Stoic advice column: the problem of addiction

Advice_column.jpg[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, I have started a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

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Seneca’s consolation letters, part III: to Polybius

Fortuna is blind
Fortuna is blind

Time to take a look at the third and last letter of consolation written by Seneca, to his friend Polybius. (For my commentary on his letter to Marcia see here, and on the one to his mother Helvia here.) The letter was written in the year 44 CE, during Seneca’s exile in Corsica, to console his friend of the death of his brother. In this commentary I will not cover the part, near the end, where Seneca writes in a flattering manner of the emperor Claudius. As translator Aubrey Stewart put it: “This switch of tone is sudden and unsuited to Seneca’s stoic philosophy, causing some scholars to ascribe the text to another author, though others argue that the tonal switch in De Consolatione ad Polybium was nothing more than Seneca’s desperate attempt to escape exile and return from Corsica.” On Seneca’s shall we say complex legacy as a man and a Stoic, see this essay of mine.

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Stoic advice column: who should I spend my time with?

Advice[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, I have started a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]

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Seneca’s consolation letters, part II: to his mother Helvia

Landscape in Corsica
Landscape in Corsica

Seneca wrote three famous letters of consolation to friends and relatives, which were a vehicle for articulating some of the fundamental points of Stoic philosophy. Last week I have examined the letter to Marcia, who had lost her son and was still grieving after three years. This week I will discuss the letter to Seneca’s mother, Helvia, and we will wrap up this series next week with the letter to Polybius.

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How to choose your Hellenistic school

 

Socrates, National Roman Museum (photo by the Author)
Socrates, National Roman Museum (photo by the Author)

The Hellenistic period, which is typically defined as going from the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) to the rise of the Roman Empire (marked by the battle of Actium, 31 BCE) saw the flourishing of a bewildering number of new philosophical schools, of which Stoicism was of course one. I have discussed the variety of these schools and their genealogical derivation from the thought of Socrates in a previous post, devoted more broadly to the differences between ancient and modern conceptions of ethics, and of course this very blog is an ongoing discussion and exploration of Stoicism in particular. But perhaps Stoicism isn’t quite for you, and yet you are still attracted to the idea of a eudaimonic life, a life spent in pursuit of something that makes it meaningful and worth living? Then you are in luck, because I’m about to introduce the Hellenistic Schools decision making tree! Continue reading

Stoicism and Christianity, IV: can we compare?

the Cross and the LogosThis post concludes my mini-series commenting on C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. (Part I; Part II; Part III) I have so far discussed Rowe’s excellent take on each of the three Roman Stoics, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, where he explores what he (correctly, I think) sees as the major themes of their philosophy. The book then enters its second part, where Rowe applies the same approach to three great early Christian thinkers, Paul, Luke, and Justin Martyr. I will not discuss those here because my focus is on Stoicism, not Christianity, but I highly recommend those chapters as well, because they provide the reader both with a very good introduction to early Christian thought, and they serve as excellent benchmarks to compare the Stoic and Christian traditions. The resulting picture of the two “forms of life” puts them in striking contrast with each other.

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The lazy argument, determinism, and the concept of fate

LazinessThe ancient Stoics were determinists, believing in universal cause and effect. Indeed, Chrysippus — we are told by Diogenes Laertius — wrote extensively about the concept of causality. In a sense, then, they also believed in “fate,” and in fact modern Stoics formulate the so-called reserve clause that accompanies any of their plans for the future with “fate permitting.” Some of their critics came out with something called “the lazy argument” to show that if things are fated then one doesn’t actually need to do anything other than sit around and wait for things to happen. The reason this is relevant to modern Stoicism is that, as we have seen even recently, part of the harsh criticism our philosophy is getting these days is based on the (fallacious) assumption that it leads one to disengage from social and political life. So, let’s see what exactly the lazy argument consists of, and how Chrysippus himself responded to it. I will then distinguish two senses of the word “fate,” only one of which would be recognized by the Stoics.

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