Thursday, May 17, 2012

Choosing a Philosophy of Life

Adrift at sea but on solid rock
How should one go about choosing a philosophy of life?  What are the criteria and how can we measure the different approaches to living the best life possible?  The first step is deciding between virtue and pleasure.  Here I find an interesting paradox, in seeking pleasure one would typically be virtuous (it feels good to do good) and in seeking virtue one would generally find the highest form of pleasure.  Where should we place our emphasis?
Such a small matter of pursuing pleasure through virtue or virtue leading to pleasure can have major ramifications.  Take a look at it from a different angle, which group do you admire most, Gandi, MLK Jr., Mother Teresa or Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs?  Careful, I did not ask who you envy.  Holding pleasure as a goal can be a dangerous thing, because as humans we tend to rationalize our actions and we often talk ourselves out of being virtuous in pursuit of pleasure.  It doesn't help that our culture already holds pleasure and power to be the most important things in life.  But the cheap pleasure that attends wealth and status is quickly revealed to be empty - just ask the multitude of rich and famous people who, when confronted with that emptiness, turned to substance abuse and depression.  Unbridled hedonism has little to commend it in the final analysis.

Virtue, then, is the better mark for our aim.  If we seek the highest pleasure of living well we must hold virtue to be the means as well as the ultimate goal.  This is similar to the advice, if you seek to be loved, you must love; to have a friend you must be a friend.  What place do other things like wealth, family, and possessions play in our lives?  Are they good things in themselves?  Look at it this way, can wealth be used for evil as well as good?  Can family members be toxic as well as loving?  Then these things are not good in themselves, but only when handled with virtue.

And here we have arrived at a very preliminary understanding of Stoicism.  Virtue is the only good; while other things like wealth and possessions might be preferred, compared to virtue they are indifferent.  In every situation we have the ability to practice the appropriate virtue of wisdom, courage, justice, simplicity, and so on.  With the correct understanding, our actions are not forced or in spite of our desires, but ingrained and performed joyfully.  This, as I understand it, is the best life possible.


  1. Great stuff! Keep writing, looking forward to personal finance content

    1. Thanks, Dennis, I have my first money post in mind and hope to post it soon!


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