The Purpose and Practice of Living

Philosophical systems can tell us either the “why” or the “how” of life. Some writers only touch on the metaphysical wonders of the cosmos without explaining if this knowledge affects us existentially. On the other hand, there is the purely practical outlook as found in Baltasar Gracian’s Art of Worldly Wisdom and La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims. Many collections of moral aphorisms and modern self-help books fall into this category. By contrast, the writings of the stoic Epictetus clearly embrace both the transcendent and the immanent. Addressing the “why,” he states:

The philosophers say that the first thing that needs to be learned is the following, that there is a God, and a God who exercises providential care for the universe, and that it is impossible to conceal from him not only our actions, but even our thoughts and intentions (The Discourses, 2.14).

Pure theory will end up as nothing more than a superficial intellectual hobby—or show of pride—if it is not put into practice. That leaves us with the the “what” or “how” of the moral life. Epictetus explains this in his chapter on “How We Should Struggle Against Impressions” (2.18).

Every habit and capacity is supported and strengthened by the corresponding actions…. [I]f you want to do something, make a habit of doing it; and if you don’t want to do something, don’t do it, but get into the habit of doing something else instead. The same also applies to states of mind. When you lose your temper, you should recognize not only that something has happened to you at present, but also that you’ve reinforced a bad habit….

If you don’t want to be bad-tempered, then don’t feed the habit, throw nothing before it on which it can feed and grow. First of all, keep calm, and count the days in which you haven’t lost your temper — ‘I used to lose my temper every day, and after that, every other day, then third day, then every fourth’–and if you continue in that way  for thirty days, offer a sacrifice to God. For the habit is first weakened, and then completely destroyed.

Our view of the universe can affect how we act. But it might also be said that over time our daily habits affect our view of reality, thereby making the “why” of existence truly a part of our lives rather than just a set of pleasant sounding but futile platitudes.

Excerpts are taken from the Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Robin Hard. For related commentary, see Portions of the Divine and Stoic Piety.

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