Do we live in a material universe governed by cause and effect? I believe so. Do we, then, have free will? It depends on what you mean by that term. The so-called problem of free will is one that keeps intelligent and well intentioned people arguing in circles forever, and there is of course a huge philosophical literature about it (see, for an introduction, this article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Heck, some misguided scientists even think they can, and indeed have, solved the problem experimentally! (This article by Adina Roskies explains why that’s problematic.) I will not defend the above assertions here, but accept them as given and proceed with what I think is a more interesting discussion. Please note that this post should be of far wider interest than just to people attracted to Stoicism in particular, as the messy issue of “free will” arises for any philosophical position.
One of the hallmarks of a successful movement is that media coverage begins to shift from treating it as a curiosity to presenting it as a possible threat, or at the least as overblown, simplistic, and possibly a vehicle to swindle people. If that’s the case, the past couple of weeks have given us incontrovertible signs that modern Stoicism has grown enough to trigger a journalistic hack job and to attract the hires of at the least one professional philosopher. Let’s take a look. (Incidentally, want proof that Stoicism is trendy? We made it into the New Yorker!)
So I recently signed up for kickboxing. I did it as part of my evolving training in Stoicism. Which probably requires a little bit of an explanation. Growing up in Rome I was exposed early on to the stock phrase, mens sana in corpore sano, which is found in Satire X by the Roman poet Juvenal, written in the late I and early II century (i.e., the time of Epictetus).
Stoicism is a practical philosophy, with little tolerance for logic chopping and hair splitting. As Epictetus put it: “We know how to analyse arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses I, 1.32). This is why people interested in Stoicism don’t just read classic and modern authors, they partecipate in practical exercises, such as those offered during Stoic Week, the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training course, and local initiatives such as Stoic Camp.
I am happy to report that I am almost finished with my new book, tentatively entitled How to Be a Stoic, to be published by Basic Books next year. I’m even happier to report that I have experienced a coup d’etat with no damage, either physical or emotional. Let me explain.
From time to time, I like to go back to the basics, reflect on what Stoicism entails, and remind myself of the sort of things I can actually do, here and now, in order to improve as a person, from a Stoic perspective. This is my latest such summary, organized by major topic and supported by sourced quotations, in the hope that it might be useful to others.
I’m an educator, so I naturally often think about education. Having taught at the college level for more than a quarter century, I can tell you that things are not going well. You can look up studies and statistics, but they largely back up my personal conclusions based on direct experience: American education is much worse than its European counterparts, and has gotten worse over the past several decades. And the bad news is that a number of European educational systems are following suit because the local politicians got this insane idea that if it’s done in America it must be good. Not really, by a long shot.