Bringing philosophy back to the people: Why academic philosophy won’t lead to a good life and Pyrrho will help you fall into the ditch

in philosophy •  4 months ago


Philosophy was initially a way of life. It “demanded a radical conversion and transformation of [one’s] way of being” (Hadot 1999: 265). Philosophía (φιλοσοφία) is the love of wisdom. The love of wisdom as a way of life was intended to “bring peace of mind (ataraxia)” and to be “therapeutic, [intending] to cure mankind’s anguish” (Hadot 1999: 265-266). This rings true especially for the Hellenic philosophers, whose main claim was to seek the best way to live a good life. Philosophy today is rather “a discourse developed in the classroom, and then consigned to books, [and texts] which requires exegesis [or critical interpretation]” (Hadot 1999: 271). Philosophía went from an “art of living” to philosophy, the “construction of … technical jargon reserved for specialists” (Hadot 1999: 272). Marinoff (2002: 23) states this elegantly:

“Published philosophical papers often take the form "A rebuttal of Smith's attack on Jones's defense of Brown's interpretation of Parker's repudiation of White's thesis on Jackson's philosophy of X" (where X is some celebrated dead philosopher, usually Wittgenstein).”

One only needs to look at recent published works in textbooks and journals to see this. The dream of a young philosopher today is broken in the first couple of months of postgrad. Philosopher professors only know this too well: feed the young minds with all the philosophical history and juicy content only to bore you to death when they have sucked you into their nest. Philosophical seminars that go on for seemingly hours, debates around nonsensical topics, etc. etc. etc. (This may seem as something negative, especially in this light, but please read on to hear my claim. This is after all only one opinion, yours may differ, your philosophy department may also differ.)

My Claim

Philosophy as the love of wisdom, the search for a good life, the subject of questioning is not what you will get from studying philosophy. My claim is thus that the philosophy of old, philosophía (φιλοσοφία), is nowhere to be found in the departments of philosophy. Quote Robert Pirsig (in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance):

“Aristotelian ethics, Aristotelian definitions, Aristotelian logic, Aristotelian forms, Aristotelian substances, Aristotelian rhetoric, Aristotelian laughter—ha-ha, ha-ha. And the bones of the Sophists long ago turned to dust and what they said turned to dust with them and the dust was buried under the rubble of declining Athens through its fall and Macedonia through its decline and fall. Through the decline and death of ancient Rome and Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire and the modern states...buried so deep and with such ceremoniousness and such unction and such evil that only a madman centuries later could discover the clues needed to uncover them, and see with horror what had been done.” (p.381)

Under layers of dust, under layers of dead words, under layers of nothing but rubble, the work of countless philosophers lay forgotten. Wisdom of old, replaced by absurdities of new. One only needs to read some of the post-modern work to understand. (This is once again not something negative.) It seems hard to compare some Stoic work (like Seneca or Marcus Aurelius) with relatively contemporary work (like Jacques Derrida or Hillary Putnam or Richard Rorty). All the named are classified as “philosophy”, but the central questions that bothered each are as different as apples and pears and oranges. The claim once again is purely that contemporary work of philosophy seems not to bother with the question of how to lead a good and well lived life. If water is a rigid designator, if we cannot undermine the hierarchies or if we still bother with Descartes distinction between mind and body, it does not follow how the resolution of these questions will lead to a better life.

Isn’t philosophy supposed to be an all-inclusive subject fuelled by rigorous inquiry in search of some unattainable truth? How did it end up in this dogmatically driven machine churning out only ideologues who will literally try and kill you if you do not adhere to the status quo? Or maybe this is just what philosophy turned into: some lunatics trying to go back to the utopian past of unattainable quests for a good life. Is there some hope to attain from figures who have long died with their ideas? Can the scepticism of Socrates be regained? Can we remember the rigorous inquiry of the Pyrrhonists? Groarke (1990: 3) paints a dark picture for this venture:

“[P]hilosophers have deprived the word scepticism of its true meaning, making it "a rather empty but highly charged swear word." […] [Sceptics] "have been fallaciously criticized or simply ignored," more than any significant group of thinkers in the history of Western thought,”.

