Many of us aspire to do the right thing when faced with ethical choices, but for ancient philosophers being a good person involved a much broader look at our behaviour and life choices. Here, Massimo Pigliucci, a practising Stoic and philosophy professor at City College of New York, recommends books on being good, from the ancient sages to modern thinkers.
Before we get to your choice of books, we’re talking about practical ethics in the sense of how to be a good person morally, is that right?
Yes, that’s one way to look at it. You can be good at all sorts of things: you can be a good athlete, a good musician etc. This is about the moral dimension of how to be good. However, that said, my take on this is the same as the ancient Greco-Romans. They thought of ethics or morality—they use the words interchangeably—as about becoming the best person you can be. So it’s much broader than just making sure you’re doing the right thing in specific circumstances. It also has to do with your goals in life, your priorities, who you want to be. It’s a very broad topic.
So the ancient sense of ethics was more like self-development than our conception of ethics. It’s not just about how to be altruistic or make the right decisions about a trolley problem, or whether you should eat animals or not.
Yes, exactly. So my modest view, which I think is rather unpopular among modern philosophers, is that moral philosophy made a couple of wrong turns with Kant and Mill. It did start to be focused on these specific questions of ‘Is this right or wrong? Is this action right or wrong?’ The answers that both utilitarians and deontologists tend to give are universal. So there is Kant’s categorical imperative, there is Mill’s idea that you need to maximize one quantity, people’s happiness, or minimize one quantity, people’s pain.
The ancient view, held by the Greco-Romans, and also true of other traditions, for instance Eastern traditions like Confucianism, tends to be more organic, more whole, more individual. It’s not just about right or wrong, it’s about what kind of person you want to be, what kind of roles you want to have in life, how you can get to the end of your life, look back, and say, ‘Yes, that was a life well spent.’
The first book you’ve chosen is right in that area because it’s focused on character. It’s The Character Gap by Christian Miller. Could you say something about this book?
One of the interesting things about this book is that it looks at the evidence. My background is both in science and in philosophy and while I love philosophical arguments and discussions, I also have been trained to say, ‘This is nice. It sounds good. But what do we know in terms of empirical evidence?’ This is an area where it’s difficult to do research. Character is difficult to describe in an operational way, in a way that you can measure. People disagree on what it means to have a certain character trait. What is a virtue? How do you measure that? Psychologists and social scientists in general are having a pretty hard time making progress. Miller’s book is a nice overview of where the empirical evidence is. He’s nuanced enough that he tells his readers, ‘You need to take this with a pinch of salt because there is discussion about this, that or the other.’
Nevertheless, the evidence that he shows cumulatively, throughout the book, is very interesting. The title, The Character Gap, refers to the notion that, typically, we’re not as good as we think we should be. There is a gap between where we would like to be and where we are in terms of our behavior. Most of us would like to be generous, fair and just and all that sort of stuff but it turns out that, in practice, we’re not quite there.
“Typically, we’re not as good as we think we should be”
A good part of the book is, firstly, about why. What kind of factors determine this character gap? Secondly, how do we overcome the gap? What kind of strategies work or do not work? So one of the reasons there is a gap is because we tend to be far more influenced by local situations than we realize. For instance, there is a classic experiment where people walk into a shopping mall and are exposed to the smell of freshly baked bread. If they are, it turns out that they’re far more likely to help a stranger in need a few minutes later than if they walk into the mall without smelling the bread. Now, of course, smelling or not smelling the bread has no moral valence at all, it shouldn’t influence how prone you are to help other people. But it turns out it does. So there are a lot of these subtle, and sometimes not very subtle, factors that affect our behavior.
