Massimo Pigliucci: Focus Your Energy on What is up to You

Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, with a background in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science. His interests range from the nature of pseudoscience to the practical philosophy of Stoicism.

Regarding the first area, the nature of pseudoscience, he has published Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk as well as Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.

In the second area, practical modern Stoicism, he has written three books: How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control (with Greg Lopez), and A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

It began several years ago, while I was going through a bit of a midlife crisis and felt the need for some kind of philosophical framework that could help me figure out my priorities and in general live a more meaningful life.

I went through a period during which I explored several possibilities, from secular humanism to Buddhism, from Aristotelianism to Epicureanism. Then I saw a tweet, of all things, from the Modern Stoicism organization, encouraging people to celebrate Stoic Week.

I thought, why not? Let’s give it a try! As soon as I signed up and downloaded their materials I run into a quote from Epictetus: 

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

Epictetus, Discourses ,1.1.32

The quote struck me as both humorous and profound. I was hooked. Since then I’ve been studying and practicing Stoicism, and trying to help others discover and appreciate this powerful philosophy of life.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

That we all need to be conscious of whatever philosophy of life we adopt. Everyone has a philosophy of life, whether they realize it or not. Most people inherit it from their parents, in the form of religious teachings. However it happens, and whatever your philosophy of life may be, it will pay off immensely if you occasionally pause and review your philosophical commitments.

Sometimes your reflections will simply validate what you have been doing all along. At other times you may realize that your current philosophy isn’t working very well and that you need to look elsewhere. Regardless, think about why you have certain priorities and goals, and then act appropriately. If you don’t, you risk mis-living your life.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

The best advice I can give people is to study, understand, and especially internalize what modern Stoics call the dichotomy of control. It is fundamental to the brand of Stoicism put forth by the early second century philosopher Epictetus, but it is found in several other traditions, from 8th century Buddhism to 11th century Judaism to 20th century Christianity.

It basically reminds us that our agency, our ability to change things, is far more limited than we normally think. For all effective purposes, the only things that are truly “up to us,” as Epictetus puts it, are our considered judgments, explicitly endorsed values, and decisions to act or not to act. Everything else we may be able to influence, but ultimately will depend on external factors that we don’t control — including other people’s judgments, values, and decisions.

The powerful idea here is to focus our energy on what is up to us while at the same time cultivating an attitude of equanimity toward things that are not up to us. For instance, let’s say I am getting ready for a job interview. It comes natural to worry about whether or not I will get the job. But that’s the wrong focus, because that decision isn’t up to me (it’s up to my interviewer) and it is affected by factors outside of my control (e.g., the competition I face for the job).

Instead, I should focus on what is up to me: to put together the best resume I can; to prepare carefully for the interview; to dress appropriately on the day of the interview; and to maintain focus while I am answering the questions that will determine whether I’ll get the job or not. As for the outcome, I am mentally prepared for both possibilities: if I get the job, good. If I don’t, I will try again somewhere else.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Many. One to which I return often is from Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations (VIII.50):

“A cucumber is bitter.” Throw it away. “There are briars in the road.” Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?”

It reminds me that there are some inevitable features of the world that I can’t just wish away. But I can avoid or endure them. Again, as with the dichotomy of control above, the idea is to focus where my agency is efficacious and to accept or ignore those things about which I cannot do anything.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Ah, that’s easy! If people are interested in my work they should check my Figs in Winter site.

It contains links to pretty much all I do: essays, books, podcasts, and so forth. And it is updated every week.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy…

That would be lovely! I would probably talk about the relationship between Socrates — Plato’s mentor — and his fascinating pupil, Alcibiades, who went on to become one of the most intriguing and controversial figures in western history.

The talk would focus on the relationship between philosophy (Socrates) and politics (Alcibiades), and on whether politicians ought to engage in philosophical training before launching their political career. (The short answer is: yes!)

Anything else you would like to add for our readers?

Just one thing. A few years ago I was honored to give a TEDx talk on Stoicism in Athens. I was surprised by how many locals didn’t know that the philosophy literally got started a few blocks away from the site of the conference. I would encourage people to explore and appreciate their cultural heritage, and to do their best to embody it in their daily lives.

Tom Butler-Bowdon: Success Happens Over Decades

Tom Butler-Bowdon is notable for the 50 Classics series of books, which provide commentaries on key writings in personal development, psychology, philosophy and economics.

My mission is to expand your mind, leading you to discover ideas, books and people you may not have found otherwise.

