Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinusby John M. Cooper
This is a major reinterpretation of ancient philosophy that recovers the long Greek and Roman tradition of philosophy as a complete way of life--and not simply an intellectual discipline. Distinguished philosopher John Cooper traces how, for many ancient thinkers, philosophy was not just to be studied or even used to solve particular practical problems. Rather,
This is a major reinterpretation of ancient philosophy that recovers the long Greek and Roman tradition of philosophy as a complete way of life--and not simply an intellectual discipline. Distinguished philosopher John Cooper traces how, for many ancient thinkers, philosophy was not just to be studied or even used to solve particular practical problems. Rather, philosophy--not just ethics but even logic and physical theory--was literally to be lived. Yet there was great disagreement about how to live philosophically: philosophy was not one but many, mutually opposed, ways of life. Examining this tradition from its establishment by Socrates in the fifth century BCE through Plotinus in the third century CE and the eclipse of pagan philosophy by Christianity, Pursuits of Wisdom examines six central philosophies of living--Socratic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, Skeptic, and the Platonist life of late antiquity.
The book describes the shared assumptions that allowed these thinkers to conceive of their philosophies as ways of life, as well as the distinctive ideas that led them to widely different conclusions about the best human life. Clearing up many common misperceptions and simplifications, Cooper explains in detail the Socratic devotion to philosophical discussion about human nature, human life, and human good; the Aristotelian focus on the true place of humans within the total system of the natural world; the Stoic commitment to dutifully accepting Zeus's plans; the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure through tranquil activities that exercise perception, thought, and feeling; the Skeptical eschewal of all critical reasoning in forming their beliefs; and, finally, the late Platonist emphasis on spiritual concerns and the eternal realm of Being.
Pursuits of Wisdom is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding what the great philosophers of antiquity thought was the true purpose of philosophy--and of life.
"[E]legant. . . . Mr. Cooper's book proves to be an antidote to the rosy nostalgia that poisons stories about what philosophy was and what it has become. . . . Unlike in the natural sciences, the central questions in philosophy are pretty much the same as they ever were: What should I believe in? How should I live? Mr. Cooper's book lucidly presents six appealing answers to those questions."Brendan Boyle, Wall Street Journal
"In this insightful and well-written survey, Cooper presents the ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tradition as one that is unified around philosophy as a way of life. . . . Cooper offers an excellent survey that deserves a wide readership."Choice
"Cooper's book is comprehensive, accessible, and well-written, and his claim that we could follow the ancients in allowing philosophy to steer our lives in order to understand what they were up to makes his book a provocative and worthwhile read."Angela Schwenkler, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly
"Cooper's attempt to write a book for a wide readership is successful. Readers interested in the subject of ancient philosophy as a way of life will find the book provocative, and those who seek a sophisticated introduction to ancient moral theory will learn a great deal from it."Christopher Edelman, Journal of the History of Philosophy
"Pursuits of Wisdom is aimed at a 'wide readership' rather than at 'co-specialists'. Doubtless it deserves a wide readership, and as I am writing here as a 'co-specialist' I would say that it deserves reading by us too. Of course we might miss comments about the scholarly literature, but readers should be assured that Cooper is highly reliable. . . . What does 'living a philosophical life' involve? This book is a good place to go for several competing answers."Antony Preus, Polis
"Pursuits of Wisdom is an original, clearly written, and brilliantly argued reinterpretation of six ways of life offered by ancient Greek philosophers: Socrates/Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and the Platonism of Plotinus. Cooper writes vividly, with an unfaltering clarity of purpose, and he manages to balance accessibility and rigor. The book is the culmination of years of rigorous study in ancient philosophy and an invitation for a wide audience to engage seriously with these ancient ways of life. I think this invitation is worth accepting."Antonis Coumoundouros, Philosophy in Review
"Pursuits of Wisdom is a well-written, thoroughly argued book. It undoubtedly makes an important contribution to contemporary understandings of ancient philosophy. It might even contribute to broadening the audience of those who see the relevance and seriousness of philosophy for their lives."Ben Mulvey, Metapsychology Online Reviews
"[T]he book as a whole offers a comprehensive overview of ancient ethics that is sensitive to historical context and that tries to comprehend ancient philosophy on its own terms. Many readers will learn a lot from it."John Sellars, Mind
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Pursuits of Wisdom
Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus
By John M. Cooper
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
On Philosophy as a Way of Life
1.1. Philosophy Ancient, Modern, and Contemporary
Philosophy is a subject of study. In this, it is just like physics, mathematics, French language and literature, anthropology, economics, and all the other established specialties in contemporary higher education. Undergraduate institutions everywhere have departments of philosophy offering degrees in the subject. These departments are staffed with lecturers and professors with advanced degrees certifying their preparation as teachers and as professional philosophers — as people who pursue research in the field and write articles and books of philosophy and on philosophy, just as physics lecturers do physics and write on physics, or anthropologists do and write on anthropology. In fact, this book is just such a book of philosophy, written by a professional philosopher and teacher of philosophy.
