Sunday, December 8, 2013

Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Life by Jules Evans

Serendipity once again rode to my rescue in a chaotic Indian bookstore (actually, the pretty good Modern Book Centre here in Trivandrum). I spied Philosophy for Life, by an author unknown to me. A quick perusal of the TOC revealed that it addressed Stoicism, Epicureanism, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Skepticism, Cynicism, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and of course, the godfather of them all, Socrates. One can surmise from the all-star cast that it couldn’t help but to prove worthwhile. It did.
Evans tells an interesting story. His book isn’t just an exposition of ancient wisdom (for wisdom is the purpose of these philosophies and philosophers), but it relates each tradition to our world through his own story and those of others. Evans reports that as a young man he was plagued with anxiety and depression until he discovered Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), developed by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. Put simply, CBT attacks “stinkin’ thinkin’” (a term of art I borrow from elsewhere). Indeed, CBT, as Evans discovered, draws from the tradition of Stoicism. Stoicism addresses the veracity of our beliefs and the fundamental choices that we have about our emotional reactions to those beliefs (and the events that trigger those beliefs). The help that Evans received from CBT drew him into the world of ancient philosophy and an exploration of the way in which philosophy can become a way of life. Each chapter address a particular thinker or tradition, weaving together contemporary practitioners within that tradition with the original, helping to bring to life the value of each.
Evans not only provides very sound expositions of the basic tenants of each tradition and the contemporary manifestations of each, but he also provides sound critiques. Indeed, after going through this buffet of a book (and based on some earlier reading that I’ll detail below), one might want to treat each of these traditions as a course at a meal: each dish appropriate to a particular moment in life. Stoicism helps arm us against life’s tribulations, defeats, and losses. But should we remain a Stoic all of the time? It seems too harsh. Even the warriors who often draw upon it must need some break from its implicit asceticism. Epicureanism, on the other hand, with its appreciation of pleasure and desire to avoid pain and anxiety, seems the attitude to take when enjoying a glass of wine and a fine meal--savoring the moment, as Evans dubs it. It also counsels us not to worry about that which we cannot control.
Heraclitus teaches us to appreciate the flux of life; Protagoras the benefit of reminding ourselves of ideals through memorization and incantation. Skeptics teach us to question and doubt—what I might call the Missouri method: “Show me. I’m not buyin’ until you do.” Diogenes and the Cynics, surely the most far out of the traditions, teach us the value of street theatre and radical questioning.
Evans moves on to the Big Three of Ancient Philosophy: Plato, his student Aristotle, and the master of the whole tradition (and Plato’s teacher), Socrates. Plato compels us to consider justice and the proper order of things, while his more earthy student Aristotle teaches us about friendship, politics, and all manner of earthly (and metaphysical) concerns. Aristotle serves as an antidote the Epicurean and Stoic tendency to retreat from the public space. Finally, Socrates teaches us about the value of questioning and facing death.
This book serves as an excellent introduction to this ancient tradition. Evans’ critiques are thoughtful and balanced. He looks to take the fruit of that lies within rather than rejecting the whole because of any surface imperfection. Evans touches upon the tradition’s relationship with Buddhism and the Chinese traditions, something, especially concerning Buddhism, that I’d like to see further developed. (The similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism seem to me almost patent. Nassim Taleb touches on the issue in a footnote in Antifragile: “For those readers who wonder about the difference between Buddhism and Stoicism, I have a simple answer: A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says “f*** you” to fate”. (153). I think that this is a bit too simple, but it’s making the connection.)
Evans gratefully acknowledges those scholars whose work he draws upon for his examination of the ancient traditions. Some of them I’ve read and can recommend if you  want to dig deeper: Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life (and anything else by Hadot); Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics and Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions (her effort at an improved and expanded appreciation of the Stoic view of the emotions); Alain de Botton’s Consolations of the Philosophy (not limited to the ancients); and Richard Sorabji’s Gifford Lectures, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation.
Finally, Evans’ website is an excellent resource for further exploration of these issues.  

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