The good news is that once people are made aware of this, they can consciously improve. One nice example that is discussed by Miller is the so-called bystander effect. If you see somebody in distress on the street and you happen to be surrounded by people who are not intervening, the chances you are going to intervene are very small. That’s presumably for a number of reasons. You start asking yourself, ‘Why is it that these people are not doing anything? Maybe there is something fishy going on, maybe this is a setup.’ You don’t want to be embarrassed by being the person who puts themselves out. But once people are made aware of the existence of the bystander effect, they overcome it in very large percentages. There is a major shift in the way people behave.
So the bad news is we’re influenced by a bunch of things that often are difficult to predict, and we’re not aware of; the good news is once we’re made aware, we can do something about it.
One reading of some of that psychological research on environmental influences is that we don’t really have a fixed character, that our environment dramatically affects how we behave. It’s just a convenient fiction that we have this character. We think of ourselves as generous, but it actually depends on the circumstances. So there is a skeptical reading, but that’s not Miller’s reading.
Miller does discuss that. He has also published a technical article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that covers this issue. His analysis of the literature is that there is evidence for the existence of reliable patterns of behavior, which is what a character trait is. If you say that your friend is known to be generous, what you mean is that other things being equal he is more likely than average to give money to a charity or to be helpful to somebody with his time or something like that. It turns out that is true.
But, again, there is a lot of variance because the specific circumstances do affect our behavior. Interestingly, however, as I said before, those circumstances play less and less of a role, the more we are aware of their effects. If somebody pays attention to what they’re doing, if they’re consciously saying, ‘I want to be a generous person’ then they more reliably act that way.
It’s also a short and readable book, isn’t it? It’s very accessible. It’s a nice book.
The only part of the book where I have an objection—and I talked to the author about this and he wasn’t surprised—is the second to last chapter where he talks about how one way to become a better person is to embrace your belief in God and your religion. I’m sure that that works, but there’s nothing special about religion. You might as well embrace a philosophy of life, like Confucianism or Stoicism or Buddhism and you’ll probably get the same results. There’s nothing magical, so to speak, about God, as opposed to having a general framework and the self-conscious notion that you want to improve yourself.
I guess you could say there’s a little bit of nominative determinism going on there as well with a guy called Christian taking that attitude! Your point about Confucianism segues very nicely into your next choice, which is a book about Confucianism: Growing Moral by Stephen C. Angle.
The reason I picked this book is because too many of our discussions here in the West about morality, character, etc. tend to be rooted in the Western tradition. This semester at City College in New York, I’m going to be teaching a course that we call ancient philosophy, but that’s a misnomer. It’s Greco-Roman ancient philosophy. I’m not going to teach any Buddhism or Confucianism, partly because I don’t know enough about them to teach them and partly because we do have special courses for those.
But there is this tendency to think of ancient philosophy in terms of the Greeks and the Romans. But, as much as I love the Greeks and the Romans, there’s plenty of other traditions that do need to be taken into account in this context.
Angle’s book is a good one from that perspective, for a couple of reasons. It’s essentially the equivalent of my book, How To Be a Stoic. That is, it talks about Confucianism as it was, as it originated, and how it has evolved over time, but he’s mostly concerned about articulating a vision of what Confucianism might look like today, and how modern Confucians might address some contemporary issues and also how that might change or alter, to some extent, the original philosophy or at least the take on certain issues that the early Confucians had.
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Confucianism is often, rightly I think, accused of being somewhat conservative in terms of values. It’s about a patriarchal structure, a particular family structure, about respecting rules, etc. etc. But Angle makes an interesting argument—whether you buy it or not, you’ll have to read the book—that the basic Confucian ideas can be evolved and adapted to a 21st-century, more multicultural setting. It’s a good way of looking at the issue because this happens with all ancient traditions. Modern Buddhists don’t subscribe to the same beliefs as the early Buddhists had. Modern Christians don’t necessarily believe all the things or act in the ways in which early Christians were acting. So if religions which are notoriously somewhat rigid can evolve over time and in fact have evolved over time in order to adapt to modern circumstances, certainly philosophies of life can do the same. Angle’s book is a good example of how to do that with a non-western tradition.
