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The Art of Living

Philosophy For Everyday Life

Massimo Pigliucci considers the usefulness of philosophy.

Philosophy, as you probably know, means ‘love of wisdom’. However, if you wish to learn how to become wise I highly recommend you don’t walk into a modern department of philosophy at a university. Ask for wisdom there and most people (and I’m one of them) would look at you as if you were a Martian and tell you to go to the psychology department, or better yet, look into the self-help section of the nearest bookstore.

That has to change, and I’m writing this column for Philosophy Now with the intention to help such change along. It’s not that there is anything wrong with doing philosophy as a highly specialized academic discipline. (Well, there is something wrong about that, but that discussion is for another time.) I publish technical papers in philosophy of science, and teach courses in that discipline. That’s fine, and there is a long tradition of philosophers interested in equally esoteric matters, beginning at least with Thales of Miletus in the 6th century BCE.

However, since Socrates in the 5th century BCE, philosophy has also meant the study and practice of the art of living. Indeed, the Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: “Socrates appears to me, and indeed it is the universal opinion, to have been the first person who drew philosophy away from matters of an abstruse character, which had been shrouded in mystery by nature herself, and in which all the philosophers before his time had been wholly occupied, and to have diverted it to the objects of ordinary life” (Academica, I.4).

The art of living – a translation of the Greek technē peri ton bion – is not something only Greco-Romans were interested in. It was also pursued by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers throughout the Middle Ages, and independently, and earlier, by Buddhists in India and Confucians and Daoists in China, to name only some of the major traditions. We also find modern and contemporary authors in the Western world that would be recognized by Cicero as belonging in the same general category as Socrates; for instance Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Foucault. Arguably, however, the modern revival of philosophy conceived as the art of living is in great part the result of the efforts of the French scholar Pierre Hadot and his three landmark books, Philosophy as a Way of Life (1981), The Inner Citadel (1992), and What Is Ancient Philosophy? (1995). The recent interest that I’m sure you’ve noticed surrounding Stoicism (for example, How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci, Basic Books, 2017) is the direct – or perhaps indirect – result of popular appreciation of Hadot’s work.

But what, exactly, is ‘the art of living’, and how does one go about practicing it? I intend to articulate a full (and practical) answer to these questions in future installments of this column. For now, though, let’s start by recognizing that there are two components to the art of living – two different yet complementary ways of living philosophy, if you will. One is theoretical, the other technical, in the sense of technique. The theoretical component has to do with intellectual analysis and rational explanations of how the world works, because if we don’t have a decent grasp of that, then we are likely to mislive our lives, so to speak. The technical part has to do with philosophy conceived as a craft – what the Greeks called technē.

There’s an analogy with learning a musical instrument here. How would you go about that? Ideally, you would need three things. First, a bit of musical theory – enough to understand and appreciate musical notation, harmonics, etc. Second, get yourself a good teacher – someone who can point out flaws in your technique and give you advice on how to be better. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, you need practice, practice, practice.

Similarly with the art of living. You need a bit of philosophical theory about what constitutes a eudaimonic life – a life worth living, in Aristotle’s term for it. You’ll be helped by finding a philosophical guide. If Socrates is not available there may be others who might be willing and able. And then you have to do a lot of practice; not only (most importantly) by living, but also by consciously reflecting upon your own lived experience to benefit from it. One way to do that, though there are others, is philosophical journaling. One of the best examples on hand is Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

The basic idea is to take a few minutes, ideally every night before going to bed, to review your ethically salient actions of the day. For each consequential action – say, an altercation you had with a coworker or with your partner – you should ask yourself the following questions: What did I do wrong? What did I do right? What could I do better the next time? The purpose of these questions is not to indulge in regret or self-recriminations, but to learn through a critical analysis of your own actions.

The third question is the most important, because it allows your mind to become ready for the next opportunity. As Seneca says: “Is anyone surprised at being cold in winter? At being sick at sea? Or at being jostled in the street? The mind is strong enough to bear those evils for which it is prepared” (On Anger, III.37). So go ahead. Prepare yourself.

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2023

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His books include How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders (Basic Books). More by him at massimopigliucci.org.

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