Emily Dreyfuss [0:00] "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference."
Emily Dreyfuss [0:24] That’s a prayer I first heard when I was attending family week at rehab centre when a family member of mine was undergoing addiction treatment. And it will be familiar to anyone, particularly in the US who has known anyone who has gone through a 12-step programme. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. And it was written by a theologian named Reinhold Niebuhr.
But let me also read this: "Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us and our impulses, desires, aversions, in short whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions our reputations, or our public offices, or – that is – whatever is not our own doing." That was written by Epictetus and he was a Stoic philosopher around the year 135 AD.
Emily Dreyfuss [1:31] So, kind of a long time ago, long before there were any 12-step programmes.
Emily Dreyfuss [1:41] I’m Emily Dreyfuss, and this week in my investigation of the good life, I am thinking about the Greeks. I’m going to introduce you in the coming conversation to a philosopher named Massimo Pigliucci. Massimo was a biologist by trade for many years, he studied evolutionary biology and genetics. And late in his life after being a successful academic, hard scientist, he got a PhD in philosophy, and he is now a historian of philosophy.
In the conversation I had with him for my article about the Greek roots of the concept of the good life, more specifically the idea of eudaimonia, which is the word that different schools of Greek philosophers used when they discussed this concept of the good life, Massimo discusses in the upcoming conversation a moment in his life when he decided philosophy needed to be put into practice.
And I’m really fascinated by that idea, because philosophy has seemed to me – and often sounds when we talk about it academically – like just, you know, a bunch of ideas, theories that you can sit around and parlay back and forth. And when I was a kid, a kid, I mean, I was a teenager, you know, we would sit around, and we would just theorise and it all felt completely important on the one hand, because it was the biggest questions in the world, the most important questions, and on the other hand it felt totally unnecessary and impractical. And we could have these conversations and then go back to whatever part of our lives we were living or doing and none of the conversations really had any bearing.
And when I went to college, I really wanted to be a philosophy major, because it seemed like there was something there there was something if there was anything worth studying, wouldn’t it be this thing that was in pursuit of the most important ideas, and teasing out the most important ideas and, and who were we, as humans, I would think, to think that we knew everything. And I knew that we didn’t know everything about how cells worked. And I knew that we didn’t know everything about how atoms worked, or what the Big Bang really was, or how black holes actually worked. And what really was gravity. I knew we didn’t know those things. But I also knew within myself that I didn’t have the right kind of intellect or curiosity to make a dent in figuring that out. That ... that other stuff, that more theoretical stuff that – what kind of life is worth living, what counts as knowledge, what counts as love – all of those things seemed like something like maybe I actually had a chance of having a good idea about.
So, I wanted to major in philosophy and then when I got to college, I realised that just philosophy really just seemed, at least the way that I was encountering it in classes like metaphysics and even, you know, the history of original ancient Greek thought, seemed really besides the point, it seemed like it had had diverged from natural sciences so much that now it was silly to read about what someone else thought about how the world was shaped when we knew thousands of years later that science had disproven that part of it. And even though there were aspects of it, that hadn’t been disproven, you know, ethical codes, morality, none of it seemed like it spoke to me about how to live.
And I was lost a lot of the time as a teenager, as maybe everybody is a little, you know, I had like periods of doubt and periods of hiding under the covers in my dorm room and feeling such intense guilt for how expensive college was. And yet, the fact that I didn’t want to go to class, to name, you know, one of a bazillion things that was crazy about being in college and philosophy didn’t help me. I couldn’t go to my like reading of Descartes, or Plato, whom I had been obsessed with, and figure out the answer to how to get out of my bed and figure out what to do with my life.
And in the conversation you’re about to hear with Massimo Pigliucci, he talks about how after he had gotten a PhD in philosophy, he had the exact same crisis where he thought to himself, I now need philosophy to help me live my life, I need a new way.
He figured, as someone who knows about philosophy, I should turn there and I really hope that you find the conversation that ensued as interesting as I did, because he walked through a bunch, he’s gonna walk us through a bunch of different schools of thought that all propose to tell you how to help you live your life in a better way, and he ended up landing on Stoicism, and that quote I read from Epictetus that sounded so much like the modern Serenity Prayer.
Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He wasn’t the father of Stoicism, but he was one of the subsequent hugely influential practitioners of Stoicism. And the fascinating thing about Epictetus is that he was born a slave, and he then went on to be one of the most important thinkers in in Greek philosophy. And I think that says a lot about Stoicism and why it speaks so much to people right now.
