Philosophies and Ways of Life

by Peter Saint-Andre


In his book What Is Ancient Philosophy?, Pierre Hadot almost singlehandedly resurrected the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life. Consider this observation about the philosophical schools of Greece and Rome: "For us moderns, the notion of a philosophical school evokes only the idea of a doctrinal tendency or theoretical position. Things were very different in antiquity. No university obligations oriented the future philosopher toward a specific school; instead, the future philosopher came to attend classes in the school of his choice as a function of the way of life practiced there."

Yet there is an ambiguity here. When in ancient times you chose to join, say, the school of the Stoics, you chose everything associated with that way of life: you wore Stoic clothing, shaved your head in Stoic style, read Stoic books, admired Stoic heroes, made Stoic friends, studied with Stoic teachers, and of course accepted Stoic philosophy. But which was primary: the way of life or the philosophy? Did you really adopt philosophy as a way of life, or only Stoicism as a way of life?

Perhaps this is a false alternative. It certainly seems that you can pursue wisdom and truth primarily or solely within a given tradition, as did Marcus Aurelius within Stoicism (see his Meditations) or as did many sages and worthies over the centuries within Confucianism (one fine example is The Journal of Wu Yubi as translated by M. Theresa Kelleher). On the other hand, committing to a particular creed as a way of life rather than to a generalized pursuit of wisdom as a way of life might limit how successful you can be as a human being, in several ways:

Personally, I've learned a great deal by studying a wide variety of wisdom traditions and I continue to do so. But one could argue that perhaps I'm missing out on some of their deepest insights, since those would require total immersion. Unfortunately, there are tradeoffs in everything, including philosophy as a way of life!

(Cross-posted at


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