But, even as a subject of study, philosophy is different from all these others. One indication of this is the fact — often a cause of frustration, even irritation, in professional philosophers when confronted by it — that in the popular imagination, and even among many beginning students, a philosopher is often conceived simply as someone who has a wide and deep experience of human life and insight into its problems. On this view, a philosopher is supposed to be a wise person, full of good advice on what to value in life most and what is worth valuing less, on how to deal with adversity and how to develop and sustain a balanced and harmonious, properly human, outlook on life, one's own and others'. So professional philosophers are often vaguely thought of — until closer acquaintance dissipates this idea — as especially wise people, with deep knowledge of human life and its problems. Moreover, the connection of philosophy to wisdom about human life is also reflected in the prevalence nowadays of the idea of a "philosophy of life," and in the attribution of a "philosophy" to pretty much anyone who seems to have some consistent set of ideas about what to value and strive for in life, and can at least claim they are guiding their own choices and courses of action with them. But people speak of their own "philosophy of life" with no thought of professional philosophy, or of philosophy as a subject of study, as any sort of source or foundation for it. On the contrary, a "philosophy of life" is felt to be such a personal thing that its status as a philosophy might seem degraded if it were subject to validation by — let alone if it resulted from — rigorous study within an intellectual discipline having its own principles and its standards of evidence and argument. Your personal commitment and your resulting strength in leading your life are proof enough, or so people seem to feel.
Even so, there are ties linking these popular ideas about philosophy to the subject of study that is pursued and taught in philosophy departments by professional philosophers. Indeed, I believe that these ideas reflect something deeply ingrained in philosophy from early on in its origins (for us in the European intellectual tradition) in ancient Greece, even if this may not be prominent in contemporary philosophy today. In antiquity, beginning with Socrates, as I will argue in this book, philosophy was widely pursued as not just the best guide to life but as both the intellectual basis and the motivating force for the best human life: in the motto of the U.S. undergraduate honor society Phi Beta Kappa (even if [Phi] BK never understood it in quite the ways the ancient philosophers did), for these philosophers, philosophy is itself the best steersman or pilot of a life ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Over most of the one thousand years of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome, philosophy was assiduously studied in every generation by many ancient philosophers and their students as the best way to become good people and to live good human lives. That history has left its mark in these popular ideas.
Indeed, one aspect of ancient philosophy as a way of life has survived intact in philosophy nowadays: the prominence among philosophy's varied subfields of ethics or moral philosophy. When Socrates introduced this ancient ambition for philosophy, he notoriously did so by shifting his focus away from the study of the world of nature in general to specifically that of human nature and human life. He established ethics or moral philosophy as one part of the subject (for him, in fact, his sole interest). As it has been practiced since the Renaissance — and things were not so very different for philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome — philosophy is traditionally conceived as composed of three branches, namely, metaphysical philosophy, natural philosophy, and moral philosophy. It is true that these traditional terms, especially "natural philosophy," are somewhat out of fashion nowadays. Philosophers today speak of philosophy of science instead. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear a different threesome mentioned, namely, metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Other established specialties not easily brought under any of these principal headings are recognized, too (logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of art, and so on). In ancient philosophy, from the time of the Stoics and Epicureans, the standard threesome, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] prevailed — that is, dialectic (which included logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology), philosophy of nature ("physics"), and ethics. What stands out in all these divisions of the subject — the ancient, as well as the traditional modern and the contemporary ones — is the enduring presence of ethics, or moral philosophy as it is also called, as one of the three principal components of philosophy.