So the conversation you’re about to hear, we talked about Stoicism, we talked about some of the other Greek schools of thought. And as we were having the conversation, I just kept thinking about that Serenity Prayer, because right now, there’s so much that is out of our control. And there’s so much we do want to change. I mean, you know, coronavirus is roiling the world that’s out of our control. But then there are parts of it, right, that are within our control. We can wear masks, we can socially distance. You know, in the US there’s, there’s this fight for racial justice and equity right now. And some of the systems of oppression are outside of our control.
And yet, there are parts of it that we can claim ourselves and say, we will do what we can, and we’re not going to lose sleep over the things that we can’t change, because that’s pointless, and will make us sad. But if we focus on the things that we can, then maybe we’ll feel active, and I don’t know, I found this conversation to be really hopeful, because that prayer, the Serenity Prayer, has always kind of seemed to me to make so much sense. And yet I also shied away from it, because it begins with the word God. Or sometimes they say, Lord. God, grant me the serenity, Lord grant me the serenity. And I’ve heard people who struggle with addiction, say, you know, that’s one of the most off-putting parts to them, about AA or the 12-step programme.
If there are people who don’t believe in God, there’s this whole concept in there of you have to be able to give yourself up to a – quote unquote – "higher power" and say that word "God" and ask for that higher being to grant you that serenity. And what’s interesting to me is that actually, the Serenity Prayer is based on this 2500 year old, Epictetic saying, that had nothing to do with God. God is not a part of it. And it makes logical sense that there shouldn’t necessarily need to be a God, the world is partially within our control and partially not. And I don’t know, hearing about that gave me sort of the permission to maybe, say that prayer to myself in the quiet back of my mind when I need to.
And that was the point of Epictetus’ saying, and all sorts of sayings that the Stoics are proponents of, was this idea that you could have these memorable, true statements available to you to think of and to say to yourself when you need to calm yourself down or bring or provoke some kind of emotion. In some ways, they’re like a mantra. And they don’t necessarily have to have anything to do with God. But they can be useful when you need to hear them. And I don’t know, there’s something really nice about that.
And also, it just seems like it permits admitting how the human mind really works. Sometimes when we’re the most upset is when it’s the hardest to be rational. But if there’s some kind of sticky saying or meme or joke that we can hold on to that can break through the din, and, like, fervour and loud ringing in our ears of our own emotions, then it might be able to ground us. And that’s something that that the Stoics really believed in and that ... that Massimo talks about, and I don’t know, it, it spoke to me. I hope it speaks to you.
Emily Dreyfuss [10:50] OK, well, thank you so much. I am just so excited to chat with you. I’d love to start with kind of like some basics. If you could tell me a little bit, what your title is, who you are, and what you study, as the beginning.
Massimo Pigliucci [11:04] My name is Massimo Pigliucci. I’m the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. My background is both in biology, but specifically evolutionary biology. That was my first academic career, and then philosophy of science more recently.
Emily Dreyfuss [11:20] Wow. Yeah. So and then I found you because in my series that I’m undertaking to figure out kind of the classical roots of and modern interpretation of the good life, and why it’s so hard to figure out how to live it. And also why I myself in the year of maybe someone’s Lord 2020, I find myself in this place of kind of radically rethinking what my version of the good life should or could be, at a time when I feel there’s a lot of, like, global upheaval and lots of people are maybe having that exact same conversation.
I found you because you have, you edited a book that came out earlier this year before the pandemic that is very much on the different ways throughout history that different groups of thinkers have approached the good life, which I have found so enlightening. And also your specific chapter is about Stoicism. What I first want to ask is, where did you get interested in this concept of how to live a good life? And then I really want to find out more about your involvement in Stoicism.
Massimo Pigliucci [12:37] Yeah, I got into the notion simply because a few years ago, I went through my own midlife crisis, nothing spectacular. The kind of things that happen to a lot of people, you know, my wife at the time divorced me, I thought we had a perfectly good relationship, turned out I was wrong. And that kind of came as a surprise. The same year, in fact, a couple months later, my father died. Again, nothing that is particularly unexpected, you know, your parents will die at some point. And in particular, my father was suffering from cancer for, for several years. So this was definitely not unexpected. At the same time, I also changed jobs, in fact, change career to some extent, but changed, changed jobs, and moved to another city and bought a new house and all that. So now any psychologist would tell you that one or two of those things is stressful enough. When four or five of those happen in the span of a few months, then it’s like, whoa, hold on a second here, I need some kind of framework to think about this, this stuff.
