Ways of Life

by Peter Saint-Andre


Having last week explored what philosophers do, I thought I'd broaden that theme by looking at ways of life in general, not only philosophy as a way of life.

Although Aristotle delineated four ways of life (making money, having fun, public service, and intellectual inquiry), nowadays we often think of various hobbies and pursuits as something approaching a way of life. Often these are bound up with one's profession or career (the unfortunately ubiquitous question "what do you do?"), but just as often they are associated with some other focal activity that is a relatively core part of your identity: runner, foodie, crafter, or what have you.

This kind of lifeway can have a significant effect on how you spend your time and structure your day, what you think about and pay attention to, your habits of mind and emotion, how you react to events, the relationships you cultivate, and so on. For instance, a runner traveling to another city might pack her running gear, plan runs while staying there, perhaps meet up with a local running partner or group, etc. By contrast, a foodie traveling to the same location might check out intriguing restaurants, fresh food markets, cooking classes, and the like.

Because there are only so many hours in the day, there are limits to how many ways of life you can pursue in a serious manner at any one stage of life - I'd say less than five and perhaps only two or three. During my 25-year career in the tech industry, I found that I had time and attention primarily for my work and secondarily for some philosophical research and writing, but not also for musical projects.

Yet even that might have been stretching it. Consider a person who is not only passionate about a particular pursuit, but who borders on obsessive (although perhaps in a good way). To take a well-known example, consider J.S. Bach: he was constantly immersed in music, whether playing, teaching, composing, organizing concerts, consulting with musical instrument makers, and so on. Even his close friends, his extended family members, and his two wives (first Maria Barbara and then Anna Magdelena) were musicians! Music was such a thoroughgoing way of life for him that it truly was his life.

Is that level of lifelong commitment necessary to find fulfillment? For some people it is (indeed, in the Eudemian Ethics Aristotle claimed that it is the height of folly not to have a single, overarching purpose in life). Yet others are just as happy structuring their lives into a few distinct stages (à la the Hindu ashramas) or going with the flow of life in an even looser fashion and following new interests as they arise. It seems to me that deciding which of these approaches makes sense for you is a large part of what it means to know thyself, as the ancient Greeks counseled.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


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