“The really important thing is not to live, but to live well.”
What does it mean to live well? Millennia after Socrates taught that the most important thing was “to live well”, people are still searching for meaning. But most of us spend our time in pursuit of the wrong things.
We seek pleasures which quickly fade, we worry about things we cannot change, we live for tomorrow without appreciating today.
What does it mean to live well?
How can you live the good life?
Without answers to these questions, we are in danger of misliving the only life we have. But where can we find these answers? Living is a skill to be taught. The way to learn it is through a philosophy of life.
A philosophy of life is your guide to living well. It provides the principles by which you choose how to live your life. It directs you on the path to a good life, and teaches you how to get there.
Do you want to live a good life? The solution is a philosophy of life. Here’s what it is, why you need it, and where to find one.
The danger of a life mislived
Bronnie Ware was a palliative care nurse in Australia. Over the course of a decade caring for the terminally ill, she came to discover the common regrets of people at the end of their lives.
One of their top regrets? “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”
We want to live well. We want to live a good life. We want to be happy. But if we don’t know what makes us happy, nor how to achieve it, our life will be one of regrets. How can you be happy if you never seek things which are truly important?
Yet most of us are in this situation. We spend our lives working for things which do not matter. We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like. After working hard to get what we desire, we realise that it isn’t what we wanted after all.
Live life by design, not by default.
Most of us never seek a philosophy of life. We don’t take the time to learn how to live. The danger of not choosing to live your life by design is that you will live it by default.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have certain principles which guide you, and you have your own idea of what it means to live well. The problem is that, for most of us, the picture of our “default philosophy” is grim.
Life in the pursuit of pleasure
Aristippus was well-known for his love of courtesans, fine food and old wines. According to some stories, the Ancient Greek philosopher regularly engaged in “shocking or undignified” behaviour for the sake of pleasurable experiences. This was only natural for him — he was a philosopher of the Hedonist school. And at the centre of Hedonist philosophy was the belief that the ultimate good in life was pleasure.
We may think we’re more enlightened than Aristippus, but the truth is we’re not much better. At our core, we believe the same thing — that the most important thing in life is pleasure. Sure, we may have traded a life of gluttony and frivolity for office jobs and mortgages. But now instead of Aristippus’s search for immediate satisfaction, we delay gratification and seek future rewards. Our life is still in the pursuit of pleasure — it’s just a longer race.
“We’re often unhappy because after working hard to get what we want, we become immune to our desire”, writes William Irvine. Without a philosophy of life, we live the life of an “enlightened hedonist”. We seek pleasures which never truly keep us happy. In the end, we live a life of regrets, only whispered on the deathbed.
Clearly, it is important to live a life without regrets. It is important to avoid the danger of misliving. I’ve argued that the way to do this is through a philosophy of life. But what is a philosophy of life?
What is a philosophy of life?
Living is a skill to be taught. A philosophy of life is what teaches it. Without a philosophy of life, there is a danger that we will mislive. With one, you will learn how to live.
Such a philosophy is not a loose collection of wisdoms and parables, but rather a clear guide to living well. A philosophy of life…
- …is a coherent and actionable set of beliefs which defines a way of life.
- …provides the principles which guide how you choose to live your life.
- …teaches the actions you need to take to live your life well.
There are two major characteristics of such a philosophy. It is both deeply personal and extremely practical.
It is a personal philosophy.
A philosophy of life is a personal philosophy. It focuses on the individual human condition. What should I want in life? What is most important in life? How should I live my life? A philosophy of life answers these questions.
Stoicism teaches that we should seek tranquility of mind by overcoming negative emotions. Epicureanism teaches that the greatest good is to seek modest pleasures. These philosophies teach their students what is most important in life.
Yet not only does a philosophy of life teach what is most important, it also teaches how to obtain it.
It is a practical philosophy.
A philosophy of life defines a way of life. It is not just an intellectual exercise — it requires constant practice and training. Yet by following the guidelines of this philosophy, you are taught how to obtain what is most important.
Such a philosophy provides guidance on the problems you will face — specific guidance, not vague solutions. Seneca, a great Stoic teacher and writer, provided guidance to his students with essays on practical topics such as “on suffering”, “on sharing knowledge”, and “on the shortness of life”.
Where can you find such a philosophy?
What can modern philosophy teach us?
One of the central questions of philosophy is the “question of conduct” — how should we conduct ourselves? This is a question we’d like answered in learning how to live well. But philosophers have interpreted this question in two very different ways — “how can I live a moral life”, and “how can I live a good life”.
To live morally is to do what is ethical and right for your fellow woman or man. But this is not the same as living well. Many modern philosophies have much to say about living a moral life, but when it comes to a good life, these sources fall silent.
Can religion teach you a philosophy of life?
Consider religion. Each religion has a set of deeply ingrained principles which it teaches to its followers. For example, common across many religious philosophies is the Golden Rule — the principle of treating others as you wish to be treated.