Emily Dreyfuss [13:34] Yeah.
Massimo Pigliucci [13:35] Now, to step back for a second, I grew up in Italy, in Rome. And so by default, I grew up Catholic, even though my family was not exactly "going to church regularly" kind of people.
Emily Dreyfuss [13:46] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [13:47] But nevertheless, that was the, that was the idea. I went to Cathechism when I was a little, I, you know, first communion, that sort of stuff. Then I left the church when I was a teenager, because my priest just was not giving me sensible answers to what I thought were very basic questions. Then ever since I consider myself a secular humanist. Secular humanism is a fairly popular philosophy of life. In fact, the book that you’re talking about, has a chapter on secular humanism by one of my colleagues and friends. And so I always thought, you know, for decades, I thought of myself as a secular humanist. And then when the crisis hit, I thought, OK, so now I can reach into the resources of secular humanism and see how to deal with this crisis.
And it turns out, it was actually, at least for me, useless, because although I agree with the general principles of secular humanism, which it’s all about human rights, it’s all about, you know, justice for people and all that sort of stuff. Yeah, but that doesn’t tell me anything about divorce, my father dying, changing job, finding myself in a complete different environment. Like that, that was not very helpful. A lot of interesting general principles that I grew up with, but very little practical guidance.
Emily Dreyfuss [14:55] Interesting.
Massimo Pigliucci [14:56] Now, since at the time I was, I had just finished my PhD in Philosophy because I was beginning my second career. I figure, well, if the answer is coming from somewhere, it’s going to come from philosophy. I mean, what the hell am I studying philosophy for? If it doesn’t give me that kind of answer. Turned out that was a little naive because, of me, because academic philosophy actually has pretty much nothing to do with the meaning of life, you know.
Emily Dreyfuss [15:20] Except for ...
Massimo Pigliucci [15:20] But ...
Emily Dreyfuss [15:21] So that’s what I’ve always thought as well. But then I’ve been reading about this book: Philosophy as a way of life by Pierre Hadot.
Massimo Pigliucci [15:29] By Pierre Hadot! Right.
Emily Dreyfuss [15:30] And that really changed my thinking on it.
Massimo Pigliucci [15:32] Absolutely. But I didn’t know about Pierre Hadot at the time. In fact, I discovered him through this process. But still, I figure, OK, even though it’s kind of an awkward question to ask my professors in, you know, in philosophy, still, now that I’m a little bit more conversant in ethics, in ancient philosophy, etc, etc, surely, I’m going to be looking into the right direction, if I look into philosophy. So I did, kind of systematically. So I went through, the first the first stop was Buddhism, because a lot of friends were telling me, you know, you really should be looking into Buddhist philosophy and not just meditation practices, which are helpful, but don’t require you to be a Buddhist. I mean, one can do meditation without being a Buddhist.
Emily Dreyfuss [16:11] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [16:11] I was really looking for a framework. So, Buddhist philosophy. I did, and it didn’t speak to me, it was interesting, but the language was alien to me. Partly, I’m sure because I didn’t grow up in India or China or Japan. I grew up in Italy. So and also I couldn’t really wrap my mind around Buddhist metaphysics you know, all that stuff about karma and reincarnation, all that is like, no, that’s the reason why I left the Catholic church. So that’s not going to work for me.
Emily Dreyfuss [16:27] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [16:37] I quickly realised that the answer, if there was any, was going to come from what philosophers call virtue ethics. Virtue ethics, is an approach to living your life. It was developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. And essentially turns ethics from the way we understand it mostly today – which is, you know, the study of right and wrong. Typically, if you’re talking about moral philosophy or ethics, people mean by that, OK, so you’re trying to figure out whether this action is right or wrong, whether, let’s say abortion is permissible or not, whether, you know, the death penalty is right or not, etc, etc. Virtue ethics doesn’t ask that kind of questions. Virtue ethics, turns the focus on you as an agent, as an ethical agent, as a moral agent. And the goal of virtue ethics is to improve your character. So to become a better person, the idea being that then if you are in the process of becoming a better person, or a more ethical person, or more reflective person, then you’ll figure it out case by case.