You mentioned the conservatism of Confucianism. The usual almost caricature of Confucianism is that it’s about ancestor and senior worship and that respect has to be shown particularly to male figures in the hierarchy. It’s hard to see that morphing into a kind of feminism.
You should talk to Stephen about that. I agree. When I started reading the book, that was my initial reaction: ‘I’m curious to see how this guy is going to work his way through this because it seems very difficult to me.’ But the strategy that Angle uses is the same or very similar to the one that I’ve seen used by other authors. For instance, Robert Wright, in Why Buddhism is True, tries to do a similar thing with Buddhism. Or, again, in my own book, How to Be a Stoic. You don’t focus on every single word that the ancient Confucians were writing, you try to put that into the historical and cultural context of the time. You raise your bar to the more abstract level of the generalities, the general ideas, the general framework that a particular philosophy puts forth and then, from there, you work your way to modern times and ask, ‘Okay, so how would that work today?’
So yes, there is certainly a very strong component of patriarchy and rigidity in ancient Confucianism. But if you turn that into ‘we ought to have respect for people who are more experienced, we ought not to discard the opinions of people just because they’re old’ that becomes pretty valuable in a modern setting. Insofar as women are concerned, certainly the original Confucianism had nothing to do with feminism. But once we move into a society which is inherently multicultural and multi gender, then if the focus is, ‘I need to be respectful and listen to whoever has enough experience that might have something to contribute’ then that makes it easier to update to modern times.
It’s certainly a view that grows more attractive the older I get, that you should show respect toward older people!
Yes, it resonates with us, doesn’t it?
Your third choice is a classic work by an emperor, the only emperor on your list, I think. This is Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. You’ve chosen the Robin Waterfield translation specifically, because there are a number of different translations around.
There are plenty of translations, many of which are good, but I think the Waterfield translation is by far the best. Not only is the translation itself is very good—the language is accessible, it really makes Marcus come alive in English—but the notes are priceless. The full title is Meditations: The Annotated Edition and you could spend more time looking through the notes than in the actual text. They’re very helpful, especially if one doesn’t have too much of a background either in the history of the Roman world or in Stoic philosophy. There are lots of things in the Meditations that make a lot more sense once you read the notes. Otherwise, there are some passages, some references Marcus makes to pre-Socratic philosophers, or he’ll throw in a quote by Plato without telling you that it was by Plato, where you don’t know where it comes from but once you read the note by Robin, it enlightens the whole thing. So it’s a really good translation.
It’s quite a fragmentary work. Apparently, it’s Marcus Aurelius making notes to himself about how he should be good, but it may have been written with an eye to other readers. I suspect it may not have been his own personal notebook tucked in his toga.
Yes, there’s been a discussion about that by scholars since forever. I tend to lean more toward the notion that this was in fact his personal diary. It surely would have been edited, especially later on, because of course we don’t have the original of the text. The first title, by which it was known in the early Middle Ages, was To Himself which goes with the idea that yes, this was a personal philosophical diary. The Romans did have this tradition of writing to themselves, these notes about things that were interesting, or things that could help them in terms of their path to self-improvement. It wasn’t that unusual at the time.
The reason I picked this book is because, as you say, it is an explicit effort to improve yourself, to become a better person. Marcus does it from the Stoic perspective, although not exclusively, he does bring in material from Plato, the pre-Socratics and some of the Greek tragedians. So he expands all over the place, although the core of it is certainly Stoic in nature.
You’re right that the book has no structure, except for the first chapter. The first chapter is essentially a long exercise in gratitude. It’s a list of people that Marcus is grateful to, and why. ‘I’m grateful to my father, because… I’m grateful to my teacher, because… etc. etc.’ So exercises in being grateful, in gratitude, are part and parcel of the kind of exercises that you do if you want to engage in self-improvement. You want to recognize what is good in your life, you want to recognize the people that have been influential. It’s an example of a good exercise. But from this we also get an idea of what Marcus’s criteria for ‘good’ were. What is he thanking these people for? And, it turns out, he’s thanking them for being just and honest and straightforward and not deceitful to other people. So you get a long list of points of reference in a moral compass that Marcus builds for himself.
