Epictetus’ Handbook (the Enchidrion) is the quintessential ancient Stoic guide to a good life. This collection of quotes and aphorisms, compiled by one of Epictetus’ students, Arrian of Nicomedia, is still very much indispensable today. However, both science and philosophy have made some progress since the time of Epictetus, which is why in this lecture scientist, philosopher, and Stoic practitioner Massimo Pigliucci gives Epictetus — and by extension the whole of the Stoic philosophy — an update for the 21st century.
What is the best life we can live? How can we cope with whatever the universe throws at us and keep thriving nonetheless? The ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism explains that while we may not always have control over the events affecting us, we can have control over how we approach things. Massimo Pigliucci describes the philosophy of Stoicism. A short animated video produced by TED-Ed.
A 5-minute video produced by Aeon magazine on how Stoics look at death. As Seneca says, in a sense practicing philosophy throughout our lives is preparation for what amounts to be the last and greatest test of our character.
Join my friend Skye Cleary and myself for a discussion of Stoicism and existentialism.
Stoicism, the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that is all the rage in the 21st century, has a lot to say about two apparently very far apart topics: suicide and the meaning of life. And yet, the Stoics argued, life’s meaning depends crucially on the fact that we will die, and the possibility of deciding on our own terms when that will happen is what ultimately gives us freedom.
Explore these and related ideas with a philosopher who actually practices Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Let’s talk about what does it mean to live a life worth living, and explore different ways of doing so. In the process, learn about the merchant who lost everything and founded a new philosophy, the slave who became one of the most renowned teachers of antiquity, and the brooding philosopher-king who may have loved sex, food and drink a bit too much…
On existentialism: When every day many of us wake up to read about fresh horrors on our fresh horrors device, we might find ourselves contemplating the question as to whether, as Albert Camus supposedly put it, one should kill oneself or have a cup of coffee. Existential philosophy is deeply concerned with the question of suicide and the way in which the possibility infuses life with meaning.
As Camus proposed in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Friedrich Nietzsche found the idea of suicide to be a way of affirming life that helped him get through many dark nights. And Simone de Beauvoir suggests that although suicide might seem like an easy escape from pain, it’s not just about us; it’s those who love us who will have to live our death. Join us for an Olio about existential attitudes towards suicide, finding meaning in life, and coffee.
Is there a difference between something being “objective” and it being “real”? What do we mean by those terms, anyway? That’s the topic of a new conversation I’ve had with my friend and colleague Dan Kaufman.
We actually started by exploring a side path, when Dan wanted to know whether human beings are really as social as the Stoics thought (I think so, particularly on the strength of evidence from comparative anthropology and primatology). Then we plunged into the title question, and went on to discuss the difference between distinct philosophical meanings of “real.”
Dan argued that it doesn’t make any difference whether or not our values are objective, because that’s not what motivates people to action. I replied that people are moved to act by a number of social and biological forces, but that arguments to the soundness of certain values certainly play a role.
Near the end of the show we talk about what Dan’s calls my solution to the so-called omnivore dilemma (shouldn’t we all just be vegetarians, or even vegans, given what we know about animal cruelty and the environment?), which obviously very much has to do with the alleged objectivity of certain values informing our choice of diet.
Finally, I explain why values are never really separate from facts (in part because even our choices of what counts as a “fact” are value-laden). This may seem to be a problem if one seeks “the facts, just the facts,” but appreciation of this, ahem, fact turns out to be important and consequential. Here is the video:
Here is another friendly conversation with my colleague Dan Kaufman of Missouri State University, editor of the excellent online magazine, The Electric Agora. This time the theme is consciousness, and particularly two diametrically different approaches to understanding it: panpsychism (the notion that consciousness is somehow an elemental property of matter) and so-called “illusionism” (the idea that, on the contrary, in some important sense consciousness is an illusion). Dan and I disagree with both camps, and try to articulate why their respective supporters are making the same mistake.
After a brief chat about the ongoing pandemic and when it may end, we get right to it, by laying out the so-called “hard” problem of consciousness as articulated by David Chalmers, and which I think is actually a category mistake. We then talk about why panpsychism is not a solution to the hard problem, even admitting there were such a thing.
Since this brings us to talk about the nature of science, Dan and I get into a bit of a side conversation on the currently ongoing battle for the soul of fundamental physics, based on the acceptance or rejection of so-called “post-empirical” science (in my opinion, an oxymoron).
We then go back to our main theme, by way of metaphysics, and specifically the contrast between physicalism and idealism. Trust me, it’s very pertinent. I introduce two different views of metaphysics, so-called “first philosophy,” which goes back to the pre-Socratics, and “scientific metaphysics” a la James Ladyman and Don Ross. (More on that particular topic here. And here are two more related posts I published recently.)
Dan and I then move to Daniel Dennett’s inspired “illusionism.” There too we arrive at the conclusion that this is no solution to the problem of consciousness, though in several respects it gets things much closer to reality than panpsychism. We end by talking about the difference between misrepresentations and useful representations, attempting to improve on Dennett’s view of consciousness. Here is the video:
Fun conversation among Skye Cleary, Bob Wright, and myself on the topic of philosophies of life, occasioned by the publication of How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage/Random House).
The vide is below. Naturally, we talk about the book, but also about the relationship between Existentialism and Stoicism, how Skye encountered Existentialism while attending business school (of all places), and Sartre and de Beauvoir’s famous attempt to live a life of freedom.
We ask whether philosophers are a bunch of hypocrites, explore the difference between personal authenticity and social convention, and explain why Stoicism doesn’t mean passive acceptance.
Near the end of the video, Bob wonders what other philosophies (other than our chosen ones of Existentialism and Stoicism) we would find attractive enough to consider practicing them. We conclude, somewhat unusually, by exploring how Wittgenstein would view our book.
Wide ranging video conversation with author and Scientific American contributor John Horgan. We talk about my midlife crisis and how it triggered my move from biologist to philosopher, discuss the point of doing philosophy, and articulate a role for philosophical doubt as as a counterweight to scientific (over)confidence. Enjoy!
Below is an interview I conducted with the prestigious Spanish newspaper El Pais. It covers the basics of Stoicism, how I got into it, and why it is a very useful philosophy of life for the 21st century.
From the description of the video:
What is stoicism and how can it help us manage a life crisis? A doctor and professor of philosophy, Massimo Pigliucci faced a critical juncture with the death of his father and undergoing a divorce. He looked to the ancient philosophers for answers and discovered “virtue ethics,” an approach to life that advances human improvement through the development of values.
“Stoicism tries to eliminate destructive emotions as much as possible while cultivating the positive ones. The Stoics concluded that a good human life is that in which we apply reason in order to improve society. If we improve as people, we will be improving society; and if we work to improve society, we will automatically be improving ourselves,” the professor explains.
Below is a video (a bit more than an hour) of a recent conversation I’ve had with Hardy Haberland, as a guest on his show. Mostly, we talked about Stoicism and how it changed my life, as well as that of others. But Hardy also asked me a number of other questions, including: What are the three books that influenced your life the most? What are your three most favorite movies? What’s the most useful product or service you’ve bought in recent memory? What’s the most important realization you’ve made in the last couple of years? And what would you tell your 20 year old self? I hope you’ll enjoy!