Emily Dreyfuss [17:30] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [17:30] Whether something is in fact, the right thing to do or not. In other words, right and wrong actions are a consequence of the fact that you’re working on your character, and you’re working to improve yourself. So it’s OK, that sounds in the right ballpark. It sounds like it’s a good idea. Now, if you study virtue ethics, usually the first stop is Aristotle, because the guy basically didn’t quite invent it. But he’s certainly put it down in in books, in particular in The Nicomachean Ethics, which is one of the classics of ancient Greek philosophy. So I studied Aristotle. The background of Aristotle was twofold. First of all, Aristotle, also doesn’t really give you a lot of practical guidance. Strong on the theory, but when it comes to "OK, yeah, but how do I actually do this thing?", he’s pretty silent. He’s pretty vague. But more importantly, Aristotle came across, to me at least, as too aristocratic.
Emily Dreyfuss [18:19] Yeah.
Massimo Pigliucci [18:20] Which is no surprise, because Aristotle was the son of the personal physician of the King of Macedonia. So he literally was an aristocrat, right. But Aristotle’s recipe for the good life was basically this: you need to cultivate your virtue, as the term goes. In other words, your character, your ability to act well in the world – fine, then I’m on board with that. But you also need a little bit of education, a little bit of wealth, a little bit of, you know, good health. A little bit of good looks.
Emily Dreyfuss [18:47] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [18:47] I say, OK, that’s it, I’m screwed if we’re talking about good looks, then I’m not going to have a good life. So, you know, it came across as like, OK, fine, if I accept Aristotle’s view of the good life, what the Greeks used to, used to call eudaimonia.
Emily Dreyfuss [19:02] Yeah.
Massimo Pigliucci [19:03] Which is better translated, actually, as "the life worth living".
Emily Dreyfuss [19:07] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [19:07] Then I said, well, then then a lot of people out there are not going to live a good life, because they’re not going to have all of those things Aristotle thinks are necessary.
Emily Dreyfuss [19:14] So I have a question about that. Because when I’ve been reading about Aristotle, and I should say that I attempted to major in philosophy in college. And then I failed to do that because I was scared of taking logic classes, so I never took them. And then I accidentally completed all of the requirements for an English degree and just graduated with an English degree instead.
Massimo Pigliucci [19:39] Logic is a stumbling block for a lot of people who are doing philosophy.
Emily Dreyfuss [19:43] But you know, when we’re talking about regrets and the life worth living, I really wish I could go back and say, Emily, at least enrol in the logic class because I think it would have helped me a lot, and I found that I, in later in life that I love logic. So anyway, so c’est la vie, but I had a question about Aristotle, when he describes that you know, like you get eudaimonia, and this flourishing life with kind of a mix of virtue, good character, and then also like, good luck, and you were born to the right family. Or you could say in a certain culture like you were born to the right caste, or you didn’t get, you didn’t get hit by a car, your mother and father weren’t Batman’s parents who actually, you know, got murdered, like things happened, that were good and enabled you to have a good life and you were born beautiful or whatever. Is he being a realist? And just saying, like, this is the world we live in? Wherein if you have these good fortunes, you are more able to have this successful life? And is success a way to define it? Or is he saying that that is how eudaimonia should be thought of? Like, is it, is it a should? Or is it just descriptive?
Massimo Pigliucci [20:51] No, it’s definitely a “should”.
Emily Dreyfuss [20:53] I see.
Massimo Pigliucci [20:54] He’s prescriptive, as philosophers say about these things, not just descriptive, which is why I think it’s problematic, however, you actually hit on something very important here. A lot of it hinges on how you actually translate eudaimonia.
Emily Dreyfuss [21:07] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [21:07] And that’s why I don’t translate it, I usually talk about eudaimonia period. Because that’s actually the way you know, positive psychologists, for instance, and nowadays, they actually gave up using words like happiness or flourishing, they actually use eudaimonia.
Emily Dreyfuss [21:21] Oh.
Massimo Pigliucci [21:21] For the same reason. But here’s the thing about eudaimonia, the different Greek schools can actually be differentiated, by the way they understood eudaimonia. So Aristotle, often the word is presented as happiness, that’s a bad translation. Because happiness means too many things to different people. You know, I’m gonna be happy that I have gelato for dinner tonight, you know, for dessert tonight. It’s like no, that’s not what we’re talking about.
Emily Dreyfuss [21:44] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [21:44] Often the translation is flourishing. And if you translate it that way then Aristotle is right.
Emily Dreyfuss [21:49] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [21:49] Then you know, you’re not going to flourish unless you have not just a good character, but also a series of so-called “externals”.
Emily Dreyfuss [21:58] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [21:58] Things like health, wealth, education, even good looks. To some extent, I mean, Aristotle, to be fair, didn’t say that you had to be, you know, a model.