The Golden Rule has been expressed as:
- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Christianity)
- “That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.” (Islam)
- “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Buddhism)
But does this teach you how to live a good life? No.
I’ve used the Golden Rule as an example, but the point can be applied more generally. Religion is more concerned with teaching its adherents how to live morally — not how to live well. Religion will teach you to be morally upstanding, but it won’t tell you what goals you should set and how to overcome obstacles to achieving them.
So, religion is no guarantee for a life well lived. But if religion isn’t the place to turn for a philosophy of life, where else could you try?
Do universities teach a philosophy of life?
Universities are a bastion of knowledge. The academics who teach there have spent many years learning their discipline and asking deep questions. So, perhaps a professor of philosophy could have something to say on a philosophy of life? Yet, if you ask this professor on how to live a good life, you might not be invited to take her course.
The philosophy taught in classrooms and universities is not a philosophy of life. There is no course on “living a good life”. Modern philosophy — religious or secular — can teach you to live morally and ethically. But it won’t teach you to live well. Yet the pursuit of a good life has been going on for thousands of years. And philosophy was not always what it is today.
Looking to the past to learn how to live
Travel back a few thousand years, and you’ll see that philosophy used to mean something quite different.
Ask a professor of philosophy today what it is they teach, and you’ll hear a lot about ethics, morals, the question of knowledge. But ask the same question of an Ancient Greek or Roman philosopher, and they will teach you how to live. Philosophers as far back as Socrates knew that the important thing in life was to “live well”. And they may have found the secret to avoiding a life of regret.
The role of philosophy in life
In Ancient Greek, philosophy was not just an intellectual pursuit. According to historian Simon Price, “adherence to a philosophical sect was not simply a matter for the mind, or the result of mere intellectual fashion. Those who took their philosophy seriously attempted to live that philosophy from day to day.”
In short — to study philosophy was to live that philosophy. In the ancient classrooms of philosophy, be it an amphitheatre or a street corner, students were learning how to live. The philosophies they developed were made to be lived. Teachers of philosopher were teachers of life — teaching how to live a good life. Their lessons were built over years of reflection and experience.
These teachers are long gone, but the lessons they taught live on. It is here, finally, that we can find an antidote for a mislived life.
Where to start?
The remedy for a life of regrets is a philosophy of life. To find such a philosophy, you could think deeply on your own life, and try to construct the guidelines to teach you how to live. However, there’s no promise what you develop will lead to a good life. Living is a skill to be taught — and the greatest teachers have developed their craft through centuries of experience.
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt
Learn how to live from those who have lived before. Instead of trying to construct your own complete philosophy of life, I recommend adopting one which has been taught and tested over hundreds of years.
There is a philosophy which has been used by emperors, teachers, and even elite athletes to live well. This is the one philosophy of life I can recommend to you - since it's what I live by each day. Here’s what I recommend: the philosophy of Stoicism.
The philosophy of a Roman emperor
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius has been described as the “last great Roman Emperor”. Ruling from 161 until 180 AD, he lead his empire through an age of relative peace and stability. He faced great hardships and challenges beyond what most of us will ever experience. Yet despite this, he managed to live a good life. He accomplished this through the philosophy of life he embodied — the philosophy of Stoicism.
Stoicism, first taught in Ancient Greece and now practiced by hundreds of thousands today, is a philosophy of life — both deeply personal and extremely practical. The Stoics understood life was short, and sought to live each day well. They taught that the most important thing to seek in life was tranquility — to be free of anger and fear, and to experience tranquility of mind.
The techniques of a Stoic
To achieve this goal, the Stoics provided clear, actionable techniques to live well. Some of the techniques used as part of their practical philosophy are described here.
- Negative visualisation: Reflecting on the loss of what we already have, to teach us to value it more and to lessen the impact of when we eventually lose it.
- The dichotomy of control: Understanding that there are things within our control and things outside it, and focusing our efforts only on things over which we have complete control.
- Fatalism: Accepting that the past and the present cannot be changed, and in so focusing our efforts on shaping the future.
Practical, personal — Stoicism provides a guide to the good life. I’ll let the words of the great Stoic philosophers speak for themselves.
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
— Marcus Aurelius
“As it is with a play, so it is with life — what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is.”
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
In Stoicism, you have the guidelines for living well, and the teachers to teach you the art of living. There may exist other philosophies as effective and impactful as this — but I don’t know of them. Yet whether you choose Stoicism or any other, the important thing is to find a philosophy of life, and to live it.
The case for a philosophy of life
The greatest danger of your life is to mislive it — to live life seeking temporary pleasures, to live without knowing what is most important, and to never achieve it. We spend our lives working for things which don’t give us lasting joy. We miss out on those things which make us truly happy.
There is no guarantee that a philosophy of life will lead you to a good life. There is only the guarantee that without one, you will find yourself on your deathbed, whispering your regrets of a mislived life. Don’t live a life of regrets.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Find your philosophy of life — be it Stoicism or any other. Live each day in accordance with your principles.
You’ve only got this one life. Live it well.