Ancient Philosophy: A Complete Guide to Life

Philosophy is a mode of life, an act of living, and a way of being. Modern philosophy has forgotten this tradition, and philosophical discourse has all but overtaken philosophy as a way of life. Philosophy is not just an intellectual discipline, which can get abstract and divorced from the real world, but is most importantly a way of life that teaches us how to best live our lives.

A carpenter does not come up to us and say, “Listen to me speak about the art of carpentry”, but makes a contract for a house and builds it. So must we, when confronted with life, put our knowledge into practice, and not be like those who devour books and can astonish others by their skill in argumentation, but who, when it comes to their own lives, contradict their own teachings.

Philosophy is a mode of existing in the world, which has to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which is to transform the whole of the individual’s life. Real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us “be” in a different way.

The goodness of our lives depends on our soul, in which we can make good use of other valuable things such as health, pleasure, happiness, tranquillity, and so on, which can make a real contribution towards a good life. By contrast, a bad soul will create bad desires, bad choices, and the misuse of potential goods, thus we spiral down a bad life, characterised by vice.

The condition of the soul is entirely a matter of developing and understanding fundamental truths about human nature, and as a consequence of those, about the nature of what is valuable for a human being. If we fulfil our nature by pursuing a virtuous life, our soul remains in a healthy state, enabling us to live a good and happy life – even if we experience suffering, pain, loss of goods, or failure. What concerns external and bodily goods do not diminish the quality of our lives at all, for these are ever-changing. Bad things will always happen to us, as if they constantly move in the outer rim of the circle of life, however, virtue puts us back in the strong foundation of the centre of the circle, where the soul resides. But people will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul.

Philosophy as a Way of Life

French philosopher Pierre Hadot’s works, Philosophy as a Way of Life and What is Ancient Philosophy? are an excellent introduction to ancient Greco-Roman philosophy.Hadot emphasises the importance of what he calls spiritual exercises, which go beyond simply exercises of thought or moral exercises, rather they correspond to a transformation of our vision of the world and to a metamorphosis of our personality. These exercises do not only have an ethical value, but also an existential one. The notion of spiritual exercises in ancient philosophy is meant to emphasise, first and foremost, that in the ancient schools of thought philosophy was a way of life. The lesson of ancient philosophy consisted in an invitation for each person to transform himself or herself. Philosophy is conversion, transformation of the way of being and the way of living, the quest for wisdom.

Wisdom is conceived as an ideal after one strives without the hope of ever attaining it. The only state accessible to man is philo-sophia, the love of, or progress toward, wisdom.

With spiritual exercises, philosophy becomes not a theoretical construct, but a method for training people to live and look at the world in a new way. It is an attempt to transform mankind. Exercise corresponds to the Greek term askesis, which must not be understood as asceticism, that is, complete abstinence or restriction in the use of food, drink, sleep, and continence in sexual matters.It is the practice of spiritual exercises, inner activities that allow not for self-denial, but for self-transcendence.

A spiritual experience depends not so much on the nature of the activity as on the way it is undertaken, with what attitude and method, and with a view to which goal. It requires a complete attention to and focus upon an activity, and implies immersing oneself so completely in the matter at hand that one forgets oneself, much like what is known as a “flow experience”.

“To take flight every day! At least for a moment, which may be brief, as long as it is intense. A “spiritual exercise” every day – either alone, or in the company of someone who also wishes to better himself. Spiritual exercises. Step out of duration… try to get rid of your own passions, vanities, and the itch for talk about your own name, which sometimes burns you like a chronic disease. Avoid backbiting. Get rid of pity and hatred. Love all free human beings. Become eternal by transcending yourself.”

Georges Friedmann, La Puissance et la Sagesse

The word spiritual reveals the true dimension of these exercises. By means of them, the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit, that is, “to become eternal by transcending yourself.”

The spiritual progress of philosophy towards wisdom brings about peace of mind, inner freedom, and cosmic consciousness. These three essential aspects of the philosophical way of life all require the practice of askesis in order to be attained.

Spiritual exercises, which are mostly present in the Hellenistic school of philosophy, are not to be confused with those of Spanish theologian Saint Ignatius of Loyola who wrote Exercitia spiritualia, consisting of a series of Christian meditations, contemplations, and prayers. Christianity also adopted spiritual exercises, in order to fortify, maintain, and renew life in the Spirit, the vita spiritualis or spiritual life.

Spiritual exercises are part of a lifestyle that engages the whole existence, it is the art of living. Hadot writes:

“The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

One difference between modern philosophy and ancient philosophy is that one did not just become a philosopher because one had developed a philosophical discourse. Rather, any person who dedicated his whole being to living a particular kind of philosophical life, without the need of writing nor teaching, was every bit as much of a philosopher as those who developed, researched or founded a philosophy.

“Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

Socrates

For Hadot, philosophy as an art of living can be traced as far back as Socrates, born in the 5th century BC, and considered as the founder of Western philosophy. Socrates started a new shift in philosophy as the pursuit and love of wisdom applied to daily life. Though the work of the natural philosophers or Presocratics were essential to the development of classical Greek philosophy, it was Socrates who taught us how we ought to live, and therefore that we need first and foremost to consider moral questions.

