Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations
© 2013 Jules Evans
For most, philosophy is a subject that screams impotent academic prattle, the practice of strange individuals who are clearly paid too much to gaze into their navels and pontificate on the Meaning of Lint. That reputation is a modern one, achieved only in the last century, for most of western history philosophy was the common fount of all knowledge and artistic endeavor. It guided not only men’s thoughts about how the world was, but how they should act within it. The streets of ancient Athens were alive with debate on how man should live. Philosophers’ answers were not uniform; names mentioned together in survey courses now, then disagreed with one another vehemently. In Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, author Jules Evans introduces the principles and practices of several Greek schools which, while at loggerheads on many issues, were united by some core convictions: namely, that the world was rational, that man could be happy within it, and that he could use his rationality to achieve that happiness.
Evans covers a wide variety of Greek schools, some more than others. The schools are sampled in one-chapter lessons, and the author presents them as though the reader is visiting a day-seminar. (Lunch, naturally, is taken with the Epicureans.) Some schools of thought receive more attention than others; the Stoics, for instance, run across three chapters in the early morning, with Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Seneca all providing distinct skills. Some of the lessons provide mental tricks, like using mottoes to remember principles. Underlying many of the schools, however, is the principle of mindfulness. A dark night of the soul brought Evans to Athens in the first place; in a period of crisis, he was introduced to therapeutic techniques borrowed from Stoicism. Learning to be aware of his emotions, to realize he had the ability to step away from them, allowed Evans to climb out of a mental pit. He developed mental habits like auditing his thoughts and learned to stop dwelling on the negative. Our misery is often self-inflicted; as Marcus Aurelius wrote, we are more troubled by our reactions about things than the things in themselves. Although Epicureanism has a much different basis than Stoicism, both work to effect a calm, contented mental state amid life’s troubles. Stoicism is martial and trains the soul to be immune to the worse that may come, at its most intense calling for a person to retreat into a citadel of the mind. Epicureanism calls for a retreat, too, a kind of detachment from the cares of the world; but instead of being impervious to all care and stolidly devoted to the pursuit of virtue, the Epicurean seeks to focus on a few key ingredients: community, self-reliance, and mindful simplicity. The true Epicurean seeks to be the master of pleasure, by downshifting his expectations so as to manufacture a feast out of a little cup of cheese. The pervasive theme throughout is mindfulness, even extending to the final chapter on dying well. Though moderns close our eyes to Charon, pushing off our arrival at his boat through medicine and miracle-working machines, death is inescapable. The boatman waits for us all; we must truly seize the day.
Philosophy for Life is an important book to consider, for the problems it sought to remedy are universal. Misfortune and unhappiness did not vanish simply because we are ‘modern’; knowledge and technology have not conquered the human heart. When we are inundated with material wealth – literal lifetimes of entertainment at our fingertips, grocery stores and online markets offering goods to feed every taste and appetite — we stand in danger of being overwhelmed and addicted, constantly chasing after new and increasingly intense hits, like a victim of drugs. Epicurus has the answer. Similarly, as our brain misfires trying to make sense of the world, imposing purpose when there is none — growing wrathful at a car that pulls out in front of us as if they meant to frustrate our travel — the Stoa stands as a relief. Similarly, when the news is so utterly discouraging, constantly placing the worse of our behavior on display, it is helpful to follow Plutarch’s example and deliberately consider the lives of the good and the heroic; to take inspiration from their example.
There are limits to Philosophy for Life, chiefly in its emphasis on the individual as the sole actor in achieving his happiness. The Stoics believe that people were members of a community; not simply individual units within a collective, but members— distinct, purposeful in relation to one another. The Epicureans, too, stressed the need for companionship. These suggest that there is wisdom in traditions like Buddhism and Christianity which stress the need to die to the self, rather than ruled by it; we live not just for ourselves. This aside, however, the variety of thought, and the satisfying practicality of it all, recommend Evans to readers interested in living wisely.
- “Humanist Spirituality“, an introduction to the basics of Cynicism, Skepticism, and Stoicism, with the author (a Unitarian Univeralist minister) arguing that Stoicism has the most promise as a rational-yet- introspective path for an increasingly secular world.
- Plato’s Podcasts: The Ancients’ Guide to Modern Living, Mark Vernon. Though not quite as serious, this was produced first and made numerous connections to various movments which have realized the same principles as the Stoics, Epicureans, etc.
- The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius; a modern translation is The Emperor’s Handbook.
- The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton.
- Letters from a Stoic, Dialogues and Essays, Seneca;
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine
- Discourses, Epictetus ; The Art of Joy, Sharon Lebell. (Modern interpretation of Epictetus.)
- American Mania, Peter Whybrow, on the psychology of consumerism and addiction