“Moral philosophy made a couple of wrong turns with Kant and Mill”
The rest of the book, the other 11 chapters, are without any structure. People have tried to find a hidden structure, but there isn’t one. It is what it is. It’s a diary. If you were writing your diary, even a philosophical diary, there wouldn’t be any structure. In fact, the book is redundant, repetitive and a bit preachy, but that is to be expected for a personal diary. Why is it redundant and repetitive? Because Marcus runs into the same problems over and over. For instance, he was known to be prone to anger. Therefore, sure enough, you see that he chides himself, ‘You got angry again. You shouldn’t do this because…’ He’s preachy because he’s talking to himself.
Interestingly, he’s talking in the second person, not in the first person. He says, ‘You should be doing this or that.’ In that he actually anticipates a standard technique in modern cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapists will tell you that keeping a personal journal of self-improvement is a good idea, but that you should try to do it in the second or even the third person. The reason for that is because it helps you distance yourself emotionally from what’s going on. You should try to use analytical language, which Marcus very much does, not emotional language. And you should try to write as if you were writing to a friend. Both of those things—the language and the writing in the second person—put a bit of distance between the otherwise emotional issues and your analysis and therefore you can be a bit more objective and learn more from your own experiences.
One thing that strikes me is that because it’s so fragmentary, there’s no obligation to read it from cover to cover. It’s the kind of book you can fruitfully dip into and find interesting aphorisms. As I remember them, most of them fall under the category of ‘don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t let people get under your skin. Just focus on the things that are important.’ So it’s not about how to be a saint. It’s about how not to lose it, when you’re in a stressful situation. It is a sort of self-therapy.
It is, you’re right. Marcus goes into these day-to-day situations that presumably recurred in his life and tries to address them. At one point he says something along the lines of ‘Don’t wait for Plato’s Republic. Do whatever little you can do because it makes a difference, because it’s important.’ Of course, waiting for Plato’s Republic is his way of saying ‘don’t wait for utopia,’ for a perfect situation.
He has all these little ways of reframing a particular problem. One of my favorites is when he says, ‘You don’t like bitter cucumbers? Fine. Don’t eat them. But why do you have to go on and complain about the fact that there are bitter cucumbers in the world?’ Since I have my own number of bitter cucumbers in my life, I find that particularly useful. Every time that I find myself going cosmic and saying, ‘Why are these people in the world?’ I say to myself, ‘They’re bitter cucumbers, just avoid them.’
The next book you’ve chosen is another classical text and it’s not one I know. This is Pharsalia by Marcus Annaeus Lucanus. You’ve chosen Jane Wilson Joyce’s translation specifically. What is this?
It’s an epic poem. In fact, quite apart from the topic that we’re talking about today, how to be a better person, Pharsalia is one of the best epic poems in the Western tradition. If somebody is interested in Roman/Latin literature, it’s definitely something to read, also because of the history. It’s a historically fairly accurate poem, not like Virgil’s Aeneid, or Homer’s Odyssey.
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus was a Roman poet of the first century, better known in English as Lucan. He was the nephew of Seneca, one of the famous Stoics of that period. Seneca was an adviser to the emperor Nero for several years and then was “invited” to commit suicide by Nero. Seneca was suspected by Nero of being a member of a failed conspiracy against him. We don’t know whether Seneca was or not, he probably wasn’t. But he was also probably aware of the conspiracy and didn’t tell the emperor which, to all intents and purposes, is the same as being part of the conspiracy. Lucan, on the other hand, definitely was a part of that conspiracy. Sure enough, he was put to death by Nero. He was pretty young at the time and the Pharsalia was unfinished because of that. There are at least two books that are missing.
