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[image: a gallows hangs near the United States Capitol during the 2021 riots, Wikipedia; this is essay #265 in my Patreon/Medium series]

Sometimes it is difficult to really practice Stoicism, or any serious philosophy or religion. Which is as it should be. If things were always easy according to one’s philosophy of life one could reasonably doubt the effectiveness of such philosophy. Rarely has my Stoicism been put through a difficult test as during and after the recent events in Washington, DC. From my point of view, a narcissistic President who is unable to comprehend that he lost an open and fair election has incited a large group of lunatics into an open and violent insurrection against the US government. The attempt failed only because Mr. Trump is far less focused, motivated, and organized than Mussolini was. …


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[image: a timepiece, a threat to humanity’s harmony with Nature? Wikipedia; this is essay #264 in my Patreon/Medium series]

“Humans once lived in harmony with the natural world,” begins an article entitled Humans Have Rights and So Should Nature, by Grant Wilson. Wilson is the executive director of Earth Law Center, which advances “ecocentric law and education” in the United States. I sympathize with Wilson’s aims, but his approach seems to me to be marred by really bad philosophy, just like the so called Gaia Hypothesis, which is often advanced with good intentions, is marred by really bad science. I’m seriously tempted to label them respectively pseudo-philosophy and pseudoscience. …


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[image: Ancient Greek polychromatic pottery painting (dating to c. 300 BC) of Achilles during the Trojan War, Wikipedia; this is essay #263 in my Patreon/Medium series]

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.”
(Homer, Iliad, first two lines)

The other night I was watching a movie with my wife: Troy, the 2004 epic starring Brad Pit as the Greek warrior hero Achilles. It’s an okay movie, falling into the category of what I call ancient Greco-Roman “porn,” something you’d enjoy if you are into ancient history and mythology, but which you shouldn’t take seriously as a source of either.

I have always disliked Achilles, ever since I studied the Iliad in high school. His pettiness toward Agamemnon, his misdirected anger at the death of Patroclus, and his disrespect for the body of Hector rubbed me the wrong way. My hero was, and still is, Odysseus. Cunning, brave, and hell bent (in the Odyssey) to get back home to his wife and son, despite malicious Poseidon’s repeated attempts to kill him and his comrades. …


Once we truly internalize what Epictetus is saying, we also realize that we are always completely free in the Stoic sense, regardless of our circumstances

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[image: Statue of Freedom on top of the US Capitol building in Washington, D.C., WikiSource; this is essay #262 in my Patreon/Medium series]

“‘But suppose I choose to walk, and someone obstructs me?’ What part of you will they obstruct? Certainly not your power of assent? ‘No, my body.’ Your body, yes — as they might obstruct a rock. ‘Perhaps; but the upshot is, now I’m not allowed to walk.’ Whoever told you, ‘Walking is your irrevocable privilege’? I said only that the will to walk could not be obstructed.” (Epictetus, Discourses IV.1.72–73)

What does it mean to be free? I live in a country where the word “freedom” is thrown around in all sorts of contexts where it hardly belongs. As when people think that not wearing a mask in the middle of a pandemic is a statement of freedom, as opposed to what it really is: an attitude of callous social irresponsibility. Or, just as I was writing this, when “freedom fighters” violently storm the US Capitol building in order to overturn a fair election. …


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[image: Gaea, by Anselm Feuerbach (1875), Wikipedia; this is essay #261 in my Patreon/Medium series]

I have been rather skeptical of the so-called Gaia Hypothesis, the notion that planet Earth is one large, self-regulating organism, as opposed to the environment in which a number of ecosystems have evolved. The notion was first proposed by independent scientist James Lovelock in the 1970s, and co-developed by the controversial biologist Lynn Margulis, famous for having proposed that some cellular organelles, such as mitochondria and chloroplasts, initially evolved as endosymbionts, i.e., as functionally integrated organisms within organisms.

A few years ago I wrote an article for Skeptical Inquirer in which I strongly criticized the Gaia Hypothesis, characterizing it as essentially pseudoscientific, as it is based on a radical misconception, in my mind, of what a living organism is and how evolution works. It is, moreover, entirely untestable empirically. I am not the only critic of Gaia, another one being W. Ford Dootlittle, an evolutionary and molecular biologist, now Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Halifax (Nova Scotia). Ford (we are on a first name basis) has done important work on cyanobacteria, among other things finding convincing evidence that — as predicted by Margulis — chloroplasts, the plant organelles where photosynthesis takes place, originated as endosymbionts. …


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[image: “She had quite a long argument with the Lory.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, WikiMedia; this is essay #260 in my Patreon/Medium series]

With this post I am beginning a limited series of commentaries on Musonius Rufus’ lectures. Musonius was one of the most prominent Stoics in first century Rome and the teacher of Epictetus. He apparently did not write anything down, and we owe his transcribed lectures to one of his students, a certain Lucius. For this series I am using the classic 1947 translation by Cora E. Lutz, published by Yale University Press and reissued in 2020 with the title That One Should Disdain Hardships.