Emily Dreyfuss [22:07] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [22:07] In order to, you know. But not ugly.
Emily Dreyfuss [22:08] Just not the people, people would like cower in your presence ...
Massimo Pigliucci [22:10] Exactly, not Socrates with the big nose and the bulging eyes, that sort of stuff. However, there are I mentioned earlier, different translations of eudaimonia, the most broad one being, I think, the life worth living. Now, let’s pick a particular example. Let’s talk for instance, if a modern example, let’s talk about Nelson Mandela, you can hardly say that Nelson Mandela’s life was a flourishing one because the guy spent 27 years in prison.
Emily Dreyfuss [22:38] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [22:38] That’s not a flourishing life. By definition, right. He’s suffered a lot, right? And yet, I would argue, Mandela’s life was very much worth living. Because he fought the right fight, he actually won in the end, but even had he not won. In the end, he still would have been one of the great examples of how you can devote your life for a good cause for justice for helping your people. Nobody would argue that Mandela’s life was not worth living. But by the same token, nobody would say that was a flourishing life. That was the problem that I had with Aristotle. So continue my quest. So I said, OK, well, then it’s not Aristotle. Well, let me look at Epicurus. Epicureanism is another one of the ancient, no, eudaimonic philosophies. Now Epicureans have a PR problem, because ...
Emily Dreyfuss [23:27] Yeah they have a bad rap.
Massimo Pigliucci [23:28] Yeah. They often are regarded as the "sex drugs and rock and roll" of philosophy, right? But in fact, that was definitely not the case. Epicurus’ emphasis was on small pleasures, you know, simple meals, particularly friendship, the pleasure of friendship, friendship played, plays, a major role in Epicureanism. But really, the goal of life for Epicurus is to live a life without pain, not just physical pain, but more importantly, mental, emotional pain. And that turned out to be the problem, as far as I’m concerned, not because I like pain. But because one of the recipes, the fundamental suggestions that Epicurus has for living a life without mental and emotional pain is you have to give up social and political involvement. Because as we know very well, social political involvement that carries pain. It is painful, right? Tonight ...
Emily Dreyfuss [24:18] Yeah I mean, we’re currently feeling it in the US right now, before the election.
Massimo Pigliucci [24:21] I am, I’m gearing up for my wife tonight and some friends to watch the first presidential debate and I can tell you that it’s gonna be painful.
Emily Dreyfuss [24:28] Yes, I’m doing the exact same thing.
Massimo Pigliucci [24:30] And in fact, no matter what your political side is, it’s going to be painful. There is no there’s no question. But I figured, no, I cannot possibly see myself living a life that is focused inwardly. It’s focused on you know, my own wellbeing and maybe my friends, but that comes with no social and political involvement. So Epicurus was out. OK, so now we got Buddhism out ...
Emily Dreyfuss [24:53] But wait, can I interject for one second, because I have one question about Epicureanism. And, I learned this from the essay about it in the book that you edited that Jefferson was an Epicurean, or at least he really respected it. And that was really interesting to me, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the Declaration of Independence in the US and the – quote, unquote – "right to happiness", and how that has seemed to me in the modern day to be a little bit of a trap. And or like a fundamental part of what American individualism is, like this rugged American "we have a right to be happy". And that can be interpreted as like, in, a right to bear as many arms as I want, and a right to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic, because the mask makes me unhappy.
And so it just strikes me that there are politicians, founding fathers of the nation in which you and I both reside, who were, at least maybe not strict adherents to Epicureanism, they respect it. So was Epicurus, did he say explicitly, you should remove yourself from politics or is that your interpretation?
Massimo Pigliucci [25:56] No he said that explicitly, but we don’t have a lot from Epicurus, we have only a few letters and fragments that are left but yeah he actually definitely says that explicitly. Which means by the way, Thomas Jefferson was a bad Epicurean because he was very much involved in politics.
Emily Dreyfuss [26:11] Well, he was a hypocrite in many ways.
Massimo Pigliucci [26:13] That is true. He’s got some, let’s call them inconsistencies.
Emily Dreyfuss [26:16] Inconsistencies, yes, yeah.
Massimo Pigliucci [26:18] But you’re right. You know, if we could go back in time and advise Jefferson on that famous phrasing of, you know, pursuit of happiness, I think he should say the pursuit of eudaimonia.
Emily Dreyfuss [26:28] Yeah, I agree.
