Thursday, January 7, 2010


Welcome to The Craft of Living, a site dedicated to the application of ancient western philosophy to modern life.  This site is the result of a general dilemma that most people studying philosophy face.  On the one hand, if we fail to make our teaching practical, it threatens to become useless; on the other hand, if we make our teaching practical, it threatens to lose the rigour of disinterested scholarship.  Like most persistent dilemmas, there is no easy solution, or there is perhaps there is even no solution.

The dilemma is especially present in the study of ancient philosophy.  In the ancient world, especially in the Roman Empire, philosophy was a way of life that either led to or was constitutive of happiness.  Understanding nature, reality and knowledge was considered vital to becoming happy, and the wrong answers could destroy one's happiness.  The major schools of thought differed substantially on physics, metaphysics and epistemology and believed that errors in these regards could harm and even destroy happiness.  Without at least attempting to apply ancient philosophy in modern life, we would do a disservice to our subject matter.

I will not make such bold statements as "modern philosophy is divorced from every day life" or "modern philosophy treats other areas of philosophy as irrelevant to ethics", because neither of these are true.  Many modern philosophers are very concerned with integrating philosophy and life, and, like it or not, I am a modern philosopher.  However, today, for various reasons, it would strike many people and even most philosophers as odd to claim that philosophy is necessary for happiness, much less that correct philosophy is necessary.  Even the claim that most people should philosophize about ethics in order to be ethical can strike us at odd.

For one studying ancient philosophy, the question isn't so much whether one should apply what one studies, but how.  And, as Aristotle says, deliberation begins with the end and then chooses the means.  I must therefore begin with a list of my goals.  They are the following:
  1. To remain as rigorous in my thought on this blog as I am in my academic work.
  2. To be accessible to the non-specialist.
  3. To present the various schools of thought in the ancient world, from the Sophists to the Christians.
  4. To examine the ways in which those schools would address various questions of how to live.
  5. To present the various debates between the schools, and show the ways in which those debates shape the answers that the schools give.
  6. To provide practical tools for the application of ancient philosophy to the development of a happy life.
These are a lot of goals.   1 and 3-5 are all goals that I can address in an academic environment.  However, goals 2 and 6 are goals that are very difficult in that same environment.  Aside from undergraduates taking breadth requirements, most of our work is presented to specialists in the field.  Nothing as specific as the Epicurean theory of the emotions would ever be discussed except with specialists.

Goal 6 is the most difficult to address, however.  Systematic practical applications of ancient philosophy have little place in academic philosophy.  There simply isn't an academic philosophy journal that would be interested in an eight-step program of Stoic assimilation ("oikeiosis").  Development of ancient philosophy in practice is generally limited to those in therapeutic professions who have studied some philosophy on the side, such as the application of some Stoic psychology in modern cognitive behavioural therapy.  If ancient philosophy is to be practically applied, however, we need to see it on a therapeutic ("therapeia") model, and use ancient philosophy for a plan of life.

This does not imply, though, that this will simply be a set of rules for living a happy life.  I am not so wise.  Philosophers love wisdom ("philein sophian"), but we do not possess it, or at least not all of it.  Instead, as in any developing craft, I will include both scientific and technical components.  Many of my posts will be theoretical, trying to understand what ancient philosophers meant by their terms and arguments.  This will include the debates between the philosophers that laid the foundations of their ethics.  In these, I will attempt to apply rigor, but in a way that can be read by the non-specialist.  Others will be practical applications, where I will consider ways of implementing the theories and developing character based on those theories.

This returns me to my title, "The Craft of Living".  The title is a reference to Socrates' claim in the Protagoras that what he is seeking is a craft ("techne") that will make life sound.  Such an craft, a body of teachable, systematic knowledge that has happiness as its product, would be perhaps the greatest human achievement.  Whether or not such a craft exists, was one of the central problems in ancient ethical debates.  It seems a fitting title, as the practical application of philosophy to our lives is, at least in part, an attempt to develop such a craft of living.  Even though there may not be a complete craft of living, any attempt to apply wisdom for the sake of happiness will take, at least in part, a technical form.  This blog is my contribution to its development.

Sculpture: The Apollo Belvedere