Tom Butler-Bowdon

Through my 50 Classics books and Capstone Classics series, my aim is to ramp up your knowledge while saving you  time and money. For example, my book 50 Philosophy Classics covers the great writings from Marcus Aurelius to Heidegger to contemporary philosophers like Peter Singer.

How did you become interested in that area?

Got interested in summarization and condensation of knowledge through my previous career writing briefings for ministers in the Australian government. You had to boil down complex issues to just a page or so, and in a short space of time!

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Although my books aim to expand general knowledge, my passion is personal success and the philosophy of success i.e. how humans are a species seeking constant elevation, enlightenment, power, and achievement. We are a striving species, and I love going beyond the usual motivational credos to explore what that really means.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Think long. My issue with the motivational literature, which I explained in the book Never Too Late To Be Great, is that it’s all about ‘change your life in 30 days’. No, success happens over decades, but we are all living longer now, and if you expand your timeframe then virtually anything becomes possible.

Do you have a favourite quote that you use?

In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately springs as a gigantic summation from these hidden source in individuals.

Carl Jung

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Here on my website I explain what led me to a writing career, how I work, and what I am trying to achieve.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy…

I’d like to speak on various theories of personal success through the ages, from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, to Machiavelli and Balthazar Gracian, to contemporary philosophers like Peter Sloterdjik.

Alexandra O. Hudson: Reviving the Wisdom of the Past

Alexandra Hudson

We need community and to engage our minds to lead meaningful lives and to become fully human.

Alexandra Hudson

Alexandra “Lexi” Hudson is the curator of Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community. She is an award-winning writer and journalist currently writing on a book on civility and civic revival for St. Martin’s Press, one of the five largest publishing houses in the world. 

How did you become interested in this area?

I grew up in a home that nourished curiosity and learning. My father would read to me at night about Plato’s Theory of the Forms. My mother had my younger brothers and I learning Greek and Latin at an early age through flash cards and other curricula. I couldn’t help but love classical history and philosophy! My mother and father always encouraged us to probe deeper into questions related to the human condition. Who are we? Why are we here? What is the best way to live? It’s now my pleasure and passion to bring other people into conversations like that, ones that provoke us reflect on ourselves and our place in the cosmos. I love these themes, and to introduce them to thinkers and books that can help them think more intensely about them. 

I am passionate about the way that ideas and storytelling can change people’s lives. As a journalist and a lifelong lover and student of intellectual history, I view everything through the prism of my love of history and philosophy. That’s why I created Civic Renaissance, a publication and intellectual community dedicated to beauty, goodness and truth—and reviving the wisdom of the past to help us think more clearly about our own era. My work on civility and civic society (my book is forthcoming from St Martin’s Press in 2022) stem from my passion for conversation about ideas. The intellectual life is the communal life. And who is going to want to have a conversation about ideas if everyone is a jerk?

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

I teach people that the intellectual life is the best life, and that the life of the mind for everyone. We need community and to engage our minds to lead meaningful lives and to become fully human. That is what we try to do at Civic Renaissance—to de-institutionalize and democratize ideas and learning. 

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Take the risk of making a new friend, and make the sacrifice to keep old ones. I try to show people the high promise of conversation and community. Community and friendship are often hard, and they take work! We’re naturally selfish and it’s sometimes difficult to overcome our egoist nature for the sake of others. We’re also risk adverse—and social scientists have found that social rejection affects the brain in ways similar to physical pain. But we live in an increasingly atomized and lonely world where we are simultaneously more connected digitally, but still isolated emotionally.

Community has never been more needed and important. But they’ve also never been more possible! The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated these challenges, yet. But it’s never been easier to cultivate a passion or hobby and then find others who care about the same things.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use? 

I love this quote from Samuel Johnson, as quoted by Boswell’s biography, of the importance of learning for learning’s sake—and indicts our modern educational culture that takes so much joy and curiosity out of education today. 

What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.

No words adequately capture how much joy the idea of reviving Plato’s Academy gives me. I would LOVE to lead a conversation or workshop on the basics of Plato’s thought…

Alexandra Hudson

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy… 

No words adequately capture how much joy the idea of reviving Plato’s Academy gives me. I would LOVE to lead a conversation or workshop on the basics of Plato’s thought—what questions did he ask about the nature of love, justice, death? Why do they matter today? Or, imagine a group of us sitting at the academy reading the Symposium or Phaedo together, right where it very well may have been originally written 2300 years ago? Or reading through Aristophanes’ Clouds that recounts the original accusations against Socrates.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Subscribe to Civic Renaissance, and join the conversation with people around the world who love ideas and learning.

