Why is ancient philosophy still relevant?

Lucius Flavius Arrianus, student of Epictetus
Lucius Flavius Arrianus, student of Epictetus

Why on earth am I devoting years of my life to studying (and practicing) Stoicism? Good question, I’m glad you asked. Seriously, it would seem that the whole idea of going back two millennia to seek advice on how to live one’s life is simply preposterous.

Have I not heard of modern science? Wouldn’t psychology be a better source of guidance, for instance? And even philosophy itself, surely it has moved beyond the ancient Greco-Romans by now, yes?

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Stoic spiritual exercises: II, from the Meditations

from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com
from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

We have recently looked at a number of Stoic exercises straight from the mouth of one of the greatĀ ones: Epictetus. He was, of course, a teacher, and his Enchiridion, on which I focused, was explicitly put together (by his student Arrian) as a quick guide to Stoic practice.

Here I present a second set of “spiritual” exercises, this time culled (with the help of my friend Greg Lopez, co-host of last year’s Stoic Camp) from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There will inevitably be some overlap between the two sets, of course, but the contrast between Epictetus and Marcus will be instructive, as the latter was influenced by the former, and yet wrote the Meditations as a personal diary, not for publication. We are, therefore, glimpsing at what the emperor told himself he should and should not do, as a good Stoic.

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Stoic spiritual exercises: I, from the Enchiridion

Action Philosophers-impressions
from Action Philosophers, at actionphilosophers.com

Stoicism is a practical philosophy of life, and while I enjoy writing about its history and theory, it is the practice that has so far had a significant impact in my life. I assume it is the same for most of my readers too. (Indeed, it’s more than just an assumption: consistently, the posts that get the highest number of hits here are those that have to do with practical aspects of Stoicism.)

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Epictetus was right: modern cognitive science supports the Stoics’ conception of emotions

AnxiousThere is a new book out on the neuroscience of emotions, Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, by Joseph LeDoux, to which modern Stoics should probably pay attention. The following commentary is based on a review of the book by Simon Wolfe Taylor in The Nation.

LeDoux is a leading neuroscientist, who did his doctoral work under the supervision of the pioneering Michael Gazzaniga at Stony Brook University (where I was a faculty in the Ecology & Evolution Department for five years), and he has been interested in nonconscious processing of information by the brain for a long time (he wrote a highly successful book on the so-called fear center, the amygdala, entitled The Emotional Brain).

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Apatheia vs Ataraxia: what’s the difference?

Epicurus
Epicurus

Stoics and Epicureans where often in dispute with each other, as part of the broader, lively philosophical debates that characterized the Hellenistic schools (for instance, the Stoics vs. the Academic Skeptics). Epictetus explains in a number of places where the Stoa differs from the Garden (e.g., “Against Epicurus,” Discourses I.23), while Seneca tells his friend Lucilius that he happily borrows from Epicurus when it makes sense, as it is his “custom to cross even into the other camp, not as a deserter but as a spy” (letter 2, A beneficial reading program, in the new translation by Graver and Long).

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Stoic moral psychology

Inside Out emotionsContinuing my survey of the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (see examples here, here, and here), it’s time to discuss Tad Brennan’s chapter on Stoic moral psychology. This is an interesting field in and of itself, since psychology is a descriptive discipline, while ethics is prescriptive, so moral psychology is precisely the sort of interface between theory and practice that the Stoics made central to their philosophy. As Brennan puts it: “Because they all embrace some type of naturalism in their ethical foundations, ancient theories tend to begin their ethical theorizing along with their psychology, not prior to it.”

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