Back in the ancient days, Zeus and Hermes, all-powerful gods, wanted to make a quick buck. They had a brilliant idea.
Setting up a marketplace, arranging the chairs, and making everything look neat and tidy, they set to work. Their business? Selling.
Zeus said: “Hermes, you can declare the salesroom open, and a welcome to all comers. — For Sale! A varied assortment of Live Creeds. Tenets of every description. — Cash on delivery; or credit allowed on suitable security.”
Hermes, the messenger of the gods, all giddy with excitement: “Here they come!”
Zeus agreed: “Let’s not keep them waiting.”
All the buyers swarmed in. The sale began.
Hermes turned to the supreme god himself, and asked: “What are we to put up first?”
Zeus replied without hesitation: “The Ionic fellow, with the long hair. He seems a showy piece of goods.”
Hermes: “Step up, Pythagoreanism, and show yourself.”
Thus began one of the most curious tales written in Antiquity, Philosophies for Sale. Penned by Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata, it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on what was happening at the time.
Different philosophies were competing for adherents, each one promising the answers to life’s problems. Some went as far as affirming to reveal the mysteries of the universe.
While Lucian lived in the 2nd century AD, at the time of the so-called Five Good Emperors in Rome, his ideas are as pertinent as ever. For they poke at one of the most basic needs of people.
The need to understand how the world works, and how to tackle its challenges. People are perennially searching for answers. Now, as they were thousands of years ago.
Who am I?
Where am I going?
What should I do?
How should I live?
What is the greater meaning in life and the universe?
All these are questions you have probably pondered about at least once in your life. Whenever there is a need, or a demand for something, there is always a supply.
To answer these types of questions, and in order to guide people through life, a wide variety of answers arose. Many of these became arranged into neat little packages, called philosophies.
These philosophies are a collection of answers to pressing questions, approaches, and guides to life. Some more complete than others. Some strict, while others rather loose.
All waiting to be adopted by the knowledge-hungry, and worried soul.
Take a leap of faith or stay on the ground?
All these philosophies address one thing: a need for meaning. In the more primitive animal forms, this need doesn’t really exist. A lizard or a cat has three primary drives — to eat, to survive, and to reproduce. That’s it.
However, as the brain grew larger through evolution, a sort of sense of wonder arose. Some researchers have found it among our closest cousins, the primates. While curiosity is inherent in all kinds of animals, primate wonder is different.
Jane Goodall, who dedicated her life to observing chimpanzees in the wild, noticed this. When the apes she was following got close to waterfalls, their behavior suddenly changed.
As she described it:
“I can’t help feeling that this waterfall display, or dance, is perhaps triggered by feelings of awe and wonder. The chimpanzee brain is similar to ours. They have emotions that are clearly similar to those that we call happiness and sadness and fear and despair and so forth. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind at spirituality? Which is, really, being amazed at things outside yourself.”
Perhaps this is how religion began.
For much of early history of humanity, the supernatural was the explanation for how the world works. Religion played a huge part in explaining the universe, and gave guidance on how to behave.
However, in the 8th century BC, we see a first break from this type of view. Dubbed the Axial Age, it’s when some individuals turned their gaze inwards, and started to give normal, worldly explanations to how things work. In ancient Greece, India, and China.
And here we come to the first division of systems. Taking a leap of faith, or staying on the ground.
- Taking a leap of faith
- Staying on the ground
Taking a leap of faith usually involves the supernatural. People who choose to go this path adopt some sort of a religious system to guide them. Religions have a very developed set of answers to various problems you might encounter in life.
It’s easy. That’s why people often go for this.
On the other hand, staying on the ground is a bit more complicated. It usually involves accepting a little bit of what 20th-century French philosopher Albert Camus called absurdity.
If you are like me, and like to rely on evidence, religious explanations based on faith and belief don’t satisfy. That’s why I prefer more secular accounts of the world, and philosophies based on this.
In ancient Greece, carved into stone at the Temple of Delphi, you had a series of maxims. The first one is legendary: Know thyself.
It’s not a surprise this piece of advice was at the top of the list. It’s the key to anything you do in life. You need to know yourself. A basic understanding of your background, your motivations, and your drives is a prerequisite for drawing up a plan of action.
Not all paths will fit you. Not all explanations will satisfy you. Some are better than others for your particular circumstances and makeup.
What you need to do is to have a basic reflection on yourself. This should consist of two parts: how you are now, and how you want to be. It’s about examining your current self, and juxtaposing it to your ideal self.
