The Path To Stoicism

Picture of Epictetus

A modern revival of Stoicism is quietly happening.  Changing times are making Americans realize that while they can do a lot to improve their lives they can’t visualize and positive think every last thing they want into existence.  New books on Stoicism and modern easy to understand translations of ancient works have been fueling this revival.

Big surprise, the popular conception of Stoicism is completely wrong. It isn’t about hiding your emotions or fatalism.  In fact, many ordinary people are getting into it, because it is making them happier.

I don’t know anything about Stoicism, so I started reading the new book
“How To Be A Stoic” by philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci.   The book is written in a very down to Earth, personal tone, and is easy to read.

In the beginning of the book Pigliucci tells his story of his search for a personal belief system to organize his life around.   It struck me how similar his search was to my own experiences and the experiences of so many other modern people.  Below are a few extracts of his account from pages 4-6 of his book:

Something else was going on at a time that made me pause and reflect. I have not been a religious person since my teenage years ( I was prompted to leave Catholicism, in part, by reading Bertrand Russell’s famous “Why I Am Not a Christian” in high school), and as such I have been on my own in dealing with question of where my morals and the meaning in my life come from. I take it that an increasing number of people in the United States and across the world find themselves facing a similar conundrum.

While sympathetic to the idea that lack of religious affiliation should be just as acceptable a choice in life as any religious one, and strongly supportive of the constitutional separation of church and state in the United Sates and elsewhere, I have also grown increasingly dissatisfied with ( make that downright irritated by) the intolerant anger of the so-called New Atheists, represented by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others. Although public criticism of religion ( or of any idea) is the staple of a healthy democratic society, people don’t respond very well to being belittled and insulted.

There are, of course, alternatives to the New Atheism if you want to pursue a nonreligious approach to life, including secular Buddhism and secular humanism. Yet these two paths — the two major ones on offer for those seeking a meaningful secular existence — are somehow unsatisfactory to me, though for opposite reasons. I find Buddhism’s currently dominant modes a bit too mystical, and its texts opaque and hard to interpret, especial in light of what we know about the world and the human condition from modern science( and despite a number of neurobiological studies that persuasively show the mental benefits of meditation). Secular humanism, which I have embraced for years, suffers from the opposite problem: it is too dependent on science and a modern conception of rationality, with the result that — despite the best efforts of its supporters — it comes across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to on a Sunday morning. Hence, I think, the spectacular lack of success (numerically speaking) of secular humanist organizations.

By contrast, in Stoicism I have found a rational, science-friendly philosophy that includes a metaphysics with a spiritual dimension, is explicitly open to revision, and, most importantly is eminently practical.  The Stoics accepted the scientific principle of universal causality: everything has a cause, and everything in the universe unfolds according to
natural processes.

Finally, one of the most attractive features of Stoicism is that the Stoics were open to considering challenges to their doctrines and altering them accordingly. In other words, it is an open-ended philosophy, ready to incorporate criticism from other schools (for instance, the so-called Skeptics of ancient times) as well as new discoveries. As Seneca famously put it:

“Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover”.

Note: the quote above was hand copied, so any writing errors are mine and not the author’s.

Banned Books Week 2017

This year read a banned book week falls on:
Sunday 2017 September 24 – Saturday 2017 September 30th

Every year for the past 35 years the American Library Association sponsors Banned Books Week: The Freedom To Read

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. Check out the frequently challenged books section to explore the issues and controversies around book challenges and book banning. The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read.

The American Library Association maintains a list of The Top 100 Banned Novels Of The 20th Century for your reading pleasure.

There is even a web site and a domain dedicated to Banned Books Week called BannedBooksWeek.org

Lastly here is a list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books Of 2016:

Please read or talk about a book from one of these lists during Banned Books Week 2017.

All freedom and all progress is ultimately rooted in the free flow of ideas.

College Bookstores

A friend of mine went to price her textbooks for the semester the other day. The campus bookstore wanted almost $400. Instead, she got online and went to Amazon. She got her text books for $130.

I got a bit of vicarious pleasure out of that.

I kept a few of my textbooks. I also saved some money by checking some books out of the library for Philosophy classes. The latter trick didn’t last too long as the professors had a fetish for making xeroxed compilation booklets via Kinkos. It saved the students a little bit of money, but it also kind of sucked. No resale value and you didn’t even have a nice Philosophy book for your bookshelf at the end of the semester. You only had a wad of photocopy paper bound together with a squiggly plastic strip.

I have many memories of spending as much money on textbooks as my friend almost did. I would be happy at the end of the semester to sell the books back for enough cash to buy a nice dinner and a good book to read over the break.

In general, I resent books being so overpriced. The printing press changed the world by making the transmission of ideas cheap. That is the whole point of books. I feel a bit better by remembering a thought a boss’s boss once told me. “You aren’t paying for the paper, you are paying for the information”. Meh, maybe. What about the author who has been dead for a century, but a paperback copy of his book costs the same as a meal at a restaurant?

College textbooks are the ultimate racket. I remember new editions of textbooks being required for a class when a mountain of existing copies of that book already existed cheaply. The content of the books would be nearly, if not 100% identical. The content would be on different page numbers and with slightly different headings so a new syllabus wouldn’t work with an old textbook.

I have no doubt college textbooks will become even worse of a racket with the dawn of eReaders on the horizon. Students will continue to pay $400 a semester, but they will not be buying a book they can keep, sell, loan or read again. They will be renting the information, which will expire and disappear from their eReader at the end of the semester. If that student wants to look up that information someday, s/he will have to pay for the privilege. Then those poor students will hear people like me picking up one of my old paper books, flipping through the book and taunting them by saying such things as “Look, no charge! I read it 3 times in a row! No charge! Big Brother doesn’t even know I looked at the book again!”

For now, in the interim between the past and that even worse future I am happy thinking that the smarter students like my friend can use the internet, at least partially, to outflank the college textbook racket to save serious drachmas.