It is widely acknowledged that the greatest danger we face on our journey to adulthood is not choking on LEGO bricks, falling from trees or passing out from strawpedioing Hooch. What really strikes fear into the hearts of every parent? The philosophy degree.
What philosophy lacks in its ability to generate an income it makes up by helping people find fulfillment, cope with grief or even to decide whether they should buy a new pair of shoes. Philosophy is there for when you put down your shovel and wonder why you’re digging the hole.
I first read about the idea of a ‘philosophy for life’ in William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. Up until then the image of philosophy I held in my mind was that of stuffy old men pondering the futility of our existence. Imagine my surprise in finding out that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (or more famously that old guy who dies in Gladiator) had used the same philosophy to guide him through life as William Irvine had written about in his book.
This particular branch of philosophy is called Stoicism. The Stoics were guided by the following concepts:
In Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations he often writes about ‘living in accordance with nature’. There are things which are part of nature - life, death, illness, other people’s opinions, the fact we age or our sexual preference - over which have no control.
“Don't you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they ”
If we focus on being virtuous, doing good, putting the world in order as best we can (which is something we can control) then we don’t need to worry about what people think of us as we do it. Do you think a bee would care about your opinion on it’s honey making skills? By accepting the parts of nature we can’t control we can reduce anxiety and find tranquility.
Stoics prefer to embrace rather than ignore the fact that bad things will happen to us. It’s not nice to think about loved ones dying but it’s going to happen at some point. You can either ignore it and wonder how the time you could have spent with them slipped through your fingers or you can acknowledge and do something about it. By spending a little time thinking about what we could lose we can learn to be grateful for what we have got. This type of negative visualisation is only to be done occasionally and without worry. It encourages us to enjoy lifes pleasures but not be attached to them.
“After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, [the Stoic] will go on to express his delight in even having a glass.”
Something a little different
If Stoicism doesn’t sound your cup of tea then there are plenty more we can learn from other Greek philosophers. These videos from the School of Life will do a better job of explaining them than I could so give them a whirl!
What philosophers have in common is that they study life and provide feedback on how we can better deal with it. I believe there are plenty of people doing this today and modern philosophy can be found in many places if you look for it:
Nic Marks set out to discover what made people happy and what would increase their wellbeing. He found 5 common things people could do:
- Stay Active
- Keep Learning
Stephen Covey created the 7 Habits of highly effective people.
- Be proactive
- Begin with the end in mind
- Put first things first
- Think win-win
- Seek first to understand, and then to be understood
- Sharpen the saw
Even something as simple as the poem ‘Dust if You Must’ by Rose Milligan can provide us with philosophical guidance:
Dust if you must, but wouldn't it be better
To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?
I was going to get up and clean the house but now I’m going to stick with writing this blog post. Thanks Rose.
Creating your own life philosophy
A life philosophy is basically a set of techniques and advice to guide you through life and as such you can form your own. Have a think about a set of values or principles you could use, write them down and stick them in your wallet. If you find yourself needing a bit of guidance pull out your list and go with it. Here are mine - they are tailored to my personality which is kind of the point:
- Know yourself - Thanks Plato! I’m only just beginning to realise how important this is. You need to know the foundations you are building on.
- Keep it simple - Thanks Kelly Johnson! Most things work best when they are kept simple.
- Lean in - Thanks Aaron Schwartz! Basically if you’re in an uncomfortable situation don’t shrink away but tackle it with enthusiasm and energy.
- Be independent - I’ve lived a sheltered life and rely on other people quite a bit. This is to encourage me to reach out by myself more often.
- Be social - Staying in touch and having healthy relationships is incredibly important. As someone who finds socialising hard and not that fun but wants to be part of the conversation the more practice I get at this the better.
- Celebrate my achievements - Thanks Lara Hogan. I owe this one to the donut manifesto. For some reason I crave the approval and praise of others. So I feel like I need to look to myself for praise rather than other people.
- Treat your body well - The longer I can keep my body from degrading the longer I can keep doing the things I like to do.
- Find virtue - Thanks Marcus! If I know I’m doing something of value then I don’t need to worry about what other people think. For example I would worry a heck of a lot over how long I was taking to code and what other people thought about that. Focusing on doing a good job and doing the right thing would ease the anxiety a little.
- Take the risk - I’m not much of a risk taker and I should do a little bit more. You know, like quitting a job I’m not enjoying.
- Creation over consumption - I sure do love to consume. Books, TV, games and food. But these are rarely the things I imagine myself doing. I usually think about playing guitar, writing or gardening. This is a reminder to try to prioritise creation over consumption.
I have used these principles to help make some big decisions recently but I don’t follow them all the time. In the spirit of keeping it simple I wanted to boil down my values and principles further into a really simple life philosophy. I’ve read a lot about life and happiness, and these themes kept cropping up:
- Health - First and foremost look after your health so you can keep doing what you like for longer. You can’t follow the next two principles well if you’re ill or dead.
- Social - This is extremely important for keeping you happy and healthy for longer.
- Do - Once you’ve got the other two principles sorted try to fill your time by doing the things you really want to do. Work out what you want from life and pursue it.
It’s not very catchy but it makes sense to me and is easier to remember. I hope this inspires you to have a think about what you would include in your own life philosophy.
“As surgeons keep their lancets and scalpels always at hand for the sudden demands of their craft, so keep your principles constantly in readiness for the understanding of both human and divine.”