What does it mean to say that philosophy is an “art of living” or a “way of life”? In the English-speaking world today, philosophy is often thought to be an activity aligned with the natural sciences and primarily concerned with what we can know and how we can know it. Philosophy conceived in this way can trace its origins back to ancient Greece – we might think of the earliest Presocratic natural philosophers; to Aristotle who seamlessly combined interests in (what we would now differentiate as) philosophy and science; and even to Socrates, who was motivated to find out just what we can know, and whether we know as much as we think we do.
Is that all there is to it? In recent years the idea that philosophy might offer more than just theoretical reflections on, say, the nature of knowledge, or what types of thing exist, or how language shapes our experience, has found a number of advocates. Perhaps the most important of these was Pierre Hadot, a French scholar of ancient philosophy who died in 2010. His book Philosophy as a Way of Life, published in 1995, argued that in antiquity philosophy was primarily a guide to how to live. It was, like much modern philosophy, concerned with questions about knowledge, existence, language, and so on, but it approached these sorts of questions within a broader understanding of what philosophy is ultimately for. According to Hadot, the reason why ancient philosophers were interested in such seemingly abstract questions was precisely because they could contribute to a positive transformation of one’s way of life.
Hadot traced the origins of this approach to philosophy to Socrates. This was not the Socrates who was primarily motivated by “what is x?” questions of definition but instead the Socrates of the Apology who exhorted his fellow Athenians to take care of their souls. It was after Socrates, during the Hellenistic period (c. 330-30 BC), that this way of thinking about the purpose of philosophy came to the fore.
The Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus had written “empty are the words of the philosopher who offers therapy for no human suffering”. Yet it is worth stressing that even though he presented philosophy in this way, it did not stop him from writing technical treatises trying to comprehend the natural world, such as studies of meteorology. For Epicurus the connection was simple: many people in his day suffered mental anguish in the form of fear of the gods – vengeful Zeus wielding his thunderbolt. By showing that things such as thunder and lightning are purely natural phenomena, fully explicable in terms of natural causes, Epicurus thought he could alleviate their concerns. Studying meteorology can help you sleep better at night. We see a similar interplay of practical help and theoretical science in Epicurus’s great Roman disciple, Lucretius, whose masterpiece poem On the Nature of Things offers a thoroughly naturalistic account of pretty much everything – the natural world, the human mind, the rise and fall of human societies – all explained in terms of atoms moving in void. Yet along the way Lucretius repeatedly reminds his readers that the whole point of his work is to cure the soul of mental disturbances. While fear of Zeus’s thunderbolt may be of little concern to most people today, fear of death or pain or physical hardship are perhaps still fairly common, and the Epicureans addressed all these too. For them, philosophy was a way of life shaped by their philosophical ideas, one that was free of all such fears. It was a life of ataraxia, tranquillity or untroubledness, and this is what Epicurean philosophy promised to deliver.
The other great Hellenistic school of philosophy was Stoicism. The Stoics were the philosophers of antiquity who explicitly defined philosophy as an “art of living”, a skill to be learned and practised, just like building or medicine or navigation. As with the Epicureans, the goal was to cure the mind of disturbances that might interfere with living a tranquil life. According to the Stoics the most urgent problem was not fear of the gods or fear of death but rather the emotions. The Stoics developed a complex theory of perception in which images are presented to the mind, the mind translates the content of those images into a proposition, it then accepts or rejects the proposition, which in turn creates a belief. If the belief is true, this counts as a piece of knowledge, and so on. This seemingly abstract theory was central to their diagnosis of negative emotions, which they thought were produced when the mind accepts a proposition that contains an unwarranted value judgement not present in the initial image. If we want to overcome crippling negative emotions like fear or anger, we first have to understand the mechanics of perception and the process of belief formation. While these are interesting things to try to comprehend in their own right, for the Stoics understanding these things gains a greater urgency when we see that they offer a key to attaining what the founder of Stoicism, Zeno, called “a smooth flow of life”.
Like the Epicureans, the Stoics were also interested in understanding how the natural world works and, again, knowledge of Nature was thought to feed directly into a transformation of one’s way of life. They conceived Nature not as the product of chaotic interactions between atoms but rather as a single, unified, organised whole. We are parts of this single Nature, the Stoics argued, and so we ought to live with this knowledge in mind. This led to a range of practical proposals, such as not to fight against what happens, and to see ourselves as part of a larger community of living beings rather than isolated agents. In recent times some people have drawn connections between Stoicism and the ecological movement. The key point, though, is that their investigations into Nature were not merely abstract reflections to be forgotten at the end of the day. To be a Stoic did not mean simply to hold a certain set of beliefs; it meant to live a Stoic life that naturally flowed from those beliefs.
