And wisdom to know the difference.
The theory can be approached from a number of angles, depending on which Stoic author one finds most congenial: Seneca talks about the four cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Epictetus organizes his curriculum around the three disciplines of desire and aversion (i.e., what it’s proper to desire or stay away from), action (i.e., how to deal with other people), and assent (i.e., how to arrive at sound judgments about the value of things). While Marcus Aurelius finds it more congenial to think in terms of the three topoi of “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), “logic” (i.e., logic, psychology, and rhetoric), and “ethics” (i.e., how to live one’s life).
What makes the Stoic Meditations podcast popular — other, of course, than increasing public interest in Stoicism — is its straightforward format, its short duration, and the fact that it gets published often. Listeners tell me that it’s both easy and nice to set aside a couple of minutes every day to reflect on a practical philosophical point. Each episode begins with a (sourced) quote from one of the major Stoic writers, followed by a brief commentary in which I provide some historical and philosophical context, elaborate on the broader meaning, and often suggest how to implement the idea in everyday 21st century life. For instance, the last episode published at the moment of this writing is entitled “The right thing to do is often painful,” and the episode’s description says “Musonius Rufus articulates the Stoic equivalent of ‘no pain, no gain,’ in part as a rebuke to the Epicureans. Engaging in social and political life is painful, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Regardless of how one approaches it, Stoicism is based on two fundamental ideas: we should live according to nature, and we should always keep in mind the dichotomy of control. “Live according to nature” does not mean to run naked into the forest to hug trees (though there is nothing wrong with that!), but rather to take seriously the nature of the human animal: we are inherently social creatures, and we are capable of reason. It follows, for the Stoics, that our highest calling is to use reason to improve the human cosmopolis. As for the dichotomy of control, you’ve probably encountered it in the much later Christian version known as the Serenity Prayer:
The first episode was released on 21 December 2017, and the full collection, at the time of this writing, comprises 195 installments. The podcast has been downloaded almost 800,000 times so far, and its monthly audience keeps growing steadily. I need to remember to let my Dean know about this too…
by Massimo Pigliucci
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
But how do you actually practice Stoicism? There are a number of ways, from keeping a philosophical diary as a tool for self-improvement, to engaging in a variety of meditation exercises, to practicing mild self-imposed hardships (like fasting, taking a cold shower, and the like). One of my standard exercises is to begin the day by reading a random passage from one of the main Stoic writers and to reflect for a few minutes on how it may apply to my own life that day.
Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci) is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and the forthcoming second edition of Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (with Maarten Boudry, University of Chicago Press). He blogs at patreon.com/massimopigliucci.
That’s what got the Stoic Meditations podcast started. After doing this simple exercise for several years, it occurred to me that others may find it useful as well. And I was right. I looked for a simple platform that wouldn’t involve a lot of editing, cross-posting, and so forth, and found it in Anchor. It allows me to tape my 2-3 minute almost daily (five times a week) reflections on Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Hierocles, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius, upload them to their cloud, and automatically share them on 12 different platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. The link to every episode can easily be published on Facebook or Twitter, and the results have, frankly, been astounding.
Stoicism is a very practical philosophy of life, which has accordingly inspired modern cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s based on a small number of fundamental theoretical points, which are then implemented by way of a number of practical exercises, 52 of which have been collected in a forthcoming book I wrote due out next year.
Two recent, and welcome, in my mind, phenomena within our field are a renewed interest and push for both public and applied philosophy. Of course, philosophy has been both public and applied at least since the time of Socrates in the Western tradition and Confucius in the Eastern one, among others. At a far more modest level, I spend a fair amount of my time doing both, and part of that time is devoted to popularizing the resurgent philosophy of Stoicism, born in Athens around 300 BCE, and which spread throughout the Roman empire, profoundly influencing later thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza.
Courage to change the things I can,
Stoic Meditations is just one example of how, with relatively little effort and simple technical means, one can reach tens of thousands of people, many of whom likely never thought that philosophy could be interesting or, even better, actually useful. Seems like more than a good enough reason to make that effort. We live in a time of new media, when many people — for better or for worse — get their news from social media and their opinions from blogs. They also listen to a lot of podcasts. Sure enough, a number of philosophers interested in reaching a broader public outside of the narrow confines of the academy have began to produce or appear on podcasts. Perhaps the most spectacular example is Nigel Warburton’s Philosophy Bites, which has far surpassed 30 million downloads. I need to remember that number the next time I talk to my Dean about the alleged difficulty of getting people interested in philosophy.