STOICON 2016 – Q&A with Massimo Pigliucci

STOICON 2016 Q&ASTOICON is an annual meeting of people interested in exploring Stoicism as a philosophy of life. It is part of a series of public activities related to Stoicism, centered around the Stoicism Today and Stoic Week initiatives.

In this post Massimo Pigliucci, the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, answers some questions about the event.

But first some basics about the event itself ….

STOICON: What, When, Where

The 2016 edition of STOICON is sponsored by the Department of Philosophy of the City University of New York and the K.D. Irani Fund for philosophy. The event will be held on Saturday, 15 October, in New York City, at University Settlement at Houston Street, 273 Bowery.

In summary:

  • What: Annual STOICON gathering
  • When: Saturday, 15 October 2016
  • Where: New York City
  • Full Program: here
  • Registration: OPEN!

Tell us a little about yourself

I’m a professional philosopher, at the City College of New York. My specialty, however, is philosophy of science, not ancient philosophy. And moreover, I came to philosophy a bit late in my life and career, since for more than twenty years I was an evolutionary biologist. But while growing up in Italy I had to take three years of philosophy in high school, and my teacher was so inspiring that I’ve cultivated a love of philosophy ever since.

What does “practicing” a philosophy mean to you?

It means that you have adopted a particular framework to help you navigate your life, from the small everyday decisions and interactions with people to the big choices you have to make from time to time. It isn’t either a new idea or a particularly esoteric one. The ancient Greco-Romans, as well as people in India, China, Japan and elsewhere, have thought of philosophy as guidance to life for millennia. And even today, anyone subscribing to a particular religious faith, like Judaism, Christianity or religious Buddhism, also implicitly accepts the particular philosophy that comes with her adopted religion.

What made you want to try practicing Stoicism?

Curiosity and a mid-life crisis. I encountered Stoicism early on, in high school, but at the time it didn’t stick out amongst the other ancient philosophies I was studying. Then a few years ago I saw a tweet about something called “Stoic Week,” and I thought what’s that? I investigated and discovered this eclectic group of professional philosophers, psychotherapists, and others who have been nurturing a revival of Stoicism. Since at the time I was also going through a (somewhat mild) personal mid-life crisis, which had already led me to the re-discovery and appreciation of virtue ethics, the two clicked together beautifully.

As you studied more deeply, were there some things that surprised you about Stoic philosophy?
Yes, the wicked sense of humor of Epictetus, for instance! I was really stunned when I re-read the Discourses as an adult and appreciated his highly personal and humane style of Stoicism. I was also surprised to discover just how influential Stoicism has been throughout the past couple of millennia, even after it had ceased to exist as a formal school. Much of early Christianity absorbed Stoic notions, or had to somehow differentiate itself from Stoicism. And some major philosophers throughout the ages have been influenced by that Greco-Roman view of life, including Descartes and Spinoza.

Has Stoicism made any tangible differences in your life?

For sure. After the initial experiment with Stoic Week I decided to study and practice seriously, and I have seen a number of positive changes, confirmed by people who know me well. For one, I get much less irritated and upset about things, a direct result of internalizing Epictetus’ dichotomy of control. Some things are in our power, others are not, and it is wise to keep the distinction clear in one’s mind at all times.

But more broadly I find that Stoicism is now permeating the way I look at everything. Every time I have to make a decision or exercise a choice, I deploy the Stoic framework, especially the four virtues (wisdom, courage, temperance and justice) and the three disciplines (desire, action and assent). I find the whole thing very helpful, particularly because — unlike what would happen with a set of religious precepts — I don’t follow Stoicism rigidly. Just like Seneca borrowed from Epicurus and felt free to disagree with the classic Stoics, I argue with Epictetus and disagree with Marcus, but I learn a lot in the process, striving to become a better, more reflective person.

What’s STOICON?

It is the annual convention of people interested in modern, practical Stoicism. It started in London, organized by the same group at the University of Exeter that began Stoic Week, and this year it will take place in New York City, on 15 October (see here for more info). It is not a scholarly affair, though several (but, crucially, not all!) of the speakers are academics. It’s a way to deepen your understanding of Stoicism if you are already a student, and a wonderful opportunity to begin learning about it if you are just curious.

What’s your role in STOICON?

I’m one of three co-organizers, together with Greg Lopez and Amy Valladares, and part of the international steering committee that puts together both the conference and Stoic Week (which this year will immediately follow STOICON).

Who should attend STOICON and why?

Obviously, people who are already studying and practicing Stoicism, for a chance to meet some of the main modern authors on the subject, as well as to connect with fellow practitioners. But also anyone who is intrigued by the idea of adopting and developing a philosophy of life and may have tried something else without too much success. Stoicism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I keep hearing testimonies about how it has changed many lives and has helped even people with disabilities, suffering from depression, chronic pains, and a number of other issues. It isn’t a magic bullet, because there are no magic bullets. But it may well be worth spending a day in New York to explore it!


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