Why develop a philosophy of life

meaning of lifeI recently published a three-part essay over at The Philosophers’ Magazine online, on what is the point of developing a philosophy of life.

Part I begins by noting that the very idea of philosophy as a guidance to how to live one’s life is rather alien to the modern academic establishment. If you take an undergraduate course in philosophy these days you will definitely not encounter that topic. Which would have been rather puzzling to almost every philosopher before the 20th century, and certainly to the ancient Greeks who started this whole philosophy.

I then recount my own personal philosophical journey, which brought me from the abandonment of my Catholic religion to atheism, through the exploration of alternatives such as secular humanism, ethical culture and related views.

Part II explores where I landed after literally decades of (initially only occasional) searching: virtue ethics, i.e., the Greco-Roman idea that ethics is not — as we conceive it today — the study of right and wrong actions, but rather the study of what sort of life one ought to live.

I started my exploration of virtue ethics where people usually start it: with Aristotle. But I found his approach to be a bit too aristocratic (a common feeling about his version of virtue ethics), and moved on to explore other ancient philosophies as possible models, in particular Epicureanism (which, contra popular misunderstanding, isn’t a counsel for pure hedonism a la sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll). Eventually, I landed onto Stoicism, which is what I am exploring (in some depth) right now.

Finally, part III gets to the underlying point: why search for a life’s philosophy to begin with? Why not just wing it? And how is this different — ironically for a former believer — from religion anyway?

Here I rely heavily on William Irvine, who in his A Guide to the Good Life, asked himself the very same questions. and answered that, in a nutshell, developing a philosophy of life does three things: (i) it makes clear to us (and reminds us of) what we value; (ii) it gives us a sense of how to pursue what we value; and (iii) it saves us a lot of time by reminding us to avoid, or not to waste time, seeking what we don’t actually value.

Give it a try, see if it works for you.

43 thoughts on “Why develop a philosophy of life

  1. ToT

    Very nice! It resonates not a little bit with my own journey from cynical hedonism to what I call “meaningness” which I describe on my blog. There are also clear connections with coming from being a scientist, but I am yet to fully take the leap into humanities :). However, I strongly believe that a philosophy of life must influence my practice both as a scientist and a teacher. These aspects of my life cannot be compartmentalised from the rest…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. labnut

    I loved your last essay. This is rational atheism of a high order and it shows why there is no reason for conflict between religion and atheism. Underlying all these belief systems is the understanding that the human condition leaves much to be desired and that we have a duty, a responsibility to strive to better the human condition, understood in moral terms.

    This understanding is the meeting point for all belief systems. We should happily work together for this aim, respectfully, through cooperation and collaboration. The interests of the unfortunate demand this. Any belief system which rejects this(or neglects this) should be considered malignant(I won’t name names).

    Different philosophies will appeal to different personalities and will work better in certain cultures. The point is that one is in a much better position to make the best of one’s life by following a philosophy that she finds compelling.

    I think this is a very important observation and goes a long way to explain the great diversity of belief systems.

    there are good arguments and reasons to think of the Stoic Logos as God immanent in nature, or alternatively as the factual recognition that the universe is organized along rational principles that make it understandable for us

    My conception of God is that the Laws of Nature are properties of God. This is close to what you describe: “the Stoic Logos as God immanent in nature“. By my understanding science reveals the visible manifestation of God’s will. This is why there cannot be a contradiction between religion(properly understood) and science. I even once playfully said to Coel that science was therefore a branch of theology. He was not amused.

    ultimately religious belief must be a matter of faith.

    And here I respectfully part ways with you. Using the balance of probabilities approach used by the law courts, I have concluded there are good reasons for believing in God’s existence. Mind you, I am not claiming that God’s existence can be proven, just as atheists cannot disprove God’s existence. I am merely saying that, on balance, the evidence suggests that it is more likely that God exists. That is an adequate basis for my choice since almost all choices in life are made on these grounds. From my perspective, at least, religious belief is eminently reasonable and fully compatible with science.