Lecture I concerns how we should teach philosophy or, more generally, how we should comport ourselves when it comes to the arguments in support of this or that conclusion. Musonius’ advice here, therefore, is very generally applicable. His main point is that we shouldn’t waste time coming up with more arguments, or more complex arguments, than is needed to make a point. That’s because we are not in the business of academics, cultivating intellectual pursuits for their own sake, but rather in the business of practical philosophers, where arguments are aimed at making people’s lives better. …


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[image: False-color transmission electron microscope image of coronavirus, Wikipedia; this is essay #259 in my Patreon/Medium series]

As you might have noticed, we have been in the middle of a pandemic for about nine months now. There has been much talk, and much controversy, about what does and does not work to counter the spread of the covid-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) inducing agent, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Just the other day I was having a conversation about this with a follower on Twitter, who was rather skeptical of government lock-downs. He presented me with some home generated graphs drawn from public databases that seemed to make his point. I was, however, a bit skeptical of his skepticism. At some point I thought, wait a minute, surely by now there are serious peer reviewed studies on this! …


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[image: Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), The Choice of a Boy between Virtue and Vice, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #258 in my Patreon/Medium series]

What is virtue? There is a lot of renewed talk about virtue these days, not just within the Stoic community, but from op-ed writers who tell us that what is wrong with contemporary society is that we no longer care for virtue, no longer cultivate it, no longer make it the centerpiece of our existence. Seneca, in his 66th letter to his friend Lucilius, gives this apparently cryptic answer:

“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (LXVI.32)

So virtue has a lot to do with reason, but it is not simply equivalent to reason. It has to be “right” reason. What does that mean? The notion that virtue is linked with the ability to reason derives from the fact that we praise or criticize actions only if they result from deliberation, which requires the ability to reason. We don’t say, for instance, that a lion is immoral because he kills another lion’s cubs when he takes over a harem. That’s natural instinct, not reason, and it would be a category mistake to say that the lion is immoral (pace, of course, endless Disney movies in which animals are shamelessly anthropomorphized). …


Science — formerly known as natural philosophy — is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to understanding and explaining the world

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[image: Socrates about to drink the hemlock, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #257 in my Patreon/Medium series]

Turns out, I have something in common with Socrates. Don’t worry, this essay isn’t about self-aggrandizing. It’s just that, rather surprisingly, Socrates and I have followed a similar career, 24 centuries apart. You see, like myself, he started out as a scientist. And, like myself, he ended up a philosopher, and specifically one interested in ethics. Moreover, the two career moves were motivated in part by a similar shift in interest. Let me explain.

The Phaedo is one of the most famous Platonic dialogues, the one in which we relive the last few hours of Socrates. (Luckily, in that our life trajectories depart, at least at the moment!) He has been condemned by the Athenian assembly, on charges of impiety (believing in the wrong gods) and corruption of the city’s youth, charges brought against him by a trio of shady characters: Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon. …


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[image: René Descartes, right, with Queen Christina of Sweden, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #256 in my Patreon/Medium series]

Back in 1995, fresh off my postdoc year at Brown University, I moved to Knoxville, TN, to take up my first tenure-track academic position, as an assistant professor of botany and evolutionary biology. I knew next to nothing of Tennessee, except that ads about Jack Daniels whiskey were popular in Italy… I was obviously excited to come to campus and begin setting up my new laboratory, devoted to plant evolutionary genetics. I was looking forward to recruiting graduate students and postdocs. As well as to making K-town, as some of the locals refer to it, my new home.

One thing I hadn’t counted on: Tennessee is the “buckle” of the Bible Belt, a place where close to 90% of the population embraces creationism and rejects evolution. I soon discovered that my neighbors thought I was more than a bit strange and that some of my undergraduate students warned their colleagues that by attending my lectures they were guaranteeing themselves a ticket to Hell. I became sufficiently well known in town — through newspaper articles and occasional appearances on the local television stations — that people followed me in the parking lot of the local bookstore to ask me, very politely, if I had read the Bible. I replied, equally politely, that I had, and counter-inquired about whether they had ever read The Origin of Species. They were shocked by the very idea. …

About

Massimo Pigliucci

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

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