Philosophy as a Way of Life—I—How to run a philosophical school

by Massimo Pigliucci

Whether we realize it or not, we all have a philosophy of life. Often it consists in whatever religious creed and practices one has been raised with. At other times it is the result of a conscious choice. Even those who don’t think about philosophy or religion still have a certain understanding of the world and how to act within it—which means that they have a (implied) life philosophy.

If this is the case, we may as well be conscious of what kind of philosophy we practice and why. And at least occasionally we may want to question whether such philosophy is really what we want. If the answer is yes, good. If it’s no, then perhaps the time has come to consider possible alternatives.

A good number of the possible alternatives on the table belong to a cluster of Greco-Roman philosophies of life developed during the millennium between the 5th century BCE and the fifth century CE, give or take. It’s hard to imagine a better guide to those practical philosophies than French scholar Pierre Hadot, for instance in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. The series of essays of which this is the first installment is devoted to a summary and discussion of Hadot’s ideas as put forth in that book, in the hope of being helpful to people who are either in the process of choosing a new philosophy for themselves or are practicing one already and want to get better at it. … (continue at Substack, FREE)

Why we can’t, ultimately, prove anything

by Massimo Pigliucci

Back in 1968, the German philosopher Hans Albert proposed an argument aimed at showing that certain knowledge is, ultimately, impossible.

The idea was that whenever someone wants to prove a proposition—of any kind—we can always ask for proof of how the proof itself works. It turns out that there are only three possibilities:

A circular argument: the proof is based on a proposition or set of propositions that is, in turn, ultimately based on the first proof;

A regressive argument: the proof is based on another proof, which is based on another proof, and so on ad infinitum;

A dogmatic argument: the proof is based on an axiom or assumption which is simply taken for granted for the purpose of the discussion.

Albert called this Münchausen’s trilemma, after a fictional character—the Baron Münchausen—created by the German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe and protagonist of his book, Baron Münchausen’s Narrative of his Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, published in 1785. … (continue at Substack)

How to assess the probability of pretty much everything

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m pretty sure—almost certain, in fact—that right now I’m sitting at my desk, typing an essay on probability on my recently acquired MacBook Air M2 laptop. True, there could be a Cartesian demon messing around with my mind and creating the illusion that I’m typing on a keyboard, but I don’t think that’s very likely. It is only slightly more likely that I’m dreaming of typing on a keyboard. I’ve certainly had stranger dreams before. Then again, I can usually tell the difference between when I dream and when I’m awake, so I’ll stick with my initial assessment. I am, indeed, typing this essay on my laptop’s keyboard.

One thing I’m almost absolutely sure of is that the square root of nine is three. Unless I’ve suffered from a stroke that has impaired my basic reasoning functions. Which is unlikely, but certainly possible.

By contrast, I’m far less positive about what the weather will be next weekend in Brooklyn. That’s because I know that weather forecasts aren’t reliable if stretched over a period of more than 3-4 days. If pressed, I could guess based on Brooklyn’s typical weather this time of the year, though with climate change accelerating you never know for sure.

And so on. Our lives are made of constant assessments and re-assessments of probabilities. Rarely, if ever, can we seriously claim to have Knowledge of the Truth (notice the capitalized letters). But we also rarely, if ever, actually need Knowledge or Truth. A convincing evaluation is good enough to actually act in the world.

The word “convincing” is how the Greek term pithanon is often translated, and pithanon was the criterion for action invoked by Academic Skeptics like Carneades of Cyrene. Interestingly, the Roman philosopher Cicero translated that same word with the Latin probabilis, from which of course the English probability derives. When we say that something is probable, therefore, we mean that we have convincing evidence or reasons to provisionally accept it as true. And, more importantly, to act on it. … (continue at Substack)

Totalitarianism as a novel form of “government”

by Massimo Pigliucci

“Totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny, and dictatorship.” (H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ch. 13)

With a small group of friends I run an informal book club that uses the Signal chat platform. For the past several months we’ve been reading and discussing Hannah Arendt’s classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951. The book is challenging and yet well worth a reading, or two. Here I’d like to focus on the last chapter, entitled “Ideology and terror: a novel form of government.” In it, Arendt clearly articulates what has slowly been emerging from her 700-pages long analysis: totalitarianism is a novel form of government, invented in the 20th century and never seen before during the course of human history.

This is a rather startling claim, so let us analyze it a bit more closely. Arendt herself acknowledges that the ancient Greeks had discovered and catalogued all of the perhaps surprisingly few forms of government that humanity has tried out. According to Plato, these are:

Aristocracy (government by the best)

Timocracy (government by the brave)

Oligarchy (government by the rich)

Democracy (government by the people)

Tyranny (government by one)

The list is in descending order of desirability, the rather low ranking of democracy being the result of the fact that Athenian democracy was based on simple majority rule: 51% of the votes in the assembly could get a Socrates killed. Aristocracy is on top by definition, since t means rule by “the best,” not by people like Charles of England. The classic example of timocracy was the warrior state of Sparta. … (continue at Substack, FREE)

The full colors of Greece and Rome

by Massimo Pigliucci

Perception is both informed by reality and shapes our understanding of it. And sometimes our perception is so badly off that it leads us to formulate a highly misleading view of certain aspects of reality. One such case was clearly on exhibit at Chroma, a show running through March 26, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Chroma displays seventeen color reconstructions of Greco-Roman sculptures, scattered throughout the permanent Greco-Roman wing of the museum. These reconstructions show us what ancient art actually looked like, as opposed to the way we have come to think of it through the centuries.