In the ancient scheme "ethics" or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] meant the philosophical study of human moral character, good and bad, and of the determinative function in structuring a person's life that their character was assumed to have — character being their particular, psychologically fixed and effective, outlook on human life, and on the differing weight and worth in a life of the enormously varied sorts of valuable things that the natural and the human worlds make available to us. In fact, the alternative term "moral philosophy" itself has its origin in Cicero's decision (in the first century BCE) to render the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] with his own coinage, moralis, meaning in Latin essentially the same thing: the philosophical study of moral character. Contemporary moral philosophy or ethics is different, as a result of the long development of human cultures since antiquity, and correspondingly of changed bases for philosophical reflections upon our human circumstances, and as a result of changed conceptions internal to philosophy itself as to what philosophy can, and cannot, reasonably hope to accomplish. The ancient philosophers all agreed in assuming, as I have implied, the centrality of moral character (good or bad) to the conduct of individual human lives; ancient literature (history, drama, poetry) and many cultural practices, both in Greece and later in Rome, supported them in this. People of outstandingly good character were held up as models, both in literature and in life, or, more commonly, those of bad or flawed character were the focus of fascinated attention, in both daily life and high-cultural contexts.
Among the other changes that modernity has wrought in our ways of thinking, the focus in moral philosophy or ethics has shifted — away from good and bad character and toward morally right and wrong action. Current ethical theories do indeed include something called "virtue ethics," indebted to the ancient writings in the central role assigned within it to moral character. But more prominent, indeed dominant, in the field are other familiar theories, in particular those of two types. First, there is utilitarianism, or in general what are called consequentialist theories of ethics, in which moral requirements are related to and justified in terms of their supposedly good consequences for self and others. Second, we find theories indebted to Kant's ideas about a supposed "categorical" imperative as establishing the priority of "moral reasons" (ones deriving from other people's needs and interests, together with one's own, and others', human powers and status as rational agents) over concerns (otherwise legitimate, of course) for one's own pleasure or material advantage, or simply over one's particular desires — likes and dislikes — or special relationships one may stand in of love or family, and the like.
Again, some theories give special prominence to individuals' "intuitions" about what is the right thing to do in given specific sets of circumstances, or more generally in recurrent ones. And, indeed, some current work by psychologists on the psychological basis of human morality, and its grounding in evolution, starts from the assumption that morality is nothing but a specific, widely shared, set of such intuitions about right and wrong. And some philosophers, too, in what they call experimental philosophy do surveys of ordinary people to see how they report their intuitions about various "scenarios," drawing conclusions from the often surprising results about the contents and structural features of the "ordinary morality" of perceived right and wrong actions. And there are many other types of theory too: "divine command" theories, and one based on so-called natural law, for example. One striking common point, though, for all these theories is their principal focus on the question of right versus wrong action (not, as for the ancients, good versus bad character). Contemporary theories concern, and offer different proposals about, which actions in given circumstances are right, and which wrong, and what the ultimate basis is for deciding that question. In general, then, one can say that contemporary ethical theory (i.e., what is called "normative" ethics) concerns centrally and primarily right versus wrong actions, and how to explain and, perhaps, justify assigning this or that action to one or the other of those classifications. Ancient moral philosophy, by contrast, as I have said, starts from and focuses on goodness and badness of character: rightness and wrongness of action comes into ancient ethical theories, to the extent it does at all, as the expression, respectively, of good and bad character.
Nonetheless, as noted above, despite these differences between modern and ancient philosophy, and leaving aside the vast array of differing approaches to ethical questions in contemporary moral theory, as just summarized, ethics is and has always been one principal component of philosophy. That fact establishes the difference that I claimed above between philosophy as a subject of study and any of the other specializations offered in universities as undergraduate majors and for graduate training. Whether one is trying to arrive at a satisfactory result concerning the bases for deciding right and wrong, or thinking and learning about good human character, as grounded in judgments concerning what is valuable in life, moral philosophy deals with questions about how one (how anyone) ought to live. Since everyone has a life to live, this subject professes to concern everyone, and not in some incidental way, or in some way that can be left to others (to experts) to see to. Other subjects may and indeed do have much to teach that can have practical value, beyond whatever may be intrinsically interesting about the questions they take up and the ways in which they pursue them. But moral theory takes as its subject something that concerns everyone directly. (At least, it does so if it can return the investment of time and energy required.) Moral philosophy, and so philosophy taken altogether, does propose itself as having a different intellectual standing, in this respect, from other subjects of study. It is inherently a practical subject, at least in part, one that engages directly with universally applicable questions of how to live and what to do — whereas, it seems, none of the others has such a status of mandatory universal personal concern.
Only in antiquity, however, did philosophy realize to the fullest extent all that moral philosophy's combination of theory and practice might involve. Nowadays, normative ethical theories, or normative political theories, attempt to tell us what we should do or not do, personally or politically, where questions of what we owe to one another simply by living in the world together arise (i.e., questions of moral right and wrong) — but only there. So contemporary philosophical argument, analysis, and theory, of a highly intellectual and to some extent abstract kind, offers itself as guiding us to correct practical decisions and actions, telling us about certain actions or policies as right or wrong, and on that basis as to be done or enacted, or not.
