A list of books on Ancient and modern philosophies of life.
Phylosophy as a Way of Life
“Socrates had no system to teach. Throughout, his philosophy was a spiritual exercise, an invitation to a new way of life, active reflection, and living consciousness.”
French philosopher Pierre Hadot dedicated most of his life and career to rescue ancient philosophy from the dusty bookshelves of history. In 1981 he wrote his book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. The original title in the french edition was Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique.
According to Hadot, unlike modern academia, ancient philosophy was, first and foremost, about learning to live. A philosophy school in Hellenistic times was meant to transform the lives of their students. “Such transformation was effected in practice by undertaking practical ‘spiritual exercises’: By this term [‘spiritual exercises’], I mean practices which could be physical, as in dietary regimes, or discursive, as in dialogue and meditation, or intuitive, as in contemplation, but which were all intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practiced them.”
Hadot presents ancient philosophy as a Spiritual Exercise, through essays on Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, and others. But those Spiritual Exercises have little to do with the pious and arduous meditations of Ignatius of Loyola, which are but a distant echo of an ancient tradition. Such training of the self in relation to itself, that can still be practiced, appears already in the early Greek philosophers and have enormous significance in the Socratic and Platonic dialogues, in the Letters of Epicurus or Seneca, in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, in Plotinus’ treaties or certain modern authors like Montaigne, Descartes, or Foucault. The essence of philosophy is that constant questioning of our relationship with ourselves , with others and with the world.
THE INNER CITADEL
Pierre Hadot’s “The Inner Citadel” brings to light the system behind Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. With his elegant and lucid style, Hadot shows the inner architecture of the emperor’s private book. Yet the clarity and ease of the work’s style are deceptive. Pierre Hadot, renowned historian of ancient thought, unveils new layers of meaning and expands our understanding of its underlying philosophy.
In the exciting pages that make up The Inner Citadel, Hadot notes how Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are inserted in the tradition of the spiritual exercises, as the French philosopher has shown throughout his work, that has come a long distance, from the Greek philosophers to Foucault. In his own words, Meditations is the book of a man of action, whom seeks serenity because it is the indispensable condition of efficacy. The Inner Citadel teaches us how learning the mastery of the passions can be the basis to govern a whole empire.
With writing his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius developed an internal discipline that allowed him to carry out a government of the city from a philosophical perspective, whose main task was not to ensure self-interest, but to apply justice as far as possible. The city becomes a symbol of the soul of the philosopher, so that his government is inseparable from its spiritual praxis. The questions and approaches proposed by Pierre Hadot in the inner citadel are, in our time, more than ever present and of great cultural interest to anyone who, at a time of severe economic crisis, look in ancient philosophy and modern a way of life in the fullest. Based on the famous phrase of Marcus Aurelius “What can guide a man? Only one thing: philosophy ” Hadot teaches us that to do philosophy is not to solve abstract problems, but to improve our very way of life.
“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think” Socrates
Plato’s Dialogues are the cornerstone of western philosophy. In them, Plato portrays his teacher Socrates, challenging the arguments of the sophists in the streets of Athens, or engaging in dialogues with his friends, on how to create a better society, on the nature of justice, love, virtue, or the human soul.
Socrates wrote nothing and, despite having had numerous followers, never created a philosophical school. The so called Socratic schools were created by his followers. About his philosophical activity we have received various testimonies, some contradictory. If we believe Xenophon, Socrates was primarily interested in the formation of good men, limiting his philosophical activity to practical and ethical conduct. Interest in logical or metaphysical questions would be completely alien to Xenophon’s Socrates. For the comedian Aristophanes, Socrates was just another crazy sophist.
Plato’s account of Socrates is a different one. In the dialogues Socrates uses irony to unmask the ignorance and inconsistencies of the sophists. He presents himself as ignorant in the subject of the discussion, confessing that he knows nothing. Through a skillful chess game of question-answer, he manages to confuse the supposed expert in the domain they discuss. The normal outcome of the dialogue is that Socrates demonstrates that the views of his opponent are inconsistent. This philosophical questioning is known as the Socratic method.
