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.

What do you think?