But beginning with Socrates, as I mentioned above, ancient philosophers made philosophy the, and the only authoritative, foundation and guide for the whole of human life, not just as to questions of right and wrong action — a limited part of anyone's life. For these thinkers, only reason, and what reason could discover and establish as the truth, could be an ultimately acceptable basis on which to live a life — and for them philosophy is nothing more, but also nothing less, than the art or discipline that develops and perfects the human capacity of reason. No one can lead their life in a finally satisfactory way without philosophy and the understanding that ideally, anyhow — when finally successful and "complete" — only philosophy can provide. And, to speak positively, when one does possess a completely grounded philosophical understanding of the full truth about how to live, by living one's life through that understanding one achieves the finally and fully satisfactory life for a human being. In this way, for these ancient Greek philosophers, philosophy itself became a way of life. Socrates himself, in setting the pattern for all later thinkers in this tradition, made the activities of philosophizing (philosophical discussion and argument) central ones of that best life: so in this tradition philosophy was indeed a subject of study, with basic principles, and theories and arguments and analyses, and refutations of tempting but erroneous views, and so on. But the whole body of knowledge that, when finally worked out fully, would constitute the finished result of such philosophical study, was also not only the best guide to living (by telling you how to live, and what to do or not do, in all aspects of life), but one's full grasp of that knowledge was to be the very basis on which the best life would then be led. Philosophy was not merely to guide one's life. One was to become a good person and live a good human life not as a mere result of philosophical study and by following its precepts; rather, precisely in and through one's philosophical reasoning and understanding of the world, of what is valuable in life, and of what is not so valuable, one was supposed to structure one's life continuously, as one led it, and to keep oneself motivated to live it. One was to live one's life from, not just, as one could put it, in accordance with, one's philosophy. Your philosophy did not just guide your life, it steered your life directly, from its implanted position in your mind and character. Philosophy would be the steersman of one's whole life. My aim in this book is to explain and explore this ancient tradition of philosophy as a way of life, as it was founded by Socrates and as later thinkers, adopting Socrates's ambitions for philosophy, successively applied and elaborated his conception in their own individual ways. This tradition lasted unbroken from Plato through to the eclipse of ancient pagan philosophizing and its ultimate replacement as a way of life in the Greek and Roman world by the Christian religion.
Philosophy conceived as a way of life encompassed, if not for Socrates (for reasons special to him that I will explain in the next chapter), then for his successors, the whole subject, not only philosophy's moral part. All the major thinkers in this tradition regarded the subject of philosophy in all its parts, and gave good reasons for so doing, as a completely integrated, mutually connected and supporting, single body of knowledge. The "moral" part was not something separable and could not be fully comprehended except along with the philosophy of nature (including the theory of the divine), logic, the theory of knowledge, philosophy of language, and, above all, metaphysics. So in our exploration in this book of the ancient Greek tradition of philosophy as a way of life, we will be occupied not only with ethical theories of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, the ancient Pyrrhonian skeptics, and the Platonists of the imperial period, but also with their metaphysical theories and philosophy of nature, and, though less centrally so, with their logic, epistemology, and philosophy of language, as well. We will need to grasp in each case the whole worldview proposed by each of these philosophies, as the context necessary to understand and fully ground what they propose about the best way of leading a human life. Each of the ancient ethical theories simply expresses a particular moral outlook, on the basis of an all-encompassing, particular philosophical worldview — different for each of them, in important regards. Each ethical theory presents a certain conception of the place and role in human life of the whole vast array of different sorts of goods and bads, or more generally of things of positive and negative value, that our nature as human beings makes available to us. Despite various points in common, the Platonist worldview differs from the Aristotelian, and both differ from the Stoic, from the Epicurean, and from the Skeptic. And in each case the moral outlook expressed in the respective ethical theories derives in crucial ways from that worldview — and so, those differ correspondingly, too. For that reason, it is entirely appropriate to speak, as Socrates and others in this tradition did, of philosophy, as they conceive of it, and not instead only moral philosophy or ethics, as proposing and constituting a way of life.
Excerpted from Pursuits of Wisdom by John M. Cooper. Copyright © 2012 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
John M. Cooper is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. He is the general editor of the authoritative English-language edition of Plato’s complete writings, and the author of Reason and Emotion and Knowledge, Nature, and the Good (both Princeton), among other books.
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