Be honest about yourself. Only by having an accurate assessment will you be able to draw up the right path. Don’t give into illusions, but rather try to see things as they really are.
This is where the second basic division of deciding what systems to adopt comes into play.
- Adopt a system as a whole
- Pick and choose between different parts of different systems
Which style you pick depends entirely on your personality. One analogy often used here is that of a cook and a chef.
A cook is someone who takes a recipe, and then follows it to the letter. A chef is someone who would rather learn about the ingredients, and then pick and choose which ones to use in their own dish.
If you are a cook-type of personality, then picking a certain philosophy and adopting it outright might fit you best. However, if you are more like a chef, then going on a learning journey and picking different things from different philosophies and combining them into your own personal whole might be the best option.
I am more of a chef. I like to learn, and then pick things which make sense to me. I then combine them into my own personal philosophy.
What types of philosophies exist?
Philosophy is a widespread term encompassing a variety of subjects. It deals with the nature of the world, but also with practical ways of how to live in it.
It is especially ancient philosophy that is more practical. As the tenets set down by the old philosophical schools were meant to be applied in practice. This is opposed to much of modern philosophy, which is reserved for specialists.
French historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot summarized this division best:
“Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast, modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.” — Pierre Hadot
In his study of philosophy, Hadot tried especially to take out the practical aspects as they apply to everyday life. He thought of philosophy as originally being a method of training people to wade through the pitfall of normal existence, rather than the theoretical construct it is now regarded to be.
“Philosophy then appears in its original aspect: not as a theoretical construct, but as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way.” — Pierre Hadot
When studying philosophy, he boiled down the individual “spiritual exercises” that were at the core of each philosophical school. In his definition, spiritual exercises were “practices intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subjects who practice them.”
Looking into the practical aspects of philosophy, we can identify several philosophical schools which are most useful for a person trying to get guidance on how to live life.
Some are more practical. While others more spiritual. Some are originally religions, but in modern times have been stripped down to philosophy. These are the most well-known ones:
Famous ancient practitioner: Marcus Aurelius
Famous modern practitioner: Ryan Holiday
Famous ancient practitioner: Diogenes of Oinoanda
Famous modern practitioner: Thomas Jefferson
Famous ancient practitioner: Cicero
Famous modern practitioner: Michael Shermer
Famous ancient practitioner: Ashoka
Famous modern practitioner: Dalai Lama
Famous ancient practitioner: Lao Tzu
Famous modern practitioner: Bruce Lee
Famous modern practitioner: Albert Camus
How to choose?
Life is about choices. Your choices are what makes you.
When choosing a life philosophy to follow, you need to take into account what you have learnt about yourself. What are your values? What are your goals? What are your weak points?
All these can play a factor in selecting the right approach to life. Sometimes you might want to emphasize your strengths. Often, you will want to work on your weaknesses. Different philosophical schools have different ways of solving problems, and one might fit you better than the other.
Some philosophies actually help you to know yourself better. They have techniques for that. For example Buddhist meditation is a great way to learn about what your mind is capable of.
Always keep in mind one thing:
- Some things you can change about yourself
- Some you can’t
This mantra has become associated with Stoicism, but overall it is a good maxim to always remind yourself of. That’s just how the world works, and no law of attraction will ever change that.
The world is a tough place. Often, it seems random. Cruel. Unsatisfying.
That’s why since time immemorial, people have been searching for answers. And providing them. In the words of Cicero, philosophy has often been life’s guide.
“O philosophy, life’s guide! O searcher-out of virtue and expeller of vices! What could we and every age of men have been without you?” — Cicero
In Lucian’s tale, the sale of Pythagoras and by extension Pythagoreanism, was followed up by Diogenes and Cynicism, Aristippus and Cyrenaic hedonism, as well as Chrysippus and Stoicism, or even Aristotle himself. All these, and more are still available on today’s wisdom market.
So which guide will you choose? Stoicism? Buddhism? Existentialism? Or will you go back and do a leap of faith? Or maybe, you will just pick and choose from whatever you think is best?
Are you someone who values discipline? Then Stoicism could be for you. Would you rather focus on avoiding pain? Then Epicureanism could work. Are you baffled by the absurdities of life? Existentialism could be what you are looking for.
All these paths are valid. They will lead you to a better place. With caveats though. Don’t be too rigid in your application. Keep an open mind. And try and try again.
You don’t have to decide now. It’s OK to keep on searching. And at different points of your life, you might need different answers. So it’s OK to switch as well.
Remember, the journey is what counts.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.