Wisdom and Freedom

Why do we continue to find such value in the life wisdom of ancient philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Siddhartha Gautama, Epicurus, and Epictetus? It’s not as if we’re still reading Ptolemy on astronomy or even Euclid on geometry, so why have these philosophical insights endured?

In the first chapter of his book The Pursuit of Unhappiness, Daniel Haybron makes a fascinating observation: the ancient philosophers deeply pondered the nature of happiness and the good life because they thought that most people make a mess of things! In some sense it’s the very elitism of these philosophers that gives their wisdom lasting value.

By contrast, we moderns are much more egalitarian: we think that everyone is an expert at living their own life. Because individual freedom is our highest value, we don’t tend to produce great new insights into how best to live. (An alternative explanation might be that there are only so many ways to live, and most of them were identified in the early wisdom traditions.)

Unfortunately, given the prevalence of depression, divorce, drug addiction, and other sources of sadness, it’s clear that we moderns aren’t necessarily experts at living. Furthermore, our so-called experts (writers of self-help books and the like) often offer shallow advice consisting of life hacks and happy talk.

It seems to me that there’s got to be a way to marry the best of ancient wisdom traditions and modern freedom traditions. I’m hopeful that trends like positive psychology and philosophical personalism are leading in that direction, but there’s a lot more work to be done in weaving these various strands together into a beautiful and lasting tapestry.

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