It’s a really interesting, well-done poem. It refers to the civil war between Pompey and Julius Caesar, which happened about a century and a half before Lucan. The title, Pharsalia, refers to a place called Pharsalus which is where, in 48 BCE, the final battle between the two sides took place and Julius Caesar vanquished Pompey, thereby ending the Roman Republic and setting the stage for the onset of the Roman Empire a few years later.
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Other than reconstructing the historical happenings there, Lucan pits two major characters in the book against each other from a moral perspective. One is Cato the Younger, a Stoic senator on the Republican side. Cato opposed Caesar for many years in the Senate and eventually took up arms, joining the Republican forces against Caesar’s army. The other is Julius Caesar himself. The contrast couldn’t be starker and, therefore, in my mind, this is a good study into what you want to be and what you don’t want to be, how to be a good person and how not to be a good person. Cato is the example of the good person, the quintessential Stoic role model, the paragon of moral virtue. He was very consciously always trying to do what he understood to be the right thing. He was very famous in Rome. If you were caught by a fellow Roman doing something not quite right, your likely response would have been something along the lines of, ‘Well, not everybody can be a Cato.’ That’s the extent to which he was a role model, even for regular citizens. He also continued to have an influence through the centuries, even influencing founding fathers of the American republic, like George Washington. Lucan presents Cato as the person who does the right thing no matter what and at great personal cost. In the end, he loses his life.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Caesar, who comes across as self-serving, self-aggrandizing and devious in his political aims. Throughout the poem, little by little, you have this emerging contrast between these two larger-than-life figures. There are also other interesting characters in between. Pompey the Great, for instance, comes across as a little bit of both. He’s self-aggrandizing but he’s not as bad as Caesar. He tries to do the right thing, at least some of the time, and so on.
So I thought that Pharsalia was a good and unusual choice. It’s a poem and we tend to think of philosophy in the form of essays or prose. In fact, as you know, a lot of philosophy has been done as literature, either poems or dialogues in the case of Plato and Xenophon. It’s an interesting and different way of looking at a philosophical issue. It’s beautifully written in the original Latin and the Jane Wilson Joyce translation is one of the best available.
So there is the playing out of these different positions. Do you think that Lucan thought it was possible for most people to be a Cato? Or did Cato have special propensities that made him such a good person?
It’s certainly possible to be like Cato. He wasn’t a god or anything like that. But it’s definitely very difficult, which is why he became such a well-known role model. The idea of role models, especially in Stoicism and for the Greco-Romans in general, isn’t necessarily that you want to be exactly like the role model. Cato did have vices. He really liked his wine and was drunk a number of times. The notion of a role model isn’t somebody you want to equal in every sense. It’s simply a reminder that people can be good, most of the time, they can strive seriously to do the right thing and to behave in a way that is virtuous. You can then reflect on your own behavior and say, ‘I can do better.’ It’s about being inspired. Let’s say you’re into football and you’re inspired by a great footballer. That doesn’t mean that you want to become a Messi because very few people can become a Messi. In fact, only one can become a Messi, as far as we can tell. But that doesn’t mean that Messi doesn’t inspire others to improve, to work hard to become better in so much as they can. So that’s the notion that Lucan tries to put forward. Role models are good, not because you are ever necessarily going to be like them, but because they are an inspiration.
Let’s jump forward more than 2000 years now to a book by the contemporary utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer. This is How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest.
