Provided by Cleveland Philosophic Advisor
As this is my first guest post for Pointless Overthinking, it seemed appropriate to talk about philosophy as a way of living. It’s such an interesting idea, and although it differs from how one (usually) hears philosophy discussed today, I’ve noticed the idea (1) in the ancient period of Western philosophy, (2) in the philosophical dimensions of Buddhism, and (3) in traditional Chinese philosophy.
In the case of Greek philosophy (i.e. ancient Western), the idea is most obvious in the case of the Stoic school, which included people such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. In this school, philosophy is even described as an “art of living,” and has its own collection of what the late scholar Pierre Hadot calls “spiritual exercises.” The other ancient schools, such as Epicureanism, Platonism, and the skeptic traditions, seem to have shared this general view and engaged in their own journeys of self-cultivation.
Turning to East Asia, you might be surprised to hear that traditional Chinese philosophy, whether Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist, was seen by its practitioners as a kind of kung fu! But as contemporary scholar Peimin Ni explains, this doesn’t mean they were doing martial arts (though some may well have been). “Any ability resulting from practice and cultivation,” writes Ni, “could accurately be said to embody kung fu.” In the case of these families of philosophy, it was an overall kung fu of living a human life, “the art of living one’s life in general.”  And although it was Song and Ming dynasty writers who used the term ‘kung fu’ (gongfu) so widely, one has only to read the Analects to see that this reality of artful living, with or without the term ‘kung fu’, must extend back to Confucius himself.
Within the philosophical dimensions of Buddhism too, whether ancient or contemporary, we find something similar. The Eightfold Path, or Middle Way, is in some sense a teaching or even a theory, yet as scholar and monk Walpola Rahula tells us, the path itself “is a way of life to be followed, practiced, and developed by each individual.” He goes on to say that the path “has nothing which may popularly be called ‘religious’, in that it “has nothing to do with belief, prayer, worship or ceremony,” but instead is a matter of “self-discipline in body, word and mind, self-development and self-purification.” I think we may discern here an overall kung fu and art of living.
I’ve been calling philosophy as a way of living an idea, but in the traditions just discussed it isn’t or wasn’t just an idea; it was or is a reality. And if it’s less real in present-day Western cultures, it’s still an exciting possibility. In fact I wonder how many of us have been, to some extent, practicing philosophy in this way – as a way of living – without necessarily realizing that’s what we’re doing?
How would you know if you’re practicing philosophy? That’s a huge question, and maybe we should keep it open, but one very rough answer might be this: insofar as you seek to lead a good life and develop yourself, through both study and action in the world, based primarily on observation and reason… you’re probably practicing philosophy.
In what ways have you been doing this, even if you didn’t think of it as philosophy?
BIO: Cleveland Philosophic Advisor is a scholar, student, and teacher of philosophy, whose interests include philosophy as a way of living and “spiritual exercises,” Stoicism and ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and philosophical Buddhism. As a certified Logic-Based Consultant, he offers what is often called “philosophical counseling,” though he prefers the terms ‘individual consultation’ or ‘advising’. He also attempts to practice philosophy in his own life. His website and blog concerning individual philosophic consultation can be found here.