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Book review: How To Be Good: What Socrates can teach us about the art of living well by Massimo Pigliucci

16 February 2024

This modern secularist writer misses the point, Mark Vernon finds

MODERN philosophers face a problem when reading ancient philosophy, because their notion of reason is much reduced compared with their predecessors’. Today, reason is regarded as an abstract faculty that organises human thought according to criteria such as clarity and coherence. What is lost is a larger notion of the living intelligence with which human understanding can resonate by attending to the intuitions and awareness that come with living well.

Cultivating such expansive participation is why pre-modern philosophers were interested in virtues, which are the habits and qualities that characterise a person or society. Knowledge was a type of soulful resonance, not just with oneself, but with the wider dynamics inherent in the cosmos. The narrower faculty of reason is, then, a tool aiding discernment.

The question how to be good, which the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci addresses in his latest book, was, therefore, intimately linked to sharing in the divine realm. Even the Epicureans, who felt that the gods ignored them, thought that such beings were exemplary and, furthermore, had sent Epicurus, their founder, to teach humanity how to live well.

Pigliucci considers several ancient writers who belonged to these various philosophy schools to ask what they might teach us and, further, what they might lead us to hope for from political leaders. Stoic authors are his favourite, which is striking, because you would never realise from him that, for them, “living according to nature” was not fundamentally about exercising prosociality and reason, as Pigliucci writes, but aligning with the Logos, the divine principle running through nature and inclining all things to the good.

For Pigliucci, convictions such as this are superstitious and, in the case of Christianity, oppressive, to boot. His book is, therefore, a readable account of the arts of the good life based on modern assumptions and psychological findings, not ancient ones. He forces Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and others through a secular sieve and fundamentally misses the point of ancient wisdom.

The distortion matters. Take the Stoics, again. Although daily life was inevitably full of compromises and suffering, they argued that this was tolerable because the Logos was working all things out for the good. Aligning with that deeper current was the goal. Today, daily life is still full of compromises and suffering; so, without trust in the divine, why bother with virtue? Pigliucci posits marginal increases in personal happiness and self-satisfaction which, to the ancients, would hardly be living at all.

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer.


How To Be Good: What Socrates can teach us about the art of living well
Massimo Pigliucci
Basic Books £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.89

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