Can we at least hear what the old and dying man has to offer? Is there something of Socrates and Pyrrho that we can salvage for our current divided world? Is there something left to be said by someone who holds onto the dying man’s hand?

Scepticism as a way of life

Socrates “used” the elenchus “method” to somehow get to the truth, but this never worked. The only “truth” that Socrates ever came to be was that he does not know anything. Pyrrho, living roughly 50 years after Socrates, proclaimed that knowing that you know nothing is still too much. Sextus Empiricus, a Pyrrhonian follower, claimed after Pyrrho that we should suspend our judgement about making any claims. The “method” reported by Sextus goes something like this. We are on an inquiry towards the truth. On this “journey” (inquiry) we stumble upon anomalies (aporia). These anomalies are conflicting arguments for and against the truth we are inquiring into. With further inquiry we find that these arguments for and against are of equal weight (equipollence). The one argument is not better or worse than the other, they are all of equal weight, and this leaves us without an option. This leads towards epoché or suspension of judgement. After epoché ataraxia (freedom from anxiety) follows. But how is this possible? The simple answer is that holding beliefs (i.e. deeming one argument to be better than another) forces you in a way to defend that position. By trying to defend it you will constantly worry about losing it, i.e. leading to anxiety, i.e. not achieving the desired ataraxia. (This is but one argument in the Pyrrhonist’s arsenal.)

Socrates argued with his interlocuters to somehow get towards a truth which always seemed just out of reach, the Pyrrhonist (or Pyrrho) claimed that this inquiry only leads to equipollent arguments and that we should suspend judgement, but both Socrates and Pyrrho (and the other Hellenic philosophers) tried to get towards the bolts and nuts of what it is to lead a good life. In other words, the main question was how to lead a good life, what was it to be virtuous, how could one say you were on the road towards wellbeing? There was no war between these philosophers, only different ways of achieving the same outcome: ataraxia. (This is an oversimplification of their projects.) But where does this leave us today? Are philosophers in any sense still on the search for what it is to lead a good life? Have we abandoned this search because we are living “the good life of fast food and instant gratification”? Is this hedonistic ride we want everyone to climb on and to follow “religiously” (without following it religiously (what a nice contradiction)) really the good life?

Why this is a false ideal and will never work: A critique of my own thoughts

This brings us back to our current day philosophy in the ivory tower. Pyrrho is said to have no beliefs, his students needed to keep him from walking off cliffs. Hellenic philosophers needed to embody their philosophies to convince others to join them. Today philosophy professors need to “convince” undergraduates to follow their teachings into dogmatic postgraduation. The good life is buried underneath dogmatic adherence to some vain insults of a philosopher in his/her fifteen minutes of fame. So, trying to follow any philosophy to gain an insight into the good life may be pointless. Is there a good life waiting out there? Is there a truth that we can grasp, without being blinded by some form of dogmatic zealot’s proclamations? We may never know. Walking down a cliff into a ditch, finding the answer to rigid designators or trying to justify some philosophy we “know” does not lead anywhere is all we have.

Countless works have been churned out by our dogmatic machine, try this method, it only has five steps towards happiness, guaranteed. Never mind that method, this new method only has three steps. Don’t mess with methods, try our brand-new pill, guaranteed euphoria. Climb into this machine for 24/7 gratification, some of the possible side effects is not leading a life, but that is all right, because instant gratification! Maybe walking down a cliff doesn’t sound that bad if it brought you some kind of peace of mind.

Further reading/Sources

Groarke, L. 1990. Greek scepticism: Anti-realist trends in ancient thought. London: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Hadot, P. 1999. Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell.

Marinoff, L. 2002. Philosophical practice. New York: Academic Press.

Artworks from (chronologically)

Carl Spitzweg (1808 – 1885)
Second image, cannot find information about (the-philosophers-master-of-the-judgment-of-solomon??)
Jacques-Louis David (1787)
Pyrrho in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy

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Thank you so much! :D

These philosophical themes are very interesting but I usually see them in documentaries on TV. They are so extensive that reading a couple of lines leaves you short .. Very interesting your post. my brother will love your blog, he is passionate about philosophy .. !! A hug @fermentedphil

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Thanks for this! Really did not think this would happen.

