Suggested reading: The gendered ape–Those embarrassing bonobos!

by Frans de Waal

It’s not always easy to talk about bonobos at academic gatherings. There is no issue with fellow primatologists, who are used to straightforward descriptions of sexual behavior and know the recent evidence. But it’s different with people outside my field, such as anthropologists, philosophers, or psychologists. They become fidgety, scratch their heads, snicker, or adopt a puzzled look. Why do bonobos stump them?

One reason for the discomfort is excessive shyness about erotic behavior, which bonobos exhibit in all positions that we can imagine, and even some that we can’t. Moreover, these apes do it in all partner combinations. People assume that animals use sex only for reproduction, but I estimate that three quarters of bonobo sex has nothing to do with it. … (continue at 3QuarksDaily)

Suggested reading: In the political talk show race, outrage is winning

by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Trevor Noah recently surprised fans (and, according to some accounts, also Comedy Central management) when he announced plans to leave “The Daily Show.” His departure is one of many notable personnel changes in late-night television: James Corden will leave “The Late Late Show” next year, TBS canceled “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” and Desus and Mero broke up with each other and their hugely successful Showtime late-night show beloved by a diverse viewership of millennials.

Prominent entertainers leave jobs all the time, but media watchers see something more systemic in the recent spate of departures. Dylan Byers describes the “contracting genre” as an economic problem: “The eight-figure late-night host increasingly doesn’t match the new economics of the late-night business.” The economics used to look like big advertisers paying for a captive audience that tuned in for pulpy takes on mainstream American culture.

But audiences have not been flocking to late-night television for some time. Advertisers have continued to support the time slot not necessarily because it works but because there was little else competing for the late-night audience. Throwing good money after bad, as it were. That cannot last forever. … (continue at The New York Times)

Philosophy as a Way of Life—II—Spiritual exercises

by Massimo Pigliucci

A crucial part of my practice as a Stoic-Skeptic is a set of spiritual exercises, without which I would simply be doing armchair philosophy. The notion of a “spiritual” exercise may be a bit off putting, as it is associated with Christianity or with fuzzy sounding new age mysticism. But Pierre Hadot, in his Philosophy as a Way of Life, argues that there really isn’t any better term to capture what is meant, so we’ll stick with that.

The term comes from Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who wrote Exercitia Spiritualia in 1548. The approach, however, much predates not just Loyola, but Christianity itself. Exercises of this kind contribute to what Hadot’s refers to as “the therapeutic of the passions,” which is a crucial component of Greco-Roman philosophical training. According to the ancients, the passions—meaning unhealthy emotions, like anger and fear, but also lust—are the main source of our suffering. Hadot refers to them as “unregu­lated desires and exaggerated fears.” They get in the way of a serene life founded on reason, which is why we need to train ourselves to handle them appropriately.

The Greek word for the resulting practices is askesis, from which the English word asceticism comes, though the Greek meaning was broader than the modern one, applying to a general approach to train oneself to live a more meaningful life. As Hadot puts it:

“[Philosophy] raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.” (p. 83) … (continue at Substack)

Video: How to grieve

How to Grieve: From Cicero and Stoicism to Modern practices, How can philosophy help us handle loss? A panel discussion.

In 45 BCE, the Roman statesman Cicero fell to pieces when his beloved daughter, Tullia, died from complications of childbirth. But from the depths of despair, Cicero fought his way back. In an effort to cope with his loss, he wrote a consolation speech―not for others, as had always been done, but for himself.

And it worked. Cicero’s Consolation was something new in literature, equal parts philosophy and motivational speech. Drawing on the full range of Greek philosophy and Roman history, Cicero convinced himself that death and loss are part of life, and that if others have survived them, we can, too; resilience, endurance, and fortitude are the way forward.

This panel discusses the revelations of Cicero’s consolation and how they relate to both the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and modern behavioral cognitive therapy. All with the aim of finding a better understanding on how to grieve.

Watch eminent professors and authors, Michael Fontaine, Massimo Pigliucci, and Donald Robertson for this thought-provoking, important conversation. Hosted by Anya Leonard of Classical Wisdom.

About the Speakers: Michael Fontaine is Professor in the Department of Classics at Cornell University, New York and author of many books and articles. His work has been reviewed in countless publications including Forbes, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, The Times Literary Supplement, The Daily Mail, and The Wine Spectator. He is the author of several books including: How to tell a Joke, The Pig War, How to Drink: A classical Guide to Imbibing, and most recently, How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to the Lost Art of Consolation.

