Developing a Philosophy of Life — Part III

The conclusion of a three-part essay on philosophy as a guide to life.

I’ve recently explained how I arrived at a point in my life when I felt the need to develop, or settle onto, a philosophy of life — a process then began with my abandonment of Catholicism, subsequent embracing of atheism, exploring of secular humanism, and finally landing on virtue ethics, and in particular Stoicism.

But, one might reasonably wonder, why seek a philosophy of life, and how is that different from a religion (my starting point along the journey), anyway? Have I been “converted” to Stoicism, ironically embracing a way of thinking and living that was actually much respected by Christian writers throughout the Middle Ages? (Epictetus’ Handbook was used as a manual in Christian monasteries, for instance.)

William Irvine, in his A Guide to the Good Life, asked himself the very same question. In a nutshell, developing a philosophy of life does three things: (i) it makes clear to us (and reminds us of) what we value; (ii) it gives us a sense of how to pursue what we value; (iii) it saves us a lot of time by reminding us to avoid, or not to waste time, seeking what we don’t actually value.

Irvine here clearly follows the ancient Greco-Roman sense of what philosophy is: one’s quest to figure out how to live. Let’s say, for instance, that you are a Buddhist. Then you can rely on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to guide you. The four noble truths are: 1) that suffering originates from the anxiety engendered by constant change, and a general dissatisfaction pervading all life forms; 2) that the origin of suffering can be known by human beings, and that its roots are craving and ignorance; 3) that the cessation of suffering is indeed possible; and 4) that such cessation is achieved through the noble eightfold path.

The eight components of that path, which are meant to be pursued in parallel, not sequentially, are: 1) Right View, viewing the world for what it is, not as it appears to be; 2) Right Intention, the pursuit of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness; 3) Right Speech, speaking truthfully and without harming others; 4) Right Action, acting without harming others; 5) Right Livelihood, living without causing harm; 6) Right Effort, that is making an effort to improve oneself; 7) Right Mindfulness, which means awareness of both how things are and of the reality within oneself; and 8) Right Concentration, engaging in meditation or concentration of the right kind.

I could give you similar precepts from Stoicism, Epicureanism, Aristotelianism, Taoism, Confucianism, and a number of other philosophies. It isn’t crucial which particular philosophy we are talking about. Mine (and Irvine’s) isn’t a plea for Buddhism, or Stoicism, or whatever, above the alternatives. Different philosophies will appeal to different personalities and will work better in certain cultures. The point is that one is in a much better position to make the best of one’s life by following a philosophy that she finds compelling.

The obvious caveat, of course, is that while a number of philosophies will do the job, some most definitely will not. A philosophy of selfish egotism (a la Ayn Rand, say), or one bent on the annihilation of entire groups of human beings (think Mein Kampf) would be destructive and not conducive to a eudaimonic existence. They not only need to be avoided, they need to be actively fought against by any sensible human being. (Things may get trickier when one considers philosophies that have some good to recommend them, but also embed components that may actually undermine human flourishing — like most versions of nihilism. That’s why reasoned discourse and engagement with outside criticisms is crucial.)

But what, then, is the difference between embracing the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Stoic Three Disciplines (Desire, Action, and Assent), or any another set of philosophical principles, and accepting a particular religious faith?

That latter word provides the crucial hint: faith. While it is true that belief in gods can and has been defended by the use of reason (e.g., Anselm’s ontological argument) and evidence (the standard forms of the cosmological and design arguments), ultimately religious belief must be a matter of faith. One simply accepts scriptures as the word of God, and institutionalized religion is so-called precisely because it comes with a series of institutions (the Church, the Pope) that interpret the will of God and transmit that interpretation to believers.

Yes, this is clearly a simplification, as there always is a significant amount of internal debate within any major religion, but that debate isn’t usually about the tenets of the religion itself, it is about how to interpret and apply them. And of course there are religious beliefs that are not institutionalized, like animism and pantheism, for instance — though I would classify the latter two as types of mystical beliefs, reserving the term of “religion” for cultural practices that are organized in more or less formal structures.

The contrast should be stark with philosophy: by its very nature, philosophy not only can but has to be questioned. Philosophy is a continuous dialogue amongst people, and this is made evident by even a superficial acquaintance with the above mentioned philosophies: the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Peripatetic, the Buddhists, the Taoists and the Confucians have all vigorously debated their systems, both internally and with other such schools.

Indeed, much discussion is going on as we speak. There have been successful attempts at developing an entirely secular modern Buddhism, and there are a number of authors that are doing the same for Stoicism. Of course, modern versions of those philosophies have to be characterized by at the least a strong “family resemblance” — to use Wittgenstein’s felicitous phrase — with their ancient counterparts, or one would be more intellectually honest in using new names to label radically new ideas.

But even that is certainly not a problem if one wants to develop a philosophy: if ancient eudaemonistic philosophies aren’t your cup of tea, of off and develop new ones, like secular humanism and ethical culture. It is a problem if one is talking about a religion, though. Yes, religions too change over the centuries and millennia. They inevitably adapt to new cultural milieus, but they usually do so with great recalcitrance, because any major change implies either that God has changed His mind, or that we were radically wrong in interpreting what He meant. No such authority carries that sort of weight for philosophy: if Zeno, or Siddhārtha Gautama, or Confucius, were wrong about something, so be it. We don’t expect anything else, since they were fallible human beings to begin with. As the Dalai Lama recently put it: “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” [1]

And here is the most interesting twist, for me. Pretty much all the philosophies I’ve mentioned, from both the Western and Eastern cultural traditions, are open to be interpreted both in a religious and a secular fashion: there are good arguments and reasons to think of the Stoic Logos as God immanent in nature, or alternatively as the factual recognition that the universe is organized along rational principles that make it understandable for us. One can be a Buddhist while embracing or rejecting one or another of its metaphysical aspects. And the same goes for Epicureanism, Confucianism, and so forth. That is, when it comes to philosophies of life, believers, agnostics and atheists can agree on the practicalities while disagree on the metaphysical background. Unlike traditional religions and the strident so-called “New Atheism,” these are truly big tents that cater to the human need to answer that fundamentally Socratic question: how should I live my life?

[1] (Dalai Lama XIV, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality)