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292 pages, Paperback
First published November 19, 2012
Jules has written a superb introduction to practical philosophy. This book is perhaps quite unique, although it’s written in a very accessible style. I think I read it in the space of 2-3 days. It introduces the reader to a range of classical philosophical ways of life, by means of many anecdotes and examples that paint a vivid picture of how modern followers of these philosophies make use of them in coping with adversity and living meaningful and satisfying lives. Jules begins with three chapters discussing some of the most well-known Stoic authors of antiquity: Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and Seneca. The Stoics feature prominently, in fact, which should be no surprise as theirs is widely-regarded as the philosophical school most systematically concerned with the Socratic art of living, or practical philosophy. However, Jules adopts an eclectic (or “pluralistic”) approach, introducing the reader to the possible benefits of the main philosophical traditions of the Hellenistic period, and also raising some potential criticisms along the way. He proceeds to explore the great rival of the Stoic school, Epicureanism. Later chapters also touch upon the other major philosophical movements: the Sceptics and Cynics, and the schools of Plato and Aristotle. The pre-Socratic philosophers Heraclitus and Pythagoras also have chapters dedicated to them, as does the Platonist philosopher Plutarch. Throughout, references to modern therapy and positive psychology, etc., are interwoven with anecdotes about contemporary individuals who have made use of philosophy in their lives.
I was very impressed by the way that Jules covered so much ground in the space of a single book. We’re left with a sense that these philosophers offer us a variety of lifestyles, which are different enough to make for interesting comparisons but similar enough to intersect and complement each other in important ways. Indeed, many philosophers of antiquity were not rigidly devoted to the teachings of a single school but drew upon different traditions in quite an eclectic manner, much as Jules’ book does. Even those identifying themselves as “Stoics” or “Platonists”, etc., used to dip into the texts of opposing schools, which I believe Seneca called “raiding the enemy camp” for ideas. In that sense, Philosophy for Life stands in a long tradition of philosophical texts that inspire readers to learn about and perhaps imitate the philosophical lifestyles and practices of the great philosophers of different orientations, inviting them to make comparisons, generate their own synthesis or perhaps choose between them. Most of the Hellenistic schools considered themselves to be descendants, to varying degrees, of Socrates, the pre-eminent Greek sage. However, the Stoics particularly aimed to preserve the practical example of Socrates’ philosophical lifestyle, by means of various strategies and techniques associated with the “art of living”. These happen to resemble modern psychotherapeutic procedures, particularly those of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), as Jules notes, alluding to his own personal story as an example of someone who combined both CBT self-help and classical philosophy to learn methods of emotional self-regulation and personal improvement.
My own orientation is broadly Stoic, a subject I’ve written about in one of the books Jules mentions in Philosophy for Life. So I’m tempted to add some more comments about the Stoic tradition. Jules gives a lot more space to the Stoics than the other philosophies and is broadly sympathetic to their approach, although he also raises some potential criticisms. He gives several examples of individuals who are influenced by Stoicism or provide good examples of Stoic resilience, prominent among which are, quite rightly, modern military personnel such as admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war whose allegiance to Stoicism helped him endure many years of torture without breaking, Rhonda Curnum the head of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, and several US marines and Green Berets, including Major Thomas Jarrett who combines Stoicism and REBT in his own resilience training programme. These anecdotes include great examples of modern Stoic attitudes and ways of coping with adversity. I used the story of James Stockdale in my own book and talked at length about the military metaphors in Stoicism. However, it seems this way of portraying Stoicism can also be off-putting to some people and may create a rather “macho” image that’s arguably not the whole story. Toward the end of this book, Jules actually concludes that the whole Socratic tradition, including all the philosophies described here, may be legitimately criticised for “its overemphasis on the self-sufficient rational individual and its lack of compassion and charity” (p. 255). Of the Stoics in particular he says:
We are not, and should not try to be, invincible Stoic supermen, safe in our lonely fortresses of solitude. We need each other. We need to admit this need, and embrace it. (pp. 210-211)
In some ways, this is a fair point, but I think it deserves a response. It’s not entirely clear what the doctrines of Stoicism were in relation to compassion for mankind, or individuals, and they probably differed among parts of the school. However, in their own lives, the famous Stoics of history clearly engaged with society and generally appear to have valued close friendships. For example, Marcus Aurelius spends the entire first chapter of his Meditations praising his friends and family at some length, and recounting their virtues with great admiration and affection. Marcus says that the ideal Stoic Sage is “full of love”, for the universe and mankind, but free from irrational fear and craving (“passion”, in the Stoic technical sense). I doubt any Stoic would literally believe that we “need” each other but rather that we have a natural affinity for other people and therefore benefit from healthy relationships when we exercise wisdom in them. The Stoics frequently refer to the value they place on love for mankind and gentleness even toward their enemies. Seneca wrote:
No school has more goodness and gentleness, none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular.
