Book Club: The Art of Living, 1, The Skeptics don’t believe in the art of living. Or do they?

Figs In Winter
Oct 3 · 11 min read
John Sellars writes about philosophy as the art of living

John Sellars’ The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy is one of the best books I’ve read recently about philosophy understood as a way of life, as distinct from (perhaps even opposed to?) a specialized academic discipline. Here is how the publisher described the book: Ancient philosophy was conceived as a way of life or an art of living, but if ancient philosophers did think that philosophy should transform an individual’s way of life, then what conception of philosophy stands behind this claim? John Sellars explores this question through a detailed account of ancient Stoic ideas about the nature and function of philosophy. He considers the Socratic background to Stoic thinking about philosophy and Skeptical objections raised by Sextus Empiricus, and offers readings of late Stoic texts by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Sellars argues that the conception of philosophy as an “art of living,” inaugurated by Socrates and developed by the Stoics, has persisted since antiquity and remains a living alternative to modern attempts to assimilate philosophy to the natural sciences.

Did you pick up on the bit that says “a living alternative to modern attempts to assimilate philosophy to the natural sciences”? As a scientist and (academic, in the sense of professional) philosopher I have found myself many times in recent years in the awkward position of having to defend philosophy from scientistic encroachment. Which led me to write a whole book on the nature of philosophy, and co-edit another one on the question of scientism. But Sellars’ point is brilliant, and represents the ultimate defense of philosophy, if such is needed: even the most scientistically oriented individual surely doesn’t think that science is a way of living one’s life (as opposed to a way of making one’s living in life)! Then again, I never cease to be surprised by the obstinacy of the scientistic spirit…

Be that as it may, and setting aside the issue of scientism, with this post we begin a four-part discussion of John’s book. The Art of Living is divided into two parts, with the first one comprising four chapters and the second one made of three chapters. Part I is about the relationship between life and “techne,” that is, with the art (techne) of living. Part II is about rational discourse and training, that is, how to use reason to train oneself to live a good life.

(Note to the reader: Sellars uses a lot of Greek words interspersed throughout the text, which can be distracting or annoying to the lay person. But he is trying to be precise with the terminology.)

I will not cover every chapter, and instead focus on chapters 4, on skeptical objections to the Stoic notion of the art of living (this post); 5, on the concept of spiritual exercises; 6, addressing the hidden structure of Epictetus’ Enchiridion; and the Conclusion, articulating a three-pronged curriculum for the study of practical philosophy. Of course, the interested reader is encouraged to check out the rest of the book as well, it will be well worth your time.

Let us start, then, with the skeptical objections to the very idea of an art of living, particularly as articulated by Sextus Empiricus (160–210 CE) in his treatise, “Outlines of Pyrrhonism.” By way of background, John reminds us that the concept of philosophy as the art of living essentially begins with Socrates, and that the Stoics where the school that most prominently and consistently developed it (though of course the Cynics, Epicureans, and Cyrenaics also lived their philosophy). It is also important to realize that Sextus was responding pretty much directly to Epictetus, who at the time was renowned as a teacher of the art of living. Sextus’ general project was to undermine the positive claims made by those he referred to as “dogmatists,” that is, pretty much all the other schools. Keep in mind that “dogma” in ancient Greek simply meant opinion, and came to signify “philosophical tenet” in Latin, a very different meaning from that of the modern word. As any good skeptic would do, Sextus’ strategy is to show that there are equally plausible arguments on different sides, so that — he suggests — the only rational thing to do is to suspend judgment. He articulates six objections to the Stoic idea of an art of living, which we will briefly examine in turn.

First objection: there are competing arts of living, so there can’t be a true one

“Since the dogmatists do not agree in laying down a single art of living, but rather some hypothesize one and some another, they land in dispute.” (Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3.239)

Sextus observes that the various schools — Stoicism, Epicureanism, Peripateticism, and so forth — disagree with each other about what the art of living precisely consists in. Since they all put forth reasonable arguments, there doesn’t seem to be a rational way to choose among them. Therefore, we should reject all of them and remain agnostic.

There are a number of ways to respond to this objection. To begin with, one could simply try out the different arts of living for oneself and see which one works best in practice, regardless of theoretical considerations. Or, more broadly, one could examine the lives of people who have adopted each art and see how they fared, empirically. Moreover, just because different schools of thought provide reasonable arguments it does not follow that some of those arguments are not better than others. And Sextus seems to imply that there must be only one good approach, but it is possible that the problem of how to live well as a human being admits of multiple, equivalent solutions.

