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Philosophy and the Art of Living

Mark Vernon says don’t do philosophy, become a philosopher!

There was a comment once made about Thales, the man who is often in the West called the first philosopher. One day he was walking along, gazing at the heavens, when he fell into a ditch. As he cried out, a passing women retorted: “You philosophers, who cannot see what is before your feet!”

There was another comment, this time about Socrates, who has become the most famous and arguably the most important Western philosopher of all time. It was said by Cicero, one of his later admirers, that Socrates called philosophy “down from the heavens.” He did it by talking with people on the streets about the things that concerned them – from life and love to shoes and shopping – and in this way digging down to the basis of what they thought they knew.

These comments illustrate the gap between two ways of doing philosophy. The first is perhaps close to what most people think of when they hear the word ‘philosophy’ today: it’s arid, obscure and disconnected – not that they particularly care.

Academic philosophy itself is arguably responsible for this indifference. Many professionals feel or act as if philosophy’s time is up, in a sense: real intellectual advances are now the work of science. Philosophy has handed over responsibility for subjects that used to fall within its remit, like physics and psychology. All that is left for philosophers to do now is provide a bit of intellectual scaffolding to support the great empirical edifice, as required. And they are happy so to do. Bernard Williams noted that philosophy had become scientistic, in the sense of borrowing its self-image from science. Philosophers have taken John Locke at his word. Reflecting on the achievement of giants like Newton, Locke mused, “’tis ambition enough to be employed as an Under-Labourer in clearing the Ground a little, and removing some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way of Knowledge.” Alternatively, one leading contemporary philosopher commented to me that if he wanted to know the meaning of life – he doubted it had one – then the last person he’d ask would be someone with a PhD in Philosophy.

But there is second is a kind of philosophy too: the Socratic sort. This is nothing short of a way of life. In principle, anyone can do it – and in fact, everyone does do it, even children. The philosopher Karl Jaspers speculated that a good way to write an excellent philosophy book would be simply to listen to the questions of inquisitive young children. “Mummy, who made God?” “Dad, what was before the universe?” And as studies show, and parents know, children have a developed sense of compassion – which is to say, a basis for ethics – from a very young age. As philosophically-inclined poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it: “In wonder all philosophy began.” And, as he continued, “In wonder it ends.” For ‘wonderful’ questions occupy human beings right through their adult lives. Arguably, it’s what makes us human. Philosophy develops as life deepens.

This philosophy is not just a series of technical discussions, interesting thought experiments, or even a way of tackling moral problems, though it is partly these things. It is fundamentally a desire to see more clearly, and thereby live more fully. When that’s coupled to the pursuit of the good and the transcendent (a notion philosophers have only flinched from relatively recently in the history of the subject), philosophy might be called a ‘spiritual exercise’, as the French philosopher Pierre Hadot did call it. It’s an invitation to transform yourself, and in that sense, it is an art. What is this philosophy about, at heart? Not the virtues of rigour and coherence for their own sake, but enlightenment.

The ancient Greeks are the inspiration for philosophy as a way of life: they used to say that thought is therapy. It was a question of struggling with your passions – the feelings that fly about in all directions and are the key source of suffering. For the Epicureans, the aim of philosophy was to nurture enjoyment of life in contrast to worrying about it. They sought tranquillity born of knowing what really gives pleasure. For the Stoics, philosophy was about cultivating attention: being aware of what’s happening in the present moment. Sit for a minute and focus on the now, your present thoughts, your immediate surroundings. Until you try, you won’t know how hard that is. It’s also why philosophy can be difficult. If it’s difficult solely because it has become technical or abstract, then it has become a distraction from its own primary goals.

To put it another way, good philosophers are not just people who can argue well. They are those rare individuals who not only think well and see clearly, but are, as result, actually good. Socrates was such an individual to the ancient Greeks. That is why he is not just a great intellectual figure, but, to use Jaspers’ term, an axial figure: his significance is comparable to that of Jesus or the Buddha. He was more like a wise sage, even a holy monk, than an academic professor.

It might be thought that this view of philosophy is rather outdated, grandiose, even dangerous. After all, we value personal choice and intellectual freedom. The suggestion that philosophy might make you a better human being seems close to dictatorial, if not just plain ridiculous. An undergraduate signing up for a philosophy course in the hope it can improve their life would probably be told not to expect a refund.

