Lessons from the ancient philosophers to help improve our lives today

We are meant to have desires and should worry less, said Aristotle, while Epicurus cautioned that most of the stuff we think we want won’t make us happy

our hours spent wandering the aisles of Ikea for nothing. My boyfriend and I had long since stopped talking. I was ready to slap the next person who uttered a Swedish word. As I pushed my heaving cart into another room full of boxes I took a deep breath and fought the urge to cry. Thank God for philosophy, I thought to myself.

I first got interested in philosophy as a teenager. It was on the curriculum at my high school in Paris, but its image was pretty crusty – philosophers were greybeards who wrote convoluted sentences and looked as if they might need a good wash, right? But when I was 16, a teacher gave me a copy of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and I was struck by one phrase: “That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”
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Suddenly, a whole world opened up to me: a world where we had the right to think and speak, but also to admit our own ignorance – to experience a sense of wonder. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by the question of how to apply the lessons of philosophers to improving everyday life – starting with my own.

Cut back to my disastrous Ikea trip. The day had started so well, full of careful list-making and planning. On most days I can wax lyrical about the dangers of consumerism, but once I actually entered the mind-boggling labyrinth of the Ikea store I was grabbing things left and right, filled with an insatiable need to buy things. Pot plants, cushions, spot lighters, a stuffed crocodile. By the time I had paid the £278.50 bill, I was filled with a deep sense of self-loathing. What happened?

I could blame it on Ikea’s clever merchandising. Or perhaps I had simply failed to restrain my desire for shiny new stuff. Baruch Spinoza would have a different answer. He believed there is no need to punish yourself for having desires; in fact, it’s beneficial to have them. According to his work, Ethics, all people contain an essential kind of energy, composed of desires, wishes and passions. But you don’t just wake up in the morning full of them. Desire reveals itself through certain situations – when browsing lampshades, for example. And once awoken, it sets your thoughts alight.

The wisest people are not necessarily the most disciplined

So should I hold off buying anything? For Spinoza, being ethical doesn’t mean swearing never to buy another tchotchke. The wisest people are not necessarily the most disciplined. They are the people who can come to a true understanding of the world around them, of what drags them down and what lifts them up. Ethics is really about trying to understand your passions and what drives you. Listening to your deepest self is the best hope you have.

Now before hitting the shops, I sit down and think about what I’m actually looking for – not just the objects I need, but what I want from them. Comfort? Excitement? To feel more at home in the space I inhabit? A few moments of reflection usually unearths a desire I wasn’t aware of, and means I make better choices.

Another area in which philosophy has transformed my life is my approach to health. The weekends of my 20s were roller coasters of feeling young, invincible and ready to party one minute, then enduring vile hangovers the next. A period of sanctimonious clean-eating and sobriety would ensue. During one of these phases, living off essential oils and self-care clichés, I’d finally feel virtuous. But inevitably the wheels would come off. Promising I’d have “just one drink” with friends would end several bottles of wine later and at 2pm the next day I’d be hating myself, yet again.

Aristotle, who had a lot to say about self-esteem, helped me break out of that cycle. In his book Nicomachean Ethics, he tried to answer the question: “What is the best way for humans to act?” Getting wasted every Saturday night might not be the answer, but he would still want us to think of it as an experience to draw wisdom from. He said that every moment in your life, even the embarrassing ones, can be used to gain a deeper understanding of yourself. That’s a pretty comforting thought, and helps explain why Aristotelian ideas have survived 2,500 years of humans feeling guilty.

For Aristotle, virtue doesn’t mean depriving yourself of the “bad” things; it’s more about giving yourself the possibility of being happy. In everyday language, being “virtuous” can mean being uptight, in a juice-cleansing kind of way, but learning to be good is ultimately about being more in harmony with yourself.

He talked about a meditative, wise kind of happiness that comes when you’re able to find courage, balance and serenity. A journey to Aristotelian happiness won’t come through taking extreme action or eliminating all carbs after 6pm. Virtue comes from living, which ultimately is made up of lots of tiny day-to-day experiences. It is only by patiently wading through daily life, making thoughtful decisions as often as you can, that you will make progress. If you can learn from your Sunday morning hangover, the next time you go out you will remind yourself that after three glasses it’s probably time to switch to water. And eventually, making that choice will become ordinary. As Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Epicurus said most of what we think we want is superfluous

Philosophy can seem like a pretty heavy subject, encouraging us to dwell on weighty life questions 24/7. In fact, it is often telling us the opposite – that we should worry less. I reflected on this over the holiday season, surrounded by family and friends compulsively checking their phones. In the midst of what was meant to be a festive weekend of relaxation, they were chained to an endless stream of news alerts, under the pretext they had to “stay up-to-date”. Epicurus would disagree.

A lot of people today associate the Greek philosopher, born in 341 BC, with luxury or hedonism, but Epicurus’s teachings were really more focussed on simplicity. He encouraged us to acknowledge every bit of happiness in our lives, to cherish the people and things we love, and to savour every opportunity – like the chance to spend two days with loved ones, sans updates on Donald Trump.

Epicurus said we should work to fulfil our essential needs but also realise that most of what we think we want is superfluous. Really, our needs are remarkably simple. Nobody requires a constant stream of notifications on their phone to survive. We may think we are bettering ourselves and the world by staying informed, but while the media shows us an endless list of reasons to be afraid, we have no control over most of what we read about. Being consumed by it does not make us more virtuous, altruistic or deep-thinking. It makes us unable to be present in the moments we have been given to live and to connect with others. Philosophy helps to remind us that sometimes wisdom comes from knowing less. Whereof we cannot speak, we must put our phones on silent.

Modern dilemmas that philosophy can help

1. To lie or not to lie Philosophers believe in the pursuit of truth. So what should you say when your granny gives you the world’s most hideous jumper for your birthday? Telling her what you really think would break her heart. Thankfully, according to John Stuart Mill, you don’t have to be honest at any cost. Sometimes a white lie can have utilitarian value. Thanks, Gran.

2. Mending a broken heart OK, there is no real cure for heartbreak except, perhaps, time. But Immanuel Kant’s scepticism about romantic passion – he favoured a deeper and more rational kind of love instead – reminds us that infatuation isn’t everything.

3. Sticking to your fitness goals Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “the will to power” is the intellectual equivalent of your most upbeat workout playlist – a shot of utter bravura to defeat even the strongest feelings of inertia.

4. Dealing with incomprehensible in-laws You love your partner, but talking to their family feels like signalling to aliens. There’s a reason you don’t understand each other. Ludwig Wittgenstein argues that every group of human beings has its own unique culture and code. If you put in the time to learn their particular language, you’ll soon be able to communicate fully.

Marie Robert is the author of Keep It Together: Philosophy for Everyday Emergencies (Scribe, £9.99).


Aristotle on Habit


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