The scholar Pierre Hadot notes that the Christian doctrine of “loving one’s neighbour as oneself” was prefigured in Stoicism, centuries before the supposed birth of Christ. Indeed, arguably Stoicism is a philosophy of love. Love of wisdom, as the name “philosophy” literally states, the wisdom to know the difference between good, bad, and indifferent things. It is also therefore, by implication, the love of both human nature and the nature of the universe, through understanding which we grasp what is good and beneficial for ourselves and for mankind in general. I’m not suggesting that Green Berets, etc., don’t value brotherly love but that the military analogies so common in Stoic literature often emphasise resilience in the sense of mental “toughness” and perhaps sometimes obscure the gentle and compassionate side of Stoicism, which it shares to a large extent with the Christian tradition. This is a difficulty with Stoic texts in general, though, and Jules frequently helps to redress misconceptions about Stoicism by pointing out, for instance, that the Stoics developed a sophisticated grasp of the psychology of emotion rather than simply being the utterly dispassionate “cold fish” they’re often portrayed as being. Indeed, the Stoics repeatedly extol positive, rational and healthy emotions such as courage, generosity, compassion, love, friendship, and even joy, insofar as these do not interfere with one’s exercise of practical wisdom. On the other hand, it’s true that the Stoics did sometimes make remarks that appear to paint a more solitary and austere picture of their philosophical practices. It’s therefore important that contrasting ways of life such as those of the Epicureans and Aristotelians are there for comparison.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s certainly one I will recommend to others and I’ve already found myself referring other people to it as an introduction to both Stoicism and practical philosophy, the Socratic art of living, in general. As noted above, the style of the book is quite different from most others on ancient philosophy, although it might be compared to ancient biographical accounts of philosophers, but written in very modern prose and well-suited to today’s readers, whether or not they have any experience of philosophy. It will be particularly good as the “first book” to read for people interested in finding out more about classical philosophy and how it relates to modern approaches to therapy, wellbeing and personal improvement. Jules has achieved a lot and I’m sure a great many people will benefit from reading his work, which will inspire them to philosophise in their daily lives and to find out more about the Socratic philosophical tradition.
Preface: Welcome to the School of Athens
1. Morning roll call: Socrates and the art of street philosophy
Morning Session: The Warriors of Virtue
2. Epictetus and the art of maintaining control
3. Musonius Rufus and the art of fieldwork
4. Seneca and the art of managing expectations
Lunch: Philosophy Buffet
5. Lunchtime lesson: Epicurus and the art of savouring the moment
Early Afternoon Session: Mystics & Sceptics
6. Heraclitus and the art of cosmic contemplation
7. Pythagoras and the art of memorisation and incantation
8. Sceptics and the art of cultivating doubt
Late Afternoon Session: Politics
9. Diogenes and the art of anarchy
10. Plato and the art of justice
11. Plutarch and the art of heroism
12. Aristotle and the art of flourishing
Graduation: Socrates and the art of departure
Appendix One: Is Socrates over-optimistic about human reason?
Appendix Two: The Socratic tradition and non-Western philosophical traditions
Appendix Three: Socrates and Dionysus