Socrates never wrote anything, and questioned everything ordinary people took for granted or left unquestioned. He would walk around the streets of Athens and ask others to explain seemingly simple concepts such as friendship, justice, piety and courage – only for the interlocutor to realise that he did not know how to explain them or would contradict himself. The Oracle of Delphi stated that Socrates was the wisest person in Athens, but Socrates believed he was wiser than others because he was the only person who recognised his own ignorance.

Unlike the sophists who would trade wisdom for money, and would speak for their own benefit, Socrates would never accept money, and would speak to the benefit of the interlocutor. He taught people to listen to their conscience, the inner voice that tells one what is truly right, and if one doesn’t know what to say, one should keep asking questions to oneself and others, until one finds out. An answer is worth nothing unless it comes from one’s own thinking. It is the process of philosophical thinking that counts at least as much as the answers, and the nature of the questioning is that one has to think for oneself.

Master of Dialogue: Know Thyself

The enigmatic figure of Socrates was a master of dialogue with others and of dialogue with himself. The Delphic maxim “know thyself” requires a relationship of the self to itself that constitutes the basis of all spiritual exercise. Every spiritual exercise is dialogical insofar as it is an exercise of authentic presence of the self to itself and of the self to others.

Our default view of the self as isolated, individualistic, and egocentric is one of the main sources of emptiness, loneliness and anxiety that increasingly characterise people today. However, this default self is not our real self. There is a higher, more authentic “Self”, which the ancient Greeks called daimon, a self which is constantly aware of its intimate connection with other human beings, with nature, and with the entire cosmos. When our inner daimon is in a state of good order, we experience eudaimonia, a state of good spirit and fulfilment.

As philosophers, we must learn how to dialogue. The dialectical exercise requires persuasion, and for that one must use psychagogy, the guidance of the soul.

“Dialogue is only possible if the interlocutor has a real desire to dialogue: that is, if he truly wants to discover the truth, desires the Good from the depths of his soul, and agrees to submit to the rational demands of the Logos.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

Rather than us carrying out rational argumentation, we have to obey the Logos and let the living word guide us where it will, that’s how we’ll find the truth, genuine dialogue links two souls together. To distinguish this from our common conception of dialogue, we may use the original Greek version, dialogos.

Logos designates rational and connect thought which exists in individuals as the faculty of reason, and in the cosmos as the rational principle that governs the organisation of the universe. Rationality and clear mindedness allows one to live in harmony with the logos. In dialogos, participants are transformed in such a way that it would’ve been impossible through mere introspection or monologue.

In his revolutionary work, Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, Psychology and Cognitive Science professor John Vervaeke explains that the ancient Greek philosophers had a different conception of rationality than our modern one. To be rational does not just mean to engage in reasonable arguments, logic or propositional knowledge, but also to transform ourselves, others, and the world. It is an existential endeavour that changes our mode of being. This is a process of participatory knowing. Rationality is the capacity to reflectively realise our self-deception and illusion, and the need for self-correction. It is a deep contact with reality.

The dialogue intends to form more than to inform, to form the interlocutor or reader so as to lead him to a transformation of his way of life. What is important is not the solution to a particular problem, but the path traversed in arriving at this solution. We turn knowledge into wisdom.

This essential dimension prevents the dialogue from being theoretical and dogmatic and turns it into a concrete and practical exercise. It is not concerned with the exposition of a doctrine, but with guiding an interlocutor to a certain settled mental attitude. We should note that this is what takes place in every spiritual exercise; it is necessary to make oneself be changed, in our point of view, attitudes, and convictions. In other words, to struggle and battle with oneself.

Socrates was put on trial for charges of impiety and corrupting the young. He was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. Though he was offered exile, he accepted his fate and became a martyr to free inquiry. Socrates preferred to die rather than renounce the demands of his conscience, thus preferring the Good above being, and the soul above the life of his body. At his trial, he stated:

“It is the greatest good for a person to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Plato, The Apology of Socrates

Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest of the sages – derived more profit from Socrates’ morals than from his words. The philosophers’ task consists in action. The Roman philosopher Cicero stated that Socrates had brought philosophy down from the heavens, and compelled it to ask questions about life and morality.

Plato

The death of Socrates was traumatic for many in Athens, and one of his followers, Plato, made it his task to immortalise the figure of Socrates as a philosopher – that is, as a man who sought, both by his word and by his way of life, to approach and to make others approach the way of being called wisdom. Plato kept alive the Socratic spirit in his greatest work, The Republic, and later departed from his master – for a true follower of Socrates is one who thinks for himself.

“From this perspective, the philosophy of Plato—and, following him, all the philosophies of antiquity, even those which were farthest away from Platonism—all shared the aim of establishing an intimate link between philosophical discourse and way of life.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

Platonism became the bedrock of Western philosophy and spirituality, influencing Christianity and later evolving into Neoplatonism.

“The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

Plato’s goal in founding the Academy, the first real university, was the creation of an intellectual and spiritual community whose job it would be to train new human beings. This would leave a definitive mark on philosophical life in antiquity. Philosophy could be carried out only by means of a community of life and dialogue between masters and disciples, within the framework of a school. It became a distributed cognition that allowed to increase the cognitive power over the world.

Following Socrates, Plato believed that virtue is knowledge, the knowledge which chooses and wants the good. Those who joined the Academy underwent the slow and difficult education of the character, as the harmonious development of the entire human person, and finally as a way of life, intended to ensure a good life and thereby the salvation of the soul. Plato writes the following on the philosophical way of life:

“That is where all the risk lies for man, and it is for this reason that each individual must leave aside all other studies and devote all his care to research, and cultivate this alone. Perhaps he will be able to discover and recognise the man who will impart to him the ability and the knowledge to discern what the good life is, and what the bad life is, and to choose the good life always and everywhere, as far as possible.”