Massimo Pigliucci [26:30] But at that point, it’s like, OK, one is out, one is out, one is out, but I still was convinced that somewhere the answer to how do I live, my life moving forward was going to come from virtue ethics. Now, something funny happened on the way to the forum as they say. So I was looking at my one day at my Twitter feed, of all things, and I see this thing that says: "help us celebrate Stoic week". And I said, what the hell is Stoic week? And why on earth would anybody want to celebrate the Stoics? Because I was then under the, as it turned out, misguided understanding or notion that the Stoics are, you know, people who try to go through life with a stiff upper lip and suppressing emotions. Kind of like ...
Emily Dreyfuss [27:12] Yeah, I mean, can I tell you like my vision of the Stoics whenever anyone says Stoics I always think of like, a strong man making a very stern and unhappy face, but dealing with the fact that it’s raining on him. And he’s just he’s very uncomfortable. He’s in the rain, but he’s not complaining.
Massimo Pigliucci [27:29] Right. Or a little bit more charitably, Mr. Spock from Star Trek, right?
Emily Dreyfuss [27:34] Sure.
Massimo Pigliucci [27:36] I love Spock as a character, but I don’t think I want to live that kind of life. So it’s like, OK, that’s weird.
Emily Dreyfuss [27:41] No.
Massimo Pigliucci [27:42] But I remembered so I when I was reading these, you know, looking at this tweet, and I clicked the link, I said, wait a minute. However, Stoicism, too is a kind of eudaimonic philosophy. So I should look, at least look into it. Because you know, why not? I’m on this sort of search personal quest, so why not? And then I remember is like, wait a minute, the Stoics, that’s Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor philosopher. I remember reading the Meditations in college, and I liked it, like kind of interesting.
Emily Dreyfuss [28:07] Yeah.
Massimo Pigliucci [28:07] And I said, Stoics? Hold on. That’s also Seneca and I translated Seneca from Latin when I was in high school in Italy. So I said, but I never put the two together. I never actually thought that the Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, were actually talking about the same thing. So OK, now I’m curious enough. Let me click on the link, see what the hell this, this Stoic week is about. Turns out that you sign up, it’s actually coming up. They do it every year. And now I’m on the board of the organisation that actually runs it. Yeah.
Emily Dreyfuss [28:34] Oh wow!
Massimo Pigliucci [28:34] It’s called "Modern Stoicism" and it’s coming up sometime in late October. And so what it is, is you sign up you, you fill up a couple of questionnaires about where you are in life because one of the people that run it, is actually a psychologist, Tim LeBon, and, and he’s doing research on the effect of Stoicism on people’s lives, because he’s curious as a scientist, not just as a Stoic practitioner.
So you fill out a couple of questionnaires at the beginning and then at the end to see if there was any difference. You download some materials, you start reading a few things, and then you start practising because finally, I got a philosophy that actually had practice. You know that they had many types of meditations, types of exercises. I say, OK, wait, let’s try that for a week.
The very first thing I read, during Stoic week, was from this guy named Epictetus. Epictetus was an early second century Roman philosopher, Stoic, and I never heard of Epictetus before. OK? And I read this thing, and Epictetus says, so we should contemplate the time when we’re going to die. But it looks like I’m not dying today. So I need to focus on something else and since I’m hungry I think we should go out for lunch. Like, woah, wait a minute, who is this guy? So I read more about it Epictetus and turns out, this guy was straightforward, you know, very blunt, very clear in what he says, you know, as in doesn’t go, you know, uses really nice analogies to make his points but it’s very clear what he says. No obfuscatory language at all. A wicked sense of humour bordering on sarcasm. I said, how come I never heard of this guy? I mean, I graduated with a PhD in philosophy. I took courses in ancient philosophy and I never heard of Epictetus, how is this possible?
So I did some research. Turns out, Epictetus actually was a household name up until the 19th century. He only went into what I hope is a partial, temporary eclipse during the 20th century, but up until very recently, he was a household name. So for instance, in his own time, early second century, his school in northwestern Greece, became so popular that emperors like Adrian went to visit. And la crème de la crème of Roman aristocracy was sending their, their kids to, to be taught by Epictetus. Throughout the Middle Ages, Epictetus’ books were used by Christian monks, as, you know, manuals for spiritual exercises. He influenced early modern philosophers like Descartes, and Spinoza, and we were talking about this, the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was an Epicurean. But he also had a personal copy of the Enchiridion, which is Epictetus’ manual. It’s a very short book.
Emily Dreyfuss [31:13] Oh, wow.
Massimo Pigliucci [31:13] 53 lessons of life. And he actually bequeathed that to the University of Virginia library.