Ironic, humorous, annoying, rational and spiritual at the same time, the Socrates that walks the streets of Athens in the dialogues is the archetype of the Sage, a kind of daemon, a spirit, an inner voice. The wise part of our consciousness, that it is always willing to engage in self-dialogue. Socrates will become the model of a Sage chosen by all the Hellenistic philosophies. Thanks to Plato’s dialogues, Socrates sill making people think 2400 years after his death.
Even if we disagree with what Socrates says, we are forced to build our own arguments against his, challenging us to define our terms, to realize that, in reality, we don’t know, the very initiation to philosophy.
For centuries scholars have analyzed every sentence of the dialogues, trying to uncover Plato’s ideas. There is much value in that, but the dialogues are probably not exposing a set of fixed ideas, rather, the dialogues are instruments devised to ignite thinking, encouraging us to discover the truth by ourselves. If dialectic is the heart of western philosophy, Plato’s dialogues are philosophy itself.
“The universe is transformation, life is opinion.”
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was not a book intended to be published. It was a private journal, but not an ordinary one. It was a book addressed to himself, a writing meditation, an exercise to recall his philosophy and ruling principles of life, the inner dialogue of a philosopher king. The world’s most powerful man working toward making himself a better man.
In the beginning of the second book we find a Stoic spiritual exercise, a few lines that encapsulate his philosophy of life:
“Begin each day by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busy- body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, for we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to Nature and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.” Meditations. Book Two.2.1.
The book was written in the last years of his life, during his campaigns fighting on the frontier of the Roman Empire, trying to hold a series of invasions from Germanic tribes. The most striking throughout the book, is the humanity of the man who held the highest position of power in the world. For men show their true character when they have absolute power. His temperance, remaining himself everyday that he was just a human being, full of flaws and things to be improved, even in his old age. He remains himself to focus his mind attentively on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, performing each action as if it were his last.
He remains himself the impermanence of all things and the futility of human worries and vanities “The universe is transformation, life is opinion.”
Edward Gibbon wrote; “The two Antonines governed the Roman world forty-two years, with the same invariable spirit of wisdom and virtue. … Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
Epictetus, like Socrates, didn’t write his philosophy. His teaching was transmitted by a pupil, Arrian, who recorded his Discourses and even compiled a short “manual”, the Enchiridion. Born a slave in Nikopolis, a greek city in the coast of modern Turkey, he had plenty of opportunities to test his philosophy before he gained his freedom, and became a teacher. Philosophy, he taught, is a way of life and not just a theoretical discipline.
His philosophy is apparently simple; make a sharp distinction between things that are in our control and the things that are not. You don’t have control over the weather, the past, the circumstances that brought you were you are, you may have some influence on your health or your reputation, but not control. You have power over your moral choices, your character and your inner life. So happiness begins, according to him, when we realize this, and start to focus on the things that really are up to us, and stop being anxious about the rest. “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master;
he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”
Letters from a Stoic
“Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA was born in Cordoba, Spain in a provincial but influential family. He suffered severely from ill health, particularly asthma, throughout his life. His interest was drawn at an early age to Pythagorean mysticism and various cults of eastern origin then gaining adherents in Rome, before his final conversion to Stoic philosophy. For several years of his turbulent life, Seneca was the guiding hand of the Roman Empire. Investor, politician, playwright, natural scientist and philosopher, the first six years of Nero’s rule under Seneca’s advice were regarded by Trajan as the best of the history of the roman empire. But Nero’s behavior became more and more uncontrollable and unpredictable, ending in a dangerous spiral of madness and murder.
Stoicism, for centuries the most influential philosophy in the Graeco-Roman world, had a long history before Seneca. The old Stoa was a rigorous and uncompromising philosophy, deemed too difficult and harsh for the common people. Seneca’s contribution to ancient philosophy lay in the humanization of this creed, continuing a process begun long before in Rhodes and Rome by Panaetius and Posidonius.
Although Seneca wrote for a relatively narrow circle of educated persons (usually addressing his compositions to a particular friend or relative as if he were that person‟s special spiritual adviser) his letters and essays show a Stoicism more closely reconciled with the facts and frailty of human nature.
