I was reading a book entitled Masterpieces of World Philosophy – 683 pages of serious cogitation for sure! The chapter about the Apology (the trial of Socrates, as recorded by his loyal student Plato) was quite enlightening. Socrates is envisioned as one of the world’s first and foremost prophets (yes, literally, a prophet). I found it both enlightening and edifying. I was moved to stop and write about a lifestyle called a life of philosophy. This blog describes what I think it means.
When the Founders [of the United States of America] wrote “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” they championed a life of value, not just property. But what constitutes a life of value? And how is such a life achieved?
On page 38 of Masterpieces of World Philosophy, Frank N. Magill refers to a 1924 book by John Burnet. He writes: “Here, in Burnet’s opinion, is the essential background for understanding the overriding ethical concern which made Socrates cross-examine everyone he met concerning the kind of life he was leading. …[T]he chief duty of everyone is the care of his own soul.”
Indeed, Socrates was a believer in God. He actually claimed to have an inner guide (not sure if he really meant conscience or if we are talking voices, here) which led him rightly. Though he has been a hero to philosophers and philosophophiles for centuries, he was no atheist. He appears to have been referring not exactly to an ancient Greek god (e.g., Zeus), nor to Yahweh, the god of the ancient Israelites, but his interpretation of “a god.” Okay, not exactly my cup of tea, but he was no evangelical Christian, so I’m okay with it.
No less interesting to me is the following: “…he talked at the trial about God having assigned him ‘the post of living a life of philosophy.'” I believe the words in quotes are those of Socrates, which is amazing to think might be authentically his. Magill continues: “It is clear, says Burnet, that he did not use the term philosophy in its popular sense, but in the deeper sense which it had among the Pythagoreans.” My belief is that this approach characterizing the Pythagoreans describes a life which seeks harmony, wisdom, justice, asceticism, understanding, egalitarianism, research and inquiry, mysticism, and insight. Pythagoreans were vegetarians and studied assiduously. A succinct summary is offered by philosopher Sandra Peterson:
The life of true philosophy realizes the Apology ideal of caring most about wisdom, truth, and the best possible state of the soul. ~ Sandra Pederson
The idea of living a life of philosophy is most interesting. It is a combination of thinking, perceiving, experiencing, interacting, acting, and managing. It is necessarily good, though the self is obviously the main focus. Philosopher Tom Morris, author of True Success and the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, has this to say:
“The good life is not first and foremost about acquisition, power, luxury, or status. It is not about celebrity. And it’s not an existence of unbridled, self-indulgent excess.” Some folks call that kind of vacuous and uninsightful existence the good life – you know, yachts, parties, company, and ease. In fact, the two philosophers of note who come closest to living a life of fame and wealth were Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha), Voltaire, and Bertrand Russell. However, The Buddha gave it all up big-time, Voltaire never let his mighty pen rest while some injustice or outrage was present in 18th-Century France, and Russell, though born into the English aristocracy, worked unyieldingly and published prolifically. Aristotle and Montaigne I admit probably lived a cushy life. Most, like Socrates or Spinoza or Peter Singer, would feel guilty and shallow to feather their own nests and seek hedonic pleasure while the world turned at 1,000 miles an hour.
Morris adds: “The life that is good must be founded on an attitude of respect and nurture toward the intellectual, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual needs of every human being.” That is a high-minded and truly integrated way of looking at human needs and human potential. Indeed, we are as social as the bees and as family- and community-oriented as Canada geese. To live a solipsistic existence or to merely “look out for #1” is an affront to philos sophia – “the love of wisdom.” Indeed, Morris believes that “It begins in an inner circle of family, extends to friends and coworkers, and finally reaches out across all artificial and natural boundaries to all life on this earth.” So I guess Morris is not a “climate change denier” and he finds the behavior of many modern-day corporations and their wealthy and powerful directors, executives, and shareholders to be misguided or antisocial.