News: Greek Ministry Announce Plans for Plato’s Academy

The promotion of the archaeological site of Plato’s Academy and the creation of the Archaeological Museum of Athens, in addition to their historical and cultural significance, create a great opportunity for the entire area…

Costas Bakogiannis, Mayor of Athens

Several news outlets today reported on an announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Municipality of Athens concerning the signing of a joint development agreement for the archeological site of Plato’s Academy, in central Athens.

The plan includes two main elements:

  1. Renovation of the archaeological site of Plato’s Academy to make it more appealing to visitors, and its promotion as an attraction of cultural and historical significance.
  2. The announcement of an architectural competition involving submission of designs for the proposed Archaeological Museum of Athens, construction of which has already been approved by the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

The Minister of Culture and Sports, Lina Mendoni, is reported as saying:

The approval by the Central Archaeological Council of the studies, which concern the regeneration of the archeological site of Plato’s Academy, is an important moment for Athens and for its history.

Concerning the proposed Museum of Athens, she stated:

The new Museum will present the history of the city, through the findings brought to light by decades of archaeological research, masterpieces from the bowels of the city of Athens, which could not be exhibited elsewhere and tell their own story. 

The Ministry of Culture and Sports is collaborating closely with the Municipality of Athens and the Mayor Costas Bakogiannis on this project. Their goal is to improve the quality of life for residents of Athens, especially in the Plato’s Academy suburb, while also highlighting the cultural importance of this unique archaeological site.  

The Mayor of Athens, Costas Bakogiannis, added: 

The promotion of the archaeological site of Plato’s Academy and the creation of the Archaeological Museum of Athens, in addition to their historical and cultural significance, create a great opportunity for the entire area that has suffered a lot in recent years, due to its abandonment. We have been given the opportunity to transform it into a place of destination and development. To upgrade the quality of life and daily life of its inhabitants and to become our starting point for a path that leads to entrepreneurship, new jobs and its modernization.

The proposals aim to:

  • Enhance the readability of the archaeological site and the protection and promotion of individual monuments.
  • Improve accessibility for the monuments and continuity between the archeological ruins and the modern park.
  • Upgrade the whole area to become a “green lung” and a destination for walks and leisure, with both a local flavour and wider significance.
  • Enhance the safety and security of visitors, public property and antiquities.

Improvements to the existing excavation sites will potentially create an opportunity for unearthing new archeological finds.

Plato’s Academy Centre

In a separate proposal, a private nonprofit initiative seeks to establish a new “Plato’s Academy Centre” adjacent to the location of Plato’s Academy Park. The centre would consist of two main elements:

  1. An international conference centre, attracting foreign investment to the area by holding events in the vicinity of the original Plato’s Academy.
  2. A centre for “philosophy as a way of life”, organizing events inspired by Greek culture and philosophy, in the spirit of Socratic and Platonic teachings.

The proposal is led by bestselling author Donald Robertson and has the backing of leading academics in the field of classics and philosophy.

Anthony Magnabosco: An Honest Attempt to Claw a Bit Closer to the Truth

Anthony Magnabosco

Anthony Magnabosco describes himself as an atheist living in a very religious section of Texas, looking for better ways to explore the claims made by people in a respectful, productive, and efficient manner. He claims he found all of that and more in something called “Street Epistemology,” which he describes himself as, “An informal, consensual interaction that respectfully challenges (usually through the asking of questions) the reliability of the method being used to support a high level of confidence their claim is factually true.” That may sound a bit of a mouthful, but this is exactly what he is and has been doing with some rather interesting results.

How did you become interested in this area?

Dr. Peter Boghossian wrote A Manual for Creating Atheists, the furnace from which Street Epistemology was forged. I set out with my cameras to learn Street Epistemology with strangers. Video viewers, audio listeners, and text readers may be able to observe how the technique began, improved, and continues to evolve. Fundamentally I am intrigued how these engagements seem to help people reflect on their views in a patient and kinder way.

Maybe I am teaching some things along the way… Make it a partnership, an honest attempt to claw a bit closer to the truth.

