How to Live?

That’s the question my writing students and I are focusing on this semester. I can’t think of a better age to craft a philosophy of life. Most of them are on their own for the first time in their lives. Having to make many, many more decisions by themselves and find their way.

William Irvine, philosophy professor and modern day Stoic, argues you’re likely to waste your life away without a well thought through philosophy of life. Here’s his argument.

You have three choices in how to live. One is “unenlightened hedonism” in which you thoughtlessly seek short-term gratification. Think Faber College, 1962.

A second is “enlightened hedonism” in which you seek to maximize pleasure in the course of your lifetime. People practicing this philosophy of life will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. Then they’ll devise strategies for maximizing pleasure.

Regarding hedonism, Irvine writes, “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability.” He adds, “There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.”

But I digress. The third and final choice in how to live is to carefully think through what you most want out of life and then organize your life accordingly. Not the goals you form as you live day-to-day, but one “grand goal in living”. Of the many goals in life you might pursue, which one do you believe to be most valuable?

Most people have trouble naming their grand goal in living because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about such things. Instead, it provides an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. To their credit, some people swim against the stream of distractions by journaling, taking digital sabbaticals, enrolling in my writing seminar, and going on silent retreats.

If determining a grand goal of living isn’t challenging enough already, it’s only half the battle. The other half is developing effective strategies for attaining it. These strategies will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life you take to be of most value.

This is where Irvine says Christian pastors and the ancient Stoics differ. Most Christian pastors, Irvine argues, focus on what people must do to have a good afterlife. Pastors, he says, have far less to say about what people must do to have a good life. That’s why, he notes, it’s tough to distinguish among the religious and non-religious.

For his own philosophy of life, Irvine chose to update Roman Stoicism for modern times. Stoics claim that many of the things we desire—most notably fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they developed strategies for achieving tranquility and inner joy by eliminating negative emotions like anger, grief, anxiety, fear, and envy.

Eight years ago, when I was on sabbatical, I took time to write a guiding paragraph that I can’t find anymore in my computer files. I can remember most of it, but it’s okay I misplaced it, because it’s time to update it. And then reference it way more regularly.

If your curious about my philosophy of life, just eavesdrop on me as I live my day-to-day life. Because actions, of course, speak louder than words.

3 thoughts on “How to Live?

  1. I’m a big fan of the silent retreats. Though I was unable to spend great sums of money to get away I did isolate myself after leaving the campus in my duplex for the most part. I would avoid contacts until the weekends and even avoid answering the phone.

    Reading Emerson and Thoreau during these times were also quite helpful for me.

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