Emily Dreyfuss [31:18] And, and in that way, it sounds like you could say Epictetus, and maybe even Stoicism in general is much more, or is very amenable to a scientific outlook.
Massimo Pigliucci [31:30] Absolutely.
Emily Dreyfuss [31:31] Like if Descartes and Spinoza were interested in it, then you can have like natural sciences and you with your background in, like genetics and biology and evolution. And then it’s also this ...
Massimo Pigliucci [31:43] Very much. That’s right, I very much appreciated that part, that aspect of Stoicism, they’re, they’re from a metaphysical perspective, they were materialists, they believe that everything that exists is made of matter. They believed in universal cause and effect, you know, things happen, because [they’re] caused by other things, including human behaviour. So there were very much, their outlook was, in some respects, there were some exceptions, but in many respects, was very modern. Turns out Epictetus in particular, was in fact, so the Enchiridion was a book that was read not just by Thomas Jefferson, but George Washington went into battle with his copy of the Enchiridion.
Emily Dreyfuss [32:20] Wow.
Massimo Pigliucci [32:21] Benjamin Franklin had his copy of the Enchiridion in his belongings. So it’s like, OK, this is interesting. So I did this Stoic week for, for a whole week, I then committed, I saw that the practice was actually helpful. I committed to do it for another couple of months. After that, I committed to do it for another year. And now here we are six, more than six years later, and we’re still talking about it.
Emily Dreyfuss [32:42] So now. OK, I’m going to let you go soon, because you have given me so much of your time. But the one other question I want to ask, which brings me back to your story. And a lot of what we’ve just discussed, which is, you know, you were looking for a new way of, and you said, you started with Buddhism, and it didn’t speak to you for a number of reasons, one of which is the metaphysics of it, which I understand is very, it’s just strange. And it’s not necessarily reflected in modern science. So it’s hard, which I you know, is the same thing I find is hard about I grew up with Judaism, and like parts of parts of the Judeo-Christian tradition just don’t make sense to me in that way. But I, my question is, then you landed on Stoicism, and Stoicism is from –
Massimo Pigliucci [33:28] Yeah.
Emily Dreyfuss [33:29] Italy, in many ways, right? I mean, it’s from Rome. And, and so my question is, I wonder if you think, and I’m more, I’m wondering about this for myself personally, I wonder if you think when looking for a philosophy of life, that finding one that is in our culture is important or helpful.
Massimo Pigliucci [33:51] It may be. It may, may definitely be. I mean, that was clearly the case for me. As I said, you know, Buddhism didn’t speak to me, but Stoicism did. But then again, other western philosophies didn’t, right? Epicureanism or Aristotelianism so ...
Emily Dreyfuss [34:04] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [34:05] And of course, there are plenty of people in the western world that, that embrace Buddhism, for instance, and vice versa. You know, my, my first book on Stoicism How to be a Stoic has been translated in you know, like more than a dozen languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean. So it’s not like I wouldn’t take the cultural component as, as a sort of rigid, but yes, it certainly helps. And that’s why in the book that you mentioned in the beginning the How to live a good life, the one that I co-edited with my friends and colleagues, Skye Cleary, and Dan Kaufman. That is precisely why we offered like 15 chapters, each one of which covers a different philosophy of life. Because the claim that I’m making that I’ve been making from the beginning, is not that Stoicism is the answer. Stoicism is an answer. It works for certain people. It certainly worked for me, and it works for many, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people across the world. But there are other philosophies of life, or religions, for that matter –
Emily Dreyfuss [35:02] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [35:03] That work for other people, and if they do, by all means, if they make sense to you, by all means, that is the way you want to do things. However, I think it’s important from time to time to do what Socrates said we should do. Stop and reflect on things for a minute. Ask ourselves, what is it we’re doing and why?
Emily Dreyfuss [35:22] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [35:23] For one thing, we all come with a philosophy of life kind of by default, because in my mind, at least, religions are simply a type of philosophy of life.
Emily Dreyfuss [35:33] Yeah. And I think Hadot would agree, right? I mean, Hadot -
Massimo Pigliucci [35:36] Hadot would definitely agree.
Emily Dreyfuss [35:37] Yeah.
Massimo Pigliucci [35:38] Yeah. Hadot would agree. So I think that a philosophy of life has essentially three components. It has a metaphysics, that’s an account of how the world works. It has an ethics, that’s an account of how you should live in the world. And then it has a set of practices. OK. Now think about, for instance, Christianity, right? As I said, I grew up Catholic. So ...
