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The Art of Living

Three Types of Philosophy Text

Massimo Pigliucci organizes his library.

Have you ever read modern technical books in philosophy? If so, you might have noticed that, broadly speaking, they fall into two categories: treatises on a particular subject matter (say, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, 1971), and commentaries on what has been written by philosophers of previous generations (for example, the classic A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason by Lewis White Beck, 1960).

Both forms have a long history. The tradition of treatises goes back to early ancestors such as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (fourth century BCE), while the tradition of commentaries finds predecessors in authors such as Alexander of Aphrodisias (early third century AD). The ancient and modern versions of these two types of work are of course different, but the basic idea is the same. What the modern literature in philosophy is largely missing (there are a few exceptions) are two additional types of texts that were very popular when philosophy was considered, not a technical field of inquiry, but a way of life: biographies and guides to living better. Indeed, in his highly recommended The Art of Living (2003), John Sellars provides us with the following classification of ancient philosophy texts:

(1) Literature concerned with action: for instance, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, or Diogenes Laertius’s The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.

(2) Literature concerned with theory: such as the above-mentioned Nicomachean Ethics, or Seneca’s On Anger.

(3) Literature concerned with practice: such as Epictetus’s Handbook, or Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Consider, from the first group, Xenophon’s Memorabilia, which focuses on a series of episodes in the life of Socrates, as written up by one of his students and friends. The picture of Socrates that emerges here is far more engaging and human than the Socrates we get from Plato. Less philosophically sophisticated, perhaps; but more relatable. The goal of Memorabilia was not to advance a particular philosophical perspective, as Plato does by using Socrates as a mouth-piece in his dialogues, but to inspire people to embrace the philosophical life.

And it worked. We’re told by Diogenes Laertius that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, turned to philosophy precisely because he heard a bookseller declaim the Memorabilia, and was so enthralled that he asked where he could find “someone like that” – meaning a philosopher. The bookseller pointed out to the street and said, “Follow that man!” The man in question was the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes, and Zeno got his philosophical training off the ground by studying with him.

From the second group, theoretical philosophy, Seneca’s On Anger (41 CE) – to which I will return in detail in a future column – is a comprehensive treatise on one of the so-called ‘passions’. Passions were the sort of emotion Stoics such as Seneca considered to be unhealthy because not aligned with reason. (They also recognized healthy emotions, which are those in agreement with reason, such as love for one’s children.) Seneca analyzes the various phases of anger, puts forth arguments for why it should be considered an unhealthy emotion, criticizes Aristotle’s concept that a bit of anger can spur people into action, and provides a series of practical suggestions for anger management that have nothing to envy those listed on the website of the American Psychological Association (see apa.org/topics/anger/control).

A classic example of the third group is Epictetus’s Handbook. Look, for instance, at the following passage from Section Four:

“When you are on the point of doing something, remind yourself what the nature of that undertaking is. If you are going out of the house to bathe, put before your mind what happens at a public bath – those who splash you with water, those who jostle against you, those who vilify you and rob you. And thus you will set about your undertaking more securely if at the outset you say to yourself, ‘I want to take a bath, and, at the same time, to keep myself in harmony with nature.’”

Epictetus is inviting us to engage in a premeditatio malorum, a meditation that anticipates the bad that might happen in a given situation – in his case, going to the public baths; or in a modern setting, heading to the cinema. You know that people might throw popcorn, make noise (or talk loudly on their phones and text people in the middle of the movie). You will be able to better handle the situation if you visualize it ahead of time and remind yourself that you don’t just want to have a good time at the baths (or movies), you also want to keep harmony with nature – meaning that you wish to act reasonably and sociably. Try it, it works!

Sellars explains how these different types of books were used:

“In later antiquity it was often suggested that philosophical education should begin with the study of a philosopher’s life… The student should next study arguments and doctrines before finally moving on to engage in exercises designed to digest those arguments and doctrines. The final goal is of course to transform one’s life into one similar to those studied at the very outset.”

If you wish to explore the possibility of implementing this idea for yourself, I have prepared a curriculum you could use (or modify according to your preferences) at newstoicism.org/suggested-curriculum/.

Happy practical philosophizing!

© Prof. Massimo Pigliucci 2024

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 and The Quest for Character (Basic Books). More by him at newstoicism.org.

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