Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Massimo Pigliucci

We continue our series of interviews with the speakers for the upcoming virtual STOICON, which will be taking place virtually this year on October 17. Here is the link where you can register and view the schedule of events. Our next interview is with Massimo Pigliucci.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am a biologist and philosopher, teaching at the City College of New York. I was born in Monrovia, Liberia, grew up in Rome, Italy, and moved to the United States three decades ago. I live in Brooklyn, New York, with my wife Jennifer, also a Stoic practitioner. In fact, we met at Stoic Camp-New York two years ago!

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

My work consists chiefly of writing, teaching, and public speaking. All of these are activities were I most certainly do not control the outcomes. It is not up to me whether my agent or publisher will like my next book, and even less so whether the book will do well or not once it is published. It is not up to me whether my students will respond well to my efforts and learn what I’d like them to learn. And the reaction of the audience at a public talk is also most certainly not up to me.

What is up to me? My own considerate judgments, endorsed values, and decisions to act or not to act. So in all the above cases I apply Epictetus’ dichotomy of control and make a concerted effort to internalize my goals, shifting my focus from outcomes to intentions and efforts. So long as I am satisfied with my work, I need to be prepared to accept whatever result with equanimity.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I can tell you the exact date: September 5th, 2014! I had been going through a bit of mid-life crisis, some personal issues (divorce, my father’s death), as well as a transition to a new job and a move to a new city. While not unusual, that sort of things, especially when combined, can take a toll.

So I was looking for a new framework to replace my secular humanism, which I had adopted since I was a teenager and had left the Catholic Church, but which just didn’t seem to offer me any practical guidance on how to navigate what life was throwing at me. After briefly considering Buddhism, it occurred to me that the answer would likely lie in virtue ethics. So I began to study Aristotle, and then Epicurus. Neither of whom clicked, for different reasons (Aristotle is too aristocratic, Epicurus counsels against socio-political involvement).

Then, on that day back in 2014, I saw on my Twitter feed Modern Stoicism’s call to celebrate Stoic Week. And I thought, what the hell is Stoic Week, and why would anyone celebrate the Stoics? But I remembered that Stoicism too was a type of virtue ethics, and that I did enjoy reading Marcus Aurelius in college, and translating Seneca from Latin in high school. So I signed up. And here we are.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

The fact that it is a coherent and eminently practical philosophy of life. Internal coherence appeals to my analytical side, as both a scientist and a philosopher. And practicality is what I came here for.

Of course, Stoicism itself began as a syncretic philosophy, a hodgepodge of teachings that Zeno of Citium picked up from the several philosophers whose schools he had attended in late 4th century BCE Athens. Then Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, came in and cleaned up things a bit, delivering much of what today we know as the Stoic system. Even so, Stoics disagreed among themselves on certain matters, and their ideas evolved throughout antiquity. They still evolve today. But always with a keen eye toward coherence and practicality.

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

It is one of a highly viable philosophies of life on offer, like Buddhism, or Christianity (I consider religions to be a type of life philosophies). I am tempted to say that Stoicism is particularly tailored for our times, characterized as they are by major political upheavals and threats to human welfare on a global scale. But in reality Stoicism has always been useful to people, because it has been the case throughout history that many things are not under our control, and setbacks — even at a very personal level — have been a stable feature of human existence. So the teachings of Stoicism have always been relevant, and will remain so.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

It has changed it dramatically, from the onset. After weeks from beginning my practice my own friends and relatives noticed in me a more calm demeanor and a different perspective on things. And those effects have only been amplified by years of daily practice.

It has also drastically changed my work, actually. While I still write about philosophy of science, more and more of my academic and public output is about Stoicism, which I would never have guessed just a few years ago. And unlike my previous writings, which were fun and hopefully interesting, but not really practical, what I write and say about Stoicism positively touches many people’s lives. It is a great feeling, and one that has provided additional meaning to my life.

What’s one of your favorite Stoic quotations and why?

One of the very first things I’ve read from Epictetus:

I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.

Discourses I, 1.32

I thought: wow, this is both funny and eminently practical. Who is this guy? And why have I never heard of him, despite getting a PhD in philosophy and taking courses in ancient thought?? I was hooked immediately, and why I have my own disagreements with Epictetus, which I detail in my new book, A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living (Basic Books, 2020), we have been inseparable ever since.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Four things. First, join a local Stoa or an online forum, where you can get guidance from more advanced practitioners.

Second, don’t just read the ancient sources, but also don’t limit yourself to the new offerings. Examine and study both. Stoicism has a long intellectual tradition, so it pays to see what Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and the others were writing. But by the same token, it is a living philosophy for the 21st century, so it is good to get acquainted with the writings of modern Stoics, including Larry Becker, Don Robertson, John Sellars, Bill Irvine, and others.

Third, practice, practice, practice. As Epictetus says: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

Lastly, don’t fall for the sort of corruption of Stoicism that I refer to as $toicism and Bro’icism. They are at odds with the actual philosophy, and they will not lead you to a eudaimonic life.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

There is much more to be said, but I guess I’ll see you at Stoicon!

2 thoughts on Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Massimo Pigliucci

  1. I like what I scanned from Massimo Pigliucci’s interview. However, he has studied in far more depth these matters though as a |Mother, Grandmother & Great Grandmother I have dipped into the philosophies he mentions though have not retained what I read many years ago in-depth. I have written another comment referring to our Extinction of Bio Diversity and a program on UK BBC1 on 13th September, 2020 by David Attenborough whose life has been devoted to animals and our world habitat. If anyone can catch up with this program I do urge them to do so as so much appears to be being taken up with Covid 19 extremely crucial, and may be a distraction from another serious world problem that requires our action. Our economies are predicated on over production and excessive consumption and our expectations of fulfilment through this excessive consumerism and its consequences possibly being denied.

  2. Mo Wali says:

    I really liked this article. It makes me want to learn more. I also like the non-evangelical approach to Stoicism. No pressure, no threats of eternal damnation, just read and see if you agree.
    I am going to order one of Mr. Pigliucci’s books.

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