Philosophy as a Way of Life

Nowadays philosophy is seen as just an academic discipline for which you get a degree and then you have a certain set of skills to use in the workspace. But in the ancient times philosophy was something a lot different. Philosophy wasn’t just some subject to study, it was a way of life. Studying philosophy was learning how to live (and for some learning how to die).

            Ancient philosophy believed that we should live a certain life. In a sense we could say that they asked the question what does it mean to live and better yet how could we live the good life? There were many movements that tried to answer this question but the real first one was Socrates. He was seen by most ancients as the embodiment of philosophy, just like Jesus Christ is seen as the embodiment of God.

            Socrates didn’t leave any writings. All we know about him comes from other authors, Plato being the most famous of them. Now Socrates really lived the life of the philosopher. He didn’t care about material possessions, he ran around bare foot, he could outdrink anyone showing that his mind was to be untainted by alcohol, and he was always down to have a conversation about the meaning of the good. That doesn’t mean his philosophy was the right one, it just shows that to philosophize is also to live a certain way. You live according to your philosophy. Your philosophical reasoning is just the way to justify you living the way you live.

            That means that to live is to act in the world. To be a philosopher is to be different than the common person. You have a reason for why you should live a certain way. If you believe something to be the case, then you’ll effectively act it out. If you adhere to the stoic school of philosophy, then you’ll live a different life than if you would have been an Aristotelian. One tries to achieve apatheia which can be translated as indifference to things, while the other will pursue to become one with the universal spirit by trying to understand the world and achieving sophia or wisdom. Pierre Hadot shows this pretty clearly in his book What is Ancient Philosophy?

            In this way we can ask ourselves questions about different philosophical movements. Do people act them out or not? Are they a way of life? Some of them might just not be. Nihilism is one of those examples. Nihilism can be seen as the destruction of all values. Nothing really intrinsically matters. I shouldn’t give value to anything. Yet, when we analyze this closer, we see that we always give value to something. That’s the whole meaning behind acting in the world. We act because we (could be subconsciously) believe there is value in the thing we do. Here’s an example. I’m drinking water. Why would I reach for the glass and put it to my mouth and drink? Well because I give value to drinking that water. I might be thirsty or just feel like drinking some water and as a result I reach for the glass and drink. This can occur subconsciously, but we do it, nonetheless. Because of there was no value behind it, why would I act? Actions would then be completely arbitrary but acting implies that we determine something to act towards. We can thus safely say that there are no real nihilists in this world. Those who claim to be, are fakers.

            Now I would propose that we go back to the ancient view of philosophy as a way of life. We need a reason to live, we need some sort of meaning in order to live our life in a fulfilling way. One way to do this can be through religion. You can believe in an all-powerful God who cares about you. Unfortunately, I don’t believe in any of the gods of the many religions, so that just wouldn’t work for me. I would like a rational approach towards creating meaning in my life.

            In a way we need to answer this with philosophy. Our way of life should be rationalized so we can choose from the better and more moral point of view. That way we can live more fulfilling and happier lives. We can take our pick from epicureanism to stoicism or we can invent one of our very own. But living life should be rationalized, and that’s the habitat of philosophy. I also believe that that’s what philosophers have tried to answer. From Kant to Marx, from Schopenhauer to Nietzsche, they all felt like previous ways of life wasn’t the true way of living. Nietzsche answered with amor fati; Kant with his categorical imperatives. Now these are all moral answers but when we read these philosophers more closely morality is just the end goal of a whole system of philosophy. Plato created a whole metaphysics which resulted in the Good, a metaphysical entity which teaches us how to live a good life.

            It’s because we need a reason to live the good life that we philosophize. Religion has claimed that spot as well and didn’t really want to share it, but morality is possible without a god and philosophy is all about trying to rationalize your morality. If you are part of a philosophical movement then you will act a certain way. That’s why in ancient Greece most members of a school lived near or actually inside the school. They didn’t go to class as most students nowadays did, they just woke up and continued living their philosophical way of life. It’s something that has inspired me to do the same. To live according to your values. That means living a certain type of way, a way with which others might not agree and this might be very confrontational. That’s why we don’t like being wrong, it threatens our very point of existence.

            I’m still figuring out my own philosophical way of life. We need to think hard on what the best way of living is. We might look up to people we are inspired by and see what the thing is that inspires you from those people. That would be an indication of what your own philosophy might be. We should think about how to live the good life. Thinking just about consequences and results isn’t the way forward, I believe. The good results and consequences will arise when we become good people, because good people do the good things.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

2 replies on “Philosophy as a Way of Life”

Well written, I have been thinking the same for a while. It does seem like we need to revive the ideals of ancient philosophy to both contemplate and strive towards the ‘good life’


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