Why not Stoicism?

Stoa of Attalosby Massimo Pigliucci

Stoicism has been in the back of my mind since I was very young, initially for the obviously parochial reason that it was the prevalent philosophy among the ancient Romans, i.e., part of my broadly construed cultural heritage. (Then again it is for the same reason that Buddhism is very popular in India, Confucianism in China, and Shinto in Japan.)

Lately, however, Stoicism has slowly moved to the forefront of my cognitive field of view, for a number of reasons. To begin with, I’ve been interested in philosophical counseling [1], to the point of having taken the American Philosophical Practice Association course [2], and having set up what is turning out to be a surprisingly successful and enjoyable practice [3]. The more I see clients, the more I gravitate toward ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly Stoicism (with a sprinkling of virtue ethics and Epicureanism) as my preferred approach to “therapy for the sane.”

Moreover, last year’s vacation with my family touring Greece — paying specific (though certainly not exclusive) attention to important historical or philosophical sites — rekindled my passion for all things Greco-Roman (the photo accompanying this essay was taken by me at the Stoa, the open market in Athens where the first Stoic, Zeno of Citium, taught, and from which the school gets its name).

Meanwhile, I had also heard of “Stoic Week” an annual event (and associated sociological study) organized by the University of Exeter. My initial reaction to it was somewhat skeptical, but I’ve now become a regular follower of their Twitter stream and blog [4].

Finally — and I don’t mean to sound morbid here — but, I need to start preparing for my own death. I just turned 50, and though I fully expect (fate permitting, as the Stoics would say) to live a few more decades, death has always been on my mind, as it should be according to the followers of Zeno of Citium. So I have been searching for an approach that would help me in that direction, while at the same time also allowing me to improve my eudaimonic quest [5] in the meantime.

Now of course I’m not as naive as to think that one can rely on a single philosophical system as guidance to life, the universe and everything. Nor do I think that one can simply import ancient Stoicism in our technological, scientifically informed world and be done with it. So what I’m trying to develop is what others interested in the subject have been after for a while: a type of neo-Stoicism that maintains as much of value of the original idea as possible, but takes on board the best that humankind has been able to achieve and discover in the intervening 23 centuries. It’s an ongoing project, but I’d like to share a few components of it in this post, and likely others that will follow now and then [6].

The general theory of Stoicism is that we can, and indeed, ought to live our lives with structure and coherence, and that life is like an ongoing project aiming at an ideal (though likely unachievable) set of targets or aspirations. What matters, for the Stoics, is the way we go about achieving our goals, not so much what those goals are. This is done through the pursuit of virtue and excellence (arete, in Greek). The Stoics thought that the virtues express the fundamental qualities of a human life, and — like most other ancient Greeks — acknowledged the existence of four (so called “cardinal”) virtues: Courage, Justice, Self-discipline, and Wisdom.

For the Stoics, human beings are naturally social beings, and a good, eudaimonic life requires the development of an expanding circle of concern that starts with the Self (both mind and body) [7], easily and naturally includes family and friends, and one should practice its expansion to fellow citizens, humankind at large, and eventually nature as a whole. The Stoics referred to this concept as “philanthropy,” or love of humanity.

By and large, Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasizes good emotions and works toward controlling negative ones. In a sense, it is a philosophy of love and concern. Curiously, the most famous fictional Stoic is Spock from Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry said that he created Spock on the Stoic model, although he also added that he “took the perfect person and divided him into three, the administrative courageous part in the Captain (Kirk), the logical part in the Science Officer (Spock) and the humanist part in the Doctor (McCoy)” [8].

A foundational Stoic precept is to make the distinction between what we can affect (our own attitudes and actions) and what we cannot (external events). Happiness then is available to the person who focuses on what s/he can control. This is achieved by way of the general practice to “follow nature,” by which the Stoics didn’t mean anything like tree hugging or the Paleo diet, but rather both developing the natural human propensity for reason, and accepting that whatever happens is in accord with the way the world works, and it is therefore irrational to oppose it or to become upset by it.

Stoic doctrine had a number of practical goals, including the overcoming of irrational fears and desires, the absence of distress (ataraxia), and the achievement of a smooth flow of life. All of it while always keeping in mind the famous Stoic reserve clause, “fate permitting.”

Stoicism, as I mentioned earlier, was a complete philosophical system, as much as it was focused mostly on practical wisdom (phronesis [9]). As such, it comprised three distinct, and yet interconnected, areas of inquiry:

Ethics, which was conceived as the study of the nature of the good and how to achieve a eudaimonic life.

Logic, which included the study of formal logic, dialectics (the art of discourse), and a theory of knowledge.

Physics, which comprised both what we today would call the natural sciences and metaphysics.

Let me say a little bit about each of these, especially in terms of bringing Stoicism up to date while attempting to remain close to the spirit of the original insight.

The Stoic conception of ethics was, of course, mainstream in ancient Greece and Rome, and significantly different from what modern philosophy means by that term. However, I think the ancients had it right (or better) in this respect. While we think of ethics as the business of figuring out what is the right (or wrong) thing to do, the ancient Greco-Romans understood it to be the quest for guidance on how we should live a meaningful existence, and for them this was absolutely coupled with being moral, cultivating the virtues, and pursuing excellence. The latter seems a bit elitist, and it partly was in the Greek world, but it can also be conceived as trying to do best what one is good at or inclined toward. You like music, philosophy, sports? Then strive to become the best musician, philosopher or athlete you can. Becoming the best mass murderer or tyrant, however, is not an option, because that would not be a virtuous and moral life.

In terms of logic — which they understood much more broadly than the modern academic discipline — the Stoics thought it was important because of their belief that the defining characteristic of humanity is reason, and that only reason (most definitely, by the way, not conceived as opposed to emotions, but only to destructive emotions) can get us on the eudaimonic track. As such, it then becomes important to study and practice logic, as well as to develop a theory of knowledge. Incidentally, the Stoics were very successful in this.

In fact, the Stoics, such as Chrysippus of Soli, seem to have endorsed a type of deflationary view of truth, and were particularly interested in the “sayables” — i.e., in whatever underlies the meaning of everything we think. A subset of sayables is constituted by the so-called assertibles, which are characterized by truth values. The assertibles in turn are the smallest expressions in a deductive system, so including them in one’s logic gives origin to a system of propositional logic in which arguments are composed of assertibles. The Stoics also developed a system of syllogisms, and they recognized that not all valid arguments are syllogisms. Their syllogistics, however, is different from Aristotle’s, and has more in common with modern day relevance logic. These two traditions in Greek logic, the so-called “Peripatetic” (i.e., largely Aristotelian) and Stoic were brought together by Galen in the 2nd Century, who made a first (and largely incomplete) attempt at synthesizing them. After Galen, Stoic logic pretty much disappeared from view by the 6th century CE, to eventually re-emerge once again during the 20th century because of renewed interest in propositional logic [10].

