Ancient philosophy as a way of life

American philosopher Henry David Thoreau conveyed the problem of modern western philosophy in his book Walden, Life in the Woods.

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, [. . .] but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

 In other words, modern philosophy has become a discourse about philosophy. 

The issue is an old one and Seneca the Younger already complained about it in Roman times: “part of the blame lies on the teachers of philosophy, who today teach us how to argue instead of how to live, part on their students, who come to the teachers in the first place with a view to developing not their character but their intellect. The result has been the transformation of philosophy, the study of wisdom, into philology, the study of words.”

He described what philosophy was in the following terms: Its concern is not with words, but with facts. It is not carried on with the object of passing the day in an entertaining sort of way and taking the boredom out of leisure. It moulds and builds the personality, orders one’s life, regulates one’s conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm, and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas. Without it no one can lead a life free of fear or worry. Every hour of the day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy. Seneca. letters XVI

Greek philosophers
Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, Epikouros

The essential aspect of ancient philosophy  was its oral tradition and its living praxis. Philosophy was a “Bios”, a way of life.

French philosopher Pierre Hadot dedicated most of his life and career to rescue that aspect of ancient philosophy from the bookshelves of history. In 1981 he wrote his book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. 

“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”

According to Hadot, unlike modern academia, ancient philosophy was, first and foremost, about learning to live. A philosophy school 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.”

Ancient philosophy offered its students an entire worldview, a coherent way of life, a set of techniques for facing the problems of existence, and a discipline, that could be used as a compass for every decision.

“Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for humans, otherwise it would be admitting something that lies beyond its proper subject matter. For just as wood is the material of the carpenter, bronze that of the statuary, so each individual’s own life is the material of the art of living.” Epictetus (Diss. 1.15.2)

The end goal of the paideia, or the education of the young citizen, was to achieve excellence in character and life. This included: physical training, for which the Greeks developed the gymnasion; mental training, which included oratory, rhetoric, and basic sciences; and spiritual training, which included poetry and music. The aim of education was not the transformation of children into capable employees, but the fulfillment of their full potential as human beings. 

“So long, in fact, as you remain in ignorance of what to aim at and what to avoid, what is essential and what is superfluous, what is upright or honourable conduct and what is not, you will not be travelling but drifting.”  Seneca. Letter CIV

Around the 3rd century BC, a Phoenician merchant called Zeno suffered a shipwreck near Athens, an event that he would later described as “fortunate”, since it drove him to philosophy. After studying many years under some of the most important schools of his time, Zeno developed his own philosophy, and begun to teach at the Agora of Athens, under a painted porch or Stoa, that will give a name to his school. He basically taught that, if we have to learn the art of life, we must first begin by learning to value only the goods that we cannot lose in a shipwreck.

In 2012 a project organized by a team of British classicists, psychotherapists and philosophers begun at the University of Exeter, England. They were interested in exploring the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and its applications in modern life. The project, Stoicims Today, has been running for the last four years, and it is being a success. What started as a workshop has grown into a worldwide movement, and it has gained many adherents, some as prominent as the scientist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci:

“Stoicism is a path in which each of us decides what we want and can achieve, and each of us holds the key position in making positive change where we can. It is about having and using our personal power. It is about accepting things when we don’t have power, and letting go of control over things that we have no control of. It is about keeping fixed on an internal moral compass while moving through a complex and confusing world. In order to make any decisions, we have to have information, and evaluate that information and revise it according to new sources of knowledge.
As long as we can know any evidence-based truths about this world, I believe that Stoicism would want to incorporate them into its philosophy–increasing wisdom would always be a goal. I like the thought of rediscovering ancient philosophy and revising it to help us in this era.” – Massimo Pigliucci.

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Stoicism had been gathering momentum since a few decades ago. Many became interested after reading Tom Wolf’s novel A Man in Full, a 1998 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction. In 2009 William B Irvin’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy changed the popular perception of Stoicism, from a philosophy for unemotional-stiff-upper-lip old men in togas, into a dynamic and practical way of life.


References and Further Reading

  • Hadot, Pierre. (1995). Philosophy as a Way of Life. (Michael Chase, Trans.) Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Hadot, Pierre. (1998). The Inner Citadel; the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard University Press.
  • Robertson, Donald. Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Ancient tips for modern challenges.
  • Robertson, Donald. Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Ancient tips for modern challenges.
  • Irvin William B.  (2009) A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy  
  • Tom Wolf (1998) A Man in Full

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