Basketball coach Jim Valvano died on this day in 1993, after an inspiring fight with cancer ("Never give up") that engaged millions of people who weren't even basketball fans.
"Be a dreamer," Valvano said. "If you don't know how to dream, you're dead."
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In every culture we know of, says Massimo Pigliucci, the question of how to live is central, but the ultimate question is: “how do we best prepare to die?”
Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy and the co-editor of a book with the catchy title “Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.” (He needed a co-editor to help him tote the cumbersome words around.) But we won’t hold that against him, necessarily. He is a practicing Stoic, and in an op-ed in the New York Times he explains what that entails.
“Practicing Stoicism is not really that different from, say, practicing Buddhism (or even certain forms of modern Christianity),” Pigliucci says. “It is a mix of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and the like.” Like, wow.
Stoicism has a fair number of followers, Pigliucci says. Thousands of people participated in a Stoic Week event in Exeter, England. (No joy buzzers or water balloons allowed, presumably.)
Stoicism came out of ancient Greece, jostled with a multitude of other “schools” of thought, and was eventually subsumed by Christianity. One of its core principles was put into words by Epictecus, one of its important early adherents:
“What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.”
As a prescription for looking death straight in the eyes this is okay, but rather uninspiring. What about raging, raging against the dying of the light? No, that would be unseemly, as Seneca, another of Stoicism’s founders, saw it.
“’We are dying every day,’ he (Seneca) wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the death of her son,” Pigliucci recounts Some consolation! (Seneca himself, who was forced to commit suicide by the emperor Nero, told his family he was leaving them, in lieu of any worthless possessions, “the example of a virtuous life,” and as he was bleeding to death he summoned his secretaries to take down one last speech.)
Pigliucci describes a Stoic exercise he regularly practices. The “premeditatio malorum” is just what it sounds like: one imagines something horrible happening to one’s self, and then strives to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning, in Pigliucci’s words, “that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value.”
As a consolation for the inevitability of death, this won’t do at all. In effect, in says: if we can’t be happy, let us at least be good.
Pigliucci wraps up his essay on a note of, not exactly Stoicism, but closer to frivolity:
“In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.”
So try it out, by all means. We’re dying to see how it works.