Do you have a philosophy in life?
I don’t have one. I didn’t even realise if there was a need to have one to live a decent life. I do have a mission statement though that I drafted a few years ago after realising its value reading Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Initially, I used to visit my own mission statement everyday to internalise it so that it became second nature to me. However, I have slacked in the last year or so and have not been abiding by my mission statement. I do occasionally visit my mission statement when I sense disillusionment and lack of focus in life. It helps me in aligning myself and regain my focus. However, even though Mission statements are good for guidance and direction, they are not all encompassing in its scope. It does not provide a model or template to live life in its entirety. Author and angel investor Tim Ferris calls refers to philosophy as the ideal “personal operating system”.
Lately I have been spending a lot of time trying to read and understand the benefit of philosophy in our lives. A few years ago when I had just moved to Singapore, I was introduced to the works of Bertrand Russell. Such was his impact on me that I binged on every book that he had written. The sheer intellectual vigour of Russell stirred me up and I found myself wanting for more. It was during this time that I read his treatise on philosophy called History of Western Philosophy. It was dry read but I persisted because it gave me a historical and chronological perspective of western philosophy and its influence. The book covered an entire spectrum from pre-Socrates philosophical influences to Socrates to Plato and Aristotelian era. This is where I read about various philosophical sects like the Cynics, Sceptics, Epicureans, Stoics and others.
The book was a primer for me on western philosophy and provided me a basic grounding on what western philosophy stood for. However, life caught up and I never pursued that subject again.
However, recently I have been hearing a lot about Stoic philosophy in particular especially from the young. It just made me curiouser to understand why Stoicism like Buddhism is gaining ground across large swathes of the youth. And then when I picked Ryan Holiday’s recent book, Ego is the Enemy, it stoked my curiosity even further to understand Stoic philosophy better.
Do we need a philosophy at all to live?
But before I get to Stoicism, let me try to revisit the question — do we need a philosophy at all to live? A simple answer would be a ‘no’. Millions of people live without adhering to any set philosophy but by a set of values and standards that may have been implicitly absorbed through their environment or upbringing.
But does embracing a philosophy helps you make your life more rewarding or enriching than without having one?
Let’s explore this question by going back to history. In the Roman Empire in Greece and Rome, along with the ability to read, write and do arithmetic, those who were able to persuade others were most likely to have successful careers in law and politics. It was part of this reason that affluent Greek and Roman parents, after a child’s secondary education, sought teachers to develop their child’s persuasive ability. These parents sought the devices of sophists and philosophers. Unlike sophists, philosophers taught that besides teaching their pupils how to persuade, they should teach them how to live well. In their teaching they emphasised on moral aspect of education, the development of personality, and the inner life. In the course of doing this, many philosophers provided their pupils with a philosophy of life — they taught them what things in life were worth pursuing and how best to pursue them. Some of the parents who wanted a philosophical education for their child hired live-in tutors. Aristotle for example was hired by the King Philip of Macedon to tutor Alexander, who subsequently became great.
After the death of Socrates, philosophical schools became a prominent feature of Athenian culture that spread to Rome as well. Affiliating oneself with a school of philosophy was a serious business. Adherence to a philosophical sect was not merely 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. To truly be a philosopher was to live out the sect’s doctrine, conform one’s conduct to it, and if need be, to die for it.
What it was popularly accepted was that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life. Why is it important to have a grand goal in living? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive — that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realise that you wasted your own chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.
Having a philosophy of life whether it is Stoicism or some other philosophy can dramatically simplify everyday living. If you have a philosophy of life, decision making is relatively straightforward. When choosing between the options life offers, you simply choose the one most likely to help you attain the goals set forth by your philosophy of life. In the absence of a philosophy of life, though, even relative simple choices can degenerate into meaning-of-life crises. It is after all hard to know what to choose when you aren’t really sure what you want.
The most important reason for adopting a philosophy of life, though, is that if we lack one, there is a danger that we will mislive — that we will spend our lives pursuing goals that aren’t worth attaining or will pursue worthwhile goals in a foolish manner and will therefore fail to attain them.
Whatever philosophy of life a person ends up adopting, she will probably have a better life than if she tries to live — as many people do — without a coherent philosophy of life.
These arguments made a strong influence on me and I have set up on a path to understand and experiment on these philosophical sects beginning with Stoicism.
Some of you might mock at my fascination of western philosophy when Hindu philosophy is much older and deeper in application than that of the west. However, I find western philosophy, especially Stoicism much more practical, logical, rational and causal to learn and apply in my own life. It is still early days for me. If you are exploring the idea of seeking a philosophy for your own life, the best option is to read the books of the philosophers and dabble with the one you most resonate with.
In my upcoming posts, I will begin with introducing Stoicism.