What about metaphysics? At first glance, Stoic metaphysics seems hopelessly out of date. While one shouldn’t pay too much attention to talk of Zeus as the father of mankind (since the Stoics pretty much thought of Zeus as equivalent not just to God in general, but more broadly to Nature itself), it is unquestionable that Stoicism is steeped in teleology, or the idea that final causes operate in nature [11].

The Stoics believed in something they called logos, or fate, or universal reason. Here is Chrysippus, quoted by Cicero in his De Rerum Natura:

“The universe itself is god and the universal outpouring of its soul; it is this same world’s guiding principle, operating in mind and reason, together with the common nature of things and the totality that embraces all existence; then the foreordained might and necessity of the future; then fire and the principle of aether; then those elements whose natural state is one of flux and transition, such as water, earth, and air; then the sun, the moon, the stars; and the universal existence in which all things are contained.”

And here is Marcus Aurelius the famous Roman emperor and author of the Meditations:

“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things that exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the structure of the web.”

Now, try for a minute to set aside your skeptical, secular 21st-century attitude and see how this idea can be translated into modern terms without incurring in all too easy a posteriori rationalization. Indeed, notice that what I’m about to suggest is most definitely not what I think the ancient Greco-Romans thought, but rather a reasonable update of their thinking given modern science and philosophy.

So, at bottom, and very crudely, the stripped down version of Stoic metaphysics may be said to consist (I’m not a Stoic scholar, so take it with a grain of salt [12]) of the following ideas:

a) The universe is organized according to rational principles (logos);

b) The world works in a deterministic way (fate);

c) There is a fundamental unity, or interconnectedness, of all things.

A modern rendition of the above would say that the universe is understandable in logics-mathematical terms (a), that it works according to general exceptionless laws (b), and that it is described by a single wavefunction, to use quantum mechanical terms (c).

More speculatively, of course, one could even say that Stoicism is compatible with (but doesn’t depend on) stronger ontological notions, such as mathematical Platonism [13]; more radical metaphysics, such as ontic structural realism [14]; and even highly speculative philosophical ideas like the simulation hypothesis [15] — about all of which, as readers of SciSal know, I maintain various degrees of skepticism coupled with an open interest.

Regardless, Stoicism is mostly about ethics and practical wisdom, and both logic and “physics” were seen by the Stoics as necessary contributors to our understanding of eudaimonia. Let me therefore conclude with a quick list of Stoic “spiritual” exercises (for a lack of a better term), which I fully intend to practice in the near future, as an experiment on myself [16]:

1) Early morning meditation: take 5-10 minutes to rehearse the day ahead, repeat a philosophical precept (see #4 below), focus on a specific virtue. Pick a quiet spot for doing this, if possible while walking outside.

2) Contemplation of the ideal Sage: make a list of people you admire, pick a role model and ask yourself what s/he would do in specific trying circumstances.

3) The stripping method: bring to mind a situation of interest, break it down into its bare components to see clearly what it actually consists of, stripping away the unimportant details that may cloud your judgment. Ask yourself what’s the ethical core of the situation and which qualities (virtues) are required to deal with it.

4) Retreat into oneself: find a place where you are not likely to be disturbed for 5-10 minutes; chose a Stoic maxim to focus on, such as “Some things are under our control and others are not.” Become aware of your surroundings and close your eyes. Focus on your breadths and mentally repeat your maxim.

5) Concentric circles: close your eyes and imagine a circle of light surrounding yourself. Slowly expand the circle to include your family and friends, your fellow citizens, and eventually the whole of humankind.

6) The view from above: visualize the big picture, your place in the cosmos.

7) The philosophical journal: write ethically-focused diary entries to try to relate what is going on in your life to your overall ethical framework.

8) Bedtime reflection: take 5-10 minutes before going to bed to review the day and its main events. It helps to keep a written journal for this exercise (see #7 above). Ask yourself what you did badly, what rightly, and what you omitted. Think about how you could do better, and praise yourself for what you did well.

The above list sounds eminently practical, and most definitely neither mystical nor “new agey,” to me. If you are not convinced, just keep in mind that Stoicism directly inspired Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotional Behavior Therapy [17], as well as its successor, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [18]. The latter, incidentally, is one of the few forms of psychotherapy for which there is strong empirical evidence that it actually works in modifying people’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotional responses [19].

Now if you will excuse me, I need to do my bedtime meditation.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Rationally Speaking podcast #48, Philosophical counseling.

[2] American Philosophical Practitioners Association.

[3] If you know of anyone who is interested in my version of philosophical counseling, feel free to refer them to me. I offer both in-person and remote sessions.

[4] Here are the details for the 2014 edition of Stoic Week, to be held in London. This is the Stoicism Today blog from the University of Exeter, and here is their Twitter handle.

[5] Wiki entry for eudaimonia.

[6] Meanwhile, if you’d like the capsule version of both the theory and practice of Stoicism, download my Stoicism, the very basics.

[7] Although there are many similarities between Stoics and Buddhists, a major difference is that the former, very much unlike the latter, thought that there was a self that defines every human being.

[8] Stoicism & Star Trek: Think like Spock – Act like Kirk, by Jen Farren.

[9] Wiki entry on phronesis.

[10] The ancient logic entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[11] The Wiki entry on teleology.

[12] For better scholarship on Stoicism, see the appropriate SEP entry.

[13] Platonism in the philosophy of mathematics, SEP.

[14] Ontic structural realism, according to James Ladyman and Don Ross.

[15] Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument.

[16] You will find these exercises, a guide to a typical Stoic day, and more at the Exeter site, in a small handbook entitled “Living like a Roman emperor: the Stoic life.”

[17] On REBT check out the Albert Ellis Institute.

[18] The Mayo Clinic on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

[19] Looking for evidence that therapy works, by Harriet Brown, The New York Times, 25 March 2013.


76 thoughts on “Why not Stoicism?

  1. David,

    “I vaguely remember an NPR interview with a philosopher who had put out an ad somewhere billing himself as a kind of philosopher consultant”

    It was probably my City College colleague Lou Marinoff. I did an interview with him for the Rationally Speaking podcast: http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs48-philosophical-counseling.html


    “I meant the phrase “something approaching joyfulness” in my first comment to be read as descriptive of the Stoic response to the workings of nature not as referring to nature itself. At the heart of Stoicism is an embracing (or almost joyful acceptance) of fate.”