Morris has something else to add to really kick us off in the right direction. In thinking about a life of philosophy, he points out that “The word philosophy just means ‘love of wisdom.’ This is easy to understand when you realize that love is a commitment, and wisdom is just insight about living. Philosophy is, at its best, a passionate commitment to pursuing and embracing the most fundamental truths and insightful perspectives about life.”
If we think hard about [important] things, and discipline our reasoning in such a way as to make real progress, we are beginning to act as good philosophers. But we can’t really live philosophically without acting in accordance with our insights. To be philosophers in the deepest sense, we must put our wisdom to work. ~ Tom Morris
I find there are at least seven elements of a philosophical life (in my opinion):
- Above all, I would say inquiry. Openness to thinking critically about everything. Skepticism. Doubt. Examination of one’s beliefs. This needn’t be dark and intimidating; Plato said that philosophy begins in wonder. Renowned philosopher Will Durant believed, rightly I think, that “Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt – particularly one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas, one’s axioms.”
It can be scary to human beings to be as flexible and tentative and open to new information and compelling evidence as this approach to living a life of philosophy entails. I wish you well in this endeavor! Here are two poems that are illustrative of this aspect of living a life of philosophy. They are by Alan Nordstrom.
For all we know, there still are mysteries
We human beings may not ever solve
Despite our scientific theories
Or what technologies may yet evolve.
Those questions we call Ultimate remain
Perplexing to our vain investigations:
How the Cosmos came about we can’t explain,
And other deep inquiries try our patience.
Who and What and Where and When and How
We have good methods to investigate,
But Why is one our science won’t allow
And none of our philosophies will sate,
For all their propositions but suppose
How this mysterious universe arose.
Suddenly a veil was blown away—
And I viewed depths of sight I’d never seen,
A marveling mind, enraptured by the play
Of wonderful ideas, bright and keen,
Revealing realms of wisdom, heretofore
Incomprehensible, for me to seize
Now that my fluttering mind could swiftly soar
Exploring spacious vistas of insight
Until the splendor of this vision faded
As swiftly as it flared, though still delight
Remains in memory, and now decades
From then, I bless that peak I once attained
The full potential of my mind unchained.
- Directly related to inquiry is erudition. In other words, education, learning, and scholarship. The life that is based on philosophy more or less began with Socrates. I don’t think he read very much, but Plato and Aristotle and virtually every notable professional philosopher since has indeed. To go through life without learning what others (especially, wise others) have thought and concluded and believed is like reinventing the wheel. There is no need. Philosophy, like science, is cumulative; older, wiser, and more learned individuals can probably teach each of us more than we currently know.
Do you read much? Do you read nonfiction? Do you get your news and views from Facebook? Have you heard of Aeschylus, Diderot, Petrarch, Hobbes, Cicero, Lao-Tzu, and Tacitus? Ever read any Ovid, Sophocles, Camus, or William James? What do you think about Homer’s works, about Aesop’s fables, or Montaigne’s Essays? Are the names Will Durant, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Leo Tolstoy familiar ones? You know something about Einstein, Gandhi, and Helen Keller, but are you familiar with intellectual figures such as Marie Curie, Charles Dickens, Thomas Jefferson, and Margaret Atwood? Try looking up more recent philosophers such as H. L. Mencken, Mortimer J. Adler, John Rawls, Michael J. Sandel, Alain de Botton, and Ronald Dworkin.
I am definitely not trying to sound erudite or wise or learned. I literally have not read all of those individuals, and I have not read all that any of them wrote. But the point is, if philosophy is the love of wisdom, you have to literally love wisdom. You’ve got to get pleasure and joy out of learning new things, having your preconceived notions challenged, and adding to the scaffolding of your knowledge. And one cannot make such mental progress without plenty of diverse readings. Perhaps today, podcasts and blogs count, but obviously the works of Plutarch and Pascal and Aquinas have stood the test of time while today you have over one million books published every year.
