What, if any, is the essence of Stoicism?

by Massimo Pigliucci

A few days ago my friend and co-author Greg Lopez and I co-hosted the 7th edition of Stoic Camp New York, inspired by the original Stoic Camp that another friend and colleague, Rob Colter, has facilitated for several years in Wyoming. It was an unusual edition of Stoic Camp, not only because it was the first one in person since the beginning of the covid pandemic, but because the objective was to trace the early origins of some Stoic ideas (Presocratics), to map the major direct influences on the Stoics (Cynicism, Megarian School), and to identity whatever distinctive features characterize Stoic philosophy.

As part of this exploration, I proposed to the students that we carry out an exercise. You may want to try it now before continuing to read this essay. Take a few minutes to make a list of ideas you think are fundamental to Stoicism and without endorsing which, in your opinion, one could not reasonable call herself a Stoic. Try to do this regardless of whether or not you yourself agree with said ideas. … (continue on Medium)

Maybe go on a news diet??

by Massimo Pigliucci

These days I’m on a quest for mental tranquillity, what the ancient Greco-Romans called “ataraxia,” or lack of disturbance. Unlike the Epicureans, I don’t take ataraxia to be my chief goal in life — that one remains to be the best human being I can be, as the Stoics counseled. Still, mental tranquillity or serenity are definitely helpful, which is why I recently quit social media altogether, as I’ve explained in a recent essay.

Another thing I determined was definitely getting in the way of my ataraxia was reading the news. So I drastically reduced that as well, going on a fairly strict news diet. Think this is unconscionable and impractical? Hear me out, you may change your mind about it, and in the process perhaps gain some much needed tranquillity.

Mind you, until not long ago I was a self-described news junky. I listened to National Public Radio on a regular basis. I read The New York Times daily. And I frequently checked outlets like the Guardian, BBC News, and the Italian newspapers Repubblica and Corriere della Sera. Plus, of course, assorted articles from other publications that friends, family, and social media followers more or less regularly sent my way. … (continue on Medium)

The three freedoms of the Cynics

by Massimo Pigliucci

“What is the most beautiful thing in the world?” “Freedom,” replied Diogenes of Sinope. (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, VI.69)

These days there is much talk of freedom, and just as little understanding of what it is and what it entails. Especially in the United States, certain people seem to conceive of freedom as the ability to act unimpeded in life. “It’s a free country!,” they proudly shout, and promptly proceed to engage in one obnoxious behavior or another, such as not wearing an antiviral mask on public transport, even when mandated by law.

This kind of freedom is referred to by philosophers as “negative,” in the sense that it hinges on non-interference by others. We do, in fact, enjoy several negative freedoms. For instance, when I’m in my apartment in New York I have ample freedom to do or not to do what I wish. But of course my negative freedoms have limits, even within my own home. I cannot blast music at 3am, because that interferes on other people’s negative freedoms, like the freedom of my neighbors to get a good night sleep. … (continue on Medium)

Cicero’s political philosophy - VI - Politicians and virtue

by Massimo Pigliucci

These days, everybody loves to hate politicians. And, we must concede, for good reasons. In the past few years we have seen political leaders plotting to overthrow the state, behaving recklessly in the name of self-interest, and even starting wars to further their own financial advantage and achieve “glory” (more on this latter concept below).

And yet, as the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullus Cicero says in the quote that opens this essay, politics understood as working toward the betterment of a polity arguably is the highest profession there can be, and the most consequential. The question, then, is how do we insure that our leaders are virtuous rather than wicked. Cicero’s answer is to go Socratic, sort of.

Socrates was the well known “gadfly” of ancient Athens, who eventually got convicted by an assembly of fellow citizens of the crimes of impiety and corruption of the youth, for which he was condemned to death by hemlock in 399 BCE. Socrates is the role model for many Greco-Roman philosophers, from Plato to the Stoics, because he spent his whole life in search of wisdom and virtue, even paying the ultimate price for his troubles. … (continue on Medium)

What does it mean to ‘interpret’ Quantum Mechanics?

by Massimo Pigliucci

When I wear my hat as a philosopher of science (partially distinct from my other hat as an evolutionary biologist), I eventually run into a scientist (I could name names, but I won’t) who smugly tells me that philosophy obviously doesn’t make progress. The evidence? Philosophers disagree on all sorts of things and there is no emerging consensus—unlike in science, especially physics.

Setting aside that this kind of reasoning largely reflects ignorance of how philosophy works (surprise—it’s different from science!; see Pigliucci 2017), it turns out that there is at least one area of science where things appear to be characterized by utter confusion and lack of consensus: interpretations of quantum mechanics. And we have the empirical evidence to prove it.

Sujeevan Sivasundaram and Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen, of Aarhus University in Denmark, carried out a study of physicists’ attitudes concerning foundational issues in quantum mechanics (Sivasundaram and Nielsen 2016). The results are eye-opening. The survey is based on 149 responses to a questionnaire that the authors sent to 1,234 physicists affiliated with eight universities. … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

On the advantages of quitting social media

Why I left Twitter and Facebook, and you might want to consider doing the same

by Massimo Pigliucci

Until recently, I was very active on Twitter and Facebook, sporting a somewhat enviable (my publicists tell me) following of about 50 thousand on Twitter and regularly participating to a popular forum on Stoicism, with 100 thousand members, on Facebook. Then I suddenly quit both. Or so it seemed from the outside.