Even though I’m not a utilitarian, and so I tend to disagree with Singer in terms of the general framework, this book literally changed my life. I read it many years ago, in the 1990s, when I was in Knoxville, Tennessee. I was part of a book club that I helped organize and I don’t remember who suggested it but we read this book. One of the things that struck me as really reasonable and useful in it is that Singer says, ‘Don’t try to be perfect, don’t try to change everything you do all at once because most likely you will fail and give up. Try to do the little that you can, and as much as you can in the right direction.’ So, for instance, Singer is famously an advocate of animal rights and vegetarianism. He says that if you agree that the vegetarian or even the vegan position is, in fact, morally preferable, that doesn’t mean you have to give up everything on the spot, or indeed ever. It means that you want to move in that direction. What are you doing now, eating steak three times a week? Go down to one a week, or once every couple of weeks. Start moving in that direction. Any movement you make in the right direction is progress. It’s progress for you as an individual and it’s progress for whatever cause—in this case, animal rights and the environment—you’re concerned with.
I remember my wife and I discussing this book after the book club, and we immediately made the decision to sell one of our two cars, because we really didn’t need two, and to move downtown from the really nice suburban area where we were living to a smaller house. Those were relatively small steps, but they were significant for us. There were costs: it costs to sell your house and buy another one. You’re putting yourself into smaller quarters, you’re inconveniencing yourself by going down to one car instead of two. You have to start coordinating going to work and all that stuff. But it immediately felt like the right thing to do as a result of reading Singer’s book. It’s an example of a book in practical philosophy where even if you disagree with the general framework that informs the book—as I said, I’m not a utilitarian—you can still take a lot of what Singer says about individual strategies of how to go after certain issues and make changes in your life instantly. We implemented those changes in a matter of days. It’s an example of how even a book with which you disagree can have a direct impact on your life and, hopefully, move you toward a better situation.
That’s so interesting but aren’t you accepting some of Singer’s conclusions whether or not you accept the way he got to them? His conclusions tend to be that we shouldn’t be consuming animals if we can avoid it. In the West, we live high while people die in Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world where access to food, decent water, medical resources, and shelter can be hard to come by and people are living on less than $1 a day. They need help and we’ve got the resources to give it to them, if we economize in how we live. Those are his conclusions. But when we’re discussing the big question, which is how to be good, it’s still an open question whether those are good things. I can recognize them as good things but not everybody will. Some people might say there are better, more important things, like focusing on the people near you, focusing on your family, focusing on the education of your children, that those things are more important than helping somebody on the other side of the world.
You’re right. That is where I disagree with Singer. He seems to think that he has the right priorities at a global, universal level. From the point of view of virtue ethics, I think each one of us has to make their own decisions based on their own circumstances and in their own judgement of those circumstances. It just so happened that on those two issues, my personal judgment agreed with that of Singer and so I wanted to act. And the reason the book was important to me is because I was spurred, by reading the book, to act on those particular issues. But what is important and what is not important is a personal decision, I don’t think there is a universal answer. That’s a major disagreement that I have both with the Kantian and the utilitarian approach. They’re a little too ‘one size fits all.’
“I wish more contemporary philosophers were clear about what they’re saying”
That said, I am not a moral relativist either, nor were the Greco-Romans. They thought that there are certain parameters, a certain framework that you can use, that is more or less universal in the sense that it takes into account what’s common among human beings. We are a particular type of social being with certain needs and wants. So, anything that directly or indirectly helps us move toward those needs and wants is a good thing and anything that impairs our moving in that direction is a bad thing. But those are general enough that then you can have a lot of reasonable discussions and even reasonable disagreements about the details. For instance, going back to the ancient sources, although I just said that Cato the Younger, as presented in Lucan, was a role model for the Stoics, Cato arguably made a number of bad political decisions. He was presumably making those decisions in good faith. But his friend Cicero, who was not a Stoic, but a skeptic philosopher and also a senator, apparently at some point, lost his patience and said, ‘You know, Cato, you keep trying to do these things because they seem right to you. In fact, you’re undermining your own long-term goals by doing what you’re doing.’ At some point, Cicero writes a letter to his friend Atticus where he says, ‘Our friend Cato, I love him to death. But he doesn’t seem to realize that we don’t live in Plato’s Republic, we live in the mud of Romulus.’ It’s a great way of putting things. There is definitely more than one way to be virtuous and more than one way to look at the same problem in terms of what the right thing to do is.
