Stoicism for the Kids
November 21, 2011

Cover of "A Guide to the Good Life: The A...

Cover via Amazon

I really wish I could praise William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy without qualification, but instead I’ll just suggest that the book’s repetitive passages and occasional bursts of condescension*, while regrettable, are outweighed by the fact that Irvine has written a pretty good primer on Stoic thought with some handy tips for how to practice Stoicism in modern, everyday life. At the very least, Irvine’s book might be a half-decent gateway drug to the wisdom and compassion of Seneca and the other classic Stoics. That alone makes it well worth reading.

I would especially recommend the book to folks in my own age bracket (eighteen-to-twentysomething), which might sound a little counterintuitive, given that it’s a book about an ancient school of philosophy written by a late-middle-aged academic philosopher. But just as Irvine argues that Stoicism is still relevant and valuable today, I’d argue that it’s especially relevant and valuable to those of us who are starting our adult lives in post-financial crisis America.

Because here’s the thing: most of us young’uns in the 99% are going to make less money than our parents did. Nearly all of us are going to have less stuff than we’d like. And that’s just talking to those of you who come from relatively comfortable upbringings. The overall trend in living standards is bad news for us, but it’s terrible news for the people who aren’t as lucky as us.

I say this not because I want to depress the hell out of you, but because it’s self-evidently true, and we should probably all start getting used to it. The vast majority of us are going to have to downsize our lives at best, and fight like crazy to get by at worst. If your idea of happiness is a fat wallet and a life of conspicuous consumption, then you’re going to be significantly less happy than you were promised pre-recession.

So that leaves us with two options: we can live lives filled with bitterness and resentment at the shit deal the Boomers left us with, or we can consciously strive to find our joy in something else.

Stoicism is a strategy for doing the latter. As a philosophy of life, it melds theory and practice in a manner that has more in common with Zen Buddhism than modern Western philosophy. The key difference, I think, is that whereas the practice of Zen is intended to temporarily obliterate most conscious thought processes, Stoicism is a method for ordering conscious thought in a manner that will promote happiness and tranquility. Because one of the keys to tranquility is stability, most of the strategies Stoics use in daily practice are designed to insulate their tranquility from uncontrollable external conditions such as the state of one’s material possessions, social standing, and so on.

But that’s not to say Stoicism is a selfish or anti-social philosophy. One of Irvine’s most interesting claims is that the Stoicism, properly understood, not only allows for but necessitates some level of civic virtue (as evidence, he points to the fact that many of the most famous Stoics — Seneca, Cato, and, of course, Emperor Marcus Aurelius — were deeply involved in Roman politics). That message, given the grassroots mobilizations currently happening all over the country, seems particularly timely.

*PRO TIP: Skip every paragraph that includes any variation on the phrase, “political correctness.”

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Wittgenblogging: The Fourth Proposition
November 9, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein in his youth.
Image via Wikipedia

This section of the Tractatus is the first in which Wittgenstein addresses the matter of philosophy and its uses directly. First, he writes: “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical.” I think this corroborates and goes back to what I’ve been arguing since the beginning: that arguments over the relationship between the soul and the body, or the possibility of omnipotence, or the existence of anything beyond the physical world don’t have right or wrong answers. They don’t have answers at all, because they’re not really proper questions. To pose the question, in Wittgenstein’s view, is to misunderstand what both language and philosophy are there and for, and what they are capable of.

So what are language and philosophy for? To Wittgenstein, language exists to express sense — that is, a representation of something that either agrees or disagrees with observable reality. In other words, language exists to express thoughts (Wittgenstein: “A thought is a proposition with a sense.”). But language also obscures thought. Listening to the spoken expression of a thought is entirely different from perceiving that thought, and it is in the gap between the two where much of our philosophical confusion lies. Wittgenstein writes: “Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers raise form our failure to understand the logic of our language.”

He sees the goal of philosophy as the eradication of that confusion. “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts,” he writes. Its end is not “philosophical propositions,” but “rather in the clarification of propositions.”

This is the essence of Wittgensteinian philosophy. To see how that plays out in the modern era — especially with regards to neuroscience — I recommend checking out this interview with leading Wittgensteinian Peter Hacker.

Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thus Spoke Zarathustra
September 20, 2010

I’m not sure I have much to say about the fourth and final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as much of it seemed to be a restatement and summary of what came before. It was certainly the funniest of the four parts by far, and there’s a reason for that: as Zarathustra comes to accept the eternal recurrence and inches closer to ultimate enlightenment, he begins to truly live his philosophy of laughing at and making a mockery of the world. He is willing, finally, to laugh at himself.

Indeed, the latter half of Part Four unfolds as a drunken celebration in his cave along with the higher men who all represent steps towards the Overman. Notably, a priest is in the group, and Zarathustra goes so far as to explicitly endorse spiritual ritual and observance for therapeutic and social reasons.

Only about 250 pages left to go in The Portable Nietzsche.

Why is Susan Blackmore Writing for The Stone?
August 22, 2010

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Image by disownedlight via Flickr

I guess we can blame Simon Critchley’s discerning taste again. But this is just silly. Where once we had philosophers writing about things that had nothing to do with philosophy, we have now devolved to work by non-philosophers about non-philosophy.