    Where I agree with you is that the specific institutional details of religion are in many cases grounded on faith. But this does not disturb me. The traditions and rituals perform a very useful function. I greatly enjoy them, understanding their real function even if I do not subscribe to their literal truth. For faith we could substitute the phrase ‘cultural understanding’.

    For me it is completely unsurprising that different cultures clothe their understanding of God in different ways that reflect the nature of their culture. I enjoy this and marvel at the richness of human culture. When I sing the Gloria at Mass I am filled with joy, which of course is the intention. These practices enrich and strengthen religious belief, making it more effective and durable. This is why I am drawn to Catholicism, because the beauty of its devotional mysticism resonates with the kind of person I am while at the same time I find it supports a deep philosophical understanding. Still others are drawn to its austere devotional asceticism and others are drawn to its practical altruism.

    You, as a consequence of the kind of person you are, find yourself drawn to the intellectual purity of neo-Stoicism and do not need the support of ritual. Vive la différence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Philip Thrift

    A codicalist “philosophy of life”: The codicalist* finds beauty in the linguistic (the yang), but that is not to be confused as the being the same as the substrative (the yin). These two are the “soft” and “hard” code of nature and of life. One is the road to knowledge, the other to experience. The codicalist seeks a life code (for health, diet, physical fitness, emotional fitness, financial well being, learning, relationships) that is compatible with the code of nature.

    * http://codicalist.wordpress.com/contents


  4. labnut

    “Vive la différence.” Indeed.

    Now there wouldn’t by any chance be a slight hint of irony in what you said, now would there? 🙂
    I am reminded of the line in Fiddler on the Roof(the first song, Tradition) where the Rabbi was asked if there was a proper blessing for the Czar.

    The Rabbi intoned loudly “May God bless and keep the Czar” and then quietly appended “far away from us“. This clever Rabbi might have been a professor of philosophy!


  5. brodix


    You completely overlook the “Mercin” state religion of individuality.

    Which conveniently creates an atomized society, that is then largely mediated by the financial system and guided by mass media. Thus pre-empting the development of any competing social movements and allowing most social, cultural and economic interactions to be effectively taxed.


    As I may have pointed out previously, a spiritual absolute would logically be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell. Consider that Christianity started as a grass roots moment, originally based on overthrowing a corrupted tribal belief system, with universalist presumptions, but then was co-opted by Constantine, to serve as a state religion for the larger empire. Today, we would refer to this as “selling out.”
    The political flaw in expressing the source as that rising up through all of life is that it tends to dissipate political power, rather than accumulate it into the particular group. Witness the violence visited on gnostics by the early Catholic church. “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

    So it is much more effective to promote a top down theory of existence, even though it goes against the evidence and logic.

    Nothing personal, of course. While I’m lapsed Episcopalian, I was married to a Catholic school teacher(since widowed) and have a fairly devout daughter.


  6. Mark Sloan

    “developing a philosophy of life does three things: (i) it makes clear to us (and reminds us of) what we value; (ii) it gives us a sense of how to pursue what we value; and (iii) it saves us a lot of time by reminding us to avoid, or not to waste time, seeking what we don’t actually value.”

    Very nicely said!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. davidlduffy

    “Czars as far away as possible” – I have seen the suggestion that “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” means “nothing”…


  8. labnut

    While I’m lapsed Episcopalian

    When I approached our parish priest for the first time I introduced myself as a lapsed atheist. For a fleeting moment a look of discombobulation crossed his face. I still grin at the memory.

    As I may have pointed out previously, a spiritual absolute would logically be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell.

    I am afraid you have confused the metaphor with the message. That is a little like giving a literal interpretation to Homer’s Odyssey.

    …originally based on overthrowing a corrupted tribal belief system

    This is not supported by any reading of the New Testament. The message is not one of resistance but of compliance, relying on internal change arising out of moral change.

