WRITTEN BY: MARK VERNON
“The art of living” is one of those expressions that can think for you. It sounds great. Who isn’t seduced by the notion that their life can be a work of art? So, one must keep asking what it actually means.
It’s a conception of moral philosophy that is certainly on the rise. Alexander Nehamas has written about the lives of philosophers such as Nietzsche and Foucault, who conceived of philosophy not just as a rational activity but as a creative activity. For Nietzsche, philosophy is like literature: the attempt to become the author of your own life. For Foucault, philosophy is an attempt to think differently and so, by pushing at limits, transform yourself.
A different sense of philosophy as an art of living has been articulated by a number of philosophers who are asking about the nature of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Pierre Hadot was one of the most accessible writers in this school, and for him, ancient philosophy was primarily a way of life. Philosophers were seekers after the practical intelligence that would enable them to live well. They formed into different schools – Platonists, Peripatetics, Stoics, Epicureans – and engaged not just in thinking but in committing themselves to a whole pattern of life, which aimed variously at enlightenment, tranquillity or fulfilment. They were more like learned monks than academic professors.
Another sense again is found in popular genres of philosophy (and here I should declare an interest as the editor of Acumen’s The Art of Living series.) The background here is that today, religious sources of inspiration, narrative and instruction about how to live have become marginalised, or regarded as just one resource amongst many. This provides an opportunity for philosophers, who can write for an intelligent but not philosophically trained audience, to offer reflections on aspects of life, from work to wellbeing to love. Philosophy, here, operates as a tool of discernment. It helps you gain a deeper appreciation of what’s going on in life, and what might go better. It draws on the traditions of virtue ethics, in which it is not so much the consequences of actions that count, as the kind of person you are becoming as a result of the life you are leading. It’s an art because, on the whole, life does not come to us as a series of decisions that can be assessed as if they were so many ethical conundrums. Instead, a life lived well is one in which the individual has acquired certain skills and habits – virtues – that forge the character in such a way that it tends to steer one towards a life that can be described as fulfilled.
A fourth way in which philosophy draws on art of living traditions is a critique of the way Anglo-American philosophy is going. The worry here is that philosophy is becoming “scientistic”. Bernard Williams is one big hitter to have expressed the concern, when he argued that philosophy should be a “humanistic” discipline, by which he meant one that helps us understand ourselves. John Cottingham is writing along similar lines, his worry being that philosophers try too hard to mimic scientific methodologies, particularly in their writing. At one level, this is manifest in bibliographies containing ridiculous entries like, “Aristotle (1985)”. But that is only symptomatic of a deeper malaise, in which the discipline is becoming excessively reductive. That works well in science. But it does not in philosophy, if it is a discipline that cares about how we live, for we don’t live reductively. The ideal is not to rest with quasi-empirical results, but work that is integrative and even transformative. This is philosophy as an art of living that expands our moral imagination and speaks to our humanity, thereby enlarging it.
Clearly, the art of living is only a part of philosophy, and in the modern world, a minor part, particularly in the university context. Even in the sphere of moral philosophy, the art of living is a secondary concern: undergraduates today don’t expect their professors to be gurus, as Plato, Zeno and Epicurus were, but rather to be experts in ethical discourse.
That said, there is a sense in which everyone, professor or not, is at least a little bit interested in how to live well. Many people like to query and shape their own “philosophy of life”, at least on occasion. By recovering a style of philosophy that takes us back to the western tradition’s roots, as well as exploring what drove some of philosophy’s greatest thinkers to become philosophers – individuals from Plato to Nietzsche – the art of living revival, if that is what it is, does the subject as a whole a service.
The Art of Living series, ed. Mark Vernon (Acumen, 2008)