To be fair, I do think there is some food for thought in Blackmore’s work about the relation between memetic development and human evolution. And certainly the idea of memes being living, replicating, evolving organism carries a certain amount of metaphorical appeal. But to take this stuff seriously and worry about memes as some sort of predatory, parasitic threat is waaaay off the deep end. Certainly, it has no place on a blog ostensibly dedicated to philosophy.

For those who detect the faint but unmistakable reek of pseudoscience in Blackmore’s essay, it should come as no surprise that before she started in with all of this vaguely mystical sounding stuff about memes, the bulk of her scholarship was on the overtly mystical: i.e., psychic powers, near death experiences, so on. She’s since seen the, um, light on ESP and NDEs, but all this talk about “temes” is only one or two degrees removed.

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What Is Love? (Plato Don’t Hurt Me)
May 28, 2010

Endless love
Image by millzero via Flickr

My friend Jessica Roy has asked me to talk a little about the philosophy of love. It’s not a field I’m deeply familiar with, but I can think of at least two broad definitions worth writing about. One comes from Plato, and the other, which I’ll address in a alter post, comes from mid-20th century French existentialism.

Probably the most well-known philosophical definition of love comes from Plato’s Symposium. Granted, it’s not so much philosophy as it is myth-making, but then again the distinction isn’t always clear in the ancient work.

Anyway, in the Symposium, Aristophanes says that originally human beings were doubled up together like sets of siamese twins, with four arms, four legs, two faces turned away from one another, etc. But these creatures committed the Greek original sin—hubris—and so Zeus split them in two, creating the sort of people we recognize today. When you meet the love of your life, you’re actually finding that other missing half, and through reuniting with them you finally become whole again. Thus, “You complete me,” etc.

Obviously this wasn’t intended to be taken literally, but even as a metaphor I have my issues with it. It seems pretty but facile, suggesting that there is one single “the One” waiting for you out there, and that once you unite with that individual all the actual work associated with love is over. That might very well be the way it works when John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale are involved, but does anyone still seriously believe this is how the real world operates?

Leave it to the French to come up with a better working explanation. I’ll have Sartre and Beauvoir’s take on the subject soon.

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Metaethics
May 25, 2010

Since I don’t think that Thrasymachus’ argument is about philosophy of law, it’s time for me to attach a definition to what I think is really going on: he and Socrates are engaging in one of the earliest, and most well-known, metaethical debates.

Metaethics, for reasons that have a lot to do with this argument, is the philosophical topic I’m most fixated on. My metaethics professor put the central question of the discipline in this way: “When we discuss, or argue about, ethics, what is it we’re doing?”

The Socrates of the Republic is what you might call a moral realist. He thinks that when one debates ethics, one is debating over a set of mind-independent facts about the world.

Me, I’m not so sure. And, in fact, I found his conception of ethics as relating to these universal forms of justice and the good that exist on a higher plane than mere physical objects wholly unpersuasive.

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A Little Bit About the Who, What, and Why of this Blog
May 21, 2010

My name’s Ned. In a few weeks, I’m going to be graduating from NYU with a B.A. in Philosophy, and while I haven’t decided whether or not I’ll be pursuing a graduate degree in the field, I do know that my independent philosophical studies aren’t over.

I’m writing this blog partially as a forum for chewing over and discussing the discoveries I make. But more than that, it’s an attempt to present hardcore philosophy in a way that makes sense to smart people who lack a background in academic philosophy.

In the past I’ve looked for other blogs that do just that, but I haven’t been able to find any. Sadly, it seems that the vast majority of blogs out there about philosophy are for academic philosophers alone. It’s emblematic of what I think is a broader problem with the field: the failure of good philosophers to reach out and try to teach what they know.

Because, make no mistake, philosophy is good for you. Like a lot of things that are good for you, it can be aggravating in the short run—I could have saved myself a lot of headaches and prolonged fits of existential angst if I had gone with a History major—but the rewards are profound.

A solid education in philosophy breaks down some of your most fundamental beliefs. It’s not just that you know less than you thought you did; it’s that whether or not you can be said to even know anything is up for debate. Philosophy throws a thousand deeply important questions at you and then, when it comes time to give up the answers, shrugs and says, Well, we don’t really know yet. Here are a few possibilities.

That’s when the frustration and existential angst sets in. But while having so many of your most basic assumptions about the way the world works get knocked down can be devastating, it’s also freeing. Now that you know how little your beliefs rest on, you can discard them for better ones. You can build your own world of ideas to replace the one that was built for you.

Doing that is the project of becoming yourself. It’s a project without end, but it’s also one of the most important projects you can undertake. Philosophers and philosophy students spend their time studying the tools you can use to do this, but we’re needlessly stingy when it comes to sharing them. Too much of what’s come to be called “popular philosophy” is little more than self-help seminars dressed up in philosophical trappings. Or worse, it’s like Simon Critchley’s most recent piece for the Times, a smug, winking evasion that doesn’t bother challenging its readers with actual philosophy because—so goes the implicit assumption—they’re not smart enough for it.

I think that’s dead wrong. You are already a philosopher, and the reason why I started this blog is because I want to prove it to you.

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