Book Club: The Art of Living, 4

How to study practical philosophy: a three-pronged curriculum

Figs in Winter
Dec 26, 2019 · 6 min read

Time to wrap up our ongoing book club focused on John Sellars’ The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy. (See parts one, two, and three.) It’s a must read for anyone seriously interested in Stoicism as a practical philosophy of life, but also for people who want to reflect on what it means to live one’s philosophy (or religion), that is, to engage in what the ancient Greco-Romans called the art of living.

The last bit of the book I want to cover is the Conclusion, which should by all means not be skipped, as it includes a fascinating discussion of different conceptions of philosophical knowledge, as well as the outline of a curriculum of study for people interested in learning how to practice philosophy.

Right at the outset, Sellars distinguishes two kinds of philosophers and two kinds of philosophical knowledge. On the one hand we have the likes Hegel, Williams, and almost everyone who is employed nowadays as a philosopher in academic departments. These are people who think that any connection between a person’s philosophy and their way of life is an indication of a problem in the philosophy itself. Witness, for instance, the recent controversy abut wether we should study Heidegger, given that he was a Nazi. (My take on that is that there are better reasons not to bother with Heidegger, beginning with his astoundingly obfuscatory language and hardly insightful philosophy. But that’s another story.)

On the other hand, we have philosophers like Nietzsche, Foucault, and — if you forgive me the pretentiousness — yours truly, who follow the steps of Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and so forth in thinking that there very much has to be a connection between one’s philosophy and one’s life, on penalty of indulging in more or less self-contained academic games pursued for their own sake (or not the sake of getting tenure).

Practical philosophers trace their intellectual lineage to Socrates, the first in the ancient world to turn away from a general interest in nature (metaphysics and natural philosophy, as practiced by most of the Pre-Socratics) and toward human affairs, and ethics in particular. As John puts it:

“For him, philosophy conceived as an art aspires to excellence and wisdom, and thus Socrates understands ‘philosophy’ in its etymological sense [i.e., love of wisdom]. … A number of the Stoics including Epictetus appear to have understood the idea of an art of living as Socrates did.”

Philosophy conceived as the art of living has as its subject matter one’s “soul” (or character, in modern terms), and as its goal the betterment of such soul/character. The product of the practice is excellence, or wisdom in the broad sense of the term.

Here Sellars makes an interesting distinction, which is still, very unfortunately, lost on many people (including a number of professional philosophers) today:

“One might say that the Socratic-Stoic art of living is ethical in the sense that it is concerned with one’s character which, in turn, determines one’s habits. However, it is not moral in the modern sense of offering a series of regulations concerning how one should act or what one should do, and it is certainly not concerned with specifying how others should act. The art of living may form the basis for an ethics but not for a morality.” (emphasis in the original)

Interestingly, for the Stoics there is no fundamental distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and therefore being concerned with practicing philosophy in one’s life does not necessitate a rejection of theoretical or even scientific knowledge. This is clear in the commentary on the Stoics by Diogenes Laertius, where he summarizes the three branches of philosophy according to Stoicism:

“[The Stoics] say that philosophical doctrine has three parts: the physical, the ethical, and the logical. … They compare philosophy to an animal, likening logic to the bones and sinews, ethics to the fleshier parts, and physics to the soul. Or again, they liken it to an egg: the outer parts are logic, the next parts are ethics, and the inmost parts are physics; or to a fertile field, of which logic is the surrounding fence, ethics the fruit, and physics the land or the trees. Or to a city that is well fortified and governed according to reason.” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.39–40)

The study of “physics” (i.e., metaphysics and natural philosophy) and “logic” (i.e., anything to do with good reasoning) is clearly theoretical. But it is necessary to develop one’s “ethics” (i.e., one’s life conduct).

Nevertheless, theoretical study is clearly subordinate to practice, a rank distinction made clear by Seneca when he contrasts studiositas and curiositas in letter CXXXVIII to Lucilius. Curiositas is the study of things for their own sake, to satisfy one’s curiosity. Studiositas is the study of the same subject matters, but with the aim toward improving one’s life and character. The first one is to be pursued only as a leisurely activity, the latter as a fundamental one.

This primacy of practice over theory is particularly evident in Nietzsche (not a Stoic!), who argued that we should examine a philosopher’s life, not what he said or wrote. (Problem is, his own philosophy doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny, according to this criterion…) Ancient philosophers were more moderate than Nietzsche, advocating an effective balance of theory and practice. But they did suggest that studying philosophers’ biographies is one of the best tools available to learn the art of living. This is why, famously, Zeno of Citium — the founder of Stoicism — began a momentous turn in his life by listening to Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a biography of Socrates:

“[Zeno] became a student of Crates under the following circumstances. Transporting a cargo of purple dye from Phoenicia to the Piraeus, he was shipwrecked. On reaching Athens (he was then a man of thirty), he sat down in a bookseller’s shop. The bookseller was reading aloud the second book of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, and Zeno was so pleased that he asked where such men could be found. At that very moment, fortunately, Crates happened to be walking past. Pointing him out, the bookseller said, ‘Follow him.’” (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.3)

Sellars provides a nice summary of the typical ancient curriculum in practical philosophy (one, incidentally, that I implement in a course I offer at the City College of New York, called “Practical Ancient Philosophy”). The curriculum consists in three kinds of entries:

  • Literature concerned with action: biographies and anecdotal material. E.g., Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers.

The idea was to first acquaint students with the life of good role models, so that they would get an intuitive idea of what they should aspire to. The second step was the study of theoretical treatises, to grasp more firmly the principles behind one’s chosen philosophy. Finally, students would turn to practical exercises to implement the theory and to, hopefully, mold their lives along the lines of the exemplars they started with.

Now, why would we moderns want to return to a conception of philosophy as the art of living, articulated well before smart phones and the internet? For one thing, because that conception has never actually gone away. While we tend to think of people like Socrates and Epictetus, semi-lost in the midst of time, philosophy was practiced throughout the Middles Ages (e.g., Peter Abelard, John of Salisbury), and the Renaissance (Petrarch’s On the Remedies of Both Kinds of Fortune, Justus Lipsius and his Neo-Stoicism). The modern era has had its advocates as well (Nietzsche, Foucault), and it is seeing a resurgence of interest in Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism, among others.

John’s point at the very end of the book is that it is highly misleading to characterize practical philosophy as “ancient,” and to think of theoretical philosophical inquiry (metaphysics, natural philosophy) as modern. They have both existed since the Pre-Socratics, two parallel, non-mutally exclusive ways to think about, and do, philosophy.

(Next book: Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the book that led to Stoicism)

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Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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