Plato, The Republic

If we do not adopt this way of life, life is not worth living, and this is why we must decide to follow this path. We must live every day in such a way as to become masters of ourselves.

Idealism: Platonic Forms

Above all, we must seek the triad of values: justice, truth, and beauty. These are part of Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas, which reveal some essential quality of man and the world, and are beyond space, time and causality. When we ask ourselves about the meaning of these ideas, we are talking about the perfect forms of the soul.

The Platonic forms serve as the foundation of our judgments on things concerning human life, and are therefore, first and foremost, moral values. It is what gives value and meaning to this world. This is the essential knowledge of the soul which the soul possessed before we were born and resided in the realm of Ideas.

The perfect forms exist independently of and prior to all our conceptions of it. They are the archetypes or first imprints of which objects in the everyday world are imperfect copies. This is known as Idealism. The idea that we do not experience reality in the so-called real world, but only its dim shadow, has haunted philosophy ever since.

Parable of the Cave

Plato illustrates this in the parable of the cave, which is not just a story but a myth which represents the perennial patterns that concern the human condition, dealing with reality, knowledge, and the meaning of life.

A group of people have been chained to a wall inside a cave since childhood. They are unable to move and can only gaze at the wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and people walk around carrying objects and other living things, the sounds echo off the walls, and the prisoners believe they come from the shadows. They can only see the shadow forms of the objects and mistake them for reality. Little do they know that the shadows are merely appearances of the real forms, that is, appearances of reality. For them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of images.

When one of them is set free, he looks at the fire and at the real patterns, but they hurt his eyes and appear less clear than the shadows, so he goes back. He is unable to ever leave the cave.

If that prisoner is dragged by force up the rough ascent, he would protest angrily and be in pain, which would only worsen as the light of the sun becomes brighter. This is the slow and painful process of self-transformation. Outside the cave, the man’s eyes slowly adjust to the light until he can look at the people, animals, water, trees, stars, and eventually, the sun itself – the light source that is the life of all things, filling him with awe.

This man would immediately return to the cave to tell the others, but would stumble around and be blind to the darkness, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. When he goes to the prisoners and speaks of amazing and wondrous things outside the cave, they think he is a madman, and they would kill anyone who attempted to drag them out.

Few people will make it out of the illusory world, it is only the true philosopher who can escape the cave into the real world. This is an enlightenment myth of coming into the light through an ascent, which the Greeks call anagoge. It is a self-transformative process in which one comes into closer contact with reality, revealing what had hitherto remained concealed. For Plato, this is wisdom, the fullness of being.

Plato’s Cave in The Matrix

The Matrix movie released in 1999 represents this deeply embedded myth in the human condition. The parable of the cave is compared to the matrix, a false reality created by artificial intelligence through a computer program, in order to distract humans while using their bodies as an energy source, and people must wake up to the “real world”.  Morpheus presents the main character Neo with a blue pill to stay in his illusory world, or a red pill to see the truth of reality – just as the freed man goes back to tell the prisoners about the real world. When Neo leaves the Matrix, he states, “Why do my eyes hurt?”, to which Morpheus replies, “Because you’ve never used them before.”

Plato’s Tripartite Theory of the Soul

Plato can be considered as the first psychologist who presented a structure of the psyche or soul, which remains relevant to this day. It has three parts: reason, appetite and what the ancient Greeks called thumos (it has no English equivalent, but may be translated as courage, vitality, and spiritedness).

We all have inner conflict, which is the struggle between reason and appetite. Reason is represented by man, symbolising truth or falsity, and appetite (characterised by pain or pleasure) is a monster like the hydra, whose head when chopped off would regenerate more heads, making it an even more dangerous foe. We often use short-term pleasure for long-term suffering, falling into a vicious cycle that can be hard to get out of. The third part, thumos, is represented by the lion – reflecting honour and shared cultural meaning in society. It is the middle region between reason and appetite. This Platonic division of the psyche can be compared to Freud’s ego, super-ego and id, though they have considerable differences.

The task of Socratic self-knowledge to reduce inner conflict begins with the teaching of man (reason), who can train the lion (thumos), and together, tame the monster (appetite).

By seeking self-knowledge in order to lessen our inner conflict, we improve our skills, and are more in contact with reality. Self-transformation and contact with the world are interlinked. We change in order to see the world, and the world changes by disclosing itself in a new way.

Plato depicts thumos as the chariot ride to the soul, to the true, the good, and the beautiful. The charioteer represents the human soul pushed by two winged horses, a mortal dark horse that descends (appetite), and an immortal white horse that ascends (reason). It is only the gods who have two immortal horses. The charioteer must go through a turbulent journey of directing the two horses and stop them from pulling off in different directions, in order to reach the heavens, following the path of enlightenment.

This path allows us to obtain a clearer vision of reality and inner harmony of the fullness of being, allowing us to be more in touch with reality.

Philosophy as an Exercise of Death

The ancient Greco-Roman philosophers greatly emphasised learning to live, as well as learning to die. Plato alludes to the exercise for death in the Phaedo, whose theme is the death of Socrates and the immortality of the soul. One who has spent his life in philosophy does not fear death, since philosophy is nothing other than an exercise of death. The philosopher spends his time trying to align himself with his soul and separate himself from the body.