    Well, again, not exactly. What was joyful for the Stoics was the cultivation of virtues and the pursuit of eudaimonia. But this cannot be done in futile opposition to events unfolding outside of your control, which therefore need to be embraced and not emotionally resisted.

    “If you substitute scientific laws as we generally understand them for logos you change the picture completely, in my opinion, and there is no longer any reason to embrace the workings of nature in a positive way.”

    That’s what I’m trying to do in my version of neo-Stoicism. And, again, the idea is rather to pursue a eudaimonic life while fully accepting that the universe is what it is.


    “Because internal dispositions are not volitions in the sense demanded.”

    Not sure what you mean here.

    “Because both the exercise of vital powers and personal well being are inseparable from society and Stoicism has nothing to offer on that count”

    I think it has a lot to offer concerning society and our place in it.

    “Because Stoicism’s practical appeal lies in the lives of its spokesmen”

    Not really. The Stoics took the Sage to be their ideal model, and were explicit about the fact that he was not a real person (no Jesus or Buddha). They also recommended role models, not all of whom where Stoic (e.g., Socrates, some of the Cynics), and acknowledged that they were not perfect either.


    “most striking point of dissonance between Stoics and Epicureans is that the latter don’t feel compelled to turn their backs to the world just because it can be a source of pleasure, an advantage point I deeply appreciate”

    Hmm, I would have said that it was the Stoics who were engaged in the world, much more so than the Epicureans. And the Stoics – contra popular lore – did not reject pleasures or avoid pain, they simply thought that these things were “preferable indifferents,” i.e., things to be preferred but that do not affect one’s pursuit of eudaimonia.

    “than that of spitting the little water from the mouth instead of quenching the thirst”

    As you say, that was actually meant as an exercise in self-control, not as a regular practice. But at any rate, you are certainly right that the two approaches share much in common!


    “the Epicureans made very strong arguments against participating in political life in favor of cultivating friendships, whereas the Stoics emphasized social duty in the political arena.”

    Correct, and I would add that the Stoics too appreciated friendship just as much as the Epicureans. Indeed, it is this detachment from political / social action that I have always found unappealing, as you do, in Epicureanism (and in Buddhism), despite my admiration of Epicurus, not to mention of Lucretius.


  2. labnut, just curious, do you plan to answer Aravis’ question? You have throw out many generalizations lately that don’t match up – like your claim in the previous post that the loss of tradition and authority has led to our modern ills. I am still curious as to when you think the glory days of human civilization actually were. Despite all manner of problems, I like today better than any time in the past. Not that I have much choice.

    If I am correct you are from South Africa and we all know the problems there – wouldn’t adherence to tradition and authority result in continued white minority rule? Just look at the recent sea change in the states on gay marriage – which had people defying tradition and authority to demand and achieve equality. You can look at civil rights, women’s rights, worker rights, and on and on. None of these changes would have occurred without people ignoring tradition and authority.

    Huge problems still plague the US, but none of these are new. Drug abuse, alcoholism, venereal disease, prostitution, murder, etc. all old as the hills. Obesity has so many roots – that it is hard to know the cause – cheap fast food advertised to the hilt, antibiotic use, hormone disrupters, poverty, changing job markets – so many contributing factors. We need to do better, but blaming it on modernity is groundless. The past was never better. One thing many of these philosophies encourage is living in the present – and that rings true.


  3. a good, eudaimonic life requires the development of an expanding circle of concern

    I think easily the most important point that Massimo mentioned is the idea of circles of concern and several people have commented about this. These circles constitute our moral boundaries. Moral boundaries are a form of distancing that reduce our ability to perceive the humanity of people outside our boundaries. People within our moral boundaries we treat according to our moral precepts. People outside our moral boundaries we treat as moral outlaws. We have been prepared to discriminate against, enslave, kill, torture or otherwise exploit people outside our moral boundaries because we don’t accord them the same moral status as ourselves. We have a variety of ways in which we create these moral boundaries.

    1) physical distancing.
    The distant enemy soldier is not seen as a person when we squeeze the trigger. Our bombing campaigns reduce the person to a target, a cipher or a number.
    2) emotional distancing.
    feelings of anger, hatred, retribution, patriotism, etc exclude people beyond our moral boundaries.
    3) family distancing.
    people outside our family grouping have lower moral standing.
    4) ethnic distancing.
    race creates strong moral boundaries.
    5) language distancing.
    language differences also act as moral boundaries.
    6) cultural distancing.
    cultural differences are strong moral boundaries.
    7) class distancing.
    we erect moral boundaries to exclude people of other classes.
    8) religious distancing.
    some religions, especially Islam, create strong moral boundaries and we see this today in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

    These many forms of distancing combine to create our effective moral boundaries.

    Enlarging our moral boundaries to be more inclusive has been the great moral achievement of the last 2000 years. We are now grappling with the problem of extending our moral boundaries to higher order mammals. Technology plays an interesting role. On the one hand communications and travel technology is reducing the effect of physical distancing so that more people fall in our moral boundaries. On the other hand, technology threatens to reverse this in some ways. Technology allows us to kill at greater distances and one of the more chilling examples of this is the drone warfare campaign. We do not see the humanity of our targets and it becomes easier to kill them. I foresee that improvements in technology may make this our most pressing ethical problem.


  4. Hi Massimo, in your answer to Alex you wrote: “Indeed, it is this detachment from political/social action that I have always found unappealing, as you do, in Epicureanism (and in Buddhism)”.

    Regarding Buddhism, I’m not sure about the historical consistence of this point. Buddha fits with the tradition that rejected the Brahmanic caste system, he wasn’t Brahmanic and deplored the dominant position hold by the Brahmanic cast. It caused social asymmetries and injustices. Today, it is widely believed in India that Buddhism didn’t agree with such system, actually many people became Buddhists, they meet in squares, parks an cities to embrace it claiming that inside Buddhism there are not castes.

    In 1957 took place a mass conversion in India, in a ceremony followed by 300,000 persons after Bhimrao Ramji Amebedakar. In 2007 another conversion gathered around 100,000 “untouchables” and Indian nomadic tribes, the writer Laxman Mane was one of the organizers, they criticised the null action of the government in favor of the poors. It seems that Buddhism has a social side still today.


  5. @ SocraticGadfly: Stoic is a label that arose after 300 BCE. Spartans, in 1200 BCE, were already “stoic”, in the modern sense (according to Homer).
    If you feel that using the word “selection” in relation to evolution is teleological, you have your work cut out for you.

