Philosophy as an Art of Living

I often like to use the word ‘philosophy’ in a somewhat unusual way. What I mean is philosophy understood as a craft, skill, or art of living. This is, actually, how philosophy was originally understood and practiced, in the ancient Greek and Roman periods of what we now call Western philosophy. That understanding, and even that practice, has never completely gone away. It has, however, been overshadowed for a long time now, to the extent that most people seem to have difficulty grasping what I mean by philosophy as art or skill in living.

Even so, the idea, and beyond that the actual practice, of philosophy as an actual pursuit of wisdom, and of wisdom as embodied skillfulness in living well, or even with genuine excellence, a human life, holds great potential for our lives and our times today. Moreover, I’ve noticed this same idea and the practice not only (1) in the ancient period of Western philosophy, but also (2) in the philosophical dimensions of Buddhism, and even (3) in traditional Chinese philosophy.

Greek-Roman-Western Philosophy

In the case of ancient Western philosophy, which is to say ancient Greek (and Roman) philosophy, this understanding is most obvious in the case of the Stoic school, whose most most well known authors today include Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and to some extent, Cicero. Within Stoic discourse, philosophy is described explicitly as an “art of living,” and includes a considerable number of practices, exercises, or meditations. Somewhat famously, the historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot refers to these as “spiritual exercises.” The other ancient Greek schools including Platonism, Epicureanism, and the skeptic traditions do seem to have shared this general view, and did engage in their own spiritual-philosophical exercises to support and develop the art of life.

Traditional Chinese Philosophy

With respect to traditional Chinese philosophy, the same point can be made by observing that traditional Chinese philosophy, whether Confucian, Daoist, or Buddhist, was seen by its practitioners as a kind of kung fu. But, this is not ‘kung fu’ in the sense of martial arts (though some philosophers did practice kung fu in that sense as well). The scholar Peimin Ni explains: “Any ability resulting from practice and cultivation,” he writes, “could accurately be said to embody kung fu.” In the case of these traditions of philosophy (Confucian, Daoist, Buddhist), philosophy was an overall kung fu of living a human life, “the art of living one’s life in general.” [1] And although it was Song and Ming dynasty writers who used the term ‘kung fu’ (gongfu) so widely, one has only to read the Analects to see that this reality of artful living, with or without the term ‘kung fu’, must extend back to Confucius himself.

Buddhist Philosophy / Buddhism as Philosophy

Turning to Buddhism too, or at least to its very considerable philosophical dimensions, and regardless of the historical era, we again find something similar. Buddhism’s central rubric of the Noble Eightfold Path is in some sense a teaching or even a theory, founded for the most part on systematic observation, questioning, and inference. At the same time, this path itself “is a way of life to be followed, practiced, and developed by each individual,” as the scholar-monk Walpola Rahula tells us. He goes on to say that the path “has nothing which may popularly be called ‘religious’,” in that it “has nothing to do with belief, prayer, worship or ceremony.” Instead, the path or way is a matter of “self-discipline in body, word and mind, self-development and self-purification.” [2] It is an overall kung fu, or an art of living.

Common Misunderstandings

I want to close by correcting some common misunderstandings. When I speak of understanding philosophy as an art of living, I specifically do not mean either of the following two things.

(1) That the ideas we hold will affect how we live. Of course, that is true. But it is not primarily what I mean by philosophy being an art of living.

(2) That thinking about things can be a way of life. This, again, is of course to some extent true. But again it is not, primarily, what I mean.

If you do find yourself having trouble understanding this, you might need first to negate the entrenched notion that philosophy is a set of ideas or an activity of thinking. Philosophy as art of living is primarily an art of living, not an art of thinking or an artful set of ideas. It includes artful thinking and ideas, as key elements, within the full, lived pursuit of embodied wisdom, or skillfulness in what matters most in life.

Here’s a set of six short, older posts, which approach Stoic topics within this understanding of philosophy as a way of living: The first is called “Four ways we may stumble in attempting to live Stoically,” and includes links to the other five.

[1] Peimin Ni, “Kung Fu for Philosophers,” in The Stone blog, published by The New York Times. Also at

[2] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, second edition 1974 by Grove/Atlantic, pp. 49-50.

PS: This post is a re-written and extended version of the first post I published for Wise and Shine, which back then was called Pointless Overthinking. The perspective it describes is so integral to many of my other Wise and Shine posts, and so important to our world today, that I felt compelled to improve and renew it.

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