    …but then was co-opted by Constantine, to serve as a state religion for the larger empire

    That is a dubious thesis. Their polytheistic practices had served Rome well for a long time. You should read Carlin Barton’s book, ‘Roman Honor, the fire in the bones‘, to see how far Roman values were from Christian values. The concepts of honor and shame were integral to the way that Rome functioned. The book, ‘Empire of Honor: the art of government in the Roman world‘, makes the same point.

    This article by Carlin Barton is a good overview of her book – http://stanford.io/1rX2LRE

    These two reviews of Carlin Barton’s book will give you a feeling for the subject:
    http://bit.ly/1MdoLTE and http://bit.ly/1VPkcR6


  9. brodix


    That would be a long and contentious debate. I realize most of what I said is controversial, but I think it safe to say the Catholic church has had 16 centuries to tailor history and its message.

    Interestingly, much of the era in question is referred to as the dark ages. Possibly not just because they were tumultuous, as most eras are, but because aspects of what were actually going on didn’t fit the official narrative. For one thing, Christianity had spread fairly widely prior to the formation of the Catholic church, so its formation wasn’t completely directly in conflict with poly/pantheism(another interesting conflict), as with earlier versions of Christianity. From my reading of it, it would seem the original influence of the Christian Trinity was due to its identification with the Greek year gods, with God as Father, Son and Holy Ghost an analogy for past, present and future. Thus giving pantheism a link to monotheism. Though the official version is of the body, soul and spirit, this doesn’t tie in with the actual generational relation presented. As well as how Christ was originally viewed as a renewal of Judaism. The Son.

    Underlining a deeper philosophical split between viewing time as linear progression, or cyclical and how these two feed off one another.

    Having grown up on a farm, I can’t say I’ve ever been atheistic, just confused as to the nature of the spirit flowing through this element of life.


  10. Philip Thrift

    Re: “the abandonment of my Catholic religion”

    I suppose I am ex-Protestant (baptized in the Moravian Church, confirmed in the United Church of Christ, both “liberal” Protestant churches) in a similar way as some are ex-Catholic. I wonder how those two starting points would influence one’s “final” philosophy of life. I think there’s a difference.


  11. labnut

    I think it safe to say the Catholic church has had 16 centuries to tailor history and its message.

    Sweeping, unsupported generalisations are never safe.

    Interestingly, much of the era in question is referred to as the dark ages

    Historians are reconsidering this judgement, see for example:
    Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths – http://amzn.to/1Ntn7xD and
    Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered – http://amzn.to/1M1qFnv

    This was also the age of the flowering of Catholic charitable work, see this excellent work:
    Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe – http://amzn.to/1iiJY28

    Christian Trinity was due to its identification with the Greek year gods

    Not at all, it is directly derived from New Testament writings.

    Thus giving pantheism a link to monotheism

    Nothing to do with pantheism. The Holy Trinity is a description of the three ways we can encounter one God. Or to put it another way, it is the three ways that God is manifested. The idea is simple enough. A building can be seen from several perspectives but it remains one building. We accept this idea readily enough in our day-to-day life.

    I have been responding to your critical comments about Christianity because I don’t think you should be given a free pass on the matter, but it is taking us very far from the main subject. I would much rather hear a positive contribution about the need for a philosophy of life and what candidates we should consider. Naturally you are entitled to argue that my choice is not a good one but you have not touched the core arguments that I advanced in favour of my choice, or for that matter, my argument that we should be tolerant of each other’s choice.


  12. Massimo Post author

    brodix, labnut is correct that this conversation is pretty far from the topic of the post, and it isn’t likely going to be very productive. I suggest you both move to new territory. Cheers!


  13. labnut

    Why develop a philosophy of life?

