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)

Suggested reading: When I First Saw Elon Musk for Who He Really Is

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

by Edward Niedermeyer

On a beautiful day in May 2015, I drove the 13 hours from my home in Portland, Oregon, to Harris Ranch, California, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. At the time, Tesla was touting a battery swap station that could send Tesla drivers on their way in a fully powered vehicle in less than the time it takes to fill up a car with gas. Overtaken by curiosity, I had decided to spend a long Memorial Day weekend in California’s Central Valley to see if Elon Musk’s latest bit of dream weaving could stand up to reality.

There, amid the pervasive stench of cow droppings from a nearby feedlot, I discovered that Tesla’s battery swap station was not in fact being made available to owners who regularly drove between California’s two largest cities. Instead, the company was running diesel generators to power additional Superchargers (the kind that take 30 to 60 minutes to recharge a battery) to handle the holiday rush, their exhaust mingling with the unmistakable smell of bullshit. … (continue at Slate)

Suggested reading: Aristotle goes to Hollywood

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

by Philip Freeman

If you wanted to write a screenplay for a blockbuster film, Aristotle is the last person you might ask for advice. He lived more than 2,000 years ago, spent his days lecturing on ethics and earthworms, and never saw a movie in his life. But some of the best contemporary writers of stage and screen, such as Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet, think that this ancient Greek philosopher knew exactly how to tell a gripping story for any age. ‘The rulebook is the Poetics of Aristotle,’ Sorkin says. ‘All the rules are there.’

Aristotle seems like an unlikely guide for storytellers. He was born in the wild land of Macedonia in northern Greece where his father was serving as court physician to the local king, the grandfather of Alexander the Great. After his parents died while he was still a teenager, Aristotle travelled to Athens to study with Plato, the student of Socrates and most famous philosopher of the day. Plato was a brilliant theorist but had little interest in the practical and experimental work that Aristotle loved. The younger man dissected oysters and waded through swamps collecting tadpoles, basically inventing the science of biology, while Plato was busy discoursing on the invisible reality underpinning the cosmos. After Plato died, Aristotle returned to Macedonia for a time to become the tutor of young Alexander, then founded his own school in Athens called the Lyceum, devoted to research and teaching. … (continue at Aeon)

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)

Paper: Consciousness, a biologist’s perspective

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.]

“Philosophy is dead’, proclaimed the great Stephen Hawking. The ‘scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. This judgement will resonate with a lot of people. Philosophy is often seen as the science of the past, the abstract speculation we engaged in before we knew what we were doing. If you’re privileged enough to study philosophy, that’s great, but don’t be confused: it doesn’t make progress.

Our guide for this chapter is the philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci, one of the most prolific, insightful and accessible thinkers of the modern day. According to Pigliucci, philosophy isn’t dead. The art of living, the forging of life’s purpose and the study of good reasoning are just as important as they’ve always been. Moreover, Massimo points out that science itself is rooted in the progress of philosophy. Psychology, chemistry, physics, biology – these disciplines are proof of the progress philosophy can make. However, there is a certain type of philosophy that is dead: armchair metaphysics.

In this essay, Pigliucci unleashes a sweeping attack on three of the biggest ideas in philosophy of mind: Mary the neuroscientist, philosophical zombies and panpsychism. Massimo cuts through to the heart of the debate. Speculative philosophy of mind, he says, is never going to solve the problem of consciousness. If we want to solve the mystery, science must lead the way. ….

[From: Philosophers on Consciousness – Talking About the Mind, edited by Jack Symes, Bloomsbury, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

The Peloponnesian War, Stupidity, and Imperialism

[Part of an occasional series of free books based on previously published essays by yours truly. You can find all other free downloads here.]

The book you are about to read is concerned with one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of ancient Greece, featuring larger-than-life characters like Socrates, Pericles, Alcibiades, Brasidas, and, of course, Thucydides, who told the story for posterity. We have much to learn, even today, from a deep dive into the history of that war that forever reshaped the Mediterranean world and led to the destruction not just of Athens, but of the entire Hellas, paving the way for the conquest of Alexander the Great. As the title of this book anticipates, it is a story of imperialism and stupidity on both sides. But it’s also a very human story of bravery and resilience. (download E-pub here)

Video: A conversation with Philosophy News

Philosophy News talks with Massimo Pigliucci on Stoicism, Skepticism, and how to have productive conversations in today’s polarized world.

In this interview, we talk with Dr. Pigliucci about how Stoicism differs from a more rationalist mindset and how Stoicism relates the skepticism. We cover topics in some of his recent articles about skepticism and how the ancient skeptics can inform modern dialogue. Here are some of the questions and topics we discussed:

Would you provide a summary of Stoic philosophy and how it contrasts say with other “isms”.

I’d like to explore your ideas starting with your recent article on rationality. The central claim you make is this: logic, rationality, and truth are distinct. One can be logical (claim is based on a valid argument), rational (claim aligns to ones background beliefs and values) and yet the conclusion of the argument can be false. You offer a path forward in the article. Would you summarize your recommendation?

You talk about “right reason” and “wrong reason” and use the conversation about creationism as an example. You say, “… I think my rejection of creationism is right reason while its embrace is bad reason.” You qualify the phrase with “I think.” It’s a claim about your beliefs rather than about the truth or falsity of whether your reasoning is correct. Is that the best we can hope for?

Skepticism tends to have a negative perception. You seem to take the edge off of that in your article about fallibilism by saying that fallibilism is “not the notion that all beliefs we currently hold, or will hold in the future, are false.” Rather, it’s the belief that, “All beliefs that are considered justified … should be held as provisionally true, nothing more.” Doesn’t this turn out to be more of a psychological attitude than an epistemic position? … (watch the video here)

Book tom consider: The Socrates Express, In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers

[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.]

Suggested reading: How To Write History While It’s Happening, Lessons From Tacitus

[Part of an occasional series of articles I come across and that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Richard Cohen

He has been called Rome’s greatest historian, the most acute analyst of the autocratic rule of its emperors. His actual last name means “silent,” yet Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a formidable and highly articulate orator and an outspoken author of several books. Born around AD 56 somewhere in the northern provinces, he was a boy in the time of Nero and spent his early career in public affairs. His father was probably an equestrian official and chief financial officer of Belgic Gaul, thus near the top of Roman society, although not an aristocrat. The equestrian order was like a club, entry to which was tied to personal wealth. Its members had many special privileges, although these were not quite as extensive as those of the senatorial class.

Tacitus himself was a praetor by the time he was thirty, was promoted to the Senate, then, after four years away from Rome with his new wife, the daughter of a consul, became consul. He was thus one of the two leading magistrates in the city, commanding the army and presiding over the Senate. He achieved particular celebrity in AD 100, when, working alongside his friend Pliny the Younger he successfully prosecuted a proconsul under Nero for bribery and extortion. … (continue at Literary Hub)

Suggested reading: The mental life of mountains

[Part of an occasional series of articles I come across and that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Keith Frankish

Panpsychism is the doctrine that everything has a mind, or at least a mental aspect. It says that there is no sharp division between us, with our rich mental lives, and the rest of the world. Our minds are just complex forms of something that is present everywhere, and the whole universe – mountains, clouds, asteroids, dust – is infused with mental life. It is a beguiling view, which has appealed not only to poets and mystics but also to those seeking to understand the place of mind in the natural world. Many philosophers, from ancient times through to the early 20th century, have endorsed a version of it.

The view fell out of fashion in the mid-20th century as philosophers increasingly adopted a materialist outlook, which identifies minds with functioning brains. In recent years, however, panpsychism has undergone a philosophical renaissance, and it is now presented at major conferences and debated in mainstream journals. The contemporary form is somewhat different from older versions. It concerns only one aspect of the mind – consciousness – and it focuses on the presence of this aspect at the fundamental physical level. … (continue at New Humanist)