“Why do I need a philosophy of life?” Let me tell you


Recently I had a very enjoyable video conversation with my friend John Horgan, an author and Scientific American contributor. The wide-ranging chat was on science, philosophy, and Stoicism. All in about one hour and 13 minutes…

At the end of the session, off the record, John commented on the whole concept of having or adopting a philosophy of life, concluding: “Why do I need a philosophy of life? I don’t like systems, I prefer to go with the flow.” So this is my answer to John and to all those who prefer to “go with the flow.”

In a recent book I co-edited with Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman, How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy, we define a philosophy of life (or religion, which we take to be a special case) as a system of thought based on the following two elements:

* A metaphysics: that is, an account of how the world “hangs together.” This may rely on the existence of an all-powerful and benevolent god who created the universe (Christianity), on seeing the universe as a living organism endowed with reason (ancient Stoicism), or on simply accepting whatever the latest science tells us about how the cosmos work (modern Stoicism, secular humanism).

* An ethics: that is, an account of how we should live in the world. This is more or less (but not rigidly) connected to the metaphysical background. For instance, for Christians we should love even our enemies and generally behave as Jesus would, notions linked to their belief that God is a benign entity that loves us and will reward us in the afterlife. Modern Stoics think that we should use reason to improve social living, because by nature we are social animals capable of rationality, an idea that the they get from their understanding of science, and particularly evolutionary biology.

More than occasionally, but not always, philosophies and religions come with a set of practices: prayer and reading of sacred texts for Christians, different kinds of meditation for Buddhists, philosophical journaling and exercises in mild self-deprivation (and a lot of other stuff) for Stoics.

Now, pretty much all of us come at birth with a philosophy of life ready made for us. Because we inherit it from our cultural milieu. I grew up Roman Catholic, for instance, so for the first decade and a half of my life I accepted Christian metaphysics, tried to behave according to Christian ethics, read the Gospels, and prayed.

Some of us, at some point in our life, become dissatisfied with our inherited life philosophy and actively seek alternatives. When I could no longer seriously believe in a transcendent God I embraced secular humanism. Two and a half decades later, when my midlife crisis hit, I devoted some time to explore Buddhism, Aristotelianism, and Epicureanism — finally landing into Stoicism.

So one answer to John is that he simply cannot help but have a philosophy of life. But his reaction was against “systems,” preferring to “go with the flow.” That sounds good, until we pause to reflect and realize the severe limitations of that sort of approach.

“The flow” is determined by the local culture. If we just go with it, we risk — at best — living a fairly mindless life, automatically or implicitly adopting whatever values people around us have adopted. That ought to be problematic for anyone inclined to think on their own. And that’s the best case scenario. The worst one is that we adopt by default a nasty philosophy, like Italians and Germans did during World War II, or, for that matter, a lot of Americans are doing right now, especially in certain parts of the country.

But perhaps John meant something different. It’s not that he goes with the flow imposed by the surrounding culture, but that he makes up his mind on a case-by-case basis. This, however, isn’t much better. It’s equivalent to piloting a ship without a chart of the seas or any idea about weather systems, “by sight.” The peril of doing so should be obvious: one is going to be woefully unprepared when a serious storm happens to come by, or when one enters uncharted waters that may present unforeseen challenges.

Then again, maybe John meant that he espouses some kind of eclecticism: he feels free to pick and choose different bits from different systems. A bit of Stoicism here, a bit of Epicureanism there, and a dash of Buddhism to make it more spicy. I’ve encountered a good number of people who do something like that. 

There are two issues with eclecticism, though: first, arbitrarily putting together elements of disparate philosophies, taking them out of they metaphysical and overall ethical background, risks creating incoherences. For instance, while both Epicureanism and Stoicism are types of virtue ethics, and both have a high regard for the practice of virtue, their highest priorities are different. For the Epicurean, the goal is to live a life without pain, physical or mental, insofar as it is possible for a human being. For the Stoic, the goal is to be useful to the human cosmopolis through the exercise of one’s reasoning abilities and faculty of judgment (prohairesis). So what happens if you have adopted a Stoic-Epicurean hybrid philosophy and you run into a situation in which you can either minimize pain or be useful to the cosmopolis, but not both? That’s when the rubber hits the road and you’ll find out that, really, you are either an Epicurean or a Stoic. You can’t be both.

Second, if we cobble together our life philosophy from disparate components, we encourage our own capacity for rationalization to run wild. Don’t like a particular precept of Buddhism, say their vegetarianism? No problem! You are also a Stoic, and Stoics are more permissive in that department. You see how this can easily get out of control.

All of the above said, of course John does have a point: systems may become too rigid, trapping one into a way of thinking that is not flexible enough to deal with the real life of an actual human being.

Then again, every single philosophy of life, or religion, I know of, has evolved over time, precisely because the conditions on the ground shift, and also, optimistically perhaps, because some of us learn a thing or two from history, and attempt not to repeat past mistakes. Nobody is a Christian at the beginning of the 21st century in the same way in which one was a Christian in the time of Jesus. Not even so-called fundamentalists. The same goes for Buddhism, Stoicism, and all the others.

Life philosophies, in other words, are actually flexible — within limits. They are dynamic systems, and their boundaries can, and should, constantly be negotiated. Panta rhei, everything changes, as the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus famously put it.

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