    That marvellous book by Viktor Frankl(Man’s Search for Meaning) had a decisive effect on me. He argues that over and above the ‘will to pleasure’ and the ‘will to power’ we have a ‘will to meaning’. He says:

    Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.
    Logotherapy deviates from psychoanalysis insofar as it considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment.

    The toxic gift of Freudian and Adlerian teachings is that society has become overwhelmingly centred on “the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment.“. Generations of Freudian teaching have validated the ‘will to pleasure’ of consumerism and frustrated the ‘will to meaning, resulting in an existential vacuum. And thus we see:

    Moreover, there are various masks and guises under which the existential vacuum appears. Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.

    In responding to the question, “what is the meaning of life?”, Frankl replies:

    As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.

    And this is the answer to the question “Why develop a philosophy of life?”. Because:
    1) we have a will to meaning;
    2) because we are responsible for answering the question of meaning in our lives;
    3) because a philosophy of life is evidence that we have thought about the question and developed our own answer;
    4) because a philosophy of life becomes the framework that guides our life through the “Sturm und Drang” of existence.
    5) and thus the person who possesses a philosophy of life can confidently proclaim:

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    ― William Ernest Henley, Invictus


  14. SocraticGadfly

    Jokes aside, Yenta the Matchmaker’s IS in large part my philosophy of life. Besides, here in the hypercapitalist US of 320 million and counting, and globalization, how much do we really control anyway?


  15. brodix

    Massimo, labnut,

    I’ll try, but it seems difficult to separate religion from a philosophy of life.

    Possibly you might say I tend to see my philosophy of life as home grown, rather than pre-packaged, but I’m certainly willing to use whatever ideas seem fitting as fertilizer, from physics to history.

    As such, there would seem to be levels of emergence, as to core explanations, reasons and motivations, establishment of definitions and boundaries, connections across those boundaries, larger social structures emerging, etc.

    So I see it as an upward and emergent dynamic, rather than an adherence to any particular forms. As I’ve observed previously, I see any absolute as an elemental state from which life rises, not an ideal form on which it is modeled.


  16. brodix


    I would certainly agree everyone needs meaning in life, or we don’t get out of bed in the morning, but sometimes what is meaning to one, is meaningless to another and so in order to develop communities, it is a process and growth and acceptance.


  17. labnut

    Yenta the Matchmaker’s IS in large part my philosophy of life

    Please explain.

    how much do we really control anyway?

    More than you know.

    Labnut, as a theist, seems to believe he has a lot more control over life than I do.

    I am puzzled by the implication. Does theism change how much control I have over my life? Or does lack of theism change your control over life? I don’t know how much control you have over your life so I must remain agnostic but I will be happy if you explain your statement.


  18. SocraticGadfly

    1. “Oy, we muddle.” Accepting that fact is a key part of life. And hence, a key part of my philosophy of life!

    2. I’ll disagree. I’ve made reference to the US population of 320 million, along with globalization and other things, elsewhere, in line with this issue. RIffing on the origin of Massimo, IMO, it’s why the mindset of “old Europe” is often better in some ways. (Or perhaps that of “old Asia” east of the Muslim heartland.)

    3. A Western theist? Even if one doesn’t believe in Calvinist double predestination, God remains in charge. That’s why, Deo volente (or Inshallah if you’re a good Muslim), monotheists, IMO, should kind of accept that, logically, they don’t have ultimate control.

    So, yes, if one follows the logic of theism, yes, I think it should change one’s belief about how much control one has.

    Of course, on the secularist side, there are classically determinist atheists, like the highly misinformed Jerry Coyne, in spades. But, I think people know I’m not one of them.


  19. labnut

    there are classically determinist atheists, like the highly misinformed Jerry Coyne, in spades.

    I have always been prepared to accept the claims of those who claim they have no free will. They know themselves best after all and in any case they have no control over what they claim. And it makes no sense to debate with non-free-willing automatons. It is as pointless as playing a chess computer. I used to frustrate DM endlessly with this reply.

    monotheists, IMO, should kind of accept that, logically, they don’t have ultimate control.

