Recovering the Original Meaning of Philosophy

In a previous post, Marcus Aurelius: What Is a Philosopher?, I explored how the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, despite not fitting our present day notions of what makes a philosopher, would have been considered a philosopher in his own time. Marcus did not create original ideas and was not an author. But studying and attempting to practice philosophy, which in the ancient world was considered an art of living rather than merely a theorizing pastime or profession, was what made him a philosopher.

I brought that up not only to improve our understanding of Marcus Aurelius, but because I think this matter shows us a lot, both about our current understanding of philosophy and the ancient understanding of philosophy. It also juxtaposes those two understandings in what I think is a revealing way.

The Inaccessibility of the Idea

That we come to know of this ancient idea of the philosopher and philosophy is not trivial. I say “come to know” because it isn’t simply that we don’t pay enough attention to it. The idea seems somehow to be hidden and fairly unknown, even though it ought to be evident and well-known. This is all the more curious because there has been a certain amount of what seems like fairly high profile, scholarly work about it during the past several decades, above all by the well-known scholar Pierre Hadot. In addition, his work has inspired others, and many of these have written more “popular” books and articles, even crossing into psychology and self-help genres.

It seems that together, all this should by now have spread the ancient idea of philosophy widely, presenting it both as historical knowledge and as contemporary possibility. Yet I don’t get the impression that this idea of philosophy as lived art has become very well known. And the idea of philosophy as art of living — the ancient idea — also seems to be misunderstood when someone tries to explain it, even if the explanation is simple and is stated clearly and straightforwardly.

It’s as if the current concept of philosophy, as a matter of theories and theorizing, must be so ingrained in our minds, that our minds cannot “hear” the other idea. It’s as if we always have to start with the current idea as the basis, despite the fact that in terms of the history and meaning of the term, it’s really the other way around. The ancient conception of philosophy is in fact the basis of the idea, and at some point the lived part of it and the ideas part of it became separated.

These two parts haven’t really been put back together and, when they do sort of get put back together, it’s as if the positions of the ideas part and the lived part wind up reversed. It’s as if the resultant, confused idea of philosophy as an art of living is merely that you come up with ideas which then you could “apply to life.” Or, just some notion that ideas influence your life, or some notion that thinking a lot is a way of life. Yet none of that is quite what we mean by the ancient understanding of philosophy, which is to say, philosophy as an art of living.

Bringing Back the Idea

It’s important that we recover the ancient idea, because we have no concept of it currently. I mean that we don’t have this idea at all, even under some other name. Besides that, creating another name wouldn’t be as good, although I’m not quite sure how to explain this. In any case, we could really use this idea of philosophy today. I don’t think the ancient idea of philosophy should remain simply an ancient one, and I don’t think the ancient practice of philosophy should remain simply an ancient practice.

There’s no need to say that our current academic scholarly theorizing notion of philosophy is a false usage of the word. We don’t need to say that, and it wouldn’t be very helpful anyway. But I don’t think the “primarily theorizing” conception of philosophy should remain the default meaning of the word. Although for a time at least, it will surely persist as the default meaning, the original meaning can again become a living meaning.

Philosophy can be understood, in a normal and common way, as an art of living involving rationality, but going far beyond simply thinking a lot or “application” of ideas. The ancient schools can be drawn upon, but do not need to be rigidly adhered to. The current notion of philosophy as ideas (theorizing) can be acknowledged without being deferred to. And we can understand people such as Marcus Aurelius, who studied and practiced philosophy, to be philosophers, even while knowing them not to be original theorists or authors.

This post is a follow-up to Marcus Aurelius: What Is a Philosopher?

See my post Philosophy as an Art of Living.

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