Nine Crucial Words (from Massimo Pigliucci)


I wanted to share a few blog entries from Massimo Pigliucci’s site How to Be a Stoic. He stopped contributing to it about a year ago, but the site still has years-worth of helpful entries as Massimo tracked his “personal journey into modern practical Stoicism.”

The following blog entries try to elaborate on the most important technical terms in Stoicism. I hope these will be helpful as we go through Massimo’s book and discuss the ideas therein. It’s very easy to misinterpret these terms by assuming that they mean the same as their common English translations. But, remember, they are technical terms and we need to learn how they’re being used by ancient Stoics.

In Massimo’s One Crucial Word (Jan. 19, 2016), he elaborates upon the term amathia, which is literally translated as ‘not learning’ (a-mathia) or as an ‘inability to learn.’ I find this word really helpful in understanding its counterpart, wisdom (sophia or phronesis) — being able to learn from experience and exercise good judgment.

In his Two More Crucial Words (Jan. 21, 2016), Massimo distinguishes between eudaimonia and arete. These are often translated as ‘happiness‘ and ‘virtue‘ respectively, but there’s A LOT more to those words than our modern-day interpretation. I can easily fall into the trap of explaining all of Stoicism (and having my listener’s eyes glaze over) in an attempt to give an accurate explanation of these two terms.

In his Five Additional Crucial Words (Jan. 23, 2016), Massimo distinguishes a trio of terms — pathe; apatheiai, and eupatheiai — and a pair — proegmena and apoproegmena. The trio of terms correspond to ‘emotions,’ ‘lack of emotions,’ and ‘positive emotions‘. The existence of ‘positive emotions’ should discourage you from interpreting ‘lack of emotions’ in a straight-forward manner; by pathos (singl.) and pathe (plural), the Stoics are honing in on destructive emotions that come from irrational/unrealistic judgments about our circumstances. The next pair of words correspond to the terms ‘preferred indifferents‘ and ‘dispreferred indifferents’. These are related to the first group of words because they are what we have judgments about. Indifferents are neither good nor bad (because they are out of our control and, thus, indifferent to our happiness), thus we should not have strong emotions about them. Doing so makes us unhappy.

I decided to include one more blog entry in this list: Apatheia vs. Ataraxia: What’s the Difference? (Dec. 26, 2015). Here, Massimo answers the question in the title. There is understandably a confusion between these two terms because the state of apatheia (equanimity; lit. ‘lack of [destructive] emotions’) seems very similar to ataraxia (tranquility; lit. ‘lack of [mental] turbulence’)… Massimo does argue that these two terms are describing different aspects of the same phenomenon, but it might be helpful to keep them conceptually distinct.

— Justin K.

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