Anthony Magnabosco

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Well, maybe I am teaching some things along the way, with the hope that they scrutinize whatever I might be teaching. Then, encourage them to teach you and hold you to the same level of scrutiny. Make it a partnership, an honest attempt to claw a bit closer to the truth.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

Look closely and ask questions. Let’s discuss where we see the faults. I see many in there myself right now. But something unique seems to be is happening in these types of conversations, and I think it’s worth serious scientific study to figure a few things out. So my advice based on my work thus far is: Be prepared because this shit is fascinating.

Do you have a favourite quote that you use?

Hmm. No, not really. Sometimes I might be reminded of a quote during the discussion but then have to decide whether or not I should share it. I don’t like adding to much more to the conversation that they didn’t already bring. And this is only when I’m doing SE stuff—I’m a bit more forthgoing in non-SE engagement.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

There are many ways to learn more about SE now: YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, the Street Epistemology website, etc. My preference is watching videos of people practicing it and then read the books while lurking in one of the SE communities. Notice where the divergences happen. If you’re interested, help us make this thing safer and better.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy…

My first thoughts were “Wow, yeah!” If I one day could conduct something in person, I would survey people beforehand to see which topics gains the most interest employing the SE approach, after watching a dozen or so examples beforehand. I would then build a talk around those topics.

Allowing plenty of time for clarification, collaborations, and consensual fun. My suspicion is that there are probably a few people in the area that would be equally or more competent describing the approach (hopefully remaining fair and accurate).

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention?

If anyone would like to learn more, please go to streetepistemology.com or search for “street epistemology” to start seeing examples. Thank you for interviewing me.

Eric Weiner: The World is a Laboratory of Ideas

Eric Weiner am a recovering journalist (a longtime foreign correspondent) and, currently, an author and philosophical traveler. His first book, The Geography of Bliss, chronicled his search for the world’s happiest places. He’s also written books about the relationship between place and creative genius, as well as spiritually. His most recent book, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers, takes a very practical, and somewhat whimsical, approach to philosophy. He also writes regularly for outlets such as National Geographic, The Atlantic and AFAR magazine. Recently he wrote and produced an audio course called The Good Fight.

How did you become interested in that area?

My years as a foreign correspondent (for NPR, an American radio network) sharpened my skills as an observer, and chronicler, of human nature.

After a while, though, journalism’s focus on the negative aspects of the world—war, famine, disease—began to drag me down. That’s when I decided to focus my creative energies on the more positive side of humanity: happiness, creativity, spirituality and, in my most recent book, The Socrates Express, wisdom.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

I treat the world as a laboratory of ideas—good ideas—and what I try to convey to people is that there are lessons to be learned from cultures, and eras, other than your own. Wisdom is portable, and transferable.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is this: question assumptions, especially your own.

Eric Weiner

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

The most important piece of advice I can offer is this: question assumptions, especially your own. Chances are you are walking around with many such assumptions, including ones you don’t even know you have. Often, when we think “that’s just the way things are,” what we really mean is that “that is the way things are in this place and at this time.”

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I have two favorite quotes, actually. From the American writer Henry Miller, on travel: “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of looking at things.” And from Plato (the Man!): “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.”

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Read my books! You can also find out more about me and my work on my website.

Abigail G. Manning: Creating Awareness… Changing Lives

Abigail G. Manning is an instructor and speaker to military, veteran non-profits, corporations and academies on how to develop thriving individuals and prosperous workplace cultures. She took what she learned the hard way coming from childhood abuse by both of her parents, domestic violence and the pit of PTS and combined it with her academic education from Indiana University to develop her own curriculum.

She works to proactively develop leadership and teams through emotional intelligence, advance communication skills, and her Purple Threads program. The second part of her work is focused on preventing toxic cultures including unconscious bias, harassment, sexual assault and the Adverse Spiral (stress, depression, addiction, abuse, PTS and suicide.) 

It’s advanced storytelling and participants’ life sharing. Where together, we shift mindsets.

Purple Threads is a comprehensive program that revolves around “Mastering your limiting Personal Thoughts that are connected to Past Traumas that are Physiologically Tied to what we think, say and do.”

My work is my life mission, to empower others so they can live their best lives and help others do the same.

We are thrilled to have had the honor to interview such an inspiring instructor and teacher.

I was blessed to recently teach resilience and morale classes at the United States Air Force Academy and love that many of the cadets referred to me as the Purple Threads lady and asked for a follow up workshop.

How did you become interested in this area?