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York and author of many books, including How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, and most recently, How to Be Good: What Socrates Can Teach Us About the Art of Living Well. Pigliucci has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology and Philosophy and his research interests include the philosophy of science and the practical application of ancient philosophies.

Donald Robertson is a writer, cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist and trainer, specializing in teaching evidence-based psychological skills and is the president of Plato’s Academy Center. He is known as an expert on the relationship between modern psychotherapy (CBT) and classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Donald is the author of several books and many articles on philosophy, psychotherapy, and psychological skills training, including How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and his most recent project, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, a graphic novel has just been released.

Anya Leonard is the Founder and Director of Classical Wisdom, a site dedicated to bringing ancient wisdom to modern minds. Co-founded in 2013 with Bill Bonner, in conjunction with Les Belles Lettres, the French publishing house. Since inception, Classical Wisdom has grown into one of the largest online independent publishers dedicated to the ancient world. Anya studied philosophy and comparative literature at St. John’s College in Annapolis, a Great Books program, and received her MA in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. She has recently published a children’s book, Sappho: The Lost Poetess, dedicated to the life, works and remarkable recent discovery of a poem written by the 7th century Poetess, Sappho.

The (Linguistic) Fall of Rationality

by Massimo Pigliucci

If you ever suspected that the beginning of the end of the world happened around 1980, there is now some scientific evidence to back up your intuition. An intriguing paper authored by a group of researchers in the Netherlands comprising Marten Scheffer, Ingrid van de Leemput, Els Weinans, and Johan Bollen and published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) USA (Scheffera et al. 2021) gives us skeptics quite a bit to chew on and ponder. Let me first sketch out the methodology and main findings, and then we’ll tackle the more prickly issue of what it all may (or may not) mean.

Scheffer and collaborators looked at the frequency of words indicating either rationality or emotion in several large databases across the period of time from 1850 to 2019. They took words such as experiment, circuit, chemistry, gravity, weigh, depth, greater, per, and several others to indicate the use of rational discourse. By contrast, they regarded words such as imagine, compassion, forgiveness, heal, etc., as related to emotional discourse.

Their main findings come from quantitatively analyzing, via Google nGram, all the books in both English and Spanish catalogued by the search engine company. But they also repeated the analysis using articles from The New York Times over the same period, as well as using a smaller sample of words in publications from additional languages, including French, German, Italian, and Russian. The goal was to discover whether usage of either group of words—characterizing rationality or emotion—changed over time. … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

Podcast: How to create virtuous leaders

Ancient philosophers like Socrates and Plato believed that an education focused on developing good character could create virtuous leaders who work for the people, not their own benefit. Nowadays, though, it seems too many politicians are power hungry, corrupt, and out of touch.

So how do we train our leaders to be more virtuous? Is good character something that can be taught? And what can we learn from the Ancients about how we can each lead an excellent life? Josh and Ray virtuously welcome back Massimo Pigliucci from the City College of New York, author of The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders. (listen at Philosophy Talk)

The great philosophical exodus of 86 BCE

by Massimo Pigliucci

Is history the result of inevitable, predictable dynamics, as Marx thought? Or does it depend on the outsized effect of “great men” (and women!) like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra? Or is it just, as Winston Churchill allegedly put it, one damn thing after another?

I have no idea. But I can’t help be fascinated by history. Which is ironic, since it was one of my least favorite subjects in high school. The history of philosophy is no less intriguing, so much so that my colleague Peter Adamson has argued that studying history of philosophy is (one way of) doing philosophy.

Not sure I’d go that far myself, but there is one particular episode in history that dramatically affected the history of philosophy, and that might provide us with some interesting food for thought. The story is recounted in some detail in chapter 1 of The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, written by David Sedley.

It begins in 86 BCE, when the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla puts Athens under siege because the Athenians sided with King Mithridates VI of Parthia against Rome in the First Mithridatic War that took place during 87 and 86 BCE. The Athenian forces were under the command of the general Archelaus and of Aristion—an Epicurean philosopher! Which is particularly odd, since Epicureans were notoriously averse to getting involved in politics, since this would likely cause much pain and get in the way of the their stated goal of ataraxia, or tranquillity of mind. … (continue at Substack)

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)