The soul to which elevation of thought and the contemplation of the totality of time and of being belong, does not consider human life as important. Such a person will therefore not look on death as something terrible.

In this spiritual exercise, we die to our individuality and unhealthy passions, in order to elevate ourselves to the objectivity of the universal perspective. A lucid anticipation of death shows the authenticity of existence, and it is up to each of us to choose between lucidity and diversion. For that,we must die every day. He who has learned how to die, has unlearned how to serve.

We have been placed on earth in order to contemplate divine creation, and we must not die before we have witnessed its marvels and lived in harmony with nature. Those who practice wisdom are excellent contemplators of nature. They examine the earth, the sea, the sky, the heavens, and all their inhabitants, they provide their souls with wings, so that they may walk on the ether and contemplate the powers that live there. The Platonist philosopher Plutarch writes:

“Does not a good man consider every day a festival? And a very splendid one, to be sure, if we are virtuous. For the world is the most sacred and divine of temples, and the most fitting for the gods. Man is introduced into it by birth to be a spectator: not of artificial, immobile statues, but of the perceptible images of intelligible essences… such as the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers whose water always flows afresh, and the earth, which sends forth food for plants and animals alike. A life which is a perfect revelation, and an initiation into these mysteries, should be filled with tranquillity and joy.”

Plutarch, On Tranquillity of Mind

Aristotle

Aristotle had studied in the Platonic Academy for twenty years, before founding the Peripatetic school in the temple of the Lyceum. While Plato pointed up to the realm of Ideas, Aristotle was a realist who brought the attention back to this world.

Socrates sought wisdom to overcome self-deception, Plato gave us a structural theory of the psyche to explain how we could reduce our inner conflict, Aristotle, on the other hand, provides us with an account of the growth and development of our character that is connected to our project of wisdom and meaning in life.

Aristotle brings in the notion of change, how we grow and develop, which makes our lives meaningful. Like a snake, we must shed our old skin and renew ourselves or die. Wisdom is the ability to cultivate virtues in order to be reasonable and capable of reflecting upon the things that truly matter to us. Aristotle uses the word akrasia, for the lack of command of ourselves, which is what prevents us from doing the right thing.

Wisdom is not just knowing the right thing to do, but also doing the right thing. To be ignorant is to not know the right to do, and to be foolish is to know the right thing, but still do the wrong thing. It is the battle between reason and appetite. To cultivate our character, realising wisdom, overcoming self-deception, and enhancing the structure of our psyche and our contact with reality, is what it means to be a fully realised, rational being.

The words “actual” and “potential” come from Aristotle. When we “live up to our potential” we are on the path towards a virtuous life, which Aristotle defined as a point between a deficiency and an excess of a trait, the point of the greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle, but a golden mean sometimes closer to one extreme than the other, such as confidence between self-deprecation and vanity. The ancient Greeks call it arete, the pursuit and cultivation of human excellence that allows one to live up to one’s full potential, in order to lead a good life. Virtue is the only real good and is necessary for eudaimonia.

Hellenistic Schools

The practice of askesis is best observed in the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, who defined wisdom as a state of perfect peace of mind. Hadot writes:

“From this viewpoint, philosophy appears as a remedy for human worries, anguish, and misery brought about, for the Cynics, by social constraints and conventions; for the Epicureans, by the quest for false pleasures; for the Stoics, by the pursuit of pleasure and egoistic self-interest; and for the Sceptics, by false opinions.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

The Hellenistic philosophers agreed with Socrates that human beings are plunged in misery, anguish, and evil because they exist in ignorance. Mankind’s principal cause of suffering are the passions, which have a different meaning than the modern sense of the term. It refers to unregulated desires and exaggerated fears. People are prevented from truly living, it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy thus appears, in the first place, as a therapeutic, intended to cure mankind’s anguish. Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them profoundly transform the individual’s mode of seeing and being. This choice is the choice of philosophy, and it is thanks to it that we may obtain inner tranquillity and peace of mind.

Cynicism

The philosophy of Cynicism was outlined by Antisthenes, a disciple of Socrates, however Diogenes the Cynic was seen as its archetypal figure. The Cynic, which literally means, dog-like, denounced social conventions and urged a return to living a simple life in conformity with nature. The Cynic way of life was opposed not only to the life of non-philosophers but even to the lives of philosophers. They rejected what most people considered the elementary rules and indispensable conditions for life in society: cleanliness, pleasant appearance, and courtesy. They practiced deliberate shamelessness in public, were not afraid to beg, and despised popular opinion, money and luxury, preferring to live a simple life without possessions. They were without a city, without a home, without a country, miserable, wandering, living from day to day.

“Cynicism was generally considered a philosophy; but it was a philosophy in which philosophical discourse was reduced to a minimum. Take, for instance, the following symbolic anecdote: when someone declared that movement did not exist, Diogenes simply got up and began to walk.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

The Cynic believed that the state of nature was superior to the conventions of civilisation. Diogenes threw away his bowl and his cup when he saw children do without such utensils, and he drew comfort regarding his way of life when he saw a mouse eat a few crumbs in the dark.  The Cynic way of life consisted in training to endure hunger, thirst, harsh weather, so that the individual could acquire freedom, independence, inner strength, relief from worry, and a peace of mind which would be able to adapt itself to all circumstances. According to legend, when Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and granted him any wish, Diogenes replied: “Stand aside, you are blocking the sunlight.” Alexander declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.” To which Diogenes replied, “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes.”

