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How to be a Stoic Summary

Massimo Pagliucci has written How to be a Stoic, a great book about the history of how Stoicism emerged, as well as its theoretical background. Overall, this was an enjoyable book, but deteriorated towards the end.  

Summary

When Pagliucci left religion and became an atheist or a secular humanist, he felt something was lacking in his worldview. And he did not appreciate how antagonistic and patronizing the new Atheists (Harris, Dawkins) were towards the religious. Even though atheism in any culture is a sign of political progress, people should still respect each other’s beliefs.

The alternatives to the New Atheism, if you want to live a non-religious life, are secular Buddhism and secular Humanism. Buddhism was too mystical for Pagliucci, with opaque texts, especially considering our scientific knowledge about the human condition. This drew him towards secular humanism, which he embraced for years, but this philosophy is too dependent on science, thus too cold.

In Stoicism, he found a rational, science-friendly philosophy that includes spirituality. Like science, it is open to revision, and is very practical. The Stoics weren’t very superstitious, but they did believe that the universe was structured according to the Logos, which can be understood as God, particularly Einstein’s God – the fact that nature is understandable by reason.

Stoicism is a philosophy, not a therapy. A therapy is a short-term approach to helping people overcome psychological problems. It does not give you a general picture of life. A philosophy is something everyone needs. Whether we develop it consciously or not, we all live according to principles that we have either obtained from religion, or from our own experiences as we go along.

The Origin of Stoicism

The early Stoics were influenced by Socrates, the Cynics, and the Academics (followers of Plato), the Peripatetics (followers of Aristotle), and the Epicureans. They spent much of their time debating proponents of these different schools.

Epictetus, a famous Stoic, devotes three chapters of the Discourses debunking Epicurus’ arguments. These schools were all concerned with attaining eudaimonia (the good life).

The Athenians shocked the conservative Roman establishment and ignited an interest in philosophy among the Romans for the first time. This was a transitional phase that is known as “the middle Stoa.” (Stoicism began on a porch or Stoa). Cicero, the great Roman orator, was sympathetic to Stoicism during this time. And then, after the death of Julius Caesar, and the rise of Octavian Augustus, Stoicism thrived as a major school.

This was known as the “late Stoa.” The decline of Stoicism came when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 312 CE. The academy was closed. The idea of Stoicism, however, survived in the writings of many historical figures including Augustine, Aquinas, Bruno, Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza and Bacon. And in the 20th century, Stoicism resurged after the Second World War, when it inspired Frankl’s logotherapy and Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy.

The Theory of Stoicism

Stoicism is a practical philosophy, but there is theory behind it. And this framework is based on an understanding of two things: the nature of the world, and the nature of human reasoning (including when it fails).

Thus, an ancient Stoic would study physics (not in the modern sense, more like natural sciences today), logic, and ethics. Stoic logic is what we know it as today, the study of formal reasoning. But the Stoics did not study these subjects for the sake of learning, but because they were useful, in order to develop ethics. And ethics was studied because a good character could not develop without an understanding of physics and logic.

There are three Stoic disciplines, and they are: desire, action, assent. there are three areas of inquiry (physics, ethic, and logic). Finally, there are four cardinal virtues (courage, temperance, justice, and practical wisdom).

The Discipline of Desire

The discipline of desire is about knowing what is proper to want. This relates to the idea that some things are in our control and others are not. Two virtues, courage (to face the facts) and temperance (control our irrational desires) – help us figure out what is proper to want.

The Discipline of Action

The discipline of action is about how we should behave in the world. This comes from a good understanding of ethics and it draws on the virtue of justice.

The Discipline of Assent

The discipline of Assent (Stoic mindfulness) tells us how to react to situations. Should we engage with something or should we not? this comes from studying logic (requires the virtue of practical wisdom).

Wasted Energy

Epictetus, who in this book is Pagliucci’s fictional debating partner, warned us of our tendency to worry about things we have no control of. Epicterus was a slave and is known as one of the great Stoic philosophers.

We should pay attention to things we can influence, and make sure we have spent enough time researching the best tools and relationships for our success. After we have directed our effort towards the right places, we should simply allow things to happen and not worry.

The Stoics warn about being attached to material things since they are not permanent, this includes people. This seems like a harsh idea. Most people are not comfortable with the idea of not being attached to their loved ones. And here, it is important to understand the context in which Stoicism developed. Greece was going through a period of tremendous political instability, and death could strike anyone at any age.

Human Nature

Aristotle argued that human beings are both rational and social. We do not always behave rationally, but we are capable of rationality. And we are political animals. This is not to say that we engage in political campaigns or conversation (we can), but we thrive in a polis, a community of people. The Stoics built on this idea to say that human life is about applying reason to social life.

But recently, scientists and philosophers have rejected the idea of narrow human nature. Ever since Darwin, there has been a denial of human nature as something that is distinct from the animals. We should not behave like beasts or sheep because it negates our humanity, but if humanity is denied altogether, then what is the point?

Then we encounter another problem. Are the Stoics committing an elementary logical fallacy, in that they are making an appeal to nature? They are arguing that something is good because it is part of human nature, but even if there was human nature, should we use it as a guide to behavior?

Morality

There are four philosophical positions you can have on morality, roughly. One can be a skeptic, a rationalist, an empiricist, or an intuitionist. A skeptic says that we cannot know the difference between right and wrong.

Skeptics don’t think that is/ought gap can be bridged, and that facts have nothing to do with judgements. Rationalists think that you can arrive at moral knowledge through thinking, the way mathematicians and logicians do. Empiricists think that knowledge can be attained only through science or scientific methods. Intuitions think that ethical knowledge is derived from built it intuitions.