A third Hellenistic philosopher more or less contemporary with Epicurus and Zeno was Pyrrho of Ellis. The precise nature of Pyrrho’s own philosophy remains contentious, but later thinkers took him as a role model and developed a position that came to be called Pyrrhonism. In brief, Pyrrhonism holds that the only way to overcome mental suffering and anguish is to renounce all beliefs. They offered a path to mental tranquillity that went like this: if you have a belief about something, which you will no doubt think is true, then start to consider arguments for the opposite view. No argument for either side is likely to be overpoweringly convincing, and so eventually you’ll have two sets of equally convincing arguments for opposed sides of the issue, whether that be free will versus determinism, materialism versus idealism, whether pleasure or virtue is the most important thing, and so on. Indeed, you could say that this will reply to any substantial philosophical question that remains open to debate.
The opposed arguments, the Pyrrhonists claimed, will lead you into a state of “equipollence”, where the equally convincing (or unconvincing) arguments will generate a state of intellectual paralysis, and you’ll be unable to make a judgement either way. The Pyrrhonists thought that once one reaches this state of involuntary confusion, free from any belief, then tranquillity will come of its own accord. It’s believing things to be true that’s the problem. In practice this meant that the Pyrrhonists were very interested in arguments against the views of other philosophers, such as the Epicureans and Stoics. In this respect they were very like philosophers today, always looking for objections and counter-examples. But their interest in these things was all motivated by the desire to reach a state of equipollence and achieve the mental tranquillity that they thought would follow from it. Pyrrhonism has often been compared with Buddhism, and there’s an ancient source that claims that Pyrrho was influenced by his encounter with Indian sages, whom he met when he travelled to India with Alexander the Great.
This Hellenistic approach to philosophy as a guide to how to live well was presented to the reading public of Rome by Cicero, in works such as On Ends, On Duties, and the Tusculan Disputations. In the last of these Cicero pointed to Socrates as the figure standing behind the Hellenistic approach to philosophy: he was the first to “call philosophy down from the heavens and set her in the cities of men and bring her also into their homes and compel her to ask questions about life and morality and things good and evil”. Among Cicero’s successors at Rome, Seneca stands out as a champion of the Hellenistic approach to philosophy. Seneca identified as a Stoic but he regularly drew on Epicurus and Lucretius when he thought they had something useful to say. His letters and essays all deal with very real problems of everyday life, such as how to handle emotions like anger, how to stop wasting time, how to stay calm in the face of adversity, how to deal with bereavement, and so on. He combined discussion of these practical questions with descriptions of techniques that one might use to embed philosophical ideas into one’s own life. One of these, borrowed from the Pythagorean tradition, was to engage in daily reflections each evening, assessing how one had done, and how one might do better the next day. Seneca would ask himself each night ‘When did I act well towards others?’; ‘When did I act poorly?’; ‘In what ways did I fail to live up to my principles?’. The aim was to learn from his mistakes in order to reduce them in the future.
Other Roman Stoics developed similar practical techniques. Epictetus insisted on the need not just for evening reflection but for constant vigilance throughout the day. He would remind his students to keep their philosophical ideas always ready at hand. The mental repetition that this would involve was intended to help embed them into one’s mind and to develop corresponding habits. Epictetus insisted throughout his Discourses that the goal of philosophy is deeds rather than words, which is to say deeds in accord with philosophical ideas. As he put it, when sheep eat grass, they do not throw it back up out of their mouths; instead they digest it and show its product in their wool. Similarly, the craftsman does not learn about woodwork in order to sit around talking about woodwork all day; instead he makes things in accordance with the knowledge he has gained. Epictetus insists that philosophy is just the same: it’s not an activity primarily done by people sitting around talking. The whole point is to embed philosophical ideas into one’s daily life.
It might be tempting to think that this is an interesting historical idea but one that is no longer relevant today. Times have changed and philosophy has moved on. What we think of when we talk about philosophy now is something quite different to what Socrates, Epicurus, or Epictetus took it to be. That was, after all, over two thousand years ago. But it is worth noting that this way of thinking about philosophy did not die out in antiquity. A whole host of later philosophers took up this way of thinking about philosophy, often inspired by some of the ancient philosophers we have already encountered. In the sixteenth century there was Michel de Montaigne who, like Seneca, wrote essays on a wide range of everyday concerns from a philosophical perspective, and who saw the process of essay writing as a process of self-cultivation. In the next century Spinoza outlined a complex metaphysics and ethics, all aimed at attaining a state of beatitude. Philosophical outsiders like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche a bit later on also stressed self-transformation as the ultimate goal of philosophy. More recently Michel Foucault devoted the last years of his life to the study of ancient practices of what he called “care of the self” and did not shy away from thinking about how one might benefit from some of those practices today. In short, the idea of “philosophy as a way of life” might best be described not as something ancient and now long superseded, but rather as a way of thinking about what philosophy is that has been ever present throughout the history of philosophy and remains a live option today.