Diogenes would walk around in the marketplace in full daylight with a lamp, when asked what he was doing, he would answer, “I am looking for a man”. For Diogenes, most people didn’t even qualify as men, they were all rascals and scoundrels. It was a way to expose the hypocrisy and sham of polite social conventions, being worthy of the category “human” demands virtue. A virtuous human, for the Cynics, acts exclusively in accord with nature and in accord with reason. The people who walk around worrying about money, power, and social conventions are the real “madmen”. Diogenes is the only reasonable human being in sight.

He criticised and sabotaged Plato’s lectures, sometimes distracting listeners by bringing food and eating during the discussions. When Plato gave his definition of man as a featherless biped, Diogenes rushed to the Academy with a plucked chicken saying, “Behold! I have brought you a man.” Plato is supposed to have said of Diogenes that he was a “Socrates gone mad.”

Like Socrates, Diogenes thought he had been entrusted with the mission of making people reflect, and of denouncing their vices and errors with his caustic attacks and his way of life.

Pyrrhonism

Pyrrho, a contemporary of Diogenes, can also be considered a somewhat extravagant Socrates. He is considered as the first Greek sceptic philosopher. All of these figures did not write, but simply lived, thereby attracting disciples who imitated their way of life.

Pyrrhonism is a school of philosophical scepticism founded by Pyrrho in the 4th century BC. Pyrrho’s behaviour corresponds to a choice of life which can be perfectly summed up in one word: indifference. He felt no emotions or change in his dispositions under the influence of external things. He made no difference between what is usually considered dangerous and what is harmless; between tasks judged to be superior and those called inferior; between what is called suffering and what is called pleasure; between life and death. The philosophy is best known through the surviving works of Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus, who wrote:

“For the person who believes that something is by nature good or bad is constantly upset; when he does not possess the things that seem to be good, he thinks he is being tormented by things that are by nature bad, and he chases after the things he supposes to be good; then, when he gets these, he falls into still more torments because of irrational and immoderate exultation, and, fearing any change, he does absolutely everything in order not to lose the things that seem to him good. But the person who takes no position as to what is by nature good or bad neither avoids nor pursues intensely. As a result, he achieves ataraxia.”

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism

Ataraxia is a Greek term first used by Pyrrho and subsequently by Epicurus and the Stoics to describe a state of unperturbedness, and tranquillity. This is necessary for bringing about eudaimonia.

People’s unhappiness comes from the fact that they want to obtain what they think is good, or to escape what they think is bad. If we refuse to make this kind of distinction, and refrain from making value judgments about things – if we say to ourselves, “This is no better than that”, we will achieve peace and tranquillity. This is known as epoché, the suspension of judgment from all non-evident matters (dogma), which frees us from worry and anxiety.

“Epoché is a state of the intellect on account of which we neither deny nor affirm anything. Ataraxia is an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.”

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism

Thus, according to Pyrrho’s philosophy our goal should be to seek stability in a state of perfect equality with ourselves, in complete indifference, inner freedom, and impassiveness, a state he considered divine. This is no easy task, as it requires stripping off man completely or liberating oneself entirely from the human point of view.

The philosophy of Pyrrho – like that of Socrates, and the Cynics – was thus a lived philosophy, and an exercise of transforming one’s way of life.

Stoicism

Stoicism is a philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. For the Stoics, mankind’s woes derive from the fact that he seeks to acquire or to keep possessions that he may either lose or fail to obtain, and from the fact that he tries to avoid misfortunes which are often inevitable. The name Stoic comes from the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, where Zeno met his followers and taught.

The Stoics did not seek to eliminate their emotions, but rather to be in harmony with them. It is clear that we are not the masters of our own house, and that there are elements in our psyche beyond our control. Our ideas, thoughts, and emotions – which form part of the unconscious – precede our consciousness. The Stoics knew that we have automatic responses that are not under our control, that is why they focused on what is within our control.

In Stoicism, the goal of life is living virtuously in accordance with nature, which is good and rational, driven by Logos. Nothing natural is evil, and since we are all interconnected by Logos, when a man does wrong to another man, they are hurting themselves.

“What injures the hive injures the bee.”

 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The ideal stage of the Stoic sage is apatheia (literally, without pathos or passions),which is slightly different from ataraxia, though the Stoics use both terms. One way to see the relationship between the two is that apatheia, the freedom from the disturbance of wild emotional fluctuations, leads to ataraxia, a state of tranquillity. In other words, ataraxia is a by-product. Apatheia is not to be confused with the modern idea of apathy, but rather as a state of equanimity.

The Stoics divided philosophy in three parts: logic, physics, and ethics. Here we must distinguish between discourse about philosophy and philosophy itself. It is important to have a theory of these three parts when it comes to teaching philosophy, however, the philosophical way of life is no longer a theory divided into parts, but a unitary act, which consists in living logic, physics, and ethics. We no longer study logical theory, that is, the theory of speaking and thinking well – we simply think and speak well, perfectly aware not only of what we are doing, but also of what we are thinking. We no longer engage in theory about the physical world, but we contemplate our place within the cosmos. We no longer theorise about moral action, but we act in a correct and just way. As Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

For the Stoics, as for the rival school of Epicureanism, physics was not developed for its own sake but had an ethical finality: Stoic physics was indispensable for ethics because it showed people that there are some things which are not in their power but depend on causes external to them.

