Cicero … and how to live

In “Cicero on Living a Stoic Life,” John Sellars explains Cicero’s view that there are four dimensions to who you are: common human nature, your own character traits, the circumstances in which you find yourself, and the career you choose. “So, how to live a Stoic life? The top priority remains a life in harmony with Nature/reason/virtue. Then there are the chance circumstances in which we find ourselves, out of our control and ultimately laid down by Nature too. But also central in Cicero’s account is the idea that we remain true to our own individual natures, to who we are. Thus self-knowledge becomes vital for a life in harmony with nature. Once we feel secure that we know who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, where we fit in the world, then the only decision to be made is how best to remain true to ourselves in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.” And all of this raises challenging questions about how much is up to you and how much just happens to you.

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Free to be ourselves

As Terry Eagleton notes in his review of Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained, “Rarely has the idea of freedom been so popular in practice and so disdained in theory.” But we are neither completely autonomous nor completely determined. “What … if our beliefs and desires lead us to act in a way that feels inevitable? Can we still be free if we could not have acted otherwise? Baggini is surely right to claim that we can. In fact, most of the things that matter – being in love, composing a superb sonata, detesting Piers Morgan, feeling horrified by the slave trade – have a smack of inner necessity about them … . What define the self most deeply are the sort of commitments from which we could not walk away even if we tried. The point, however, is that we don’t want to. Freedom from such engagements would be no freedom at all. True liberty lies in being able to realise such a self, not shuck it off.”

Spinoza: how to be happy (or at least not too sad)

“Interestingly enough, philosophers have long been in the business of offering advice on how to be happy. Or at least not too sad.” Spinoza is one of the great philosophers offering advice on how to be happy: “As Spinoza saw it, people are slaves to their emotions and chained to what they love, such as fame, fortune and other people. This inevitably leads to sadness … .” In Spinoza, Self Help and Agency, Mike LaBossiere explains Spinoza’s advice about how we can free ourselves from our emotions … and then points out “one crushing and obvious problem with Spinoza’s advice.” Along the way he makes quite a few interesting points about free will and determinism.