The Stoics thought that a mature mind shifts one’s concerns away from their instincts, and towards to good of the community. But Epictetus explains that this is not altruism, but another form of self-interest. If you do what is good for others, then you benefit yourself, even indirectly.

Stoicism is about finding imperfect answers to real problems. Those who seek specific answers are fools who think that the world is black and white. A part of this imperfect answer is to ignore what doesn’t matter, including possessions that get in the way of virtue.

Diogenes was a famous cynic who practiced what he preached. He defecated and had sex in public, he was an in-your face ascetic. There is a story about how  he was once visited by Alexander the Great, who heard of the philosopher and wanted to pay his respects. When Alexander offered Diogenes any wish he wanted, the latter said, “you could move, you are blocking my sun.”

The Cynics were admired and despised, as you can imagine.

The Stoics were not as extreme as the Cynics, they thought that health, wealth, education and good looks were preferred indifferents while their opposites were dispreferred indifferents. This made the eudemonic life possible for anyone, but this did not mean they did not prefer what most people desired. This idea was summarized by Seneca when he said:

 “There is great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. The former is according to nature, the latter contrary to it. So long as they are rated by this standard, there is a great gulf between; but when it comes to a question of the virtue involved, the virtue in each case is the same, whether it comes through joy or through sorrow.”

Enjoy life and avoid pain, but not when this imperils your integrity. It is better to endure pain in an honorable way than to seek joy in a shameful one.

The Aristotelian good life depended on having material wealth. The Cynics said that anyone can have a good life, but few people want to live in a tub and defecate on the streets like Diogenes.

The Stoic compromise—their lexicographic contrast between the virtues and the preferred indifferents, coupled with their treatment of the two as hierarchically ordered, incommensurable classes of goods—brilliantly overcomes the problem, retaining the best of both (philosophical) worlds.

Logos

The Stoics believed in divinity, but not in a theistic sense. They believed in the Logos, which the Christians have interpreted as the Word of God. But Logos for the Stoics meant that reason was embedded in the fabric of the universe. We can understand the cosmos rationally, regardless of how it came to exist. The Stoics can be described as Pantheistic, they thought that God is the universe itself and we are all part of its divine nature. The difference between humans and animals is that we can use reason, the highest attribute of God/Universe.

That is why the use of the reason is the proper way to live.

Death

With regards to mortality, the Stoics accepted it, but some people do not. Among those are the transhumanists, which the author attacks. The transhumanists are people like Kurzweil, a futurist (a person who tries to predict the future) who works at Google to develop a software that can understand natural language. Kurzweil has achieved many important things, including the first omni-font optical character recognition system.

Kurzweil has been arguing for years that immortality can be achieved by uploading our consciousness into a computer, which he thinks can happen any day now. We ought to do this before the Singularity, the moment when computers outsmart people and drive technological progress independently.

Pagliucci thinks that Kurzweil has misunderstood the nature of intelligence, and that uploading our consciousness to a computer is very unlikely since consciousness is not a piece of software. But his main criticism of Kurzweil is that they think of themselves as so important that they get to transcend te laws of nature itself, and that they are spending so much money on this instead of on the urgent problems of the world.

Who will have access to this technology? What are the ethical and environmental consequences of their success (if possible)? Would people continue to have children, will we colonize other worlds?

Criticism

And this brings me to my criticism of Pagliucci in this book. He has thus far, provided a good history of Stoicism, and he has made an argument about why Stoicism is a good belief system, in that it is somewhere between Aristotelianism and Cynicism. But is this a good argument? Just because something is between two extremes, does it mean it is true?

He has also not showed us why a Stoic life is preferable to the alternatives. He has mentioned that people who attended the Stoicon experience some small percentage increase in life satisfaction, but beyond that, he has given few practical reasons to follow a philosophy that is supposedly the most practical of all.

And towards the end, he dismisses Cynicism because not many people are willing to defecate on the streets, but surely, this is an oversimplification of Cynicism that is self-serving.

Further, why is he limiting himself to ancient philosophical systems, as if the menu can only be of Ancient Greek philosophical systems of thought? There is a kind of rigidity to this kind of thinking that I found unattractive.

This was especially true when he discussed transhumanism. I have only read one book by Kurzweil, and while there are valid criticisms one can have, it is a cheap trick to invalidate what someone is trying to do by calling his followers cult-members. Can the same not be said of any intellectual. Does Elon Musk not have a cult-following? Does this mean that Elon Musk’s vision of the future is harmful? Is there no such thing as a Stoic cult?

And when he says that Kurzweil misunderstood the nature of intelligence, but such a discussion would be untimely, and moves on to categorically deny the possibility of human intelligence surviving through AI, he does an immense disservice to himself. If he is going to criticize an inventor like Kurzweil who has been working with AI for decades, it would be a good idea to know what you’re talking about. If you have spent an entire book detailing the history of Stoicism, surely you can devote more than a short, pithy statement, if you are going to dismiss an industry in Silicon Valley.

If the argument he is making is supposed to be in line with Stoicism, “I want to believe whatever I want, because there is no truth, but I want to benefit society as much as I can” – that’s one thing, which he alludes to when he says that the possible proliferation of this new technology would not be equally distributed, but as a philosopher, you must construct an argument for why that is true.

This is different from dismissing the assumptions of transhumanists (on the nature of intelligence) without making a single argument.  

And if you deny that you can know the truth (of the future), then on what basis are you criticizing a futurist (who claims to know the future). In other words, if you are agnostic when it comes to the benefits of this new technology, then why make any claims whatsoever? Why not stick to the practical? Isn’t that what being a Stoic is all about?

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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