Everything that depends on us are moral good and evil. Everything else which does not depend on us refers to the necessary linkage of cause and effect, which is not subject to our freedom. We are to switch from our “human” vision of reality to a “natural” vision of things.

Prosochē is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude, it is the development of one’s ability to pay attention, it is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the soul. The Stoics would agree with G.K. Chesterton, who wrote:

“For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point and does not break.”

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Thanks to his spiritual vigilance, the Stoic always has “at hand” the fundamental rule of life: the distinction between what depends on us and what does not. Also known as the dichotomy of control. We must focus on that which is within our control, and to be indifferent to that which is beyond our control. In other words, to be indifferent to indifferent things. Wisdom comes from focusing one’s attention on what truly matters. The Serenity Prayer echoes the same message:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

The Serenity Prayer

One may ask oneself, “Can I do something about this situation? If not, why am I worrying? Since it is outside my control, it is pointless to worry about. And nothing is worth doing pointlessly.” Attention to the present moment, is in a sense, the key to spiritual exercises. As such, the Stoics would engrave striking maxims in their memory, often written in an enchiridion (manual or handbook), which they would carry with them, and meditate on every day, so that, when the time comes, they could face their fear, sadness, anger and events beyond their control. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a clear example of this.

Premeditatio Malorum

In the Stoic exercise of premeditatio malorum or negative visualisation, we are to think of poverty, suffering, and death. We must not be afraid to think in advance about events which other people consider unfortunate, and embrace our fate, whatever happens, because it does not depend on us. The willing are led by fate, the reluctant are dragged. We should appreciate what we have, instead of wishing for things to be different. Epictetus writes:

“Do not seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion

Negative visualisation makes one better equipped to endure the inevitable suffering of life. This exercise is quite different from over-thinking, or rumination – which we do not control, but rather controls us – and is the result of being a slave to one’s passions.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Much of the time, we suffer not because of events happening to us, but what we think will happen to us. We suffer more in imagination than in reality. One can only conquer the darkness by going through it. By seeking to escape the darkness, we remain inescapably bound to it.

Memento Mori

Memento mori or meditating on your mortality is another spiritual exercise important to the Stoics. We take many things for granted in life, until some radical misfortune in our lives happens to us and awakens us from “life as sleep”, making us realise how little attention we paid to things that truly matter. We are all sleepwalkers in life until some inexplicable or life-threatening experience, which can activate our thinking about death, awakens us from our deep slumber. This combines both horror and awe at the same time. Marcus Aurelius writes:

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

We must accomplish each of life’s actions as if it were the last. These are not just thought exercises, but are supposed to transform our entire being and throw us back to what truly matters in life, making our crooked path straight.

Voluntary Discomfort

Another exercise is voluntary discomfort, which is more of a physical exercise, rather than a mental one. Though both can be just as transformative. Voluntary discomfort is like climbing a mountain, there are obstacles and difficulties ahead, one can even risk falling from the heights and injuring oneself. However, once you reach the top of the mountain, you’ll be able to see the most beautiful views imaginable.

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, the philosopher William Irvine gives an example of voluntary discomfort:

“When I row competitively, it may look as though I am trying to beat the other rowers, but I am in fact engaged in a much more significant competition: the one against my other self. He didn’t want to learn to row. He didn’t want to do workouts, preferring instead to spend the predawn hours asleep in a warm bed… (“If you just quit rowing,” he would say in his most seductive voice, “all this pain would come to an end. Why not just quit? Think of how good it would feel!”). It is curious, but my competitors in a race are simultaneously my teammates in the much more important competition against my other self. By racing against each other, we are all simultaneously racing against ourselves, although not all of us are consciously aware of doing so. To race against each other, we must individually overcome ourselves – our fears, our laziness, our lack of self-discipline. And it is entirely possible for someone to lose the competition against the other rowers – indeed, to come in last – but in the process of doing so to have triumphed in the competition against his other self.”

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Our worst enemy is so close to us that we cannot see it, for we are our worst enemy. To conquer ourselves is the most difficult task, and is part of the lifelong task of self-knowledge.

Epicureanism

Epicureanism is a philosophy founded in the 4th century BC by ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. For the Epicureans, people’s unhappiness come from the fact that they are afraid of things which are not to be feared, and desire things which it is not necessary to desire. Consequently, their life is consumed in worries over unjustified fears and unsatisfied desires. As a result, they are deprived of the only genuine pleasure there is: the pleasure of existing. It is the freedom from unjustified desire, pain and fear that leads to ataraxia.

In terms of fear, Epicurus believes that our main fears come from the gods and of death. The Stoic universe is characterised by providence: system, order and design; while the Epicurean universe is defined by atom: dispersal, chaos, chance. For Epicurus, the gods have nothing to do with the creation of the universe, and do not care about the conduct of the world or human beings; and on the other hand, death is nothing for us, for the soul is made up of atoms, like the body, it disintegrates at death and loses all sensory capacity. He writes:

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

The Epicureans would also practice memento mori, as it can awaken in our souls an immense gratitude for the marvellous gift of existence. We must persuade ourselves that each new day that dawns will be our last, then we will receive each unexpected hour with gratitude.

