Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Peter Saint-Andre


In Walden, Thoreau wrote:

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

At separate points in his Journal, Thoreau also speaks of three "seeds" that, properly nurtured, can unfold into foundations for a better life: the seed of character (which leads to uprightness and benevolence), the seed of reason (which leads to wisdom and a deeply rooted understanding of life), and the seed of hope or expectation in the sense of expecting more of yourself (which leads to purity).

Similarly, the Stoics described three disciplines of life (see Pierre Hadot's book The Inner Citadel): the discipline of action, which creates in you the virtues of justice and service to others; the discipline of assent, which leads to a studied neutrality or objectivity; and the discipline of desire, which helps you to live in accordance with nature and especially human nature (see the Enchiridion of Epictetus, §13).

The ancient Indian school of Vedic philosophy also described three forms of "yoga" or discipline: karma yoga (the discipline of deeds), jñana yoga (the discipline of knowledge), and bhakti yoga (the discipline of devotion).

After turning over and over in my mind these related concepts (Thoreau was influenced by both Stoic and Vedic ideas), yesterday at 3:30 in the morning I had an epiphany regarding the essence of philosophy as a way of life.

What Thoreau, the Stoics, and the Vedics essentially advocate is to be present with complete attention by, where needed, interposing the judgment of your mind between desire and deed, between impulse and action. If you can interrogate any impulse to determine if it is in accordance with your higher nature, if you can deliberately affirm or deny any desire in a moment of reflection, you can then act with full intention on those impulses and desires that you have consciously affirmed either directly or through habituation (another large topic). Indeed, this interposition is the essence of being human, for we are not stimulus-response machines; yet, when used in service of the most transcendent ends and goals, it is also the essence of philosophical practice: by nurturing the seed of reason within you, you can progressively grow your character into something consistent with your highest hopes and expectations; by so loving wisdom as to live according to its dictates, you can achieve a life of simplicity (because you act on fewer desires), independence (because you judge by the light of your own reason and ideals), magnanimity (because you continually desire higher and better things), and trust (because through these disciplines you become true to your best self).

It is not always easy to practice these disciplines, especially in the precious now with its countless distractions. This is why it is so important to regularly engage in the spiritual exercise of reflection on your progress toward the life you have imagined. More on that in a future post.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal