Prof. Massimo Pigliucci | The History of Stoicism

Prof. Massimo Pigliucci | The History of Stoicism


Prof. Pigliucci has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of science, the relationship between science and philosophy, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism.

Prof. Pigliucci has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudo-scientific attack.” 

In the area of public outreach, Prof. Pigliucci has published in national and international outlets such as the New York TimesWashington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a Contributing Editor to Skeptical Inquirer. He blogs on practical philosophy at Patreon and Medium. 

At last count, Prof. Pigliucci has published 165 technical papers in science and philosophy. He is also the author or editor of 13 books, including the best selling How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books). Other titles include Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk (University of Chicago Press), and How to Live a Good LifeA Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (co-edited with Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman, Penguin/Random House).







SHOW NOTES: Here are a few of the important notes from the podcast. 

  • Stoicism is a philosophy of change. It has always adapted to new knowledge and new contexts. 
  • Stoicism began with Zeno of Citium; a merchant who was shipwrecked on his way to Athens.
  • Zeno sought advice from the great thinkers of the past and engulfed himself in reading. 
  • Zeno was influenced heavily by the Cynics, especially Crates of Thebes, who was Zeno's main teacher. 
  • Zeno was also heavily influenced by Socrates. 
  • He started Stoicism on the stairs of the Stoa Poikile, a painted porch. This is where we get the name "Stoicism". 
  • Stoicism is a philosophy of the Hellenistic period, and heavily influenced by the Socratic Method. 
  • Stoicism focused on three disciplines: Ethics (how to live), Logic (how to know how to live), and Physics (knowledge of the place where we live). 
  • Stoicism was forged in healthy debate between other philosophies like the Cynics, the Skeptics, and the Epicureans. 
  • Stoicism has continued to influence western culture even after it lost its major prominence. 
  • Much of Stoic physics is influenced by Heraclitus, who taught that everything is in a constant state of change. 
  • Stoics taught that we should live according to nature. 
  • Living according to Nature means to use reason and to align with your nature as a social animal.
  • Stoics are Cosmopolitans. This means that we "citizens of the world" and that we are to have respect for the human species as fellow citizens. 
  • Stoicism is a "bottom up" philosophy, meaning the responsibility to live well and improve the world starts with you changing yourself. 
  • Stoicism began in Athens, which was the birthplace of Democracy. This can give us a clue as to the conditions under which philosophy and individual thought can flourish. 

- Socrates is the first philosopher to explicitly reject the interest in natural philosophy or science.

- He decided to focus on "human beings, what they are doing, and why they should do it or not do it". This is ethics.

- Socrates represented the major turn in philosophy towards ethics.

- Socrates championed the idea that philosophy was not merely a study but a way of life.

- Plato also taught this. 

- Socrates' goal was to go around Athens and question young people about what they thought about justice, duty, honour, democracy, government and other topics. He would "sow seeds of doubt."

- Socratic dialogues would almost always end in a kind of confusion where people were left believing that they knew almost nothing.

- Socrates' method was more about questioning people's beliefs and helping them to break down their tightly held structures.

- Socrates was known as the wisest person in Greece precisely because he knew that he didn't know anything. 

- Zeno of Citium was the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

- The main source that we have to learn about Zeno comes from a book by Diogenes Laertius called "The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers".

- Zeno was a Venetian merchant who was carrying purple dye on route to Athens. He got shipwrecked and when he made it to land he decided to go to a book shop, as you do.

- The owner of the book shop was reading Xenophon's "Memorabilia", and Zeno wanted to learn where he could find a philosopher like the ones in the book.

- The owner pointed out the window at a man who was walking by called Crates of Thebes, a Cynic philosopher.

- Zeno becomes Cretes' student and after about 20 years he feels comfortable enough to start teaching philosophy on his own.

- Zeno's own constructs mixed with his understanding of other philosophies led him to being a great teacher. He kept things that made sense to him and left things that didn't make sense to him.

- Stoicism was founded on the steps of the Stoa Poikile (a painted porch) and thus Stoicism was created. 

- The Stoics believed that philosophy should be studied in three parts: Physics, Ethics and Logic.

- The most important element for the Stoics was Ethics

- the study of how we should act. 

- Physics (to the Stoics) encompassed everything we need to know about the world. It was basically what we call science today. They would study this because you cannot know how to live if you don't first know where you are and what the world is.

- Ethics is the study of how we should act and live.

- Logic is the study of how we are to know if we're right in our thinking.

- One of Epictetus' students once questioned him on why we need logic. Epictetus replied "would you like me to make an argument as to why we need logic?" to which the student replied "of course." "Well, then, wouldn't I need an understanding of logic in order to present to you a good argument?" Epictetus replied. 

- Stoicism is a "bottom up" philosophy meaning that "Ethics begins with you."

- Ethics begins with you because the only thing you can control is your opinions and the way you decide to act or not to act.

- The idea is that if every person would focus on improving the way they lived and the choices they made then the entire human cosmopolist would be better.

- All of the virtue ethics are bottom up approaches. It's all about individuals improving themselves for the benefit of the whole.

- Many various religions and philosophies teach that the improvement of the self is the best strategy.