- Ethics. Right behavior. Concern for others. Again, Alan Nordstrom has this to say on this aspect of living a life of philosophy: “Our principal responsibility is to learn what a good person is and to become one, knowing that a good person is as a good person does. Goodness is ultimately defined not by one’s benevolent philosophy but by one’s kindly deeds.” Bravo, I say!
The idea of right conduct and concern for the other is truly a part of a good life, and I think it can maybe be conceived as part of a life of philosophy. Certainly, one can’t live in a philosophical manner and be selfish, cruel, and Machiavellian with others. I say a wise person is necessarily an empathic, interested, careful, and morally good individual.
“We publish the book of our lives every day through our actions, and through our conduct we teach one another what is worthy of admiration and what is worthy of disdain.”
Look up ethics, morality, character, and goodness in The Wisdom Archive and you will be shown a surprisingly diverse and scintillating array of quotations about living a life of philosophy – and ethicality.
- “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” Plato’s indefatigable student Aristotle wrote. He also noted that it is “prosperity combined with virtue.” Indeed, his idea of eudaimonia, or human flourishing, is one of the hallmarks of the idea of living a good life. I don’t disagree with Carolyn Gregorie when she termed it a “theory of self-actualization, personal well-being, and happiness [being] the highest goals that we can strive for.” Take heed, though; the influential existentialist philosopher Albert Camus warned that “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
“To make a person happy, fill their hands with work, their heart with affection, their mind with purpose, their memory with useful knowledge, their future with hope, and their stomach with food.”
Click here for many more quotations involving the word happiness on this site’s Wisdom Archive.
- Diligence. Avoidance of pitfalls. Dealing with distractions. Read what author and cultural creative Jan Phillips has to say:
“Here we are on planet Earth with one precious life to live and what are most of us caught up in? The quest for money. Living takes money. Business takes money. Growth takes money. So the question is how can we tend to the business at hand without living divided lives?”
I believe she is pointing out the folly of living an unexamined life, as Socrates would describe it. We have to work, we have to have social interactions, we have to attend to our health day-in and day-out. There are so many distractions and pitfalls to entrap and ensnare he or she who fails to be vigilant and “keep their eyes on the prize.”
How good a political guide are our emotions if they prevent us from discerning a politician’s deepening cognitive deficits (or any other serious flaw, for that matter)? Is it any wonder that there are no more statesmen, no more village elders in the world of politics? Not because voters don’t want it; people yearn for political wisdom and guidance. It’s just that a system devoted to honing emotionally charged catchphrases and code words essentially creates a political culture built on a foundation of fear. ~ Stephen S. Hall
What is the prize? Right living. Fulfillment. A life of philosophy. A life of value.
What is the danger? Social media. Conformity. Mindlessness. Habit. Mediocrity. Laziness. Ignorance.
Indeed, Socrates believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
- Live confidently with purpose and seek meaning. Have you heard of mindfulness? This is in that zone. Consider the words of the Supreme Court justice, Hugo Black:
“It is the paradox of life that the way to miss pleasure is to seek it first. The very first condition of lasting happiness is that a life should be full of purpose, aiming at something outside self. As a matter of experience, we find that true happiness comes in seeking other things, in the manifold activities of life, in the healthful outgoing of all human powers.”
“Once we commit to a life of excellence, meaning, purpose, nothing can get in the way. We find the joy and purpose we’re seeking because we’re acting in accordance with our values.”
These folks are saying that we ought to first prioritize our values and our daily activities – our style of life – and then positive things might result. “Happiness is a side effect of living life in a certain way. It’s not a mood—moods are biochemically regulated—and it’s not even an emotion, because emotions seem to be somewhat event-dependent. What I’m talking about is a way of living a meaningful, purpose-focused, fulfilling life” wrote
- Curiosity and wonder are absolutely hallmarks of a philosophical kind of life. “Philosophy begins in wonder,” noted Aristotle. He is referring to the fact that we can go through life in at least two ways: interested, curious, open, and ready for wonderment, or we can glide through self-confident, ignorant, and closed-minded. Ignorant, of course, literally means to ignore something potentially important.