It also seems that Sextus contradicts himself here. Sellars says that there are several passages in Outlines of Pyrrhonism where Sextus implies that the goal of skeptical philosophy is tranquillity (ataraxia), and that such tranquillity is achieved by repeated suspension of judgment. If so, Sextus comes perilously close to himself making a “dogmatic” assertion.

Sextus goes on to say that, of course, the skeptic will still feel pain, or cold, or hunger, just like everyone else. But his suspension of judgment will help him overcome the belief that these things are actually bad. Fair enough, but this is not very different from the Stoic position: the Stoic sage is a human being, so she will experience the same affects as any other human being. It’s the way she thinks about these things that changes, and it is because of her different frame of mind that she achieves ataraxia.

Second objection: the art of living cannot be taught

“Since wisdom is a virtue, and only the sage has virtue, the Stoics — not being sages — will not possess the art of living, and not having this, neither will they teach it to others.” (Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3.240)

The idea is that if the Stoics wish to teach the at of living, they must first possess it. But since the Stoics also argue that the only virtuous people are sages, and they themselves are not sages, it follows that they cannot teach virtue. In essence, this is the same objection that critics raised against Socrates: given that he kept saying that he did not know anything, then how could he teach anything to anyone? In particular, Socrates argued that wisdom is a type of knowledge. But if he himself had no knowledge at all, then he also had no wisdom, and he couldn’t possibly teach it.

Xenophon gives one response that applies to Socrates, and which can in turn be used by the Stoics: Socrates was virtuous, as was evident from his behavior. However, he did not have an account of virtue, so he could not teach it in the usual way. He could, however, teach others by example, by modeling a virtuous life. Do like Socrates does, and you’ll be on your way to wisdom.

A broader objection here is that even though Epictetus, say, was not himself a sage, it does not follow, even according to the Stoics’ own account of things, that he had nothing to say about virtue and how to acquire it. Here is an analogy: I used to practice Judo, and in that martial art the highest possible rank is black belt, 10th dan. Only 15 people have been promoted to that level by the Kodokan Judo Institute, and only 10 of them are currently living. Not quite as rare as the phoenix (which Seneca says is the likelihood of appearance of a sage), but pretty close. Now, it would be ridiculous for someone to claim that unless a judoka has achieved 10th dan she has no skill in the art and is not able to teach others.

Third objection: the art of living presupposes adequate “impressions”

“If, then, for there to be an art of living there must first be art, and if for art to exist apprehensions must first exist, and if for apprehensions to exist assent to an adequate impression must first have been apprehended, and if adequate impressions are undiscoverable, then the art of living is undiscoverable.” (Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3.242)

In technical Stoic terms, an “apprehension” is assent given to an adequate, or kataleptic, impression. What is a kataleptic impression? It is a judgment, based on sensorial experience, that simply cannot reasonably be doubted. Epictetus provides an example in Discourses I.28.2–3, when he invites one of his students to go out during the day and try to convince himself that it is actually night. It’s just not possible. Other impressions, however, are not kataleptic. Epictetus’ example (in Discourses I.28.3) is the impression that there is an even number of stars in the sky. Clearly, such impression could easily be mistaken, and even if it’s actually true, one does not feel too strong about it, given how difficult it is to arrive at an exact count of the stars.

The point Sextus is making here builds on earlier skeptics, such as Carneades, who argued that one always incurs the risk of being mistaken about an impression, even if it is kataleptic. In the case of day and night, for instance, I could be hallucinating, or I could be a brain in a vat, and therefore be mistaken about what appears to be so obviously the case.

Here we find a case where later Stoics actually modified their position in response to skeptical objections. They came to define an adequate impression as one that cannot be reasonably doubted, provided that it has no obstacle. The pertinent story is that of Sphaerus, a student of Cleanthes, who was once invited for dinner at the court of King Ptolemy. Sphaerus was explaining to the king the notion of kataleptic impressions, when he was offered a plate of delicious looking pomegranates. Delighted, he reached out and grabbed one, only to find out that it was made of wax. An excellent and very convincing replica, but a replica nonetheless. The king laughed at the philosopher, but Sphaerus replied that he did not assent to the impression that those were actual pomegranates. He only assented to the impression that it was reasonable to think so. After all, he was not claiming to be a sage! More seriously, what Sphaerus encountered was a case of a kataleptic impression accompanied by an obstacle, namely the willful treachery of Ptolemy.

