Philosophy: an art of living

Provided by Cleveland Philosophic Advisor

pointless overthinking matt

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.” [1] 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.


[1] Peimin Ni, “Kung Fu for Philosophers,” in The Stone blog, published by The New York Times.  https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/08/kung-fu-for-philosophers/. Also at https://www.academia.edu/6150017/Kung_Fu_for_Philosophers.
[2] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, second edition 1974 by Grove/Atlantic, pp. 49-50.

9 thoughts on “Philosophy: an art of living

Add yours

  1. Hi Bogdan
    Thank you for your wonderful posts, and for following my blog it’s very much appreciated. As you know, I’m a Buddhist so I’m really intrigued by some of your writings. I think you make a really good point when you ask how do we know if we’re following a philosophy when we practice? To be perfectly frank, I think we read too much into our practice, and in many ways overcomplicate things. Yes the eightfold path gives us a kind of instruction sheet on how we should live our lives and I believe it’s fully possible in this life time to achieve Buddhahood by fulfilling this. But the most important thing for me alongside my meditation practice and daily reverence, is living with a kind heart and with compassion. If we can touch someone else’s life in a positive way, that’s surely the most important thing that any Buddhist would want. Also Buddhism is divided into three main parts, Buddhist science- what we get when we break down Buddhism, how it’s formed and its workings. Buddhist philosophy, how we view Buddhism and out other people view Buddhism in comparison with other religions and faith. Finally Buddhist religion which speaks for itself. All of these things are separate and a very powerful topic to discuss. I really love the way you write and I’m really interested in seeing more of your posts. I’m aware that I don’t respond as much as I should it’s just I facilitate a Buddhist Study Group and only get to respond every so often. But I do look at your work and I enjoy it very much so thank you for sharing
    Best wishes Julie

    Liked by 4 people

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