Emily Dreyfuss [35:57] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [35:58] In terms of metaphysics, the account of the world is the world was created by a creator God who is benevolent, omnipotent, etc, etc. And he cares about us. That’s the, that’s the how the world actually works, according to Christians. The ethics, you know, how do I, how do I live in the world? Well, I should follow the 10 commandments, I should, you know, consider being inspired by Jesus’ teachings, you know, that sort of stuff. That’s the ethics. And then the practice includes things like prayer, reading scripture, going to church, and etc, etc. Right?
Emily Dreyfuss [36:26] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [36:27] So every religion or philosophy of life has those three components. The issue is most of us by default, including the two of us, by default fall into one particular category, simply because we grew up in a certain environment. I grew up in Rome, so I’m Catholic.
Emily Dreyfuss [36:42] Exactly.
Massimo Pigliucci [36:42] You grew up in another place, another family. So you know, in the Judeo tradition, Judaic tradition, and that’s fine, if that works for you. Not a problem.
Emily Dreyfuss [36:51] Right.
Massimo Pigliucci [36:52] But from time to time, Socrates would say: stop and think about it for a second. Like, is this thing still working for me? That’s what I did twice basically in my life. At some point early on with Catholicism, it was not working for me, because certain things did not make sense. That’s why I made the decision to shift to secular humanism. And then, many decades later, not many, several decades later, when, when the real issue, some real issues came up in my life. That’s when I had to stop again and say, well, actually, as it turns out, this one doesn’t work either. So I need to move to something else. Just take your time, from time to time to reflect upon your life, what your priorities are, what is your framework? What is it that you’re looking for, you know? How would you how do you think about things? And then move on? I mean, you don’t want to do that every day. Because that’s, that becomes time-consuming. You know, it’s very painful and time-consuming to live your life.
Emily Dreyfuss [37:45] Yeah. Painful.
Massimo Pigliucci [37:46] But from time to time you want to examine it.
Emily Dreyfuss [37:48] Yeah. Well, thank you. So that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the series. You know, I figured, I guess what I’m trying to do at The Correspondent is to say, well, I’ve been going through this anyways, and I want to make the most of it. And it strikes me that on a kind of, what was that Stoic phrase for the cosmopolis?
Massimo Pigliucci [38:06] The cosmopolis, that’s right. The human cosmopolis.
Emily Dreyfuss [38:08] The human cosmopolis, in some ways, because of a pandemic that has kind of stopped us in our tracks and removed us from the normal progress and course of events, is a little bit in this reflective moment, or at least seems like they could be susceptible to reflection, because we have to say: are these systems working? These systems of our belief, our systems of our nation, of our countries, of our judicial systems, all of that isn’t working. So what I want to do is say, OK, so let’s go on a journey together to reflect on them for a moment. And then –
Massimo Pigliucci [38:39] Right.
Emily Dreyfuss [38:41] Not for ever. Then get back to life.
Massimo Pigliucci [38:41] You need to live your life, but you do need to reflect. And I would like to only add one more thing, which is, it’s kind of funny, if you think about it, that we are, we find ourselves prone to reflection only when the catastrophe has already hit.
Emily Dreyfuss [38:54] Yeah.
Massimo Pigliucci [38:54] Like, oh, there is a pandemic, so now I need to think about my life. The Stoics would say, No, you need to think about your life on a regular basis, ideally, before the catastrophe actually hits. Because that way you, you’re mentally prepared for when things change from when things actually are suddenly outside of your control. That’s why the Stoic exercises, exercise of writing your own philosophical diary is so crucial. And by the way, again, that’s, that’s also something that CBT practitioners suggest to do. You know, to keep your, keep your diary, keep analysing yourself. Briefly, shortly, like 10 minutes a day or something like that, or several times a week, so that you’re on, constantly on top of things, and you don’t wait until the catastrophe happens until the world turns upside down. And then you say, "Oh, now I need to do something about it".
Emily Dreyfuss [39:43] Yeah, that’s really smart. I have, that gives me a lot to think about because I think that I have a lot of reasons why I have avoided that, avoided that kind of like, deliberate reflection until I had to, and I need to think about why.
Massimo Pigliucci [40:01] That’s a good way to start the reflection so, ask yourself, why have I been not doing this? What is it I was running away from?
Emily Dreyfuss [40:12] Yeah. OK, well, gosh. Thank you so much. I could talk to you about a million other things and I really want to hear what your thoughts are on the pandemic, and all of that, but I will let you go. So, thank you.
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