In reality my decision to leave those virtual spaces had been a long way in coming, and had matured as part of my philosophy of life practice, which these days I think of as a type of skeptically grounded Stoicism. Stoicism teaches that the chief good in life is one’s integrity of character or, in an alternative formulation largely due to Epictetus, one’s sound judgment (“prohairesis”). Everything else, certainly including one’s number of followers or “friends” on social media, is at best a preferred “indifferent,” meaning that it may have value, but it doesn’t affect our character or judgment.

Or so I thought. You see, I always considered (most of) technology to be morally neutral. Sure, atomic bombs are very bad and vaccines are very good, other things being equal. But the good or bad that derives from much technology lies in how we use it, not in the tech itself. … (continue on Medium)

Free will and the problem of future contingents

Here we go again, seems like I just need to write one more essay about free will…

by Massimo Pigliucci

Imagine that the two of us, dear reader, are living in the year 31 BCE on the western coast of Greece. It is the evening of September the first, and we have been paying attention to the latest developments of the ongoing struggle between Octavian and Mark Anthony, marking the ongoing civil war within the Roman Republic.

After dinner, we engage in a conversation during which I state with some conviction that tomorrow, September the second, the two navies will finally engage each other. You, however, have arrived at a different conclusion based on the same available evidence, and are betting that there won’t be any confrontation. Mark Anthony and his lover, Cleopatra, will simply go back to Egypt and resume diplomatic efforts with Octavian.

September 2, 31 BCE comes and it turns out that I was right: Octavian’s 400 ships and 80,000 infantry do engage Anthony’s 500 ships and 70,000 infantry, and the result is a rout for the latter forces. Consequently, the following year Mark Anthony and Cleopatra will commit suicide, and Octavian will assume the title of “Augustus” in 27 BCE, thus marking the beginning of the Roman Empire. … (continue on Medium)

Cicero’s political philosophy — V — How to build a nation that actually works

Which system of government is best? Here’s an ancient answer that can teach us a lot

by Massimo Pigliucci

“Our political community is not the work of a single genius but of many, nor was it formed in the life of one person but over a number of generations and centuries.” (Cicero, De Re Publica II.2)

What sort of system of government work best for human beings? This is a hugely important question that has been pursued for millennia and that is still very much relevant nowadays. In this next to the last installment of our book club series devoted to Walter Nicgorski’s Cicero’s Skepticism and His Recovery of Political Philosophy, we are going to examine the surprisingly original and, more importantly, useful answer articulated by the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero.

[See also part Ipart IIpart IIIpart IV]

As is well known, the Greeks and the Romans invented democracy, though of different kinds. (I will likely write more about this soon.) Ancient Athens was an experiment in radical democracy, where the people would directly vote on all sorts of matters and the motion would carry by a simple majority. The result wasn’t always great, as exemplified by the trial and death of Socrates. The Roman Republic, by contrast, was closer to what we today call a representational democracy, where the chief political offices — those of Consul and Tribune — were decided by ballot and were characterized by term limits (one year). It is true that the Senate was more of an aristocratic body, but new members could also be admitted to it by merit, as was the case for Cicero himself, who was a “new man” from a family outside of Rome and without aristocratic pedigree. … (continue at Medium)

Seneca: The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius

When someone important and of questionable character dies, should we make fun of them?

by Massimo Pigliucci

“His last words heard among mortals — after he had let out a louder sound from that part with which he found it easier to communicate — were as follows: ‘Good heavens. I think I’ve shat myself.’ Well, I don’t know about that, but he certainly shat up everything else.” (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius, 4)

This irreverent bit about the recently deceased (13 October 54 CE) emperor Claudius was written by Seneca the Younger, otherwise known as one of the major Stoic philosophers, advisor to Claudius’ successor, Nero, and — among other things — a playwright who ended up influencing Shakespeare.

The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius was written shortly after the emperor’s demise, likely on the occasion of the Saturnalia festivities of December 54 CE, an appropriate moment, given both that Claudius was fond of festivals and that the Saturnalia were meant to be irreverent and to (temporarily) overturn social conventions. … (continue at Medium)

The sacred island of Delos

I spent a few hours on soil that has seen millennia of fascinating human history. It’s well worth reflecting on it

by Massimo Pigliucci

The story goes that one day Zeus seduced and impregnated yet another mortal woman, Leto. Hera, Zeus wife, was royally pissed off. As usual. So Hera banished Leto from earth. Zeus then implored his brother, Poseidon, to raise from the underwater world an island in the middle of the Aegean, changing it from invisible (Adelos) to visible (Delos), and allowing Leto to give birth there to the twins Apollo (the Sun) and Artemis (the Moon).

At the least, such is the legend. The history of Delos, which I was lucky to visit a few weeks ago, is just as fascinating. And it tells us much more about the human condition than yet another tale about the philandering Zeus.

Delos is located near the center of the archipelago of the Cyclades, a half-hour boat ride from the nearby party island of Mykonos. The Cyclades have been populated for a long, long time, and sure enough archeologists have discovered stone huts on Delos that date back to the third millennium BCE. … (continue at Medium)