    You and I have radically different concepts of God and so no, I don’t accept that I have no ultimate control. I am going to go one step further and claim that the existence of God can be falsified in one and only one way, by the non-existence of free will. In other words if free will does not exist then we can reasonably conclude that God does not exist. Catholic Catechism – we are co-creators with God, our purpose is to extend God’s creation.

    if one follows the logic of theism, yes, I think it should change one’s belief about how much control one has.

    Yes, my understanding of God’s nature it leads me to believe in maximal free will.


  20. SocraticGadfly

    Well, and semi-apology to Massimo, and riffing on Brodix … and on Labnut’s exchange with Dan on his old site .. a god who knew, in advance, about the idea of original sin coming down the pike, and many other things, doesn’t square with my view of maximal freedom (unless it’s maximal freedom from that original sin, which isn’t in my vocabulary at all).

    And, I’m not even going to debate the falsification of god on grounds of determinism. Free will, determinism, and my “mu” to both, all three, have no logical connection to the existence of a deity, whether an omnipotent one or not.

    And, per your last long paragraph, it must be remembered that, at times, your particular take on Christianity is, of course, a Catholic take. Protestants, and Orthodoxy (as I noted on Dan K’s piece, about the whole idea of original sin or not) will have different takes at times.


    As for accepting the claims of the likes of Coyne, to put it the way you do, yes, that’s “accepting”: accepting a tautology.


  21. brodix


    “Yes, my understanding of God’s nature it leads me to believe in maximal free will.”

    To the extent I see our existence as the leading edge of a much deeper process, of which our understanding is limited by our own perceptual needs, we probably have some areas of agreement.

    Also I do recognize that deep sociological impulse that leads us to quantify and institutionalize these intuitions. Necessarily though, this action will have both useful and detrimental effects. Consequently such entities do progress along a narrative arc. I see that recycling as an aspect which tends to be obscured by those forces insistent on their own immortality. So examining them in an objective context is far more wise than simply rejecting them out of hand.

    I do sense some teleological impulse toward ever more complex sociological organisms, such that if the planet were operating under a Gaia impulse, humanity would be its nascent central nervous system. (If we were ever to learn to treat currency as the social contract/voucher system that it is and not a commodification of hopes and desires, then wealth would have to be stored in stronger social connections and a healthier environment.) Yet that would mean prior social entities are necessarily lacking in achieving this goal.


  22. Philosopher Eric

    Thank you Massimo for providing such a sincere picture of your journey so far. Furthermore I certainly commend you for the following bit of rebellion:

    If you take an academic course in philosophy these days, try asking your professor about the meaning of life, or what sort of philosophy should you pursue in order to make your life more satisfying and fulfilling. You will likely be stared at in embarrassed disbelief and be told that that really isn’t what philosophy is for.

    Even I myself didn’t realize that your field had this problem! But the observation certainly heartens me, since it suggests that you’d be quite able to take your criticism much further if need be.

    Last time we discussed my “instrumental” perspective on ethics, rather than the standard “moral” perspective that virtually everyone else seems concerned about. But can you not conceive of a place for instrumental good/bad theory in the discipline of philosophy given how ideology starved you find the modern field to be? To this you might tell me, “No, instrumental good/bad ideology will simply concern epistemic notions of actual reality, and so must instead be explored under the medium of science.” I do believe that this would pacify me, and perhaps even rid me of my extreme addiction to philosophy, IF ONLY SCIENCE WOULD RISE UP TO FILL THE VOID! As things stand however, modern mental and behavioral scientists seem to think that their work can effectively be done without formally acknowledging that which is instrumentally good/bad for the conscious entity.