    @ Coel: I guess you have never heard of group selection as a scientific discipline. If you had you could have guessed that I was boldly advocating an even higher level of evolution: ecological system selection. Please think about it: one can’t guess what goes beyond what one already don’t know.

    Dear Massimo:
    The Nazi philosopher Rosenberg was hanged at Nuremberg. Heidegger, rightly so, was forever barred from teaching. My case against Aristotle is fully deployed on my site. It rests on historical facts.
    It’s clear that, had the US Army liberated, Athens in 300 BCE, and had Aristotle still being alive, he would have been put on trial.
    This being said, I liked you essay very much. I just said that Stoicism, although excellent is all too natural, and, thus can be enjoyed to excess.

    I wrote my entire next essay (on my site) as a partial answer to the preceding. So I have more than 2,000 words in reply to Massimo’s excellent essay, there. Comments are welcome.

    “Evolutionary given” or “psychobiological”, or “instinctive”, or “ethological”, or “tropisms” are all (very) roughly equivalent. There is more rigidity on the “evolutionary given” than one would expect, claim those who experiment on New Caledonian crows.

    I suggest everybody get relaxed about evolution. It’s a domain with some many obscure sub-fields therein, that it’s fraught to be too strict about it. Witness the changed mood about epigenetics (after a century of dragging Lamarck in the mud with relish, following the church).

    Philosophical consulting is a great therapy. It has proven (under the closely related “behavioral therapy”, I brace for the semanticists screaming) as, or more effective than (MD prescribed) drugs.


  6. Massimo: “I guess I find it interesting that so many ancient doctrines had so many points of inter-cultural similarity, and that they are all more useful than anything a Kantian deontologist or a utilitarian might have to say, in my opinion.”

    Excellent article. We now know a lot more knowledge (modern physics and modern biology), but the ancients were much wiser.

    Massimo: “While we think of ethics as the business of figuring out what is the right (or wrong) thing to do, the ancient Greco-Romans understood it to be the quest for guidance on how we should live a meaningful existence, … I don’t know much about Taoism, to be frank. See above for comments about Buddhism. And of course there is Confucianism, which has a number of similarities with virtue ethics.”

    Aravis Tarkheena: “One dimension of the ethical life lies in one’s conduct towards others. … and the sort of person that one is and is inclined to be — …”

    Indeed, {right or wrong; conduct towards others (the sort of person); live a meaningful existence} are the essences of morality for all cultures. Yet, these are not fundamental but are the emergent in Confucianism which consists of two parts.

    Part one: the recognition and acceptance of two facts.
    A. Fact one: there is an Earth (ontological reality) which nurtures lives with 4-seasons,
    B. Fact two: there is a Celestial Sphere which displays the laws of constancy on the dynamics of celestial motions.

    From these two facts, they gave rise to the concept of Yi (易) which has three substances (the three Yi).
    1. Yi is immutable (not changing), demonstrated by the celestial motions.
    2. Yi is mutable (changing), demonstrated by the 4-seasons.
    3. Yi is simple

    Part two: the understanding that human is a ‘part’ of these ‘three Yi’, and thus human must ‘participate’ in the union of the Heaven/Earth/human (three essences, 三 才).

    Yet, how? How to participate? This Yi is not science, not mystery, not teleology; it is simply the guidance of how one should live his life, that is, the morality. So, there is a model and an anchor (not God, not End) for {right or wrong; conduct towards others (the sort of person); live a meaningful existence}.

    The Christianity is about ‘faith’. The Confucianism is all about the ‘participation’ in the union in Yi. Yijing is not an easy book and is now badly misrepresented. If anyone is interested in it, please read this (http://www.chinese-word-roots.org/Confuciu.htm ) first. Massimo’s article is very much about the participation in life and Nature.


  7. Massimo

    I claimed: “At the heart of Stoicism is an embracing (or almost joyful acceptance) of fate.” And you responded that “[w]hat was joyful for the Stoics was the cultivation of virtues and the pursuit of eudaimonia,” acknowledging that “this cannot be done in futile opposition to events unfolding outside of your control, which therefore need to be embraced and not emotionally resisted.”

    Our differences may just involve a matter of emphasis, but I still think that how one perceives the cosmos in general terms colors everything else. And both the Stoics of antiquity (and late antiquity) and modern European thinkers involved in the revival of Stoic thought (which peaked I think in the 19th century) saw the universe as being ordered in a special kind of way. Their metaphysical views certainly formed a background to their thinking on other matters and provided what I see as essential psychological support.


  8. Massimo,

    From what you said

    (“I would have said that it was the Stoics who were engaged in the world, much more so than the Epicureans. And the Stoics – contra popular lore – did not reject pleasures or avoid pain, they simply thought that these things were “preferable indifferents,” i.e., things to be preferred but that do not affect one’s pursuit of eudaimonia.”)

    I must acknowledge that the statement you comment I made with Epictetus in mind – and also M. Aurelius. I tend to have Epictetus as a hardliner stoic that indeed took a lone path in life after being released from slavery. M. Aurelius had no choice of following this path, for obvious reasons. Ans as for Seneca, his letters seem to be those of a man who lived more or less an epicurean life before the retirement as a stoic.

    Also: I can ‘read’ Epictetus as a loner who advised a responsible approach to whatever is presented by life. He himself lived the best he could his slavery period. In short, I understand that a stoic doesn’t necessarily go after the world to join it, for he feels already connected to it, though if he feels that his presence will count, there’s no need to call him twice. That’s, perhaps, the difference between ‘vulgar’ welfarism and true helpfulness (like when M. Aurelius and his family gave away their riches to a despairing Rome: if needed, a stoic promptly answers). But this trait, as far as I’m informed, stoics and epicureans shared (see the last letters from Epicurus on the same site), though I’m almost completely convinced that it was Epictetus (Discourses) who created or bolstered the reputation of the Epicureans as dissolute etc people.


  9. Hi Patrice Ayme,

    I guess you have never heard of group selection as a scientific discipline. If you had you could have guessed that I was boldly advocating an even higher level of evolution: ecological system selection.

    Well, no, you guess wrongly, since I am aware of group selection. And the declarative style of your wording (e.g. “Hence evolution itself has selected stoicism as a strategy to reach an optimal ecology.”) did not suggest a bold and novel claim, more a misunderstanding.

    Please think about it:

    OK, let’s think about it. Group-level selection (groups within a species) is accepted as in-principle possible but is generally regarded as a weak effect of minor consequence, owing to the fact that the timescale for groups reproducing by budding off new groups is generally much longer than the timescale for individuals reproducing, and also the individual-level selection is a much stronger effect that subverts the group-level selection.