Instead of stern black and white marbles we see a dazzling array of colors that—as a friend of mine put it—even seem a little too post-modern. But they aren’t. They are our best representation of what these art pieces truly looked like a couple of millennia ago.

The exhibit is the brainchild of a husband and wife pair of archeologists, Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who have been working at this for over four decades. They used a number of cutting edge techniques, including multispectral photography and X-ray diffraction, to produce as historically and artistically accurate a rendition of the seventeen pieces as possible. … (continue at Substack)

The nine kinds of ethical life

by Massimo Pigliucci

Ethics, nowadays, is about the (moral) principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of a certain activity. For instance, I can ask myself whether I should adopt the moral principles of vegetarianism and abstain from eating meat and other animal products. Or we could have a discussion about medical ethics, meaning the principles that ought to inform the activities characteristic of the medical profession.

But the ancient Greco-Romans meant something far more encompassing by the terms ethics or morality (which they used as synonyms, ethics referring to the Greek root, morality to the Latin one). To think about ethics meant nothing less than to think about how to live one’s life. All aspects of it. This, of course, includes an understanding of right (or wrong) conduct, as in the modern usage, but it also encompasses our priorities, our values, how we should spend our time, pursuing what activities, and what sort of duties we have toward others as well as ourselves.

There is no question in my mind that the Greco-Roman view of ethics is far better than the modern one, which means that moral philosophy began to go wrong about the time of Kant, and hasn’t yet corrected itself. The exception is a small but increasingly influential group of contemporary philosophers (including Philippa FootAlasdair MacIntyreElizabeth Anscombe, and Larry Becker) who have started to push back against the mainstream and have attempted to articulate a modern version of what is called virtue ethics. (Virtue ethics, incidentally, is not just a western thing. Confucianism, for instance, is an example of it among the eastern traditions.) … (continue at Substack)

Alas, Alcibiades, what condition you suffer from!

by Massimo Pigliucci

[If you like this excerpt, please consider getting and reviewing The Quest for Character.]

The year is 430 BCE. The place, Athens. The time, shortly after the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which—twenty-six years later—will end in Athens’s defeat and a general weakening of the Greek city-states, so much so that they will soon become easy prey, first of Philip II of Macedon and then of his son Alexander “the Great.”

But that will come later. Right now, two friends are in the midst of a momentous conversation that will mark not just their lives but the future of the city they love: Socrates and Alcibiades, the philosopher and the future statesman and general. Socrates is about forty years old, while his companion has just turned twenty. Despite his youth and inexperience, or more likely because of it, Alcibiades is full of self-confidence. He tells Socrates that he doesn’t need anyone or anything. He can rely on his own strengths, from his undisputed physical beauty to his penchant for daring, from his noble ancestry to his considerable wealth.

The young man is preparing to appear, a few days later, in front of the Athenian people. He is looking forward to the occasion, which he fully believes will result in honors being showered on him the likes of which have never been granted before, not even to his adoptive father, the statesman Pericles—who will die the following year, struck by the plague that has already put Athens at a great disadvantage in its war against Sparta. A war, incidentally, that has been orchestrated in part by Pericles himself. … (continue at Substack, FREE)

The importance of doubting

by Massimo Pigliucci

There is freedom of thought, and each one can sustain what he wants, as for me, I will stick to my principle, and I will always seek in every question the maximum probability, without being bound by the law of any particular school to which shall forcibly follow my speculation. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV.4.7)

Sometimes one of my students, perhaps a bit frustrated at the inability to defend their position on a subject under discussion, will say: “Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Yes and no, I reply. In the world at large this may be true. Unfortunately, everyone feels entitled to their opinions, and even more unfortunately they don’t hesitate to broadcast it as far as their social media account will carry. But in a philosophy class, or in reasoned discourse in general, people are entitled to their opinions only to the extent they can defend such opinions on the basis of evidence and argument.

This is something that our media could benefit from learning. The notion that, whenever there are two positions on a given issue we need to listen to both, to allow “equal time” no matter how nonsensical or harmful an opinion may be is nonsense on stilts.

But how do we balance the values of freedom of thought and respect for truth? By actively cultivating an attitude of doubt, like the Roman advocate, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero did throughout his life. … (continue at Substack)

Is it true that you can’t derive an ought from an is?

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is one of the most momentous short paragraphs ever written in the history of philosophy:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it’s necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

It was written by David Hume, and it appears in book III, part I, section I of his A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739. It is often interpreted as saying that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” or—to put it differently—that there is an unbridgeable gap between values and facts.

If this interpretation of Hume were right, it would follow that moral statements can only be of two kinds: either they refer to a different category of “facts,” somehow entirely separate from facts like “Saturn has rings,” or there simply are no such things as moral facts at all. … (continue at Substack)

On the steps of Marcus Aurelius: visiting Carnuntum

by Massimo Pigliucci

Some people go to Mecca. Others to see the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. I go to sites that are connected to ancient Greco-Roman history, especially to philosophers, and more often than not in particular to Stoicism.

I call these episodes my “secular pilgrimages,” as they serve a function similar to what—I assume—is the function of a pilgrimage for a religious person. My dictionary provides the following helpful definition:

Pilgrimage: a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected.

Mecca, officially known as Makkah al-Mukarramah, is one such important place because it was where the Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 CE. St. Peter’s Square, in the Vatican City, is where the Christian Pope regularly appears to the faithful to deliver messages of hope and charity. And Carnuntum is a location on the Danube River, between Vienna and Bratislava, where the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius spent several years fighting the Marcomanni and other German tribes while writing parts of his Meditations. … (continue at Substack, FREE)