For those who haven’t read anything by Peter Singer, we should say that he is probably the clearest contemporary philosopher in terms of his writing, he’s very accessible and very open to providing reasons, arguments and counterarguments. He’s easy to agree with and easy to disagree with because you know what he’s saying and you know why he’s saying it. He’s a real stimulus to thought. Even if you don’t agree with him, the book is still great because it makes you think and argue with him.
Exactly. I often use one or another of Peter’s books in my courses at City College. The students often disagree with his take, but things get interesting when I say, ‘Okay, but what exactly do you disagree with? Where does he go wrong in the reasoning?’ That’s far more challenging than just saying, ‘Oh, I disagree. I’m going to reject the whole thing.’ It’s a great exercise and I think you’re right that it’s possible because Peter is very clear when he writes. I wish more contemporary philosophers were clear about what they’re saying and why they’re saying it because that would make possible a lot more interesting and fruitful discussions.
Now, the reason we asked you to select these five books about how to be good is that I can think of at least three books that you’ve written which are very much in this area. You’ve already mentioned How to Be a Stoic, which is bringing Stoicism into the modern age, showing how you can live today as a Stoic and why that might be a good thing to do. Could you say a bit more about that book?
How to Be a Stoic is my personal take on Stoicism as an ancient philosophy that I think has much value for the 21st century. It’s supposed to be a practical approach. This is not just a general philosophical or historical discussion of Stoicism, as interesting as that may be. I want to know how you can put into practice Stoic principles in your own life. The book is written from a very personal perspective. Several of the anecdotes are real life things that happened to me or that I had to deal with, from health issues to being robbed. It concludes with a set of practical exercises that people can do on a regular basis, if they want to give the general approach of Stoic philosophy a try.
The second book, that you’re a co-editor of, is called How to Live A Good Life. It’s by a number of different authors and gives you an entry point into a particular way of approaching the question from various schools of philosophy, as it were.
This was co-edited with my friends and colleagues Skye Cleary and Daniel Kaufman. It came out of a podcast hosted by Dan. We were having a conversation and, at some point, we said, ‘Maybe it would be interesting to ask people who are not only knowledgeable about a particular philosophy or religion, but actually live that philosophy and religion, to write a personal essay about how do they put together the theory and the practice?’ And so you’ll find essays in the book on Aristotelianism and Epicureanism, the ancient Greco-Roman philosophies, you will find the Eastern traditions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and also some religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, as well as modern philosophies, existentialism, effective altruism, which I’m not sure qualifies as a philosophy but it’s close enough, and secular humanism and ethical culture. It was really interesting to put together, to ask people who are actually living these approaches, ‘How do you do it? How do you put into practice the principles of, let’s say, Christianity in the 21st century? How do you navigate modern life in a way that is sensible and good and doesn’t betray the fundamentals of whatever philosophy or religion you’ve actually chosen to follow? It was a really interesting exercise, putting together that book.
This one is about the quest for character, what the story of Socrates and Alcibiades teaches us about our search for good leaders. Most of the book is about leadership and how you get leaders with a good character. Of course the implication is that there is such a thing as a good character, and that we can achieve it. So, near the end of the book, there is a discussion of ‘Okay, forget the leaders for a moment. Let’s ask the same question about ourselves. How do we become better people?’
