Philosophy as a way of life

A review of Philosophy as a way of life by Rob Mason

 By encouraging concentration on the miniscule present moment, which, in its exiguity, is always bearable and controllable, attention increases our vigilance . Finally, attention to the present moment allows us to accede to cosmic consciousness, by making us attentive to the infinite value of each instant , and causing us to accept each moment of existence from the viewpoint of the universal law of the cosmos.

Life ebbs as I write: so seize each day, and grant the next no credit;  carp diem, Horace
For the Epicureans, in the last analysis, pleasure is a spiritual exercise. Not pleasure in the form of sensual gratification, but the intellectual pleasure derived from contemplating nature, the thought of pleasures past and present, and the pleasure of friendship. In Epicurean communities, friendship also had its spiritual exercises, carried out in joyous, relaxed atmosphere. Above all, friendship itself was, as it were, the spiritual exercise par excellence. The main goal was to be happy.
Everywhere and at all times, it is up to you to rejoice piously at what is occurring at the present moment, to conduct yourself with justice towards the people who are present here and now, and to apply rules of discernment to your present representations.

Learning to live

Spiritual exercises can be best observed in the context of Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. The Stoics, for instance, declared explicitly that philosophy, for them, was an “exercise.” In their view, philosophy did not consist in teaching an  — abstract theory much less in the exegesis of texts — but rather in the art of living. It is a concrete attitude and determinate lifestyle, which engages the whole of existence.  The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life , in which he attains self– consciousness, an exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom.

In the view of all philosophical schools, mankind’s principal cause of suffering, disorder, and unconsciousness were the passions; that is unregulated desires and exaggerated fears.  People are prevented from truly living  it was taught, because they are dominated by worries. Philosophy  thus appears in the first place, as a therapeutic of the passions (in the words of Georges Friedmann: “Try to get rid of your own passions.”) Each school had its own therapeutic method, but all of them linked their therapeutics  to a profound transformation of the individuals mode of seeing and being. The object of spiritual exercises is precisely to bring about this transformation.

To begin with, let us consider the example of the Stoics. For them, all mankind’s woes derive from the fact that he seeks to acquire or to keep possessions that he may either lose or fail to obtain, and from the fact that he tries to avoid misfortunes which are often inevitable.  The task of philosophy then is to educate people so that they seek only the goods they are able to obtain, and try to avoid only those evils which it is possible to avoid. In order for something good to be always obtainable, or an evil always avoidable, they must depend exclusively on man’s freedom; but the only things which fulfil these conditions are moral good and evil. They alone depend on us. Everything else does not depend on us. Here, “everything else,” which does not depend on us, refers to the necessary linkage of cause and effect, which is not subject to our freedom. It must be indifferent to us; that is we must not introduce any differences into it, but accept it in it’s entirety, as willed by fate. This is the domain of nature.
Such a transformation of vision is not easy, and it is precisely here that spiritual exercises come in. Little by little, they make possible the metamorphosis of our inner self.

Attention is the fundamental spiritual attitude.  It is a continuous  vigilance and presence of mind, self consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit.  Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully.  Thanks to his spiritual  vigilance, the Stoic always has “at hand” the fundamental rule of life; that is, the distinction between what depends on us and what does not. As in Epicureanism, so for Stoicism: it is essential that the adepts be supplied with a fundamental principle  which is formulable in a few words, and extremely clear and simple, precisely so that it may remain easily to the mind, and be applicable with the sureness and constancy of a reflex. ”You must not separate yourself from these general principles; don’t sleep, eat, drink or converse with other men without them.” It is this vigilance of the spirit which lets us apply the fundamental rule to each of life’s particular situations, and always to do what we do appropriately.”  We could also define this attitude as concentration on the present moment.”

Attention to the present moment is, in a sense, the key to spiritual exercises.  It frees us from the passions*, which are always caused by the past or the future—two areas which do not depend on us. Attention allows us to respnd immediately to events as if they were questions asked us all of a sudden. In orderfor this to be possible we must always have the fundamental principles at hand.  We are to steep ourselves in the rule of life by mentally applying it too all of life's possible situations, just as we assimilate grammatical or mathematical rule through practice, by applying it to the individual.