An Interview with Massimo Pigliucci

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Massimo Pigliucci. He’s the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York and also the organizer of the Stoic School of Life meetup in New York City, hosted by the Society for Ethical Culture. He shared with us some practical tips on hosting a Stoic meetup, plus offered an insight into his book How to be a Stoic, which debuted a month ago.

D = Dan Lampert (Founder of The Orlando Stoics and Editor of Indifferents Quarterly)

M = Massimo Pigliucci


...Enter Dan and Massimo

D: When did your meetup group start and what types of people does it appeal to?

M: It began fairly recently, in August 2016. We have had 27 meetups so far, and the group counts 319 members. Participants are from varied backgrounds, ranging from college students to retired people. They tend to be college educated, but not only, with an unusually high percentage of people who work in the tech industry (programmers, etc.) or in psychology.

The goal of the meetup is actually to run as a modern version of the ancient schools, where I engage in Socratic dialogue with people at different stages of progress, from novices to those who have been practicing Stoicism for a while. We alternate among classic Stoicism, recent authors, and a lot of practical topics.

D: Is there a certain bit of Stoic wisdom that intrigues members to attend their first meetup or keeps them coming back?

M: Good question. Usually they come for the first time because they have a general interest in applied philosophy, not necessarily Stoicism. What keeps them coming back, I think, is that Epictetus, Marcus, and Seneca deeply resonate with them. More than one person has told me that Stoicism "clicked" when they first read or heard about it; several added that they have often acted "like a Stoic" in the past, without knowledge of the philosophy, and are now glad to find that there actually is a sophisticated theoretical structure behind what was intuitive for them.

D: Have you promoted your Stoic group on Meetup with certain keywords? or have you changed keywords over time?

M: "Socratic" and "practical" are clearly prominent words in the description of the meetup, and I think they resonate, especially the latter. Each individual event is then promoted with a tailored made description, usually, again, emphasizing the practical applications of whatever topic we are going to discuss.

D: Have you promoted your meetup group on other web sites or in traditional ways? Examples: on campus or in cafes?

M: Not on campus/cafes, since I honestly have little time to do that. But the meetup is promoted on a number of web sites, beginning with that of the Society for Ethical Culture, as well as several outlets publicizing cultural events in the city. I also make fairly heavy use of my Twitter following (which is reasonably large, @mpigliucci), and my philosophy Facebook page (http://tinyurl.com/llodsg4).

D: Who's your favorite Stoic author (could be from ancient times or a modern living author)?

M: Epictetus, which is why my book, How to Be a Stoic, is written as an imaginary dialogue with him. In part it was chance, since he was the first Stoic I've read after I got interested in the philosophy; in part it is because of his clarity of writing and his wicked sense of humor; and in part because I actually disagree with him on a number of issues (e.g., his too pious talk of God, and his presentation of the design argument), which reminds me that this is a philosophy, not a religion, and I'm free to disagree even with the Masters.

D: In your meetups, do you recognize certain celebrities or historic figures as Stoic?

M: Yes, in some cases people who actually characterized themselves as such (from Cato the Younger to James Stockdale), in other cases people who have been influenced by Stoicism even though they didn't consider themselves Stoic (e.g., Nelson Mandela).

In general I talk a lot about the importance of role models in Stoicism, which, as Seneca says, are the straight rulers by which we measure just how crooked our own character is.

D: In your new book, "How to be a Stoic" (Chapter 3), you discuss how Stoic ideas have influenced other philosophers and belief systems. Can you take us through some of them?

M: Most of the major Christian theologians, from Paul to Augustine to especially Thomas Aquinas, have engaged with Stoicism, usually with a healthy dose of respect, especially for the Stoic emphasis on virtue, character, and duty. Aquinas in particular arrived at his famous description of the seven Christian virtues by importing wholesale the four Stoic ones (practical wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice) and adding faith, hope and charity.

Another major philosopher influenced by Stoicism was Baruch Spinoza, whose entire metaphysics and ethics are very much like the ones proposed by the Stoics. Spinoza thought that God is the same as Nature, just as the Stoics believed (they were what we would call pantheists), and that ethics is about maintaining moral integrity in the face of whatever the world throws at us, again very much like the Stoic concept of virtue.

D: You're planning a special event in Rome in July 2017. Tell us a little about that.

M: Right, that's my first attempt at teaching a summer school about Stoicism, an intense three-day course, part of what I call the "Stoa Nova" (http://tinyurl.com/myrm8c3), a series of programs that include the meetup, the summer school, Stoic Camp New York (with my friend Greg Lopez), apps for Stoic practice, and online courses.

The idea of the summer school is that about 20 people will be studying and discussing ancient and modern Stoicism -- this year focusing especially on Epictetus' Enchiridion -- as well as spending some time visiting ancient Roman sites in the Eternal City, like the beautiful and little appreciated National Roman Museum. Oh, and some fellowship over delicious Roman meals and local wine...