This is a series of posts in which I read William B Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. The idea is to read and comment one chapter after another.
For the first chapter of a book on philosophy we should expect some kind of overview of early Greek thought. And that’s what we get here as well, although it is fairly short and to the point; after all this isn’t the main focus of the book. Later chapters will deal more in details with the Stoic philosophers.
Philosophy we’re told have been going on forever. People have always asked questions about the universe we inhibit. But reasons which people still debate over “professional” thinking outside the priestly classes started some 600 years BC. It happened in Greece, India and Chine at more or less at the same time.
Irvine points out that according to Laertius (early Roman biographer of Greek thought) there are two branches to consider: the Italian school which begins with Pythagoras and leads up to Epicurus, and the Ionian branch which goes from Anaximander to Socrates and Plato and onward. A reader not familiar with the history of philosophy shouldn’t focus too much on this since it is not entirely relevant. To my mind it is much more helpful to follow the underlying assumptions of the thinkers and their attitude to philosophy. If you do you can still call them with the same name, but might end up with something like this instead:
- The Ionian school: Based on natural philosophers and starts with Thales; goes on to Democritus and further onward to Epicurus. These philosophers we’re closer to what we would consider scientists today: they were interested in how things worked and would try to explain it from a remarkably objective viewpoint.
- The Italian/Teleological school: Starts with Pythagoras and continues via Socrates and Plato straight into the middle ages and the early church. From Socrates and onwards this line of thought started everything from the inside out and everything is measured against thoughts only. Every inquiry starts at and is measured against “the soul of man”.
If you excuse me ranting a bit here: the above distinction is important. Plato and Aristotle have had immense influence on Wester thinking. They were both adopted by the church and you can trace their thinking through the Christian history, from the early beginnings right into the moder age. However, from Pythagoras they inherited a deep mysticism; this mysticism suited the Hellenistic mind and fitted the early church perfectly, but I can’t help thinking that it stiffed thought as well.
As a poignant example, Plato would tell an astronomer that it was no use to go out and look at the stars, it was much better to sit inside and think about them. Seriously? Contrast this with the Ionians who were tinkerer-philosophers and measured everything, not against the soul of man, but against nature. The guys that figured out that air must be made of something, that there are atoms, that the milky way is made up of other stars and those stars may have other worlds like our. Who where inventors as well as philosophers. That were, – if you will – materialists and not mythicists.
The atomists [Ionians] asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer. Their successors, until the Renaissance, were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley. Russell, Bertrand. History of Western Philosophy
Socrates is a pivotal point in the history of thought. Whatever your stand on the issues above, what had been a small phenomenon before Socrates became a flood after him and for a couple of hundred years afterwards Greek thought flourishes. But we immediately see a small crack appear: there are philosophical schools that concentrates on theory and academic philosophy, and those that focus more on how to live a virtuous and good life. Plato went the academic way and Anthisthenes the other. Unfortunately, the practical line of thought died away.
It would have been wonderful if these two sides of philosophy had flourished in subsequent millennia, inasmuch as people benefit from both philosophical theorizing and the application of philosophy to their own life. Unfortunately, although the theoretical side of philosophy has flourished, the practical side has withered away. Irvine, William B. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
So by now, where would you go if you’re interested in a practical philosophy of life? The academic institutions will probably not serve up what you need. You may think of religion as an answer, but religion usually tells you what to do to be morally upstanding and reach salvation, not so much how to do so, or what goals and aspirations are worth pursuing. In Irvine’s words this lack might suggest why so many of the worlds religions, despite their differences, have adherents that seem to end up with the same philosophy “[…] namely, a form of enlightened hedonism”:
Thus, although Lutherans, Baptists, Jews, Mormons, and Catholics hold different religious views, they are remarkably alike when encountered outside of church or synagogue. They hold similar jobs and have similar career ambitions. They live in similar homes, furnished in a similar manner. And they lust to the same degree for whatever consumer products are currently in vogue. Irvine, William B. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
Of course it is possible for religion to also inspire a way of life, but most seems simply to have no impact on how people live and act. Must people would probably consider the Hutterite religion as a bit freakish, precisely because it does tell you how to live your life. How then would a modern Stoicism look to us?
So far so good. This was a short chapter and a longer review since I wanted to expand on the “materialism vs mysticism” a bit. But we’re now set to continue with some of the early Stoics. Stay tuned.