Philosophy, Not Self-Help

Another concern might be that such a vision of philosophy blurs the boundaries with self-help – an anxiety arguably exacerbated by the possibility that self-help has grown to fill the vacuum created by the move of philosophy to the cultural sidelines.

There are undoubtedly questions to ask about ‘self-help’. Much of it is not about living, but controlling – trying to control the world, or rather, trying to control your world. Freud would say this is a delusion, if possibly a comforting one, for control is precisely what neuroses seek to achieve. Hence self-help addicts, not to say self-help writers, do often seem neurotic, as they manage their mood to make sure they are in this, not that, ‘zone’, and as they monitor their consumption of carrot juice – or should that be beetroot juice? Isn’t this why self-help books proliferate; because their devotees are condemned to keep repeating the effort to gain a control that isn’t actually possible?

Furthermore, self-help seems so self-centred. In its prescriptions there is a strong tendency for it to treat others as service providers – to put you at the centre of your world as resolutely as the earth was thought to be at the centre of the universe. But what if the secret of the good life is to become other-centred, as religion and indeed philosophy has persistently suggested?

That said, self-help offers challenges to philosophy too. First, it hopes to change people, and have people change, for the better. Does philosophy? Mostly, contemporary philosophy wants to win arguments, I suspect. But some of its more-recent big hitters have suggested that it could, even should, aim for more. Marx made this point in his Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Perhaps more wisely, given what happened to Marxism, we might turn again to Bernard Williams, who painted a picture of philosophy as increasing humanity’s understanding of itself, which for him is the hallmark of a humanistic discipline.

Second, self-help wants to communicate with people, in images, language and techniques that everyone can understand. Does philosophy? Clearly there is the question of sophistication. And so much self-help is banal just because of its images, language and techniques. But does sophistication always equal impenetrability? Consider what you might call ‘higher end self-help’ – Stephen Covey, Scott Peck, Malcolm Gladwell – or the psychiatrist Victor Frankl, or the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. They could be said to be aiming for a simplicity beyond complexity. The early philosophers understood something of such concerns. They pondered how to draw the balance between nurturing change and forcing it, between communicating clearly and dumbing down. Part of their answer was to develop theories which instill discernment and depth of thought. Hence the origin of ethics, politics, logic, epistemology, ontology and any number of ‘isms’ – materialism, idealism, consequentialism, aestheticism, theism. However, for the ancient Greeks, this was not actually philosophy proper. It was a preparation for philosophy. The basic aim was not to have a theory of ethics, but to live well; it was not to understand logic, but to see well; it was not to question how we know things, but to contemplate the universe.

There are other modern philosophers who have argued that the value of philosophy ultimately lies in how it changes you. Bertrand Russell thought that at its best philosophy can introduce you to concerns that are way beyond yourself. Its questions “enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind.” (The Problems of Philosophy) Or as Immanuel Kant put it, two things moved him spiritually, the starry heavens above and the moral law within. He aimed to cultivate not just his intellectual knowledge of both, but his personal commitment to them.

When philosophy becomes too desiccated it must return to its lifeblood, life itself, or die. This perhaps explains why popular philosophy is currently something of a growth area in publishing, if not quite the new cookery or gardening. Philosophy is also being reintroduced into schools. It does quite well on the airwaves too: The Forum, an hour-long discussion programme inspired in part by philosophy, has just been commissioned for the BBC World Service.

No doubt it is also because religion so often seems so questionable and consumerism so often so vacuous that philosophy is finding a new audience. We are aiming to encourage this trend with a new series of books, ‘The Art of Living’. Taking our lead from the vision of the ancient Greeks, this is a series of essays, in Montaigne ’s sense of ‘assaying’ or exploring. The books’ primary concerns are matters in life: Wellbeing, Illness, Clothes, Fame, Work, Sport, Hunger, Deception, Sex, Pets. The aim is to be personal and polemical as well as philosophical. For as Plato put it in the Republic, “Our discussion is about no ordinary matter, but on the right way to live.”

© Mark Vernon 2008

Mark Vernon is the series editor of ‘The Art of Living’, published by Acumen, and the author one of the books in the series, Wellbeing. See www.acumenpublishing.co.uk or www.markvernon.com.

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