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe, contemplating the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to understand a little of this mystery every day.”
There is so much amazing stuff out there. In today’s world, not only are there millions of books, but there is an endless supply of things to be interested in, learn, and incorporate into your cognition on the Net. In fact, there is a dangerous amount of information out there, but we must be interested, and we must be critical consumers. Think of the amazingness of novelist Goethe’s quote that “Beauty is a manifestation of secret natural laws, which otherwise would have been hidden from us forever.” Or try this idea on for size:
There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life – happiness, freedom, and peace of mind – are always attained by giving them to someone else.
Or these lines from the incredibly good English poet Alexander Pope: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hidden in night; God said ‘Let [Isaac] Newton be – and all was light.”
Few have characterized the joy of learning and the power of wonder and curiosity than famed scientist Richard Feynman: “The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, come again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough. With more knowledge comes deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still.”
The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.
There are some reasons why a life of philosophy will be fruitful, and there are going to be some frustrations. What are the fruits? I believe it makes life better – at least more noble and true – to attempt to live in such a way that prioritizes inquiry, skepticism, happiness, ethics, and the like. This is arguable, but there is evidence. Consider this: “Certainly, there is something right in the idea that a life without virtue – an immoral life – is a life without value (even to the person who has it). There’s something defective in that. It’s a meaningless life”
But what of frustrations? As I mentioned, there are pitfalls as one attempts to live wisely, to live well. It might not be easy to make a living if one does right all the time and is above reproach. Few others even try to live this way.
Imagine the life of a police officer who is of very high character; often, he or she will gain kudos and not gain unwanted attention. But you’ve heard the idea that the nail which sticks out tends to get pounded down? Since a cop’s coworkers are not any more moral or virtuous than the average citizen (which nowadays can be read as “is a selfish and obtuse fool”), a good cop is going to find themselves having to tell the truth and do the right thing against the grain of the profession. To wit – Serpico. In fact, they have a term for police officers who tell the truth and fastidiously follow the law: whistleblower.
In a word, it’s just harder. What you eat, where you live, how you live, your social relationships, and what your days are like are going to be deeply affected by attempting to actually live a life that Socrates would approve of. He could hardly find anyone in Athens who really lived wisely and well. They considered him a horsefly on the ass of the city and put him to death. Literally.
“Living integral lives is daunting. We must achieve a complex integration that spans the contradictions between inner and outer reality, that supports both personal integrity and the common good. No, it is not easy work.”
One approach to the question “How should I live?” is found on a site entitled Philosophy Now. It is a bit dense, but does present an array of opinions essentially relevant to this idea of living a life of philosophy. Below is one of the most enlightening of entries on that laudable page:
Most of us want to live well, but we are often mistaken about how to do so. For example, the drug addict who believes he is “as happy as can be” is mistaken, and will later acknowledge his mistake if he cleans up. And the neurotic who constantly worries about things outside of his control is not living well even if he believes he is. However, we have a nature that defines the real parameters for a flourishing life: happiness and goodness are not the results of arbitrary choices, rather they arise when we actualize our natures. The drug addict is not living as well or happily as he could, nor can he choose to do so until he adopts a lifestyle that actualizes his human nature.
