The Stoics say straight out that practical wisdom (phronêsis), which is knowledge of things which are good and bad and neither, is an art relating to life, and that those who have gained this are the only ones who are beautiful, the only ones who are rich, the only ones who are sagesMatthew Sharpe quoting Sextus Empiricus
Hi, in 2021 using philosophy as the foundation for an art of living is complicated. Stoic philosophy has come to the fore in the last ten years. However, Stoicism is Philosophy as a way of life, and it has many problems that make it a difficult program for someone looking to use philosophy as an art of living that renovates the ethos you garnered from a left behind religious upbringing.
There is so much noise around Stoic philosophy today, it can obscure the need to learn essential philosophy skills. Those skills and exercises are foundational to achieving the well-being outcomes engaging with philosophy as an art of living can provide. So much of the popular writing on Stoicism seems to be a style of philosophical ideology or a creed to follow uncritically rather than actual philosophical activity.
Stoic philosophy, unlike contemporary philosophy, is interested in our life as a topic of philosophy. That is salient when using philosophy as a guide. Yet, as good as the Stoic’s are as a place to start, the sort of philosophy that is actually practical in the 2020’s is more likely to be a curated ethic of authenticity detailed by the French Existentialists.
At Beautiful Rich Sages we are committed to developing practical wisdom with philosophy. We think it is the best personal growth strategy available to you today. We aim to share the experience gained from ten years of studying philosophy at undergrad and PhD level so you can make your way in the subject without having to wade through 95% of the academic philosophy most people encounter at university. In particular, some of Jean Paul Sartre’s work can be the most practical philosophy you’ll ever study. Unfortunately, his work is notoriously difficult to decipher. The number of professional academic philosophers who get important things wrong when they write about Sartre is shocking.
Starting with a base drawn from the Stoic procedures for self-transformation, we frame a practical philosophy for life in the Twenty-first century. We are mindful fans of the Ancient and Modern sages. We seek to create and live by our own philosophical method by practicing philosophical exercises, including reflection on the philosophies of liberation articulated by such great thinkers as Seneca, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Wittgenstein.
Taking to heart Seneca’s advice to concentrate on the works of only a few minds, those three philosophers are the core of our art of living. However, the range of Philosophy available to us today is huge in its scope. So we also ponder some of the work by Aristotle, Martha Nussbaum, Gregory Bateson, Charles Taylor, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright and Thomas Kuhn. The last three are foundational thinkers for our research in the philosophy of science — which equates with what the ancient Stoic’s understood as the logic and physics branches of philosophy — a necessary complement to work in ethics.
Seneca’s practical wisdom
Seneca’s take on Stoicism is our main framework for developing practical wisdom in a time of ecological catastrophe. The Stoics relied on science to shape their worldview and philosophy. Seneca was in tune with how a culture and environment shapes our character, our beliefs and our desires. After 2,000 years the Stoics still offer a useful framework for a transformative philosophy practice. Much of the content of their philosophy needs to change in light of the many changes in our understanding of the Cosmos, planet and humanity since CE 62, which was about when Seneca wrote the letters to Lucilius.
One thing that has not change is the validity of the Stoic belief that intellectual development is required for moral progress, and that philosophy provides the best means for intellectual development. If you are seeking information about Stoicism or philosophy, and think having to deal with some heavy theory is rubbish utterly unnecessary for practical wisdom, you will be disappointed with many of our posts, and all of our aims. Intellectual development is the bedrock of a practical philosophy, always has been, always will be.
Some of the changes to emerge since Seneca was writing circa CE 62 include a holistic constellation of ideas captured in Gregory Bateson’s books Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and Mind and Nature: a necessary unity. Bateson was 20th century thinker who made a significant contribution to our understanding of the ecological crisis. He also paved the way for a better understanding of ecological intelligence and how the Tech industry has undermined many people’s capacity to develop and exercise practical wisdom in the 21st century.
Many of the articles on this site are a guide to using Seneca’s masterpiece as a guide to ethical, resilient and ecological living in today’s world. That masterpiece is variously known as Letters of a Stoic, Letters to Lucilius, The Moral Epistles, and in what is becoming my favorite translation Letters on Ethics.
It would of course be simpler to just follow Seneca’s practical wisdom as he mapped it out for us in the letters, and his other philosophical works. However, to actually be a Stoic in the 21st century, if you grew up in a an English speaking nation, is more challenge than most need. And truth be told, the result would be pretty weird. Just for starters Stoics do not value the Christian virtue of hope. That orientation of the human spirit just was not part of their remit.
If you grew up in a Christian culture, especially one of the new world English speaking nations, hope is likely to be an article of faith for you. Living without the concept and psychological habit of hope might be a bridge too far for your psychological well-being. The Stoics also put a lot of emphasis on friendship, but it does not form part of the virtues included in the highest good (summum bonum) of their system.Whether you have Christian faith or not, to have matured in one of these societies and not deeply value hope and love would be surprising.
Why stoic practical philosophy
There are many other difficulties with the Stoic system of philosophy for a practical philosophy today. For these reasons we focus more on Seneca’s philosophy of freedom and the ethic of authenticity articulated by Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre and Franz Fanon, We also cast around through Sartre, Wittgenstein and other important philosophical innovations over the last 500 years to formulate a philosophical method that is practical in the 21st century.
So if Stoic philosophy is so problematic why start there? Firstly, they provided a solid framework. They also take our life to be the central object of our philosophy. This is not the way the discipline is conceived by most contemporary philosophers in English speaking nations.
Secondly, much of what Stoicism’s framework is trying to foster compares favorably with core characteristics of psychological well-being. These are: a life purpose, self-acceptance, autonomy, personal growth, environmental mastery, and better relations with others.
Thirdly, self-transformation is at the core of their philosophical method.
Hi, I’m Mike, site owner and writer. My education includes a B.A. (Hons) in Philosophy, and five years Ph.D. research in applied philosophy: mostly authenticity as a virtue and philosophical counseling (but did not finish the degree).