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An amazing article, though if you want to lead a good life ancient philosophy is what you need to read. One of them was Plato, I have not read him fully, but I like his quotes very well.


Indeed. That's the best way to lead a life, by reading those ancient philosophers who knew the way. I am in love with Hellenic philosophy, there are some of the best works ever written.


Yeah, the modern philosophy only handles a single aspect, but to be fully aware of the philosophy you have to refer to the ancient ones.


That is the problem yes. Being wise or having wisdom needs you to be well read over a wide spectrum of philosophies and other works.

Good article @fermentedphil. I am sure you have do a lot of research on this. I don't know much about Philosophy.In my studied year, Philosophy was one of the subject and i would tried to skip it because it is boring. If I read your article that time, I definitely will philosophy in another angle and tried to understand it. But not too late. I will start to learn it again on different perspective. Good job!!

The pursuit of happiness through ancient philosophy is really the way to go... In other the answer modern philosophy seeks, we can find in ancient philosophy..

Good read, you took me back to school.

You just took the right words out of my mind about the subject. I'm not a Philosophy student but I do read about the subject as one of my past times. Compared with ideologies of the ancient past and now, I can agree that modern Philosophy somehow diverged from the old tract. I'm hearing new terms and names promoted in the field but a common theme that sticks is that those names and terms don't stick at all.

It's like we live in an age where new things are easily replace just as ideologies. Like trial and error trying to be complicated more than it already is. Philosophy has been an interest of mine but there's no decent person within my social circle to converse about it. It's not what laypersons are into and there is a huge gap in comprehensive when conversing with a Philosophy Grad whenever I share a thought. I don't know, bad experience, feels like as a lay person, I'm not supposed to question the status quo of a field I'm only interested in studying but never took a plunged in.

Great post, I enjoyed it very much.
lol, I think @fermentedphil has done wonderfully divining the truth of philosophy, in that you made your argument and then argued your argument away.... It tis Brilliant!!!
As a matter of curiosity @fermentedphil, were you partially fermented as you wrote this? Sorry, I'm just kidding. I found the work to be rather in depth and intriguing, with a seemingly detached approach to all of the greats that have come before you. I do believe that modern philosophy has strayed from it's original form and purpose. It seems that it has actually taken on the form of seeking knowledge of knowledge's sake. I chose the word knowledge for a reason, I use a possibly skewed definition of knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is just information held, wisdom however, is the application of knowledge in a meaningful and useful way. Knowledge properly applied = wisdom

Are you a philosopher or studying philosophy @fermentedphil?

You have an insightful philosophical explanation!

During my High School days, our Administrator was a Jesuit priest and was also a teacher on other subjects. Sometimes he let us read an article or a story and then he never forget to ask a question:
What is the main idea of the article/story? He was trying to let us summarize what we're reading in just 1 single idea or merely 1 single sentence to some-up all, no matter how long the article/story.

I guess I could also apply that in your article , if you don't mind?
What is the main idea of the article?


Thank you for the comment! Yes I am studying philosophy, for I think 4-5 years now. Still a long way to go to get to the finishing line.

That is a very important skill to have, to read an article or even a whole book, and then to summarize the main idea in one sentence. If more people could do this, because it helps you look past the particulars and focus on the main idea which the author wants to pass over. (I think it would also be beneficial to add this to following articles.)

So here is the single sentence to summarize it all: Contemporary philosophy, in my opinion, differs from ancient philosophy, in that ancient philosophy, to my knowledge, focused more on how to lead/live a good life, where contemporary philosophy struggles with questions and topics which the layperson won't necessarily find helpful/insightful to gain wisdom into wellbeing/leading a good life.


I'm fascinated!
That's a very good answer and I guess an overall summary in just a single sentence.
I hope you succeed in your Philosophy Studies @fermentedphil.
From what school do you study?