Connecting Philosophy to Real Life

I recently saw someone ask for specific examples of ways that philosophy has impacted people’s real-world ethical behavior.

In thinking about how I would answer that question from my own experience, I settled on two concepts that I’ve found especially powerful:

  1. Death meditation (no, really!)
  2. Mindfulness

A few years ago, I was reading a book by the philosopher William Irvine that aims to introduce readers to philosophy as a “way of life,” and specifically to ancient Stoicism:

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While I now know that the details of Irvine’s interpretation of Stoicism are hotly debated in the modern Stoic community, he makes a great presentation of how philosophy—as understood by the ancient Greeks—is meant to help us orient our lives with practical spiritual exercises. This idea was best developed by the French scholar Pierre Hadot, and it represents a dramatic departure from our usual view of philosophy as a relatively dry and academic exercise. Without a “philosophy of life,” says Irvine, there is a danger that you will “mislive.”

So anyway, when I reached Irvine’s coverage of the ancient Stoic exercise of negative visualization, something clicked. I already knew about the practice—you just imagine unpleasant events (such as your own death) in a sort of meditation, to prepare yourself for anything that might happen.

What I hadn’t realized is that ancient Greek death meditation was about more than emotional resilience and psychotherapy: it actually has a strong moral component. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live: while you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good” (emphasis mine).

This revelation launched a string of new attempts at habit formation for me. Suddenly I had a way of connecting my moral aspirations with concrete, daily practices in a clear way that Utilitarianism—God bless its ambitions—never really offered me. Within a year of studying this 2,000-year-old philosophy, I had

  • made a monthly goal to call my grandparents
  • started planning ahead and sending birthday cards to friends and family
  • gotten a Bullet Journal and started using an elaborate to-do list scheme to track my private and professional obligations

Often, these actions are trivially tiny. But part of the point of virtue ethics, of which Stoicism is one variety, is that moral progress extends from the tiniest parts of our life up into the biggest and most monumental issues (like political polarization!)

Life is short, so live well: be a good son, husband, employee, etc. This single idea has done more to change my actual behavior than all the hours I’ve spent wading through Kant, Mill, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Lyotard combined.


Now, needless to say, I don’t live up to this ideal consistently.

Practical philosophy is a strange struggle—it’s less about organizing your cognitive beliefs, and more about trying to discipline your habits of attention. The aim is to try and get this wonderful, chaotic, complex dynamical system of ours that we call “agency” or our “faculty of choice” (ἡγεμονικόν, in Stoic terms) to sit still long enough to actually follow through on our potential for excellence. Moving philosophical ideas about things like courage, duty, or φιλοστοργία (“heartfelt love”) from our intellectual center down into our actual character is a very special and tricky process!

The concept of attention or mindfulness (προσοχή, in its Stoic incarnation) is probably the second big idea from my study of philosophy that has tangibly impacted my ethical behavior.

One of the ideas that you’ll encounter in mindfulness meditation courses is that such practices can knock us off of autopilot, and help us create a sort of space between an impression and our choices. Having practice with this makes it a bit easier to remember to “pop into” a slightly detached state when we need it most. From a Stoic perspective, when (and only when) I am on top of my mindfulness game, that’s when I have the most ability to move principles into actions.

When I’m paying attention, I can actively remind myself to live up to my best principles (“don’t guzzle that soda,” “be attentive to your wife,” “do something nice for your family,” “stop procrastinating,” “go learn something new”).

Of course, usually I’m out of the mindful habit, and I go through life as a sort of consumerist automaton. But as the Stoics would say, our goal is progress, not perfection!

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