As the subtitle says, the starting point of the book is the famous dialogue between Socrates and his friend, student and possibly lover, Alcibiades. The reason I start there is, first of all, because it’s a great example of how you do practical philosophy that has to do with statesmanship and leadership. But it’s also because the Alcibiades figure is fascinating. I’m stunned that nobody—as far as I know—has done a movie on the life of Alcibiades, because this guy was incredible. He was a handsome, rich, brave, unbelievable character. And yet he was also affected by what the ancient Greeks called hubris. Socrates tells him so, very clearly, in the Alcibiades Major from Plato, where the two interact. A very young Alcibiades goes to Socrates and says, ‘Look, I want to be in charge of things in Athens, but I want to do it right, I need to know how to be virtuous.’ Socrates talks to him a bit and at the end says, ‘You know, Alcibiades, you really should give up, you’re just not the kind of person to do that sort of thing, if you insist you will bring all sorts of bad consequences.’ And, sure enough, that’s what happens. Alcibiades was singlehandedly responsible for a large chunk of the disasters that befell the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. Socrates was right. So that’s the start of the book.
After that, I examine a number of other interesting figures, statesmen and/or philosophers who interacted with statesmen in ancient Greece and Rome. So Marcus Aurelius, Cato the Younger, Cicero, Alexander the Great and Aristotle and the relatively less known story of Dionysus the Second of Syracuse and Plato. Many people don’t realize that Plato at the age of 60 and then 70 did a couple of trips to Syracuse, to put into practice his philosophical ideas. In his fairly old age, he crossed the Mediterranean because he wanted to see if he could actually make a difference. He almost lost his life twice as a result.
The book also updates this whole discussion beyond the Greco-Romans to the Renaissance, and then modern times. Of course, you cannot talk about Renaissance ethics and statesmanship without mentioning Machiavelli and his Prince and the kind of advice that he was giving.
Machiavelli’s advice was how not to be good. That was his point, wasn’t it, that you weren’t supposed to be good in the conventional sense if you’re a statesman because you’d fall foul of every kind of trick and you’d be gullible and wouldn’t succeed in defending the state? You had to be deceptive but not be seen to be deceptive.
That’s right. That is the origin of what we today call realpolitik, or political realism, which has been adopted by a number of characters in the 20th and 21st centuries, Kissinger, for instance, who I wouldn’t necessarily recommend as the ideal statesman.
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By the end of the book, we have a discussion about not only what we have learned from this whole issue of character and leadership and what individuals like us, who are not emperors, prime ministers or presidents, can do in terms of improving ourselves, but also how we should think about the relationship between ethics and politics. To simplify greatly, I come down in between Socrates and Machiavelli. Socrates basically thought that unless you’re virtuous, forget it. Just don’t get into politics. He’s right in theory, but in practice, it’s just not going to happen. The opposite extreme, as you mentioned, is Machiavelli, who says, ‘If you want to be a statesman, here’s how you take advantage of people, here’s how you betray people, etc. etc. in order to actually get what you want.’
It seems to me that somewhere in between is the right position and I do think that of all the people that I present as case studies in the book, Cicero is the one that comes closest. He was a philosopher, he certainly did believe that there is such a thing as virtuous character, and that we have an imperative to become better people. But, at the same time—as I mentioned before with the quote about Cato not realizing that he lives in the mud of Romulus—he was also a pragmatic politician. He had been a consul in Rome, which was the highest political office during the Republic; he had actually had to deal with a conspiracy against the state, orchestrated by Catiline. He knew that in order to be an effective statesman and politician you have to compromise. Cicero is often nowadays accused of being a flip-flopper, changing his allegiances right and left depending on the situation. It’s true and that’s exactly what you would expect from a good politician. What he did not change was his aim. His goal was to try to do his best to save the Roman Republic. If that meant sometimes allying yourself with a not exactly great character like Pompey, then you have to do that as long as you keep in mind where you want to go.
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Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the City College of New York. In addition to the books he has written on Stoicism, he is one of the organisers of Stoicon, an annual meeting of people interested in exploring Stoicism as a philosophy of life.
Massimo Pigliucci is K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the City College of New York. In addition to the books he has written on Stoicism, he is one of the organisers of Stoicon, an annual meeting of people interested in exploring Stoicism as a philosophy of life.
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