    Neither titles nor tradition are of any concern to me. Instead my worry is that in this modern age of science, we both fail to understand ourselves, as well as how to effectively lead our lives and structure our societies. Is this just a random coincidence? No, I don’t think so. Whether termed “philosophy,” “science,” “theology,” or something entirely different, I suspect that our first bit of progress shall be to formally acknowledge the nature of “meaning,” or that which is good/bad for the conscious entity. I believe that this concept will both found future understandings of what we are, as well as provide us with a solid ideology from which to practically function.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. labnut

    I want to stick to the subject of the post, Why develop a philosophy of life? So I will just briefly deal with your replies. I’m afraid you just don’t understand, at all. I can mount a formidable, indeed compelling defense of Christianity but this is not the time to do it. I abandoned the discussion on Dan-K’s site because it quickly became apparent that it was not being conducted in the spirit of intellectual enquiry but rather in the spirit of criticism. Not useful. I think your understanding of original sin is badly mistaken. This is part of a general trend in atheism – construct a bad understanding of theism and then take down that bad understanding. Once again, not useful.

    So why develop a philosophy of life? I gave my answer and I think it is a robust, positive answer which very much aligns with Stoicism. Are there other reasons one could put forward? Your stated philosophy hardly qualifies. Reading between the lines I detect another philosophy but then that might be construed as an attack on you, which I don’t want to do.

    Why develop a philosophy of life? Because the human animal is improbably gifted with some remarkable attributes – 1) the capacity for love, 2) the capacity for beauty, 3) the capacity for moral behaviour, 4) the capacity for purposeful action and 5) the capacity for intellectual enquiry, which make us unique in the known universe. When we use these five gifts we ennoble the human species. We can also dissipate these gifts in narcissism and hedonism and thus squander what is best about us.

    A good philosophy of life(one can also have a bad philosophy of life) is based on the understanding that we possess these gifts and that the greatest value is achieved when we base our life on the pursuit of one or more of these five gifts. However, as the Stoics will explain, the pursuit of these gifts is conducted on a rough, unequal playing field. Stoicism is a strategy for coping with the unfortunate conditions on the playing field so that we can effectively pursue these gifts. Thus Massimo’s public life is centered on (5), intellectual enquiry and Stoicism is his supporting strategy. Stoicism also encourages the pursuit of (3), a moral life, which is important to Massimo. (Massimo may disagree with my understanding and I welcome corrections).

    And I can think of another good reason for developing a philosophy of life – we owe it to the people who come after us. Young adults are in a transitional stage from childhood to full adulthood. It is a period of experimentation and exploration where they can easily become lost in narcissism and hedonism. Mature adults who have made the transition become the role models that help motivate their growth in awareness and thus enable them to fulfill the promise of these five gifts. This is our responsibility and it is a grave responsibility.

    And finally, the pursuit of these five gifts enables the flourishing of the human species and our personal flourishing. This personal flourishing is the deepest and richest flourishing we can attain.


  24. brodix


    I agree that is a necessary approach to examine. Good and bad are not some cosmic duel between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary code of attraction to the beneficial and repulsion of the detrimental. We then intellectualize this as yes and no and mechanize it as on and off. As such it is foundational to science, not vice versa.
    It is evident from computers just how much can be built up from binaries. Viewing it from the top down view of a cultural moral model does place it in an intellectual straightjacket, even if one is skeptical of the premises of the particular version.
    The problem is this does peel away much of the subconscious foundations by which we all guide our lives. To wit, the software depends on the continued operation of the hardware, even if it is buggy. So there will always be strong resistance to this examination. Thus we still work with the qwerty keyboard, because it is easier than the enormous cost of changing over to a more efficient pattern.
    The only possibility of change is the coming massive social disruption of an imploding financial system, that serves as our social and economic circulation system. They found it too easy to soften economic cycles and consequently have built up enormous amounts of leverage and debt, that when it does fall apart, the fire will burn much hotter and take down far more of the current structure than any recent cycles have. So there does need to be at least a start to disseminate and discuss possible options to the current paradigm, even if they seemingly have little change of adoption in the current situation.


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