    So now you’re advocating ecosystem-level selection, with whole ecosystems budding off new ecosystems, and differential survival of those “daughter” ecosystems? For the above reasons, but to a much greater degree, this is a non-starter. Ecosystems simply don’t bud like that, and even if they did any ecosystem-level selection would be a very weak effect that would be totally subverted by lower-level selection, and thus would not explain things like predator/prey interactions.


  10. Um hi, Labnut…if you get this message, (and I probably should not jump into this at all… but) why are you “condemning” Genghis Khan? Because in his Mongolian historical context at a time of Feudal China, his “moral” code is not really at issue. I get that the conquerer runs contrary to the construction of civilization… and that he allowed his mythos to assist his incredible reign as he was devoid of actual superstition… but I don’t understand why you’re emphasizing him.


  11. Massimo,

    You wrote, “Finally — and I don’t mean to sound morbid here — but, I need to start preparing for my own death. I just turned 50, and though I fully expect (fate permitting, as the Stoics would say) to live a few more decades, death has always been on my mind, as it should be according to the followers of Zeno of Citium. So I have been searching for an approach that would help me in that direction, while at the same time also allowing me to improve my eudaimonic quest [5] in the meantime.”

    I was raised Christian, believing sincerely that I’d go to Heaven after death. And up to my mid-twenties I lived hardly thinking about death, unacquainted with the fear one feels when dying is fully considered. After several long years of experiencing the slow death of my religious faith in Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit, I’ve been thinking often about my inevitable death and how I will face the experience of dying. Feeling acutely the loss of my departed faith, I’ve been studying philosophy, anthropology, and other religions.

    Surprisingly your final reason for entertaining Stoicism has gone mostly unaddressed by your readership. It surprises me since it moves philosophy from a mere intellectual exercise to something more personal, and if lived out, something social.

    “So I have been searching for an approach that would help me in that direction, while at the same time also allowing me to improve my eudaimonic quest [5] in the meantime.”

    My opinion is any approach to life worth considering should help us enjoy life and cope with death. I’m American. It seems to me that dealing with the grief coming from the death of the people we love is seen as something to be avoided in America. We don’t like old people very much. We put them homes, but not usually our own. While some individuals and communities reverve the elderly, American culture seems to be devoid of such respect. What does this say about us?

    Religious communities and practice are the traditional means in American culture for dealing with death. My opinion is many religious people react angrily toward attempts to diminish religion since they see there isn’t a viable alternative in our culture for dealing with it. The similiarity you detect between Greek and Asian philosophical-wisdom traditions is the belief that philosophizing should impact the way we live and die. Do you think it is possible for philosophy to ever play a more meaningful role beyond argument and analysis in American cutlure?


  12. “Not sure what you mean here.”

    A Neo-Stoicism that accepts schizophrenia can prevent ataraxia doesn’t keep enough Stoicism to count as near as I can tell.

    “I think it has a lot to offer concerning society and our place in it.”

    Reducing society to individuals with free will may count as a lot, but that’s more in the nature of an enormity than a great help.

    “Not really. The Stoics took the Sage to be their ideal model, and were explicit about the fact that he was not a real person (no Jesus or Buddha). They also recommended role models, not all of whom where Stoic (e.g., Socrates, some of the Cynics), and acknowledged that they were not perfect either.”

    The appeal of Stoicism is in the lives and writings of its most eminent practitioners, Cato the Younger, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Today by far the most popular Stoic writing is the Meditations, though the Enchiridion and the Discourses are also admired. Seneca’s works are not very much read nowadays, but in his plays and letters in times past were exceedingly influential. And this is true of Addison’s tragedy Cato. Notions of Stoicism seem to be tradition from those times, without much critical reflection. For instance, who asks how and why an emperor’s “diary” ended up being published?


  13. Mike Barnes wrote: “Surprisingly your final reason for entertaining Stoicism has gone mostly unaddressed by your readership. It surprises me since it moves philosophy from a mere intellectual exercise to something more personal, and if lived out, something social.”
    I can only speak for myself, but my own reason for not addressing this dimension of Massimo’s post is because I found it the least compelling and the least convincing. My reasons are connected, in part, to why I find the idea of philosophical counseling so uncompelling — as opposed to psychotherapy (though I won’t speak directly to philosophical counseling, here).

    Philosophy, being essentially rationalistic in its methods and in terms of the “tool set” it uses, represents a very narrow — and in my view, quite impoverished – vantage point from which to address much of the human condition. One of its greatest weaknesses – with the exception, perhaps of Nietzsche – is that it completely ignores the unconscious, which is why Freud and the development of Depth Psychology was so important and so revolutionary. Philosophy also deals very poorly with emotions and with sensibility, which is why philosophies like Hume’s are so rare and seem so revolutionary, when they emerge on the scene.

    The fear of death and the sadness and even despair that arise, with the contemplation of loss, do not belong to the rational side of human experience, and I have zero confidence in the capacity of philosophical theories to provide any real consolation. To the extent that they appear to do so, it is a placebo effect, which is fine, but suggests that something else is really doing the work, and then, I’d rather turn to the something else.

    I have been in psychotherapy, of several varieties, for depression, as well as anxiety. My experience has been that for the specific symptoms, CBT was the most effective, but when it came to the more underlying, existential worries, fears, sorrows, etc., Depth Psychology was far more useful. Neither approaches, however, are anything like what one encounters by way of philosophical theorizing and discourse, and this is because they address the relevant concerns and problems at the level of the emotions and of the semi-conscious and unconscious, rather than at the level of conscious, rational, deliberative thought, which is the province of philosophy.

    The idea of “preparing for my death”, where such preparation involves philosophical reflection, whose purpose is to address fear and sadness—not to mention doing so, at such a young age–strikes me as so bizarre and contrary to the actual experience of these emotions, that this aspect of the essay failed to speak to me at all. It is for this reason, then, that I did not speak to it in my own comments.


  14. Aravis Given that Hume could arguably be called the first psychologistand existentialism arguably deals a lot with un/subconscious issues, I can’t agree. “No Exit” deals a lot with psychology and a variety of emotions, including lust and jealousy. Camus, in his absurdism, also looks at issues of psychology.

    Condolences on depression. That said, to be honest, for both depression and anxiety, what helped me was good new pharmacopia. No, anti-Ds aren’t perfect. But, I’ll take them over Freud, neo-Freudianism, Jungianism etc. (Also, insurance will pay for them, which it won’t for months or years of “the couch.”)

