Philosophies and Ways of Life

In his book What Is Ancient Philosophy?, Pierre Hadot almost singlehandedly resurrected the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life. Consider this observation about the philosophical schools of Greece and Rome: “For us moderns, the notion of a philosophical school evokes only the idea of a doctrinal tendency or theoretical position. Things were very different in antiquity. No university obligations oriented the future philosopher toward a specific school; instead, the future philosopher came to attend classes in the school of his choice as a function of the way of life practiced there.”

Yet there is an ambiguity here. When in ancient times you chose to join, say, the school of the Stoics, you chose everything associated with that way of life: you wore Stoic clothing, shaved your head in Stoic style, read Stoic books, admired Stoic heroes, made Stoic friends, studied with Stoic teachers, and of course accepted Stoic philosophy. But which was primary: the way of life or the philosophy? Did you really adopt philosophy as a way of life, or only Stoicism as a way of life?

Perhaps this is a false alternative. It certainly seems that you can pursue wisdom and truth primarily or solely within a given tradition, as did Marcus Aurelius within Stoicism (see his Meditations) or as did many sages and worthies over the centuries within Confucianism (one fine example is The Journal of Wu Yubi as translated by M. Theresa Kelleher). On the other hand, committing to a particular creed as a way of life rather than to a generalized pursuit of wisdom as a way of life might limit how successful you can be as a human being, in several ways:

  • Partisanship is an ever-present threat, since those around you might denigrate all of the other schools. (Indeed, the Hellenistic schools that Hadot lauds also tended to viciously attack each other.)
  • Because no school of thought can be comprehensive, you might miss out on the unique contributions of other schools. This is not merely a doctrinal failing: by ignoring virtues emphasized by other schools, you might not be as successful in living a good human life.
  • If there are universal truths, then presumably reason can discover them outside the context of any particular school; this is the intellectual promise of, for example, Aristotelian dialectic (which attempts to accurately weigh the value of insights from every school).

Personally, I’ve learned a great deal by studying a wide variety of wisdom traditions and I continue to do so. But one could argue that perhaps I’m missing out on some of their deepest insights, since those would require total immersion. Unfortunately, there are tradeoffs in everything, including philosophy as a way of life!

10 thoughts on “Philosophies and Ways of Life

  1. Hi Peter, I’m writing to you here because I have trouble leaving a comment on your post. I liked your meditation. The idea of the ancient schools made me think of modern schools of thought. It seems to me that some were cliquish and doctrinaire (perhaps the logical positivists) while others were all about ideas. Naturally I also thought about the Objectivists, who so traveled in packs of like-minded people that they have been accused of being a cult.  Indeed it does seem like many Oists have dwelt too much in Oist circles, going to conferences, having dinners together, etc. I suppose I’m lucky I haven’t been able to do much of that, since it has kept me from being drawn into the vortex.   I would like to live in part in a community of thinkers, definitely not all Oists. I’d love to discuss my writing and discuss theirs if they write.  I’d like personal support to be part of it. I guess I’m just talking about having various friends, but there are empty spaces in me that I would like to more completely fill with more friends, and that would make it seem like a community. Just some first impressions! Yours,Kurt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kurt, thanks for your comment. The community aspect was critically important in the ancient schools of philosophy such as the Stoics and Epicureans – every large town had its teachers and students of these “schools”, who shared in meals, festivals, and the most significant events of life. I suppose nowadays such things have moved online, but basking in the real-life presence of likeminded people is not easily replaced (although, as you say, sometimes that presence can be overwhelming and not in a good way). Here too perhaps moderation is in order…

      Liked by 1 person

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