Nov 24, 2016

Reflections Upon Gratitude

There's a marked tendency to talk a lot about "gratitude" these days.  In fact, springboarding off an oft-quoted passage from Cicero's speech For Plancius - "gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of them" - (and then never engaging with Cicero's thought again after that) there's even quite a lot of buzz about gratitude in terms of virtue ethics, or at least what we might call "virtue-lite morality."  There's also a rising and somewhat paradoxical tendency to focus on the positive effects of gratitude on the life, the attitude, even the physical health of the grateful person.

I wonder myself at times whether we really ought to include "gratitude" among the virtues, or whether -  as I've argued elsewhere about forgiveness - we ought instead better regard it as something connected with and flowing from virtues, but not actually a virtue in its own right.  That's a topic on which I admittedly need to do more thinking.  But, one thing I have been reflecting upon quite a bit lately, is what gratitude ought to look like.  Or, you might say, how far it ought to extend in attitude and action, if it is really to be gratitude.

Nov 21, 2016

Worlds Of Speculative Fiction Lecture Series Renewed

Over the course of 2016, I've been providing a monthly lecture and discussion series, hosted by the Brookfield Public Library, focused on - and called - Worlds of Speculative Fiction: Philosophical Themes.  I proposed the idea originally as a way for me to get to engage in a bit of "guilty pleasure" reading, going back to classic science fiction and fantasy works I had enjoyed in my childhood, teens, or college years, and seeing what might be said from a philosophical perspective about the narrative worlds these authors had created.

We're now getting ready for the last installment of the series, focused on George R.R. Martin's voluminous and yet-unfinished Song of Ice and Fire, which will take place Thursday, December 8, 7:00 PM, and wrap up the series for the year.  I'm happy to report, however, that we've been renewed for another year of the series - 12 more monthly lecture and discussion sessions!

Here's the list of the 12 authors and literary universes slated for 2017:
  • January – Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld 
  • February – Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet
  • March – Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Galaxy
  • April – Anne McCaffrey, World of Pern
  • May – Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse
  • June – Ian Banks’ Culture Series
  • July – Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy.
  • August – H.P Lovecraft’s Universe of the Elder Gods
  • September – William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy
  • October – C. L. Moore’s Fantastic Worlds
  • November – L. Sprague de Camp’s Worlds of the Compleat Enchanter
  • December - Jorge Luis Borges’ Philosophical Universes
If you've missed any of the previous eleven sessions, and you'd like to watch the videorecordings, you're in luck - here's where you can find all the videos (I'm uploading the eleventh video as I write this).

So far, we've covered J.R.R. Tolkein, Mervyn Peake, C.S. Lewis, A.E. Van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Leguin, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, and Philip K. Dick.  I'm hoping to do a bit of writing on each of these here in Orexis Dianoētikē in the coming year as well!

Nov 16, 2016

So Now, Anger Is What The Good Guys Feel

There's so much to say about this recent American election - and so much that is actually being said -that, other than some short discussions and posts in social media (and a dinner-party discussion), I've been keeping a low profile, watching matters unfold, reflecting, and occasionally posting some of the better bits of analysis.  There's something almost like a communicative paralysis induced by the paradox of choice in the aftermath of this contest.  With so much that could be said, and so many things other are saying one might give a thoughtful response to, how do you pick?  Any choice you make, you leave something else out.

One of my hard-left colleagues recently posted an interesting piece from Truthout - Henry Giroux's essay, The Authoritarian Politics of Resentment in Trump's America.  And after reading it over several times, I now know precisely what to start with, at least on my account (I really don't need to think or speak on anyone else's quite frankly).  I'll give the sound-bite, the elevator pitch, or the thesis (depending on which favored term you're inclined towards) right up front.

In his essay, Giroux makes a mistaken distinction in a careless way.  He sets the anger of the left, the working people, the poor, struggling, and oppressed against the resentment of the right, the duped working people, the racists, the . . .  well, why not just call them the deplorables. Resentment is bad, while anger is good in his view.  And we can identify the good people and the bad along precisely those lines - with the added feature that Trump exploited the resentment of the bad.  As someone who researches, writes and speaks about, and deals with clients struggling with anger, this sort of narrative - and the underlying theory Giroux appeals to - strikes me as irresponsible.