In general, the objection raised by the skeptics, that it is sometimes possible to be mistaken about a kataleptic impression, doesn’t imply that one is always mistaken, and so that no conclusion can ever be true. So, if teaching the art of living relies on kataleptic impressions that are true, this is not something impossible for the Stoics. If the circumstances are such that one cannot be sure, then the Stoic has no trouble agreeing with the skeptic that — in that particular case — judgment ought to be suspended. As John points out, in this instance the difference between Skepticism and Stoicism isn’t as great as it may at first appear.

Fourth objection: the art of living produces no distinctive actions

“Every art appears to be apprehended from the actions delivered specifically by it. But there is no action specific to the art of living. Whatever anyone might say to be its action will be found common to ordinary people too (e.g., honoring your parents, returning loans, and all the rest). There is therefore no art of living.” (Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3.243)

What Sextus is saying here is that if the art of living, in the philosophical sense, is an actual art, then it must produce distinctive behaviors, not just the sort of commonsensical actions that permeate society anyway. But he sees no such distinctive behaviors, so there must be no such thing as the art of living.

One possible Stoic response is that wisdom is not found in specific actions, but in the motivations that leads us to initiate specific actions. The same action, after all, can be virtuous or unvirtuous, depending on the motives of the agent. Take, for instance, giving to charity. If I do it because I genuinely want to help people, and perhaps anonymously, that’s virtuous. If I do it because I want a tax break, or because I want to flaunt my generosity, then it’s not virtuous.

Socrates could also help here, adding that the difference between someone who does something virtuous by habit or chance and someone who does it because she practiced the art of living is that the latter person will be able to give an account of why she does certain things. Moreover, the individual who practices philosophy regularly will also be more consistent than others in being virtuous.

Fifth objection: the art of living cannot be put into practice

“Most of what the philosophers say is like this — but they would never dare to put it into action unless they were fellow-citizens of the Cyclopes of the Laestrygonians. But if they never perform these actions … then there is no action specific to those people suspected of possessing the art of living.” (Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3.249)

The cyclops were the mythical one-eyed beings Odysseus had to battle against to save his and his comrades’ lives, and the Laestrygonians were a tribe of man-eating giants, who also endangered the hero of Ithaca and his crew. Sextus is obliquely referring to some extreme practices advocated by early Stoics like Zeno and Chrysippus, for instance cannibalism (to recycle dead bodies), but also bisexualism, masturbation, and so forth.

This is an exceedingly weak objection, however. For one thing, those behaviors were dropped by the Stoics early on, and certainly way before Sextus was born. For another, the acceptance or rejection of such practices has little bearing on the existence of an art of living, since one conception of the art may accept the practices and another reject them. Besides, those specific acts actually play no essential role in the Stoic conception of the art of living, which is why they were dropped later on without much fuss.

John reminds his readers at this point that Stoic ethics is grounded in a crucial distinction — made earlier on by the Sophists and the Cynics — between nature and custom. Since the Stoics advocated a life in accordance with nature, they rejected subordination to customs. So, if in a given society it isn’t kosher to engage in bisexualism, say, so much the worse for that society’s customs, assuming that bisexualism is natural and virtuous.

(The latter caveat — “and virtuous” — is necessary, since the Stoics were not as simple minded as saying that anything natural is ipso facto good, a logical fallacy known as the appeal to nature. Of course, that means that we need an independent account of how we decide what is and is not virtuous. It pretty much comes down to this: if it benefits the human cosmopolis, it is virtuous; if it harms it, it is unvirtuous; if it does neither, it is neutral.)

In the end, it appears that none of Sextus’ objections have much force, once analyzed with care, though they are useful to consider for us, lest we practice our art of living unreflectively. And as I mentioned above, the most powerful objection to Sextus is that — despite his protestations to the contrary — he too is advocating an art of living, based on the Skeptic fundamental notion that human knowledge is impossible, and that ataraxia can be achieved by suspending judgment and attaching ourselves only lightly to any particular opinion. Which, by the way, is not a bad recipe for eudaimonia at all!

(Next: chapter 5, Spiritual philosophical exercises.)

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