A major point of practical philosophy — indeed, the whole point of it, really — is to provide us with tools and guidance to navigate everyday life. This is probably why my recently started “Stoic Advice” column has quickly become so popular. But from time to time I pick my own conundrum and present it to the Stoic community for further thought and discussion, hence this series, What Would a Stoic Do (under these circumstances)? Today we talk about infidelity.
Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance, or guilt. Recently, Gordon Marino (a philosopher who specializes on Kierkegaard) has written an op-ed in the New York Times in praise of regret. This is going to be my Stoic response to it, where I argue that regret is never a useful reaction to past events.
[This guest post is a response to a critical essay by E.O. Scott, who wrote it in response to W. Irvine’s original post in the Oxford University Press blog. My commentary on Bill’s post and his subsequent talk at STOICON ’16 can be found here.]
By William Irvine
Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk on what I call “insult pacifism.” As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.
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.
The US Presidential elections are over, and Donal J. Trump is the unlikely winner. Moreover, the Republican party now has control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving it pretty much absolute power to pursue its agendas. Add to this the recent “Brexit” vote in the UK, and this hasn’t exactly been a good political season for socially progressive cosmopolitans such as myself. So be it, reality is what it is, and there is no sense in wishing it away.
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.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy. Although of course it has a theoretical framework — otherwise it wouldn’t be a philosophy — the crucial part, what makes it different and appealing, is that that framework is meant to help actual people living their lives to the fullest possible extent. Hence my “what would a Stoic do?” occasional series.
But can Stoicism be helpful also to people who are forced by circumstances to live seriously challenged lives? The answer seems to be yes, at the least some of the time. This essay is about one such example, of a modern Stoic who has found that his adopted philosophy of life has made it possible for him to cope with a very debilitating condition.
I just published my first peer-reviewed paper on Stoicism. (Don’t forget, my actual profession is philosophy of science…) The title is Dying (every day) with dignity: lessons from Stoicism, an obvious take on Seneca, as reflected also in one of his two new biographies, the one by James Romm.
The paper is published in The Human Prospect, a journal devoted to humanist issues, and is part of my concerted effort to bring Stoicism to the attention of the humanist and skeptic communities. (It was originally presented as a talk at a symposium held earlier this year at Columbia University, you can see the slides here.)
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Seen one way, our life is an almost uninterrupted sequence of decisions, many automatic and subconscious, some about which we deliberate consciously — and in some cases actually agonize over.
Below is a handy dandy decision making flow chart for the practical Stoic, in which I attempted to encapsulate a modern rendition of the basic precepts of Stoicism as they apply to everyday life.
Damn. A couple of nights ago I had the perfect opportunity to practice my Stoicism, in the quiet of my home, surrounded by friend, and I blew it. Big time. Let me tell you what happened, as a learning lesson for myself and as a warning to other practicing Stoics.
We invited over for dinner a good friend of ours and her recently anointed new boy friend. My daughter (who has been asked by her professor of philosophy to do an in-class presentation about Stoicism!) was there too. The occasion was my invitation to the sophist — we shall call him Hippias — to come over and discuss a documentary on the 2008 financial collapse over dinner and a good scotch (I promised at the least a 15 years old, turned out to be 18).