What can we learn from the Stoics about living a good life? Should we all try to become indifferent to pain, suffering, and death? This week we’re thinking about the Stoic philosophy of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
What Is It
Marcus Aurelius was a 2nd century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. He is most famous for his Meditations, which was written as a private guide to himself on how to live a life where virtue is the only good and vice the only evil. So how do we figure out how to live a truly Stoic life? What’s the relationship between the wellbeing of an individual and the interest of the larger community? And what can we learn from Marcus about developing mental resilience when confronted with fear, suffering, or pain? Josh and Ray stay calm with Rachana Kamtekar from Cornell University, author of Plato's Moral Psychology: Intellectualism, the Divided Soul, and the Desire for Good.
What can we learn from the Stoics about living a good life? Could we ever stop caring about pain, suffering, and death? Ray and Josh consider the writings of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who wrote about how to live a better life. Ray explains Marcus’s idea that the health of the soul is more important than the health of the body, which could help us be less afraid and saddened by death. Josh thinks removing our capacity for sadness might also take away our ability to be happy, but Ray argues that real happiness comes from doing good deeds.
The hosts welcome Rachana Kamtekar, Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University, to the show. Rachana explains the core idea of the Stoics, which is that God is the rational principle of the world, and humans are rational in the same way that God is. It is only due to a narrow perspective that things are seen as bad, since a godly perspective would demonstrate something seemingly bad is good for the whole. Ray asks about the Stoic way of life, which prompts Rachana to discuss how we should live as dictated by wisdom and virtue, despite the difficulty of defining what makes an action virtuous. Josh questions how to align ourselves with Providence and whether our world is already ordered for the best outcome. In response, Rachana describes how consequences are co-fated, that is to say, they are determined both by Zeus’s and our own contributions.
In the last segment of the show, Ray, Josh, and Rachana discuss the use of Stoicism in contemporary movements and how Marcus Aurelius’s teachings help us develop mental resilience. Rachana thinks that far-right movements have ignored the communal, anti-individualist sentiments of the ancient Stoics. Josh finds some aspects of Stoicism inhumane, such as their proposed reactions to the deaths of loved ones or children.
Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:08) → Shereen Adel seeks out surprising places where Stoicism pops up, including alt-right groups and cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:03) → Ian Shoales examines a few quotes from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
What can we learn from the Stoics about living a good life?
Could we ever stop caring about pain, suffering and death?
Would we even want to?