Why we need a life philosophy

Ramses Oudt • Reading time: 5 minutes

Nobody gets a manual when they become adults, yet we expect everyone to know how to navigate life.

Does anyone wonder why we’re in deep shit?

Sure, some may look at a religious text for help. Others are into self-improvement to get the most out of life. But very few people are happy. Their approach to life is not working for them.

How does life feel to you?

Being human, how’s that going for you? Do you have any idea what the heck you’re doing? Or where you’re going in life? Do things work out for you, or do you complain a lot?

Don’t feel ashamed; we all screw up.

But what if there’s a way to make things better? Little by little, every day, improve our situation and our attitude toward others. And feel better as a result.

Is this possible?

Are you happy?

There is a better way to live.

The thing is, we rarely stop and think about why we do the things we do. We don’t ask ourselves why we want what we want. Above all, we act on impulses and desires.

Now, take a long and hard look at yourself. Are you the biggest issue in your life? Is your life moving in compulsive cycles?

For most people that’s the case.

When we look deep inside, we notice we’re a hodgepodge of our parents, teachers, and friends’ opinions. We believe what others believe. We want to have the same stuff others have. We drive cars and work exhausting jobs because that’s what everyone does.

In essence, we sleepwalk through life.

Now ask yourself: Am I happy?

What do you define as happiness anyway? Is it based on having possessions, family, and good health? Is it based on things that are currently not in your control?

Even when you’re not happy with your situation, you may think that’s all there is to life.

But what if you’re mistaken and risk misliving?

What color is your worldview?

You run the risk of not living to your full potential if you don’t examine yourself.

You run the risk of following the crowd, and who says they know what’s right? Many are miserable. Have a look at the rising mental health problems and substance abuse worldwide to see how little we know.

People harm themselves in many ways. They label everything in their life as “good” or “bad”, often without knowing why. It happens unconsciously and causes strong emotions.

You live by principles if you’re aware of them or not. You look at the world through glasses, and they’re tinted. It’s your underlying opinions and beliefs that provide the color.

How do you discover your unconscious beliefs? How can you steer clear of harmful habits?

Through philosophy.

Philosophy concerns itself with many things. Modern philosophy may focus on theory, but ancient philosophy was always trying to answer questions like “what is our goal in life?", “what makes us happy?", and “what is happiness?".

It seems like we’ve stopped asking these questions.

Academic philosophers like to think about thinking but rarely apply wisdom in their lives. Practical philosophers look at how we can live better, sometimes to the extreme of focusing on physical and mental exercises only.

Lucky for us, we live in a time we can benefit from both and strike a balance.

Know thyself

To live meaningful lives, we need to set priorities. We need to figure out our strengths and weaknesses and discover what we can contribute to the world. We then have to act on that knowledge, however scary that may be.

In other words, it’s necessary to find a good flow in life.

This is what Socrates and the philosophers after him were looking for. Achieving eudaimonia was philosophers’ goal for a long time (until Christianity took over in the West).

Eudaimonia is an ancient Greek word that’s often translated as “Happiness”. However, a better translation would be “flourishing”, or “a good flowing life”.

Ancient philosophers searched to have this good flow in life. They wanted to have a good spirit (eu = good, daimon = spirit). Therefore they were busy cultivating their daimon, their Self.

We rarely see this focus in modern philosophies.

Luckily, philosophical texts from the ancient Greeks and Romans survive to our time. Through Plato and Xenophon, we know quite a bit about Socrates. Through early historians, we know about Epicureanism, Skepticism, Cynicism, and Stoicism. Enough texts and fragments have survived to learn about early Western wisdom.

My philosophy of choice is Stoicism, a proven system to understand yourself better and live a meaningful life.

The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill. Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind. Chance must necessarily have great influence over our lives, because we live by chance. –Seneca

Stoicism as a key to well-being

By reading the ancient texts, we get glimpses of what it means to live a good life. We discover what philosophy promises us.

Reading ancient texts, we see how Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius looked at the world and how that worked out for them. Their thoughts and teachings are powerful.

We live more than 2,000 years later, though. Why would we need to study an ancient philosophy like Stoicism to achieve happiness? We must have come up with something better, right?

We haven’t.

Our reasoning skills have improved a lot in the last 2,000 years. Philosophy’s roots are in rationality, and it has helped us progress. Yet it’s still religion—based on faith—that plays a crucial role in lives worldwide.

Stoic philosophy has therefore received little attention. It has not evolved a lot. But that’s not necessary, as early Stoics had human nature figured out quite right.

The Stoics saw themselves as “physicians of the soul". And with good reason. Through psychological research, we know the ancient Stoics were right.

The Stoic view of humans is close to modern discoveries in psychology. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) are evidence of this; they draw a lot from Stoic wisdom.

Stoic advice and exercises work as well in 2020 as they did in the year 20.

By studying Stoicism, we can get a clearer picture of what drives us. When we know our drives and impulses, we can reason with ourselves. We’re able to determine if our current life brings us closer to fulfilling our potential.

Stoicism is a profound philosophy that’s rational but also has a spiritual component. Through Stoic practice, we can experience eudaimonia, like our ancestors.

It’s not complicated, but it does take dedication.

Summary