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.]

Suggested reading: In defense of whataboutism

[Articles I come across that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Robert Wright

Twice over the past two decades I’ve felt outraged by a massive invasion that violated international law. One time was last week, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The other time was in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq.

You’re not supposed to talk like that! To bring up America’s past wrongdoing as if it’s comparable to some other country’s wrongdoing is called “whataboutism”—as in “Yeah, they did something bad, but what about the time America did something that was bad in kind of the same way?” Most American foreign policy elites hate whataboutism, and they especially hate it at times like this, when a war is going on and you’re expected to focus all your rhetorical firepower on the enemy.

Consider Michael McFaul, the highly hawkish former ambassador to Russia who has been a fixture on MSNBC lately. Last week, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, he tweeted to no one in particular, “Keep your BS whataboutism off my @twitter feed tonight.” That got him more than 600 retweets and 6,000 likes. … (continue at Substack)

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)

Public Reasoning About the Good Life

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

We all want to live a “good life,” yet relatively few people pause to critically ponder what that might mean in the first place. This is interesting because it implies that we tend not to think too much about the very thing that is arguably the most important for us.

A common way to frame the question is: what makes us happy? Everyone agrees that they want to be happy, and entire industries – from movies to cosmetics, from exercise to diets – are geared toward making us happy, or at the very least selling us a particular conception of happiness. Indeed, a moment’s reflection will convince us that while it is sensible to ask why we want to pursue this or that project in life, it doesn’t make much sense to ask why we want to be happy. Happiness is taken to be the ultimate goal, something that has value in and of itself.

The problem with happiness, though, is twofold: first, the word is rather amorphous and means different things in different contexts and to different people. Second, when researchers have tried to measure happiness, adopting one operational definition or another, they have discovered that (i) people in many countries haven’t gotten happier over the span of the past several decades, and (ii) most people don’t seem to be aware of what would actually make them happy and instead pursue a number of other things that, empirically speaking, don’t.

[From: A Companion to Public Philosophy, edited by Lee McIntyre, Nancy McHugh, and Ian Olasov Wiley Blackwell, 2022.]

Audio series: Seneca’s On Providence

Here is the latest complete audio commentary series from my Stoic Meditations, dedicated to Seneca’s On Providence. The work, in the form of a dialogue, was probably composed around 64 CE (Seneca died the following year). The subject matter is the Stoic notion of Providence and what later became known as the problem of evil.

You can judge of a pilot in a storm, of a soldier in a battle. How can I know with how great a spirit you could endure poverty, if you overflow with riches? (IV)

My audio commentary runs for 7 episodes.

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)

Podcast: What does it mean to live philosophically?

In this episode of the Philosophy as a Way of Life podcast Rob and Massimo talk to Caleb Cohoe, a Professor of Philosophy at Metropolitan State University of Denver who has recently co-authored two papers exploring what, exactly, it means to live philosophically. Is it all and only a matter of reason? Or do we need to train ourselves by way of spiritual exercises? Are religions just like life philosophies, or is there a difference? What would the Stoics or the Epicureans have to say about all this? (listen at Anchor)

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)

Audio series: Seneca’s On Tranquillity of Mind

The latest complete audio commentary of my Stoic Meditations series is dedicated to Seneca’s On Tranquillity of Mind, inspired by Democritus’ treaty “on cheerfulness,” written around 400 BCE. Seneca in turn inspired Plutarch to write a work on the same subject.

It is often assumed that the work was written about 60 CE, when Seneca’s political influence was waning, but historians are not sure about this. It is, of course, written from a Stoic perspective.

It is more typical of a human to laugh down life than to bewail it. — 15.2

My audio commentary runs for 24 episodes.