On this blog, I don’t like to write about either politics (but here is an example) or religion (example here), because one of the main attractions of Stoicism, for me, is precisely that it is a big tent in both those areas: one can be a virtuous conservative or progressive, and similarly one can be religious or atheist and still practice the four cardinal virtues. When I do talk about these topics, it is only from a broad Stoic perspective, and making a very conscious effort to respect other people’s opinions. That said, of course, to welcome a variety of opinions under the same tent does not mean that one doesn’t have one’s own opinion, nor does it mean that one thinks all points of view are equally valid. It is therefore with great reluctance that I take up the topic of climate change which, while technically a scientific issue, has in fact become a highly divisive ideological one. But a fellow Stoic asked me to weigh in, partly because I am a scientist and philosopher of science, and therefore more acquainted with the details than many. So here we go.
Stoicism is a philosophy, which means a general framework for navigating one’s life. It has a body of theory (e.g., the three disciplines) and a set of practices. Stoicism is just one particular philosophy of life, others include some of its Hellenistic competitors, such as Epicureanism, as well as bodies of ideas coming from outside the Western tradition, especially Buddhism. As Bill Irvine argues in his A Guide to the Stoic Life, the advantages of adopting or developing a more or less coherent philosophy of life is that one has always available a handy reminder of how to interpret things, what to prioritize, and how to behave. Not bad, if you ask me.
The Stoics were not interested just in ethics, even though that was the crucial aspect of their very practical philosophy. In going through the various chapters of the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, we have looked at aspects of their “logic,” including moral psychology and logic proper; and our explorations of their “physics” has led us through discussions of natural philosophy and more recently of medicine. Today is the turn of Stoic astronomy.
I am continuing my commentary of the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, of which I have published a number of installments already (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). I’ve got to the chapter by R.J. Hankinson, on “Stoicism and medicine.” And no, this isn’t going to be a post directing you to use some kind of Greco-Roman “alternative” treatments for your cold.
There 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).
Fascinating chapter by Michael J. White on Stoic natural philosophy (“physics”) in the Cambridge Companion to the Stoics. As is well known, the Stoics thought that natural philosophy (we’d call it science today, though their version included also what we would term metaphysics) is relevant to ethics, because if one is to “live according to nature” one better form the best possible understanding of what nature consists of.
As White puts it: “the common contemporary assumption that it is both possible and desirable to undertake a ‘value-neutral’ investigation of nature is quite foreign to Stoic thought. … the Stoics themes of the unity and cohesion of the cosmos and of an all-encompassing divine reason controlling the cosmos are of fundamental importance to Stoic physics.”