Of course, we could simply make up our own philosophy of life as we go along. But that would be like navigating a boat by sight, with no forewarning of incoming storms, and no maps to help us chart the course. Why not start instead with the wisdom accumulated through millennia of philosophical reflection across the globe? And why shouldn’t academic philosophers devote part of their time to foster this kind of inquiry among the public? Both philosophy itself, and society at large, would be better off for it.
Science applies this lesson well. Sure, we are in awe of theoretical advances like the general theory of relativity, or of empirical findings that do not affect our lives, like the discovery of new extrasolar planets. But we also want, and get, our computers, airplanes, and vaccines out of science. By contrast, try walking into a philosophy department at your local university and say that you are interested in the practice of living a good life. The reaction will likely range from incomprehension to open ridicule. That’s too bad, and a good case of an academic field relegating itself to the margins.
In fact, much of the problem with modern philosophy—as I see it—is its overemphasis on the theoretical at the expense of the practical. Worse: we academic philosophers are often openly disdainful of the practical. Perhaps the quintessential example of this tendency is a well-known series of studies (here, for example) showing that professors of moral philosophy are no more ethical on average than other academics. That ought to be surprising: After all, what on earth is the point of being an expert at X, if you also don’t put X into practice? But, in fact, this is readily explainable: “Working” on moral philosophy these days largely means engaging in more or less abstruse arguments and counterarguments about the soundness of, say, utilitarian doctrines or Kantian deontology, quite independently of whether the same person then goes home and actually applies such ideas in their life. And don’t get me started on trolley dilemmas (the funniest take on which can be found here).
We all have a philosophy of life, whether we think of it that way or not. Most of us grow up within a religious tradition (in my case, Roman Catholicism), and even those who are raised in secular families absorb one version or another of some (implied, if not overt) metaphysics and ethics. The issue, then, becomes one of—at least from time to time—critically reflecting on our philosophy of life and see if it still works, if we need some tweaks to make it work, or if it would be better for us to adopt a different framework to achieve what the Greco-Romans called a eudaimonic life, a life worth living.
This imbalance is why philosophy needs to go back to the Greco-Romans, or to equivalent traditions in India, China, and elsewhere. This step doesn’t require setting aside theoretical pursuits, of course. But it does mean openly embracing, encouraging even, the alternative concept of philosophy as the art of living. It is indicative that in ancient times people didn’t just study the philosophies of, say, Socrates, Epicurus, or Epictetus. They also read their biographies, as in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, or Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Those biographies weren’t meant to titillate readers’ appetite for gossip about intellectuals. They were meant as integrative tools to understand how to put those thinkers’ ideas into practice. Otherwise, what would they be good for?
This dichotomy between theoretical and practical philosophy is not new. In the western tradition it goes back almost two and a half millennia, with some philosophers happy to discuss metaphysics and logic (Heraclitus, Zeno of Elea), and others more concerned with figuring out how to live a life worth living (Socrates, Zeno of Citium). And of course the two streams are not mutually exclusive, as the lives of Pythagoras, or the Stoic Chrysippus, demonstrate.
Or—forgive me for indulging in a personal anecdote—take my own strange academic career. When I switched from biology to philosophy, I did the natural thing: I specialized in philosophy of science and published the kind of papers and books that a few dozens to a few hundred people read and that justify an academic appointment. But when I started writing about philosophy as a way of life—as distinct from an academic pursuit—I suddenly reached orders-of-magnitude larger audiences. More importantly, the people who read my public output told me that what I was writing was helping them make their lives better. What was going on here?
Philosophy is having a strange cultural moment. On the one hand, it is routinely presented as the quintessential example of an utterly useless academic field. Students who decide to major in philosophy in my department at the City College of New York are often asked by their peers, not to mention their parents, “What are you going to do with that?” (Insert appropriately snarky tone and facial expression.) On the other hand, public philosophizing is more popular than ever, with philosophy books becoming international bestsellers, and events like A Night of Philosophy attracting thousands of people willing to stand in long lines to have a chance to hear someone talking about Stoicism at 4 a.m. (it happened, to me).
That is one reason why, together with my friends and colleagues Skye Cleary (editor of the Blog of the APA) and Dan Kaufman, we put together an edited book entitled How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy (Vintage, 2020). It is a collection of 15 essays written by people who not only study, but actually live, a particular philosophy of life or religion. We cover ancient eastern philosophies (Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism), ancient western ones (Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism), religious traditions (Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, progressive Islam, Ethical Culture), and modern philosophies (existentialism, pragmatism, effective altruism, secular humanism).