So, how should we live? To live well, we should listen to former drug addicts, former neurotics, and wise elders. That is, to live well we should love wisdom (philos sophia in Greek). From the Stoics, we can learn to distinguish between what is in our control and what is not, and to avoid investing our hopes in what is not in our control. This can free us from many neurotic behaviors. From some religions, such as Buddhism, we can learn stillness, and realize the interconnectedness of all things. We can learn ‘the way of being instead of having’ (Erich Fromm). Empathy and community grow from these insights, which in turn nourish some of the deepest forms of happiness and human actualization. From Epicurus, we learn how to avoid vain desires, and to not give in to the advertisers and emotions that create them. So we learn to live a simple and deeply meaningful life built around relationships, clean living, and reflection. From Socrates and Plato, we learn to use the Socratic Method of persistent inquiry, which leads to humility, wisdom, and provides ways to cultivate health and virtue, where health is the harmony of the body, and virtue is the harmony of the soul or mind. From Aristotle, we learn moderation and how to cultivate virtuous habits. These examples are a taste for the wisdom found in philosophy. So, we should live well; and this means we should study philosophy. ~ Paul Stearns
I think the idea of “a life of value” is a fitting description of how one lives a life of philosophy. Perhaps I would describe it as the practical application of the idea of right living. A life of value is when one pursues one’s own goals and seeks fulfillment, but in such a way as to add to the sum of happiness and peace and fulfilment of others as well. It is a bit hard to define, though it is consistent with human flourishing + other-centered living. Consider it personal fulfillment and self-concern plus righteousness and ethicality, if you will. It can best be described using quotations, and I will end with those:
“‘A life of value’ has two parts: one is about fulfilling yourself and finding meaning by prioritizing, or living the values that you authentically possess. When your life is consistent with what you truly value, then your life just ‘feels right.’ Beyond fulfilling yourself and valuing your life, when you live a life of value, you make positive differences to those around you – be it your family, your community, your country, or our world. It is as though, objectively, your life is valuable to someone or something beyond yourself – that the earth breathes easier with you here. Hence, you derive a subjective sense of value from your life because you are living your values, but further, your life has some objective value beyond how you feel.”
“Clearly, to find meaning in life we need to identify some values that confer meaning; so the question is what values to pursue. What makes life worthwhile? These need not be limited to ethical values though no doubt ethical values should be included. Three main values have been championed by philosophers: pleasure, knowledge, and virtue.”
“For Plato, justice was a by-product of his version of ‘a life of value.’ Justice should not be relegated to the status of a by-product; it needs to be central to a life of value because, without it, the application of critical thinking to questions such as, ‘How should one live?’ will be necessarily shallow and insufficient.”
“Living a life of value takes actual learning, thinking, consciousness, conscientiousness, and practice. Developing one’s ethical, spiritual, and emotional life does not happen as easily as gaining weight – it is more akin to exercising. But when you think of Jesus, see that movie character doing the right thing, hear the Dalai Lama, watch a religious figure in your place of worship, or think of Martin Luther King or Helen Keller, do you not get the feeling that they practiced and really ‘lived’ their chosen values?”
“Does your life matter? Does mine? Do they matter to other people? Do they matter in the larger scheme of things? Significance may be the ultimate issue, and an important yardstick of successful living. Our feelings of self-worth are intimately tied to our sense of significance. What gives the strongest boost to our feelings of self-worth? Isn’t it the knowledge that we are making a meaningful contribution to the world around us? That we are helping others? That we are doing things which somehow matter?”
“The plight of so many of our neighbors on this planet reminds us that living ‘a life of value’ is not, nor can it ever be, an individual matter. We are rapidly destroying the natural wonder and splendor of the world. We live in a world of war, terrorism, violence, and appalling suffering. ‘Lives of value’ must acknowledge and deal with these social problems.”
“Your own fulfillment and meaning are what get you out of bed in the morning; you feel good doing the things you find joy and interest in. Flow activities. Your acts of service, compassion, and concern for the other are what make you feel good about yourself. Self-help philosophies and positive psychology aim toward finding fulfillment and being happy; religion and ethics point to a concern for people and the entire planet as being indispensable for a human being who is conscious and righteous. All in all, this is a well-lived life; a life of philosophy; a life of value.” ~ Jason Merchey