Better Living Through Philosophy
There is an endless plethora of self-help books, programs and services available these days, and they all, despite subtle differences in methodology, are designed for one specific purpose: to live and lead our best and most fulfilling lives. And the public just can’t seem to get enough, enticed and enchanted by these ideological novelties like flies to light.
In 2016, the Self-Improvement market has ballooned to become a $10-Billion-a-year industry in the United States alone, in what can be deduced to be an epoch of the commercialization and consumerization of “Happiness”.
But there is a reason for this, and it’s ingenious really.
Because the one single thing, no matter who you are, that all 7-billion people on this planet have in common, is that they want to be happy.
It is a natural part of the human condition, one that which we all, without exception, experience. And yet, it is no easy thing to achieve.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States, or 6.7% of American adults, have had at least one major depressive episode in any given year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms these numbers, stating that more than 1 out of 20 Americans 12 years of age and older report suffering from depression.
And recently, a massive study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that 1 in 8 Americans consumes alcohol at the rate of what is considered to be that of an Alcoholic; while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that 24.6 million Americans (9.4% of the population) aged 12 or older are current illicit drug users.
More and more people today are not only self-medicating, but also seeking professional help to achieve a state of “happiness”, as attitudes toward Psychology and Therapy are shifting; according to the American Psychological Association more than 4 out of 10 Americans (48% of the population) reported a visit to a mental health professional by someone in their household this year, while the Journal of the American Medical Association denotes that the percentage of people being treated for depression has tripled since the early 1990’s.
And so, “happiness” has not only proven elusive and difficult to maintain for many people today, but so has simply ‘coping’ with the very state of being alive (human consciousness) .
There is a Scientific theory surrounding the emergence of consciousness that is called the Information Integration Theory, and in an abridged version, it basically describes the consciousness of living things as a continuum, as in some things are more conscious than others. For an example, a Human is more conscious than a Cat, because the more information and integration, and the complexity of said information and integration, a life-form’s brain is able to experience and process, the more consciousness emerges in them.
This human ‘capacity’ to process and integrate vast amounts of information is what Charles Darwin was eluding to in his quote on what separates man from beast, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is one of degree and not of kind.”
This capacity is what has allowed humans to rise up from primitive cavemen to use an evolving intellect to create marvelous and beneficial complexities, such as Language, Agriculture, Civilization, Industry, Economics, Science and Technology… but as human life has become more advanced and complex, so has its problems.
In our world today, more people die by way of Suicide than they do by acts of War and Crime, and Obesity-related deaths are occurring three times more than fatalities related to Malnutrition and Starvation.
And so as we stare down this Information Age of Internet and Computers, filled with an endless exposure and stimuli from our ever-evolving attention grabbing technology of Cellphones and Social Media, with instant notification and communication, and up-to-the-second news updates, leading increasingly digitized lives — it’s no wonder this inherent ‘need to cope’ is creating a whole new realm of problems in regards to our self-awareness and our place within that world, manifesting itself in a multitude of ways, from overindulging our desires, to distraction and inertia, to depression and/or addiction.
The famous theologian, Blaise Pascal, touched on this quite perfectly when he said, “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.
But this golden age of “coping mechanisms”, such as self-help, motivation, therapy and self-improvement is nothing new really; mankind has been contemplating the phenomenon (or dilemma) of a conscious existence, offering insight and wisdom, since the dawn of civilization.
Two of the oldest forms of this ‘coping’ or ‘contemplation’ are Religion and Philosophy.
Religion, being based on doctrines of faith (rather than reason or rationality like that of its counterpart, Philosophy) has been subject to the Theory of Secularization, which states as societies become more modern, they become less religious. This is something we can observe first starting to take place in humanity’s history at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution of the 16th century and continuing since. And in the modern era, the decline of Religion only seems to be getting more rapid, as according to the General Social Survey and the Pew Research Center, since 1990, the fraction of Americans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled, from about 8% to 22% percent.
While, Philosophy, is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, resurgence or re-branding in this booming era of modern-day problem and solution of “happiness”.
And what better way to address the inherent human need to cope with its conscious existence than Philosophy? As it is quite literally defined as the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.
The term Philosophy can trace its etymological roots back to two nouns in Ancient Greek: “philo”, meaning ‘love’, and “sophia”, meaning ‘wisdom’. And this does a good job defining the discipline of Philosophy as a “love of wisdom”. It is similar to that of the discipline of Science in that it is an intellectual pursuit of knowledge and/or truth.
Religion sits at odds with Science in that it aims to provide answers in order to silence questions, while Science aims at proving and disproving claims for the sake of finding answers; Philosophy focuses on asking questions for the sake of progress, and it is integral to the field of Science.
The Knowability Thesis states that in principle all truths are knowable. Hypothetically, if we consider all that there is to know in existence as being attainable and measure it against the impressive amount of what humans do know today, then in comparison we know next to nothing.