    And, otherwise, maybe an essay like this will “speak to you” more when you’re 50. Per Massimo’s broader thrust, and per my “secularist” comment, if not Stoicism, some philosophical movement might indeed help many prepare for death. Somebody earlier mentioned Epicureanism. I, noting that we had gone from virtue ethics, and Aristotle individually, said “why not Cynicism”? (More below.)

    Mike Barnes has a good point about Massimo’s focus. If the psychological principles of Stoicism are denatured enough, living “one day at a time” (another Stoic principle that’s part of the modern “recovery” world and more) can be a good structure for guidance. Maybe not all, though, or maybe not by itself.

    Massimo, This gets to a larger, or background issue, and that’s one of presuppositions. How does one want one’s life remembered by others? Is it for virtue? For largesse, whether virtuous or not? For siring children?

    Whatever the goal, then, there’s this Per Cynicism, how much of that is one’s one thoughts on how one should be remembered, and how much is societal thoughts? If I’m a good Cynic, maybe I want to be remembered by how damned much I was able to shock people in the last 5 years of my life.

    Give me another 10 years of aging, and that may seem more tempting yet. On the other hand, now I’m somewhat denaturing Cynicism, since it, too, had eudaimonia as a goal. And, although Cynics claim to have rejected fame, along with other things, I’m not so sure that’s true.

    Back to the logos. If the universe is that logical, I don’t need to worry about what’s in my control or not. I just need to be a philosophical version of a good Calvinist and accept everything as predestined. To some degree, I think that idea runs through most Greek thought, Atomists aside. Maybe if Zeno or Aristotle had lived in a nation-state of 315 million, they’d have thought differently.

    So, if we can count talking about “the universe” as metaphysics, it is out of date. Can ancient philosophies be denatured enough to adequately speak to modern issues? I think the answer is no, unless the denaturing is so rigorous as to largely kill the roots.

    This isn’t to say that the focus on flourishing is bad. Nor is it to say that I think any philosophy has to be “sellable.” But, does “flourishing” even mean the same today?


  15. Socratic Gadfly:

    I specifically mentioned Hume, so I don’t know why you raise him as an objection to what I said. As for Existentialism…well, yes, but the fact that existentialists *talk* about the emotional side of human nature doesn’t mean they know anything about it. To my mind, the whole existentialist worldview is, frankly, somewhat adolescent, and provides little insight into serious subjects.

    With regard to age, I am nearly as old as Massimo (short a couple of years), so I don’t get the relevance of this part of your critique. (My father is 87 and has fought in several wars, and I doubt he has ever spent a moment trying to “prepare for his death.”) To clarify, however, what I find bizarre is not so much the anxiety, though I still think that 50 is rather young (you have nearly as many years ahead of you as behind, and if one discount one’s very young childhood years, of which precious little memory remains, then it is equally as many), but rather the idea that the study of philosophy would assuage it. Again, I am only speaking from my own experience — my reply was actually to someone else who wondered why more of us had not responded to this dimension of Massimo’s piece — but I have never found that my philosophical training provided any consolation whatsoever, for real, powerful, psychic pain.

    I have had many conversations with my mother, who is a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, and there is nothing from my training in philosophy that I could bring to bear that would even begin to speak to the kind of pain and horror that she experienced. Indeed, that level of barbarity and inhumanity and the pain that follows is precisely where philosophy — with its inherent rationalism (barring a handful of exceptions) — goes off the rails. I am infinitely more likely to be soothed and calmed by exposure to fine arts — to music or poetry — then to Plato or Aristotle or Zeno.


  16. Aravis.
    I do not know your personal sufferings; so do not take what I have to say amiss.

    I myself have suffered; and only philosophy (esp. that of Buddhism) has kept me alive.

    It is true that philosophy (especially in the Analytic tradition) emphasizes rationality; but often it is through rationality that we can understand – and cope with – our emotions.

    The Western tradition has exiled rhetoric from its practice (largely thanks to Aristotle’s dry, dense prose). That has been a profound mistake. If we can’t move readers to a different way of thinking – if we cannot address their emotions as well as their thoughts – it is unclear how we can persuade them to think anything new.

    It was Whitman who wrote (as I remember) ‘logic and arguments can never convince.’ Clearly, if philosophy is to attain the social power of poetry and science, it must incorporate the discourse of both.

    And it will, whether it likes it or not. To speak is to apply to the passions. Even the arrogant insistence that one write ‘objectively,’ dispassionately, is appeal to the feelings of those who wish to believe that they their thoughts have no emotions.

    That has everything to do with what you’re talking about here. Not only am I suggesting that philosophy ought to address our emotions, not only that it can; I am really suggesting that it does, that this is unavoidable. If the writers of the tradition you read have not done this for you, then that is their failure as writers.

    I have noted elsewhere how much I admire Heidegger. That is not because I am persuaded to his mystyerianism. I love Heidegger’s language, his absolute command of the German language. Reading Heidegger on Holderlin can be as moving as reading Holderlin himself. I read Heidegger for years as part of my Buddhist meditational practice – it emptied my mind while assuring me that my being had value. It led me out of myself and cauterized my suffering.

    Philosophy can touch our hearts, and lift our spirits, while never denying its project to find the truth of our lives, This is exactly part of what philosophy can do, and really what it must do, if it is to appeal to the heart as well as the mind. The consolation of philosophy is not simply the realization of a truth; it is the comfort of knowing that the life of the mind incorporates us into the minds – and hearts – of others.

    As for the problem of preparing for death – I learned this lesson from Montaigne many years ago: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” There must come an end to the current belief that all we want from wisdom is knowledge about the facts of the universe. What we want is exactly this preparation for our own mortality. We are animals aware of our own demise. There is no moment too soon to reflect on that.


  17. Mike Barnes,

    You wrote: “Do you think it is possible for philosophy to ever play a more meaningful role beyond argument and analysis in American culture?”

    Though addressing Massimo, I guess I have something to tell about your question.

    It is not just possible for philosophy to play a meaningful role in any culture: it’s necessary that it plays this role, as any philosophical system is necessarily summed up to an ethics, say, the philosophical aim is to entail an action that can be just or justified.

    Every aspect or field of investigation in philosophy is meant to build a world view that allows useful, justified actions: this is why one thinks of an epistemology, an ontology, metaphysics, logic etc. Philosophy as a whole is as practical as any other form of knowledge. I’d rather say it’s knowledge itself and branches into several fields, some of them called natural sciences.

    Or I’d say more: as there’s no alternative to ‘knowing’, I mean, as no one can choose not to know (unless by killing oneself or, perhaps, by plunging oneself into a coma – though there are hypotheses denying both statements), philosophy is etymologically the expression for the only possible choice concerning knowledge, which is between like and dislike it.