When I was eight-years-old, I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and made a solemn vow that the hurt, harm and abuse would end with me. I didn’t know what that really meant other than I knew at a very young age that a family is not supposed to maliciously hurt each other. It was my way of claiming a happy future, one where I was safe to have a voice and where I was accepted and loved. I would not pass on the harm to others so I picked the path of kindness regardless that it brought me more ridicule as well as physical and emotional abuse. I knew how awful it felt to be treated like that so no matter what, I wasn’t going to treat others the way I was being treated. A vow I’ve lived up to.

All I knew was, I was not going to continue the “kick the dog” cycle. That’s where the dad comes home from an upsetting day and takes it out by yelling at his wife. The wife goes down the hall and takes it out on the kid yelling that he’s lazy and forgot to set the table again! The kid who was straining over a homework assignment, looks down at his loyal dog and for a reason he can’t understand, kicks the dog.

Hurt people hurt people. Someone has to stand and say, I’ve been hurt and it ends with me. I’ve had that calling for as long as I can remember. To protect those who can’t protect themselves, yet. To speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves, yet.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

self-awareness + self-ownership + self-commitment = self-master

When we have our self-mastery that means we own our power and control and no one can take it from us. We can’t be tricked by manipulators who use their tools of harassment, abuse, prejudice, cruelty, division and injustice. We can and will at times get triggered by their tricks and negative tools. We are human after all with deep feelings, emotions and thoughts and at times, we have limited emotional bandwidths. Mastery is not saying we are perfect, but that we have the internal power to go back to the start of self-awareness (I realize I’m getting upset and know that this is tied to ABC) and self-ownership (I refuse to allow someone to steal my strength and happiness so I will respond in a way that’s of integrity and healthy for me and healthy for that person) and self-commitment (I will utilize my mindset skills I’ve learned including EFT, breathing techniques, mindfulness and keep practicing them until they become my instinctual brain and muscle memory response.)

The more we work on the self-mastery loop, the more efficient we become and the less mental and physical energy it consumes, leaving us more energy and bandwidth to think deeper, love deeper and care deeper about finding solutions vs pointing out the problems. Self-mastery creates individuals who are safe to stand in their own strength and safe to let others do the same. Collaboration vs Competition. Confidence vs Arrogance. Unity of We vs Isolation of Me. That’s when we ALL are free to live our best lives.

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

One important piece I teach is to catch and remove all “Finger Pointing” language both on yourself and to others. Catching internal thoughts and external words, spoken or written, that are rooted in shame, blame, judgment and isolation. I call it finger pointing language because my father used to take his index finger and pound it on my chest, right over my heart, when he had a dissertation to give of all of my faults, problems, shortcomings and how I wasn’t important or loved. Shame, blame, judgment and isolation are cruel, insidious ways of telling others lies they can carry around forever including: not being good enough, never will be good enough no matter what success they achieve, not worthy of good in the world or kindness from others, never going to make it in the world, and on and on and on. The more a person hears it, especially as a child, the more a person believes it.

The person doing finger pointing language is grooming kids and gaslighting adults so neither of them speak up or fight back. Because they believe they are dumb, ugly, unwanted, unworthy, etc. they often continue on that a self-fulfilling path, hide by playing small in the world, mask or cover up with additions, and self-isolate. I took the path looking for outside positive confirmation and award earning affirmation and happily found it through sports, activities, volunteering and all the while, self-isolated my deepest thoughts and wounds from everyone around me. It wasn’t until 2013 that I told anyone about the childhood abuse I had endured. Regardless of our backgrounds, we all have some form of a limiting personal belief and negative self-talk. Many leaders silently struggle with imposter syndrome.

Whats your favorite quote? 

My family oath I created which is, “I treat others and myself with Love, Respect and Kindness.” Learning to always treat myself, meaning to have internal thoughts that are filled with Love, Respect and Kindness, has been a life long journey. Strand by strand, I’ve had to unweave the negative and toxic voices from abuse, trauma and hardships and replace them with: self-kindness of productive feedback; self-respect of truth, integrity, pride (not ego); and the best yet, self-love. With self-love, you don’t desperately seek it from others, sell yourself short, put up with toxic people, build walls of perceived self-protection or feel like you’re on the outside looking in. With self-love you not only treat yourself well but you also allow healthy people in your inner circle where it’s a beautiful place to live and thrive.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

I have transformed my struggles into my strengths, and so can you! I deserve to shine brightly, and so do you! Start today on your journey of self-mastery and through the rough patches keep your head up, ask for help and be relentless in moving forward. It will be worth it!