The method for achieving a stable pleasure consists in an askesis of desire based on a tripartite distinction: desires which are natural and necessary; desires which are natural and not necessary; and empty desires, which are neither natural nor necessary.

Natural and necessary desires are those whose satisfaction delivers people from pain, and which correspond to the elementary needs or vital necessities. Natural but not necessary are, for example, desires for sumptuous foods and for sexual gratification. Neither natural nor necessary, but produced by empty opinions, are the limitless desires for wealth, glory, and immortality. An Epicurean saying aptly sums up this division of desires: “Thanks be to blessed Nature, who has made necessary things easy to obtain, and who has made things difficult to obtain unnecessary.”

For the Epicureans, we must concern ourselves with the healing of our own lives. Healing consists in bringing one’s soul back from the worries of life to the simple joy of existing. As an Epicurean saying states: “Vain is the word of that philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man.” For just as there is no value in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no value in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.

The cries of the flesh are: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. For if one enjoys the possession of this, and the hope of continuing to possess it, he might rival even Zeus in happiness. Epicurus writes:

“We do what we do in order to avoid suffering and fear. When once we have succeeded in this, the tempest of the soul is entirely dissipated, for the living being now no longer needs to move toward anything as if he lacked it, or to seek something else by which the good of the soul and body might be achieved. For we have need of pleasure precisely when we are suffering from the absence of pleasure. When we are not suffering from this lack, we do not need pleasure.”

Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus

Pleasure as the suppression of suffering is the absolute good. It cannot be increased, and no new pleasure can be added to it, just as a clear sky cannot get any brighter. This leads to becoming aware of something extraordinary, already present in us unconsciously, the pleasure of our own existence.

To cure the soul, it is not necessary, as the Stoics would have it, to train it to stretch itself tight, but rather to train it to relax. Instead of picturing misfortunes in advance, so as to be prepared to bear them, we must rather detach our thoughts from the vision of painful things, and fix our eyes on pleasurable ones. We are to relive memories of past pleasures, and enjoy the pleasures of the present, recognising how intense and agreeable these present pleasures are. Hadot writes:

“We have here a quite distinctive spiritual exercise, different from the constant vigilance of the Stoic, with his constant readiness to safeguard his moral liberty at each instant. Instead, Epicureanism preaches the deliberate, continually renewed choice of relaxation and serenity, combined with a profound gratitude toward nature and life, which constantly offer us joy and pleasure, if only we know how to find them.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

For the Epicureans, in the last analysis, pleasure is a spiritual exercise. Not pleasure in the form of mere sensual gratification, but the intellectual pleasure derived from contemplating nature, the thought of pleasures past and present, and lastly the pleasure of friendship. Friendship itself was, as it were, the spiritual exercise par excellence. Masters and disciples helped one another closely, in order to obtain a cure for their souls. The main goal was to be happy, and mutual affection and the confidence with which the Epicureans relied upon each other contributed more than anything to this happiness.

Epicurean philosophy can be summarised in the following fourfold remedy:

“The gods are not to be feared,

Death is not to be dreaded;

What is good is easy to acquire

What is bad is easy to bear.”

Philodemus, Herculaneum Papyri

The Epicureans would stay in the Garden of Epicurus, which became a symbol of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus died a slow and painful death from kidney stones at the age of 72. Despite being in immense pain, Epicurus is said to have remained cheerful and to have continued to teach until the very end. For him, to practice living well and to practice dying well are one and the same. He stayed true to his philosophy till the very end.

Similarities Epicureanism & Stoicism

Though the Epicureans and Stoics are different in their philosophies, they have many similarities: intense meditation on fundamental maxims, the ever-renewed awareness of the finitude of life, examination of one’s conscience, and, above all, a specific attitude toward time – to live in the present, letting ourselves be neither troubled by the past, nor worried by the uncertainty of the future. Each instant has an infinite value, wisdom is just as perfect and complete in one instant as it is throughout an eternity. Our happiness is urgent, for the future is uncertain and death is a constant threat. Any length of life is sufficient if lived wisely, and while we are waiting to live, life passes us by.

Neoplatonism

Plotinus is considered to be the founder of Neoplatonism, a philosophy that appeared in the 3rd century AD, as a grand synthesis of an intellectual heritage that was by then exceedingly rich and profound. They took inspiration from Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and religion. It is a sum-total of ideas produced over centuries of sustained inquiry into the human condition.

Behind the façade of the natural and visible world of matter, there are three levels of reality that describe levels of inner life, levels of the self: the soul, nous (intellect or mind), and the One or the Good. These are three hypostases, fundamental underlying substances that support all of reality. Everything eternally emanates from the One, however, there is no cause and effect, for it is not a being, but being itself.

The One creates the many, life depends on this highest divine unitary principle, for it is absolute reality. Nous is the highest activity of life, which turns back towards the One in order to understand the precondition of its own existence, it is ontologically prior to the physical realm typically taken for ultimate reality (mind over matter).

In the identity of thoughts with its objects, the ideal world of all forms and ideas came to be conceptualised. The soul falls out of the inner activity of nous, and lies at the heart of Neoplatonism, which is a philosophy of the soul or psychology. The soul becomes informed by the images of the eternal forms and gives birth to the entire universe and biosphere on earth. It is the general phenomenon of life capable of animating matter. The soul does not reside in the body, it is the corporeal and sensible world that rests in the soul. For all the other-worldliness of Neoplatonism, it needs to be emphasised that the material world they inhabited was for this reason an essentially good, divine, and beautiful place.

