance is crucial, because intemperate people can hardly be virtuous. Think about that the next time you go grocery shopping!

Arguably, among the most interesting of Musonius’ lectures are the two concerned with the education of women. He is very clear that women possess the same intellectual abilities as men and that moreover a good life for a woman requires the practice of virtue just as in men’s lives. This is remarkably forward- looking for the time, although other Stoics – from the founder of the sect, Zeno of Citium, to the Roman senator Seneca – readily agreed! This does not mean that we can read Musonius, or the Stoics more generally, as feminists in anything like the modern sense of the word. After all, the Roman Stoics in particular (as distinct from their Greek colleagues) thought that sex was reserved strictly for procreation and that it had to be consummated within a marriage. Then again, the point of studying the ancients is not that they got everything right, but rather that they articulated the notion of philosophical inquiry as the art of living, a notion that we are very much in need of still today.

[Get the book here. This review was originally published in The Historian.]

Book to consider: The Socrates Express

[Books I’ve read that I think may be of general interest. See also my book club entries under essays.]

The New York Times best-selling author of The Geography of Bliss embarks on a rollicking intellectual journey, following in the footsteps of history’s greatest thinkers and showing us how each – from Epicurus to Gandhi, Thoreau to Beauvoir – offers practical and spiritual lessons for today’s unsettled times.

We turn to philosophy for the same reasons we travel: to see the world from a dif­ferent perspective, to unearth hidden beauty, and to find new ways of being. We want to learn how to embrace wonder. Face regrets. Sustain hope.

Eric Weiner combines his twin passions for philosophy and travel in a globe-trotting pil­grimage that uncovers surprising life lessons from great thinkers around the world, from Rousseau to Nietzsche, Confucius to Simone Weil. Traveling by train (the most thoughtful mode of transport), he journeys thousands of miles, making stops in Athens, Delhi, Wyoming, Coney Island, Frankfurt, and points in between to recon­nect with philosophy’s original purpose: teaching us how to lead wiser, more meaningful lives. From Socrates and ancient Athens to Beauvoir and 20th-century Paris, Weiner’s chosen philosophers and places provide important practical and spiritual lessons as we navigate today’s chaotic times.

In a “delightful” odyssey that “will take you places intellectually and humorously” (San Francisco Book Review), Weiner invites us to voyage alongside him on his life-changing pursuit of wisdom and discovery as he attempts to find answers to our most vital questions. The Socrates Express is “full of valuable lessons…a fun, sharp book that draws readers in with its apparent simplicity and bubble-gum philosophy approach and gradually pulls them in deeper and deeper” (NPR).

Eric J. Weiner is associate professor of educational foundations at Montclair State University. He earned his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in 2001 in education and cultural studies with a research focus on power, language, culture, critical thinking, and aesthetic education. He works within the disciplinary perspectives of cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and sociology. This is his fourth book.

[Get the book here. BONUS: Massimo and his friend Rob interview Eric Weiner.]