Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Q&A with Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is the author of the new book How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy To Live a Modern Life. His other books include Nonsense on Stilts and Answers for Aristotle, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. He is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, and he lives in New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write your new book?

A: It took me a number of years to experiment with several philosophies of life (Catholicism, Secular Humanism, Aristotelianism) before finding Stoicism, somewhat by accident -- because of a tweet from the University of Exeter that invited me to "celebrate Stoic Week."

Once I began studying and practicing Stoicism it immediately clicked; I saw that it has the potential -- at least for some people -- to dramatically alter the way you look at things and live your life.

I love writing, so the first thing I did was to compose a column for The New York Times about my ongoing investigation of Stoicism. It went viral, so I decided to begin publishing a blog that would allow me to share my experiences with others. From there the idea of writing a book was the obligatory next step, I suppose, and here we are.

Q: How would you define Stoicism, and what are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about it?

A: Stoicism is an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy that has a lot in common with Buddhism. It teaches that a moral life is the only one worth living, and it provides you with tools to achieve serenity of mind and to develop an attitude of equanimity toward whatever the world throws at you.

In popular lore it suffers from a couple of misconceptions: that it is about suppressing emotions and going through your life with a stiff upper lip -- sort of a Mr. Spock from Star Trek type of attitude. The reality is very different.

Regarding emotions, the Stoics distinguish between negative and positive ones. In the first group you have things like fear, hatred, and anger. In the second group love, joy, concern for other human beings, a sense of justice. The Stoic attempts to shift her emotional range away from the negative and toward the positive emotions.

As far as the stiff upper lip goes, it is true that Stoicism is a philosophy of endurance and resilience -- and those seem to me positive characteristics to practice. But the Stoic also enjoys the very same things that everyone else enjoys, from good meals to the company of friends, from good readings to the love of a companion.

The only difference is that the Stoic refers to these things by the deliciously but only apparently oxymoronic phrase of "preferred indifferents." This means that the good things in life are preferred, of course, but they are indifferent to one's moral character -- meaning that we can be moral agents regardless of whether we are healthy or sick, wealthy or poor, educated or ignorant.

Q: Who are some of the most notable people over the centuries who have espoused Stoicism, and do you see them as figures to emulate?

A: Cato the Younger was a Roman Senator famous for his moral integrity, and he took arms against the tyranny of Julius Caesar, e gesture in consequence of which he eventually lost his life.

One of the most famous Stoics was the emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the "good emperors" that governed Rome during the second century. He constantly strived to be a better person and to treat others with respect, even when they did not reciprocate. He passed laws that improved the treatment of slaves and women, and, contrary to popular perception, did not persecute Christians.

Michel de Montaigne was also a Stoic, and Stoicism influenced Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. In modern times, reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations helped Nelson Mandela get through the toughest time in the prisons of the Apartheid government in South Africa.

Of course, as with any philosophy or religion, just because someone declares himself a Stoic, a Christian, or a Buddhist, it doesn't mean either that he follows the pertinent precepts or that he is a good person. There is a difference between the ideas and the people who claim to adopt them.

Nevertheless, Stoics themselves counsel to identify role models after which to pattern your own behavior. As Seneca famously put it, "[we] must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler."

Q: You've said that "Stoicism is largely a matter of practice, not just theory." What are some strategies someone could use to incorporate Stoicism into his/her life?

A: My book includes a chapter of what I call "spiritual exercises." Other refers to them as "mind tricks," or meditations. I begin the day by reading a favorite passage from one of the ancient authors, Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius, reflecting on how it may apply to my own life.

I then visualize potentially delicate situations that I am likely to encounter during the day, envisioning the worst possible outcomes, and thinking about the best way to tackle them. This allows me to be better prepared for the actual problem, should it in fact occur.

In the evening I take a few minutes to write down my thoughts about the day, asking myself three questions: what did I do right? Where did I go wrong? What could I do better in the future, under similar circumstances?

All of these approaches are meant to develop a type of mindfulness about what one does and why, as well as to prepare you mentally to engage at your best with whatever problem may come your way. You also become more serene as a result of this routine self-examination.

The Stoics occasionally engaged in exercises of mild self-deprivation, which I find very useful. For instance, fasting for a day, or abstaining from alcohol for a bit, or going an entire week without shopping (other than basic necessities), or going out in cold weather a bit underdressed, or taking a cold shower.

This isn't a matter of masochism, but rather has two objectives: to prepare you for the possibility that you really might have to go through lean times and forgo some of these things by necessity; but also, and more importantly, to reset what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill, the fact that we get used to what we have and no longer appreciate it.

It works. You wouldn't believe how good the next hot shower or nice meal feel after you've done without them for a bit!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A number of projects, as usual. One of them is a book on Stoicism for kids, with the help of a friend of mine who is an excellent graphic artist. The idea is to introduce children aged 8-12 or 13 to the theory and practice of Stoic philosophy by way of a series of comic book stories featuring children who tackle everyday problems, from bullism at school to dealing with diversity and disability.

Too often writers focus on adults as if they were the only audience worth having. But kids are the next generation, it is they who are going to change the world, hopefully for the better.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would encourage your readers to seriously consider the idea of developing a philosophy of life. It doesn't have to be Stoicism, of course.

But a life philosophy provides you with a general framework that saves you time in figuring out what is and is not important for you, and it provides you with guidance on how to navigate the small and big happenings of your life. Try it out, I think you'll be surprised by its efficacy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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