For the Neoplatonists, the purpose of life was to bring back the god in us to the divine in the All, as Plotinus pressed upon his followers on the very point of his death. The goal is not the mundane fulfilment of life within the bounds of what is humanly possible, but nothing less than eudaimonia in its most expansive sense, deification.

Plotinus describes spiritual exercise as not merely knowing the One, but becoming identical with it, in a complete annihilation of individuality. It is here where, in a fleeting blaze of light, there takes place the metamorphosis of the self.

“Then the seer no longer sees his object, for in that instant he no longer distinguishes himself from it; he no longer has the impression of two separate things, but he has, in a sense, become another. He is no longer himself, nor does he belong to himself, but he is one with the One, as the centre of one circle coincides with the centre of another.”

Plotinus, Enneads

For Hadot, the Neoplatonic metaphysics of the One is not purely theoretical or abstract, but used to express an inner experience, which is fundamental yet inexpressible. The human self is inextricably bound with the transcendent One. Plotinus experienced this mystical union of becoming One with the divine four times, after this experience he wrote:

“[H]ow is it possible that I should come down now, and how was it ever possible for my soul to come to be within my body.”

Plotinus, Enneads

Plotinus was not only a philosopher, but also a spiritual guide. The realisation of the One turns one’s attention away from vain preoccupations and exaggerated worries. The concept of theurgy (working with God) becomes an important concept for the Neoplatonists. It designates rituals capable of purifying the soul, and its immediate vehicle, the astral body, and thus allowing it to contemplate the gods. The only thing that can bring about our union with the gods is not theoretical philosophy, but rites which we do not understand. Hadot writes:

“For Neoplatonism and Christianity, the two spiritual movements which dominated the end of antiquity and opposed each other, man cannot save himself by his own strength but must wait for the divine to take the initiative.”

Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?

We must never stop sculpting our own statue, until the divine splendour of virtue shines in us. The soul’s immateriality is transformed into experience when one liberates and purifies oneself from the passions, which conceal the true reality of the soul. The quest for self-transformation is well symbolised by the image of sculpting one’s own nature. The statue pre-existed in the marble block, and it was enough to take away what was superfluous in order to cause it to appear. Let the soul practice virtue, and it will understand that it is immortal.

All ancient schools of philosophy agree that man, before his philosophical conversion, is in a state of unhappy disquiet. Consumed by worries, torn by passions, he does not live a genuine life, nor is he truly himself. However, he can attain a state of tranquillity, through a process of transformation. Happiness consists in independence, freedom, and autonomy. It is the return to the essential, that which is truly “ourselves”, and which depends on us. Hadot writes:

“This is obviously true in Platonism, where we find the famous image of Glaucos, the god who lives in the depths of the sea. Covered as he is with mud, seaweed, seashells, and pebbles, Glaucos is unrecognisable, and the same holds true for the soul: the body is a kind of thick, coarse crust, covering and completely disfiguring it, and the soul’s true nature would appear only if it rose up out of the sea, throwing off everything alien to it. The spiritual exercise of apprenticeship for death, which consists in separating oneself from the body, its passions, and its desires, purifies the soul from all these superfluous additions.”

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life

Between the Stoic distinction of what depends on us and what doesn’t, we can reject all that is alien to us, and return to our true selves. The same holds true for Epicureanism, by ignoring unnatural and unnecessary desires, we can be free by satisfying natural and necessary desires. Thus, all spiritual exercises are, fundamentally, a return to the self, in which the self is liberated from the state of alienation into which it has been plunged by worries, passions, and desires.

Each philosophy depends on one’s individual personality type. No single philosophy fits everyone, and one should find which philosophy or philosophies best suits one’s own life. This self-knowledge is ultimately the search for oneself.

View from Above: Cosmic Consciousness

Many ancient philosophers practiced the spiritual exercise of the View from Above, in which one moves to a third-person point of view and steps back from one’s narrow view of things. This imaginative overflight is not to see human affairs as insignificant, but rather to enrich one’s life with cosmic significance. The ancient sage was conscious of living in the cosmos, and he placed himself in harmony with it. The totality of the cosmos is contained and implied in each instant.

This cosmic consciousness transcends the limits of individuality, expanding the ego into the infinity of universal nature, liberating oneself from the worries and pains produced by our passions, and rising to the universal demands of the Logos. That is to say, to see the world, and our place in it, not as we’d like it to be, but as it is. In this brief instant, we experience the world as “just this”, or “suchness”. It is the stunning realisation of coidentity with the world, an oceanic experience and elimination of the boundary between subject and object.

The All has no need to come in order to be present. If it is not present, it is because one has distanced oneself from it.

“Philosophy in antiquity was an exercise practiced at each instant. It invites us to concentrate on each instant of life, to become aware of the infinite value of each present moment, once we have replaced it within the perspective of the cosmos. The exercise of wisdom entails a cosmic dimension. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see the world qua world, but rather treats the world as a means of satisfying his desires, the sage never ceases to have the whole constantly present to mind. He thinks and acts within a cosmic perspective. He has the feeling of a whole which goes beyond the limits of his individuality.”

 Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life


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Ancient Philosophy: A Complete Guide to Life

Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.

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