On the contrary, Fitch’s Paradox of Knowability argues that “unknown truths” (meaning truths that exist beyond our current awareness or intellectual capacity) are unknowable. So in essence the questions are just as important (if not more so) than the answers themselves. Because you cannot answer a question you didn’t think to ask.
And this is the importance of Philosophy pertaining to Science. We must always challenge our current body of knowledge in regard to ourselves and the natural world around us, as our epistemic knowledge can always change if new and better explanations are found, as even in Science, new discoveries and studies disprove and replace old studies and theories all the time; in fact, this is a necessary part of the process known as the Scientific Method.
Perhaps this is what Socrates meant when he famously said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”
This incessant questioning and skepticism is what ultimately led to the persecution of many of history’s most prominent Philosophers, Scientific minds, and original thinkers as heretics by Religious authority- yet, their legacy continues to live on, influencing the world even today.
But it shouldn’t be thought that Philosophy is simply a healthy dose of doubt, in that we know nothing, and therefore should ‘believe’ nothing. That’s not it at all, Philosophy simply promotes a constant state of open-mindedness and flexibility in ‘belief’.
“As long as you live, keep learning how to live”. -Seneca the Younger
It is an aversion to utter ‘conviction’ in our beliefs; allowing room for growth and change with new information. As a true Philosopher King, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, wrote in his famous journal titled, Meditations: “If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”
Philosophy serves as somewhat of the middle-man between the Scientific Studies and the fundamental tenets behind Faith and/or Religion, as it is essentially ‘belief’ based on reasoning, logical assessment of facts and observation, or a conduit between truth and perception.
And for this reason it can draw many comparisons or overlaps with modern Psychology, the Scientific Study of the human mind and behavior, as according to some progressive theories of Positive Thinking in Psychology: our ‘beliefs’ if not shape, then significantly impact our sense of reality, and more importantly, our thoughts and actions. As the author who popularized the concept of ‘Positive Thinking’ said, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” -Norman Vincent Peale
Ancient Philosophers didn’t only believe Philosophy could cure us of emotional suffering, because that suffering was caused by our beliefs, but they saw that as the very purpose of its practice.
“Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no man suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.” -Epicurus
And indeed, Philosophy has a lot to offer in that regard.
No other ancient school of philosophy overlaps with modern day Psychology than that of Stoicism, being a key influence behind prominent types of established therapies, such as Logotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.
And it’s state of “Ataraxia”, which means ‘tranquility of mind’ or ‘freedom from ongoing stress and worry’ is often compared to, and believed to have influenced, Western practices of mindfulness and meditation. As many historical scholars infer this was the basis of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Contemplative Prayer, a form of meditative-prayer where one experiences God’s presence within them. “Be still and know that I am God.”
An individual who practiced within the School of Stoicism in Ancient Greece was called a Stoic. Today, the word ‘Stoic’ is used to refer to the ability of a person who can endure pain and hardship without apparently or openly showing signs of suffering, or someone who can act calmly and collectively under pressure; in a more modern descriptive phrase, it can be equated to having ‘Grace Under Fire’.
This was the explicit goal of Stoic Philosophers, called: “Apatheia”.
The etymology of the ancient greek word, “Apatheia”, translates roughly to ‘freedom from suffering’ or ‘passion’ in modern linguistics. Apatheia describes a state of being free from the disturbance of emotions.
It can be compared to that of teachings in Buddhism, where emotions are viewed as aspects of our personality that interfere with our spiritual existence, and therefore are undesirable and to be avoided or separated from, as they are the cause of agitation and imbalance.
Only in the Stoic approach, expressing freedom from our emotions is not done with a spiritual aim, but rather a logical aim, as our emotions tend to cloud our means of reason and rationality.
“We suffer not from the events in our lives but from our judgments about them”. -Epictetus
To the Stoic emotions are a product (or natural reaction) from stimuli in our experience with the outside world, but they explicitly exist within us, and therefore, we can learn to enact some control over our emotions and/or reactions to them. “Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” -Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism encourages and promotes not an ignorance or numbness toward our emotions and feelings, but an introspection and logical analysis of them. A think before we act mantra.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. -Aristotle
By way of conducting an in-depth investigation of mental events, such as emotions or feelings, one can distinguish useful nuances. Such as in Anger, often seen as malevolent or destructive, but can also be rightful indignation; and thus, if considered calmly and carefully, Anger can contain useful aspects of clarity, focus and effectiveness in addressing the feelings themselves.
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.” -Epictetus
Apatheia is a habitual practice of temperance and self-restraint from overreacting or being overwhelmed by passion and/or emotion, in order to distinguish the correct and most productive reaction and/or course of action.