  18. Ehwinner – Great comment!. I would also endorse the view that where philosophy fails it would be either because of Whitman’s point, (that logic and argument do not convince), or due to a failure of comprehension. I would just want to qualify what you said about knowledge and opine that knowledge about the facts of the universe need not be a different thing from preparation for death, and at the limit must be the same thing. Conjectures are not going to comfort us much on our death beds, or be of any use later. .


  19. EJ Winner:

    Yes, you are correct, it may be a matter of tradition. I have been educated in the Analytic tradition, and it really has had very little of use to say about the emotional side of life. It has also eschewed rhetoric as the province of Sophists and the enemy of truth.

    My forays into Continental Philosophy have borne little fruit. I find much of it unreadable and incomprehensible and that which I have understood, has not impressed me. (See my comments re: Existentialism) As for Heidegger, given my personal background and family history, I’m sure you can understand why I cannot take counsel from a Nazi.

    Belonging to a family of Holocaust survivors has been quite painful. What the Nazis could not accomplish via murder was accomplished down, through the generations, via mental illness and suicide. As I have said, philosophy has never provided consolation for me. Rather, it has come through relationships–family and friends–music, and the arts.

    As for your last comment — As for the problem of preparing for death – I learned this lesson from Montaigne many years ago: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.” — while it sounds very dramatic, romantic even, I haven’t the faintest idea what it means. I’ve been philosophizing for over twenty years and have taught literally thousands of students, and I couldn’t point to a single thing that this has involved that includes “leaning to die.”


  20. Aravis,
    ” As for Heidegger, given my personal background and family history, I’m sure you can understand why I cannot take counsel from a Nazi.”
    Yes, I do understand. I was hesitant to mention Heidegger here for that reason, and also because he is suspect by many readers of this site. But if we are going to risk getting personal, there’s no point pretending to have lived a different life. But I never recommend that others follow my own path, I only mention it to draw comparison.

    It is not only in the Continental tradition where we can find rhetoric allowed to appeal to our sympathies. We are conversing here because Massimo found value in the texts of the Stoic tradition. That value includes a set of ideas, but these ideas not only have logical validity, they are also expressed through persuasive language.

    Plato went to Athens to become a playwright; I have seen the Symposium performed as a play, and it was wonderful.

    The reason that the tradition I most identify with, American Pragmatisim, persuaded me that its basic tenets are more or less correct, is partly because its strongest early voices – Peirce, James, Dewey (but also tangentially Royce and Santayana) were all quirky, highly personal writers, who did not believe that truth needed to be some function so abstract from our lives that it would not effect us emotionally as well as intellectually.

    We can find rhetoric in the texts of the Analytic tradition, particularly in the use of humor. But frequently there is more. Right now I am reading two books on philosophy and atheism, one by Kai Nielsen and the other by Michael Martin, both firmly in the Analytic tradition. I think Nielsen is a good writer who knows how to express strong arguments in elevated but accessible language, and is clearly committed to his position. Reading his book, I feel incorporated into the community of his audience, and this gives value to the time spent with it.
    Martin’s prose, unfortunately, is thick and dry and resorts repeatedly to technical formalism; I doubt I will finish his book.

    As to “learning to die:” Consider Kant’s questions:
    What can I know?
    What should I do?
    What may I hope?
    What is Man?
    These questions only mean something addressed to a mortal creature with contingent experience. To the first three questions must always be appended the qualification “given that I will die.” As to the last, the answer to that partly assures us our mortality. Philosophy is one way we have to confront our own finitude, and nothing assures us of this finitude as powerfully as our own mortality.

    No one can deny you the freedom to seek solace where you will; I only ask that you do not deny others that same freedom. If you say, ‘philosophy cannot do that for me,’ I can have no argument for you that it must. But if I say ‘philosophy has done this for me,’ please allow that it can.


  21. PeterJ,
    ” knowledge about the facts of the universe need not be a different thing from preparation for death, and at the limit must be the same thing.”
    Very good point.


  22. EJ Winner:

    With all due respect, it is a bid odd to hold up Heidegger as a philosophical balm for suffering to a child of a Holocaust survivor, no? Specifically (and apart from the usual difficulties in comprehending Continental thinkers which Aravis noted and which I think are undeniable), there is a fundamental question in Heidegger of moral authority, given his conduct during the Nazi period and his refusal to come clean about it afterwards and confront the reality of the Holocaust. To quote from a recent piece on Tu Quoque arguments,

    “…it seems clear that we should prefer advice from some as opposed to others in terms of how we esteem their track record and competence not only on the issue at hand, but on broadly related matters. I do not seek marriage advice from someone I know who beats his wife. Neither from someone who’s a racist.”

    Scott Aiken, “Tu Quoque Arguments and the Significance of Hypocrisy.” Informal Logic 28:2, p. 164.

    To be is fundamentally to be with (and to recognize and respect) others, a point strongly made by Heidegger’s student Levinas, who lost most of his family to the Nazis. Clearly, in Heidegger’s case at least, whatever consolations philosophy gave him did not prevent him from betraying friends, teachers, students, and lovers or being forthright afterwards about what had happened.

    If one wants to know about how to comport oneself towards death and is seeking a modern example of a philosopher (not per se his philosophy), Bergson would be instructive. As an elderly and very sickly man, he refused exemption from Vichy as an “honorary Aryan” and went with other Jews to register in the dead of winter, dying of bronchitis because of standing in the cold for so long.


  23. Edit:
    *Clearly, in Heidegger’s case at least, whatever consolations philosophy gave him did not prevent him from betraying friends, teachers, students, and lovers or cause him to be forthright afterwards about what had happened.


  24. Aravis Sorry I missed your Hume reference. I might have repeated it anyway. On existentialism and even more absurdism (I honor Camus’ self-identification), it’s reminder of the absurdity of life is itself of emotional value for me.

    The arts? I definitely agree. In fact, I debate in my mind, my funeral (should I have a funeral with others in attendance), do I have them play the funeral march from Eroica? The “Frere Jacques” third movement from Mahler 1? The funeral march from Beethoven’s 12th piano sonata?

    On psychoanalysis, to the degree that the length of time it involves necessitates a personal relationship developing, I can understand its comfort. As for its scientific worth? IMO, Freudianism is bad enough; Jungiaism is even worse, not to mention Jung’s baggage. (For more about that, I strongly recommend the book “The Aryan Christ.”) Again, though, your mileage, for personal relationship or other reasons, varies, and that’s the bottom line.