- The "top down" approach where we look to change the leaders before we change ourselves is a new idea of the west. 

- Philosophy in general began in Miletus, a city in what is now Turkey.

- Athens, Greece, soon became the hub of philosophy in the world due to its economic success and also because it was the birthplace of Democracy.

- Although still revolutionary, Democracy was quite different and many people (slaves, women etc) were still excluded.

- Freedom of speech was the greatest value found in democracy which led to a massive surge of philosophy and new ideas.

- Once Athens was destroyed by the Romans there was a diaspora of philosophers to other parts of the world, like Rome.

- The major Hellenistic philosophies came about in a time when there were many changes happening around the world, from the development of the peloponnesian war to the destruction of Athens to the rise of Alexander the Great and his demise. One might say that philosophy thrived when the world was in turmoil and grand-scale changes were happening that were out of most people's control.

- Buddhism originated around 300 years prior to Stoicism in India where similar wars and political unrest was taking place.

- Confucianism also originated under similar circumstances in China.

- Philosophy thrives when the world is out of control and in need of a compass. 

- The idea of "Cosmopolitanism" comes from Socrates. He was supposedly asked "where are you from", to which he replied "I'm a citizen of the world". Cosmopolitanism is the idea that we, as individuals, are all part of the whole. We are all brothers and sisters and we all exist for each other's benefit. We should act accordingly.

- It's believed that the Cynics actually coined the term "Cosmopolitan".

- The Stoics (Hierocles first) elaborated on this idea and suggested that we should view the world and our place in it as concentric circles where you are the centre of your own universe. Start with strengthening your self, then your family, then your friends, then your community, then your country, then the world, and then the earth. But Hierocles also suggested that we should try to bring these circles closer to ourselves. For example, treat your friends as if they were your family, and your community as your friends etc.

- The Stoics taught very clearly that we should treat everyone as if they were a brother or sister. Everyone is to be loved and cared for.

- Many modern Stoics (Kai Whiting in particular) are suggesting that our circles should expand to take care of our world and animals as well.

- National boundaries are not so important to Stoics as they are artificial and change over time. They see themselves as citizens of the world first. 

- Oracles were people who were "in contact with the gods".

- There were a few major oracles in Greece, but the most well known one is the Oracle of Delphi who Zeno of Citium (founder of the Stoic school of philosophy) supposedly spoke to in order to receive advice after being stranded in Athens.- The gods would "speak through the oracle".

- The lessons that the oracles received from the gods were not always very clear, however they were open to interpretation.

- One great example of advice interpreted in an interested is when the Greeks went to the oracle in order to receive advice when they were being threatened by the Persians. The oracle said that they would defend the city by erecting a "wall of wood". Knowing that a wall of wood wouldn't stop the Persians from taking over they later interpreted by the general Domestics to mean that they were to build an army of ships and create a wall of "wood" on the ocean. The Greeks followed this advice and later went on to defeat the Persians with this method in a major battle.

- Even Socrates visited the oracle and we now know that these people were of major significance in Greek spiritual life. 

- Zeno was influenced by the Cynics, with Crates of Thebes being his main teacher for around 20 years.

- The Cynics were one of many Socratic sects (meaning it was a derivative of Socrates' teachings) around 300BC.

- Cynic philosophers were kind of like Buddhist monks, but much more in your face. They lived simple lifestyles and went around reminding people of how unvirtuous they were.

- Zeno was very inspired by Xenophon's "Memorabilia" and therefore was heavily influenced by Socrates. - Socratic teachings influenced all Hellenistic schools of philosophy.

- The two sources from Socrates are the Platonic Dialogues and Memorabilia by Xenophon. 

- The Stoic motto was to "live according to Nature".

- This idea was found on the writings of Zeno, Chrysippus, Cleanthes, and Marcus Aurelius.

- The idea is that if you don't understand nature then you cannot align yourself with it.

- Chrysippus was the philosopher who really crystallized this idea.

- Chrysippus suggested that we need to not only understand cosmic nature, or the world around us, but that we also need to study human nature so that we can align with what it actually means to be a human.

- According to the Stoics the most important aspects of human nature are a) we have the ability to use reason and b) we are social animals.

- So Stoics should use reason to enhance their social wellbeing. This is the path to alignment with nature. 

- The Stoics engaged in regular debate with philosophers from other various schools like the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Epicureans and others.

- The Skeptics taught that there is no such thing as human knowledge, and thus we should have no opinion.

- The Stoics, alternatively, taught that theoretically the sage (the ultimate human) could have perfect reasoning abilities and therefore could have perfect knowledge.

- The Stoics also argued that if you were to truly hold no opinions then on what basis would you act?- This led to a compromise where the Skeptics agreed that there were some opinions that were better than others, although there still was no such thing as perfect human knowledge. The Stoics agreed that perfect knowledge was only really found in the sage.

- These kinds of discussions went on for centuries and formed the various schools.

- Even within Stoicism there was massive debate and a forward movement of the philosophy. 

- Even Seneca, a later Stoic, remarked that the teachers of the past are not our masters.

- Stoicism started out with multiple influences and almost immediately began to change, even within the first two or three generations of teachers, and it kept changing.

- This is a philosophy that changes as our knowledge of the world increases.