His inspired reasoning derived mainly from the Stoic principles, which had originally been developed some centuries earlier in Athens. This selection of Seneca’s letters shows him upholding the austere ethical ideals of Stoicism—the wisdom of the self-possessed person immune to overmastering emotions and life’s setbacks—while valuing friendship and the courage of ordinary men, and criticizing the harsh treatment of slaves and the cruelties in the gladiatorial arena. The humanity and wit revealed in Seneca’s interpretation of Stoicism is a moving and inspiring declaration of the dignity of the individual mind.
STOICISM AND THE ART OF HAPPINESS
Donald J. Robertson
“As human nature is essentially rational, it follows that the highest form of excellence, and the key to living harmoniously, is the perfection of reason or wisdom, and the greatest vice is folly or ignorance.” Donald J. Robertson
Donald J. Robertson is a psychotherapist and philosopher that has been applying Stoicism for years in the field of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). From early youth he studied classical philosophy, practiced Buddhist meditation and studied psychology. Interested in the practical applications of ancient wisdom to modern life, his aim was to bring therapy, philosophy and meditation more closer into harmony. He found Stoicism to be the best candidate for his undertaking. It is not surprising that Robertson was part of the group of classicists, psychotherapists and philosophers that in 2012 begun the Stoicism Today project, at the University of Exeter, England.
His book is a comprehensive and systematic guide for applying philosophy to modern life, building resilience and finding a happier, more meaningful way of life. Drawing from the ancient wisdom of the Stoics to reveal lasting truths and proven strategies for enhanced wellbeing. But it is no Self-help book. He does not tells us the kind of things we want to hear, but the kind of things we need to hear. Moreover, Robertson makes a thorough and historically accurate introduction to the philosophy of Stoicism.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF COGNITIVE-BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT)
Donald J. Robertson
Insightful and inspiring this book by Donald Robertson shows why CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and REBT (Rational emotive behavior therapy) have their roots in ancient wisdom traditions such as Stoic philosophy. Robertson has a wealth of experience in a number of therapies as well as a very strong academic background and that gives him an advantage when building necessary bridges between psychotherapy and philosophical in practical life.
A GUIDE TO A GOOD LIFE:
THE ANCIENT ART OF STOIC JOY
William B. Irvine
One of the great fears many of us face is that despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life. In A Guide to the Good Life, William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.
In A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine offers a refreshing presentation of Stoicism, showing how this ancient philosophy can still direct us toward a better life. Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Irvine offers a roadmap for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us. Irvine looks at various Stoic techniques for attaining tranquility and shows how to put these techniques to work in our own life. As he does so, he describes his own experiences practicing Stoicism and offers valuable first-hand advice for anyone wishing to live better by following in the footsteps of these ancient philosophers. Readers learn how to minimize worry, how to let go of the past and focus our efforts on the things we can control, and how to deal with insults, grief, old age, and the distracting temptations of fame and fortune. We learn from Marcus Aurelius the importance of prizing only things of true value, and from Epictetus we learn how to be more content with what we have.
Finally, A Guide to the Good Life shows readers how to become thoughtful observers of their own life. If we watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and later reflect on what we saw, we can better identify the sources of distress and eventually avoid that pain in our life. By doing this, the Stoics thought, we can hope to attain a truly joyful life
The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties & Fate
Tad Brennan explains how to live the Stoic life-and why we might want to. Stoicism has been one of the main currents of thought in Western civilization for two thousand years: Brennan offers a fascinating guide through the ethical ideas of the original Stoic philosophers, and shows how valuable these ideas remain today, both intellectually and in practice. He writes in a lively informal style which will bring Stoicism to life for readers who are new to ancient philosophy. The Stoic Life will also be of great interest to philosophers and classicists seeking a full understanding of the intellectual legacy of the Stoics.
YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR LIFE
By Peter Sloterdijk
Peter Sloterdijk is a professor of aesthetics and philosophy at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. One of the most interesting and cosmopolitan european thinkers, his Critic to the Cynical Reason made him one of the most critizied and . In You Must Change Your Life, we can clearly see Sloterdijk’s debt to Nietzsche, but also to Foucault. Dense, demanding, but ultimately quite rewarding, the book presents a critique of a myth – the myth of the return of religion. For it is not religion that is returning; rather, there is something else quite profound that is taking on increasing significance in the present: the human as a practising, training being, one that creates itself through exercises and thereby transcends itself. The book’s title comes from a line in the poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which Sloterdijk takes to give expression to what he considers the “absolute imperative — the quintessential metanoetic command”
Rainer Maria Rilke formulated the drive towards such self-training in the early twentieth century in the imperative “You must change your life”. He claims that what we call “religion” is better understood on the model of what he calls “anthropotechnics,” the network of deliberate practices whereby we shape ourselves and our institutions, remaking in the process what it is possible for “human being” to be.
In making his case for the expansion of the practice zone for individuals and for society as a whole, Sloterdijk develops a fundamental and fundamentally new anthropology. The core of his science of the human being is an insight into the self-formation of all things human. The activity of both individuals and collectives constantly comes back to affect them: work affects the worker, communication the communicator, feelings the feeler.
A central idea of the work is that communities defined by disciplines can be understood as operating in the interests of a cultural auto-immunity. Their practices and rituals are designed to reinforce the group and its members’ sense of belonging, and to undermine their susceptibility toward dissolution and dissipation. Whatever new practices we decide to develop – and we have to act now! – must be formed in cognizance of the fact that in shaping ourselves we are reshaping the earth. So that an addendum to the imperative to change, to improve, is the maxim by Hans Jonas that Sloterdijk cites: “Act in such a way that the effects of your actions can be reconciled with the permanence of true human life on earth.”
It is those humans who engage expressly in practice that embody this mode of existence most clearly: farmers, workers, warriors, writers, yogis, rhetoricians, musicians or models. By examining their training plans and peak performances, this book offers a panorama of exercises that are necessary to be, and remain, a human being
NATURE LOVES TO HIDE
In Nature Loves to Hide, physicist Shimon Malin takes the famous Heraclitus’ aphorism Nature loves to hide (in Greek, phusis kruptesthai philei) as the starting point to take us on a fascinating tour of quantum theory, one that turns to Western philosophical thought to clarify this strange yet inescapable description of the nature of reality. Malin translates quantum mechanics into plain English, explaining its origins and workings against the backdrop of the famous debate between Niels Bohr and the skeptical Albert Einstein. Then he moves on to build a philosophical framework that can account for the quantum nature of reality. He draws out the linkage between the concepts of Neoplatonism and the more recent process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.
Writing with broad humanistic insight and deep knowledge of science, and using delightful conversation with fictional astronauts Peter and Julie to explain more difficult concepts, Shimon Malin offers a profound new understanding of the nature of reality–one that shows a deep continuity with aspects of our Western philosophical tradition going back 2,500 years, and that feels more deeply satisfying, and truer, than the clockwork universe of Newton.
ANTIFRAGILE, THINGS THAT GAIN FROM DIORDER
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“My idea of the modern Stoic Sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
We tend to think that the opposite of fragil is robust. But Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that that is not the case. He explains that the opposite of fragile cannot be robust, since a robust thing in the best of the cases stays the same. He proposes Antifragility instead, something that is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resist shocks and stays teh same; the antifragile gets better. The antifragile loves randomness and uncertanty, which also means-crucially- a love of errors, a certain class of errors.
He applies the same theory from politics, to investment or body-training. Our body needs stressors, it needs action and shock. His advice, walk or sprint, but don’t jog. Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, and proposing that things be built in an antifragile manner. Extremely ambitious and multidisciplinary, Antifragility provides a blueprint for how to behave-and thrive-in a world we don’t understand and which is too uncertain for us to even try to understand. He who is not antifragile will perish. Why is the city state better than the nation state, why is debt bad for you, and why is almost everything modern bound to fail? The book covers innovation, health, biology, medicine, life decisions, politics, foreign policy, urban planning, war, personal finance, and economic systems. Throughout, the voice and recipes of the ancient wisdom from Phoenician, Roman, Greek, and Medieval sources are heard loud and clear.
WALDEN. Life in the Woods
Henry David Thoureau
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Walden, or, Life in the Woods, is an American book written by noted transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The work is part personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self-reliance. Published in 1854, it details Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amid woodland owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts.
Stoic Spiritual Exercises
PLANNING TO READ
Ralph Waldo Emerson