Following is the full text of philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci’s talk titled “Stoicism as a Philosophy for an Ordinary Life” at TEDxAthens conference.
Massimo Pigliucci – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Imagine, if you will, that you’re walking down the streets of Athens 24 centuries ago, give or take.
You might meet this guy: Zeno of Citium. He was a merchant, a Phoenician merchant. He was doing very well until a shipwreck destroyed everything and he lost everything he had.
So he made it to Athens, and what did he do? One of the first things he did was to walk into a bookshop and started reading books. He read Xenophon’s “Memorabilia,” which is a book about Socrates.
And he was so intrigued that he turned to the bookseller and says, “Where can I find me one of these people, one of these philosopher folks?”
And the bookseller turned around. He said, “Well, there’s one right over there, walking by.” Because that was Athens at the time: philosophers were just walking by.
The guy walking by was Crates, a Cynic philosopher. And Zeno became his student, eventually went on to study with a number of other of the major philosophers in Athens.
And then he established his own school, which became known as “Stoicism” because they studied meaning in the stoa, in the open market, unlike the other schools where you had to go to a specific place — Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum — the Stoics wanted to be in the middle of people, to talk to people about their life and how to make it better.
Stoicism became one of the major philosophies of antiquity. It spread through the Hellenistic world first and then to the Roman Republic and then Roman Empire. It produced some of the major thinkers of the time. Seneca, who was a senator, a playwright — he influenced Shakespeare — and the unfortunate advisor to the Emperor Nero. That didn’t end up well for Seneca.
Marcus Aurelius, one of the few king-philosophers of all of history, who wrote “The Meditations,” his own personal diary, which is now read by millions of people around the world.
Now, unusual for ancient philosophy, Stoicism attracted a number of women. A lot of Roman matrons used to organize convivia, which were sort of get-togethers with their friends, to talk about Stoicism.
But many of them also lived the philosophy. One of them, the most famous one, was Porcia Catonis, who happened to be both the daughter of Cato the Younger, who was an archenemy of Julius Caesar, as well as the wife of Brutus, one of the co-conspirators against Caesar.
So she had a lot to deal with in her life, and she approached it in a Stoic fashion.
Now, Stoicism, like all ancient schools of philosophy, eventually died down or was closed with the rise of Christianity, but it kept influencing people throughout the following two millennia.
The reason many people today are familiar with some of the Stoic ideas is because they influenced Christianity, beginning with Paul of Tarsus, arguably the founder of Christianity, and continuing with Thomas Aquinas, the most influential theologian of the Middle Ages, and then into more modern times with René Descartes, arguably one of the most important modern philosophers, and Baruch Spinoza, whose ethics was, in fact, based mostly on Stoicism.
But enough about its history.
WHAT IS STOICISM ABOUT?
Well, the first thing is it’s based on a crucial premise that we should live our life according to nature.
Now, before you go and run into the forest naked to hug trees — that’s not what it is about. The Stoics thought that we should take seriously human nature.
And human nature fundamentally consists of two things, two aspects. One, we’re highly social animals. We can survive on our own if we have to, but we only thrive in groups of people, we only thrive when we have healthy social networks.
And two, we’re capable of reason. As you know, that doesn’t mean we’re reasonable all the time. In fact, on the contrary — we struggle for that. But we are capable of reason.
For the Stoics, it followed that the best kind of human life you can actually have is one in which you apply your reason, your intelligence, to improve social living, to improve everybody else’s life.
There are two fundamental pillars of Stoic philosophy, which we will see, in a minute, applied very practically to our life. One is the four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.
Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is good for you and what is not good for you. Courage is not just physical but especially moral: the courage to stand up and do the right thing.
Justice is what tells you what the right thing is, how to interact with other people, how to treat other people. And temperance is the idea that you should always do things in right measure — not overdo them nor underdo them.
The second pillar is called “dichotomy of control.” This is the very basic idea that some things are up to us and other things are not up to us.