    Otherwise, I’m a goy (albeit one who’s even had one Jewish friend insist I’m Sephardi), so I can’t understand your mother’s, or relatives’ particular pain. That said, my own depression relates to PTSD, so, I can understand something like that. Because mine’s from different causes (non-adult), and for other reasons, most my family cannot offer consolation, and the majority of immediate family, on serious issues, potentially offer exacerbation instead. All of my family besides me are quite religious, so even ones that don’t potentially exacerbate my problems can’t really offer solace. But I digress.

    And, because of that, while not rejecting philosophy in general, or the classics in particular, as a guide for winding down life, I do reject the eudaimonia, whether Stoicism here, virtue ethics, or the Epicureanism you mentioned. I just don’t see a lot of “flourishing” in life. Going back to the arts (including literature, and isn’t the best literature philosophical and vice versa?), I see more “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    Or, per Yenta the Matchmaker, “Oy, we struggle.”

    On the other hand, the modern “dying with dignity” has Socrates as a model. And, dignity invokes emotions of pride, self-worth, etc. And these discussions are part of what sharpen those realizations. And, that sound and fury is itself an absurdity.

    Which brings me back to Cynicism, if we remove eudaimonia. Preparing for the end of life by finding more applecarts of convention to upset isn’t bad, especially if done as a physical humor version of risible laughter at Camus-like absurdity.

    EJ I take a short summation of you as saying that it’s not an “either-or”; both arts AND philosophy, both heart AND mind, can be part of the memento mori. I agree. That said, no “learning” may be involved, contra Montaigne.
    Back to Stoicism, and Aristotle. If philosophizing helps “acceptance,” helps dignity, that’s enough, and with at least some emotional as well as intellectual value. Acceptance may partially calm some emotions. If I know more than that isn’t possible, then acceptance itself has given me that much emotional aid.


  25. jarnauga111,
    The extent of Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism remains under debate, but I have no interest in engaging that. I was reporting my personal history; whatever consolation his writing gave him, I cannot say; I can only say that it once consoled me.

    Gottlob Frege was more intimately involved in Nazism than Heidegger, even devoting some effort to develop a logistics for deporting Jews. I don’t see the Analytic tradition expunging him from their histories of symbolic logic.

    By the way, both Mark Twain and L. Frank Baum (“Wizard of OZ”) openly advocated the extermination of American Indians. Put down that awful copy of “Tom Sawyer!” Stop singing “Over the Rainbow!”

    It would be nice if history, even and especially intellectual history, were all one thing, and we need never concern ourselves with the complicated, psychologically troubled human beings actually engaged in it. History is a mess, and we always get our hands dirty playing in it.

    Finally as to the (frankly tiresome) question concerning Continental philosophy: I no longer have interest in that tradition (certainly not as currently practiced); but I was trained in it and I did learn from it. As an eclectic thinker, I claim the right to learn what I can from whomever I may. No one has the right to demand of others what learning they may or may not pursue, if at the end of the day something more has been learned than what was known before.

    So I think that I will go on reading Heidegger and Twain and Frege, while whistling “over the Rainbow.” And my house is open to Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius and Plato and Aristotle. Aquinas can stop by and drink a cup of tea with Chandrakirti. Listening to Shankara and Hegel debate would be heavenly; and Montaigne and H.L. Menken are welcomed to quarrel in my living room.

    As I said, one tradition I do identify with in American philosophy is that of Pragmatism; because for Peirce and James and Dewey, the door was rarely closed to differences, however exasperated.

    It is not that I do not have profound political and other disagreements with thinkers from the past, even violent disagreements. And there always comes a time to recognize that the past is past, and one has learned as much as one can from it. But I refuse to recognize ideological boundaries, especially in pursuit of knowledge.

    I am growing ever more aware that we all – certainly including myself – make mistakes.

    But we all know what purpose mistakes serve – they are exactly what we are to learn from.


  26. this has turned into a really interesting and — rare in philosophy — intimate conversation. Kudos to Massimo for starting it and to the rest of you for participating in it.

    A few things by way of wrap up, but I think that there is, if not agreement, widespread respect.

    EJ: First and most importantly, I would never deny anyone the solace they find. I have tried, throughout, to indicate that my remarks reflect personal experience. If I have strayed, it is entirely my fault, and I apologize.
    I was trained in the analytic tradition, in a department — the CUNY Graduate Center of the 90’s — which was hardcore philosophy of language, logic, and mind. There was no room for rhetoric — at least not officially — and there was even less room for sentiment and feeling (other than that involved in the mutual antipathies and fallings out that occur among rock-star academics). It was emotionally barren philosophy, but at the same time, it struck me as where the real rigor was to be found. It did what philosophy does best, to the best possible degree. For understanding of the other dimensions of human life, I turned to the other humanities: to literature, music, painting, theater, dance, etc. I shifted my philosophical interests and finally wrote my dissertation in aesthetics. Currently, I primarily teach and do research in aesthetics and philosophy in literature. I find, however, that philosophy’s contribution in these areas is relatively meager and that I am spending as much time doing what is really a kind of high level art- and lit-crit, rather than philosophy *of* art and literature.

    To me, then, when confronting terrible pain, fear, anguish, the last thing I think of is the field in which I studied compositional semantics, metalogic, theories of mental representation, and the like.
    Socratic Gadfly: God, I hope I didn’t come off as engaging in “my pain is worse than your pain.” For one thing, I’m sure it’s not, given even what little you’ve revealed. For another, such comparisons are vulgar and ungenerous, which is the last thing I’d want to be.

    I understand entirely the idea of being unable to turn to one’s intimate relations and friends, because they themselves are the source of one’s pain. I can’t *identify* with it — I am incredibly fortunate to have family and friends who have always been good to me — but it makes perfect sense. I cannot imagine how difficult that must be and admire you for finding alternative places from which to draw strength.

    As I indicated, psychoanalysis really wasn’t useful for the actual symptoms of depression and anxiety. But I also found that CBT wasn’t useful for anything else. You are right that the benefit of psychoanalysis lies entirely in the relationship with the analyst, and I was fortunate in that regard. But no conversation I could even imagine having with a philosopher could have done the same job — given the extent to which so many of the anxieties, fears, and personal “meshugas” involved lay at the borders of consciousness and rationality. I would place my fear of death and the crippling sadness in contemplating the loss that death represents, in this category, which is why I can’t imagine how philosophy would help me address them.

    My admiration for Eudaimonism, then, is not as a form of solace or a way of confronting the parts of life that press against the boundaries of our reason, but rather for the rest. It is a good way of thinking about daily life — that vast majority of the time you spend alive doing, rather than contemplating or worrying.


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