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” -Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics are certain about one thing, as the Slave Philosopher, Epictetus, put it in his work, the Enchiridion, human experience is divided into two domains: things we control and things we don’t. And in life a good deal of worrying and suffering is caused by external things outside our control, and therefore “We should always be asking ourselves: Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?” -Epictetus
Stoicism teaches us that the only thing that we can express absolute control over is ourselves, in that, we can surmise and accept, that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can always control how we react to it. Fostering and reinforcing a sense of accountability, emotional balance and levelheadedness, even in the face of a seemingly unfair and unjust world.
‘Eudaimonia’, is an ancient Greek word, and an important, yet obscure and contentious philosophical concept; its etymology indicates it is a compound of two nouns: ‘good’ and ‘spirit’.
In modern times it is often associated with happiness or welfare, or even an ideal being comparable to that of ‘Self-Actualization’ from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in a sense of ‘flourishing’, or reaching one’s potential.
‘Eudaimonia’ was a direct contradiction to ‘Hedonia’, which is ‘happiness’ in a sense of “pleasure” in desire or indulgence. Generally speaking when we say we are ‘happy’ we mean we feel ‘content’ with the way things are going for us in life, but ‘Eudaimonia’ is more encompassing. It is tied to a sense of Self-Discovery, Purpose, Moral Virtue, and of course, like all things in Philosophy, Wisdom- in the ability (and knowledge) to continue to make the right decisions in order to maintain ‘Eudaimonia’ or the capability of ‘living well’.
Among most ancient philosophers, ‘Eudaimonia’, is affected by external factors such as health, wealth, relationships and success- but not according to the Stoics, who believed it to be more expressly, a “disposition of our own will”, without dependence upon anything external; a happiness completely from within.
“Wealth is the slave of a wise man. The master of a fool.” -Seneca the Younger
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” -Epictetus
For a happiness dependent upon nothing but ourselves is “true”, because it therefore cannot be disturbed by anything but ourselves. It positions our happiness or ‘Eudaimonia’ as our own responsibility, something always attainable, like possessing “good spirits” in trying or difficult circumstance.
Stoicism isn’t just a feel-good therapy; it is an ethics to be practiced, with a specific definition of the good life: the aim of life for Stoics was living in accordance with Moral Virtue. And for them, this was the key to achieving a state of ‘Eudaimonia’.
In that our happiness is directly tied to making the right and virtuous decisions, and in accordance with ‘Apatheia’ (control of ourselves), no matter our circumstances doing the right thing is always within our power.
“Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.” -Epictetus
And if we continue to act and carry ourselves with this essential integrity we will achieve and/or sustain ‘Eudaimonia’ (or happiness). A concept that is summed up particularly well in a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”
Ancient Stoics were not oblivious to the necessity of meaning and purpose for the contentedness and happiness of the human psyche, in both the individual perspective and the collective sense.
For them this was a principle called ‘Logos’.
The idea of ‘Logos’ is primarily based on the rationality of Cause and Effect.
While the meaning and purpose of an individual’s life can be examined in a lens of ‘Eudaimonia’, in leading a morally virtuous and benevolent life, it takes a certain amount of logical analysis and development of perspective in order for people to envision or see a path for which they can take in life to do the most good, through influence and action; or even in realizing the good that they already do, or their life already entails, that they may not be aware of- in accordance with the principles of ‘Logos’ (cause and effect) — the effect of their actions on the world around them.
But “Logos” was truly meant in a collective world-view, carrying with it a far broader sentiment. For it is the belief (or faith) that a web of logic and reason permeates and governs the universe and existence, and everything within it, in accordance with cause and effect; it is an expression of meaning and purpose, or order, existing within an apparently chaotic and random world- existing whether we are aware, or have the capacity for such awareness, or not.
“Everything has a natural explanation”. -Anaxagoras
It is as close to a spirituality or religion that the Stoics, in their aversion to conviction, could possibly get; which would more closely resemble Agnosticism, because of its sense of comfort in uncertainty, or Pantheism, because of its roots in a natural order of the universe, rather than anything else.
But unlike most religious or spiritual inquiry, rather than contemplating the existence of a God or Deity, Stoicism focuses on the existence of a Purpose or Reason for the universe and everything within it.
Perhaps the best way to explain ‘Logos’ is with the story of a Bumble Bee.
A Bumble Bee’s purpose as designated by nature is to carry out the act of pollination. This is its use or worth in relation to benefiting its environment or surroundings, its purpose for existing. However, the Bumble Bee is not conscious or aware of this, for it lacks the awareness or capacity, yet this profound and intrinsic purpose pervades their existence none the less.
And ‘Logos’ suggests that this ideal of objective purpose is not unique to Bumble Bees alone, it can be identified and observed in many other plant and animal species.
All things serve some means or end in the grander harmony of nature. And so, Humans are like the Bumble Bee. Buzzing along in existence not truly aware of their collective meaning and/or purpose, yet that meaning or purpose certainly exists.
“He who is free in the body, but bound in the soul is a slave; but on the contrary he who is bound in the body, but free in the soul, is truly free.” -Epictetus