Nov 6, 2016

Aristotle on Three Parts of the Polity

In our polarized, nominally democratic, political processes, there are a number of things that often get lost.  In my view, Aristotle sets his finger right on one of these, in a distinction he makes at a number of places in his works, most explicitly in the Politics.  One can analyze contemporary politics in terms of an ongoing, argumentative clash between the interests of those who possess wealth, on the one side, and the many, who tend to be poor but also free, on the other.  This certainly does capture part of the political dynamic.

Aristotle even goes so far as to say that the wealthy, powerful, and few have some legitimacy to their claims and arguments they make.  And likewise, he says, so do the many, the free, those who are not wealthy.  And, yet more importantly, as they press their own positions, they inevitably go further than they ought to, mistaking what highly qualified justice their side possesses for justice itself, and thereby engaging in some measure injustice, if their side wins.  What's left out of the picture is what both of those sides also try to claim for themselves - virtue, that is moral goodness, excellence of character.  Virtue itself puts forth claims, and they don't coincide with those of either set of interests, any party that claims to represent them.  And without the virtuous - who would feel almost equally ill at ease in either of our major political parties here in the United States - the political community ends up becoming impoverished in important ways.

There's much more to be written about this topic, as I'll do once our election is over, the votes are counted, and we move on as a divided nation to our next particular set of political battles. . . .

Oct 28, 2016

Free Class on Epictetus' Enchiridion at the ReasonIO Academy!

Over the years, I've worked with a number of online platforms, exploring their various potentials for widening access and enhancing learning for students worldwide - these include YouTube, Moodle, Curious, Coursmos, and Outschool.

We've now created a new learning space on another platform, Teachable - the ReasonIO Academy - and I'm happy to be able to write a bit about the first course I've developed there - Epictetus' Enchiridion:  Ancient Philosophy & Peace of Mind.

Students can enroll in this course for FREE, and they get access to 22 videos, 16 downloadable handouts and worksheets, and a host of other resources (quizzes, reflection questions, discussion forums, lesson pages, curated links. . .)  So, why create this course?  And why offer it for free?

Oct 22, 2016

Can People Knowingly Do Wrong? Epictetus' View

When a person does something morally wrong or bad, does that person know what he or she is doing is wrong or bad?  This is one of those interesting questions in ethics and moral theory that seems very simple to ask and then turns out to be complicated to answer - at least if one wants to answer it well.  Easy, one-sided, simplistic answers are always an option, but nearly always turn out to be off-base and get in the way of doing the productive thinking that working out a more adequate answer makes possible.

I would say that, when we are focusing on Stoic philosophy, it's practically inevitable that this sort of question about motivation, reasoning, moral knowledge, and the good will arise.  We're right in the penultimate day of Stoic Week at present and in fact, one variant of this type of ethical puzzle did get brought up in a post in the Facebook Stoicism Group earlier today.  It was framed in terms of some categories that seem to be rather popular in moral discourse at present - sociopathy and psychopathy - but the general issue is a much broader one.

The question was put like this:  What would Stoics say about sociopaths or psychopaths who know what morality is, but still want to harm others?  And the answer, to start, is:  quite a bit.

Oct 20, 2016

Epictetus' Conception of Prohairesis

I've been kept rather busy over the last week - first some travel out to New York, to attend and speak at STOICON, and then the start of Stoic Week 2016 itself, and a Stoic Week talk here back home - so I'm just now getting to posting something Stoicism-related that took place the week prior, here in Milwaukee.

For several years now, I've been doing quite a bit of research work - piecing together a lot of passages from a wide array of texts, and reconstructing theoretical and practical perspectives, dealing with a term that plays a major role in ancient moral theory.  In the Greek, it is prohairesis.  It gets translated in many different ways, ranging from "choice" (with a number of qualifiers, such as "moral" or "deliberate") to "commitment", to "faculty of choice" to "moral purpose", and even. . . (this is why I got interested in it) "will".

A little under two weeks ago, I gave an invited talk as part of the Midwest Seminar in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, "Prohairesis in Epictetus' Stoic Moral Theory" (you can watch the video of it, if you like, here - and the slides are available here).  I was honored to get to present my research and reflections, and delighted with the questions and discussion it provoked.  But, why is prohairesis an important topic?