Not just living, but living well, is a question worth exploring with the help of philosophy. From its history, we can gather thoughts about living well that invite rational scrutiny. Philosophers give reasons for their views, and do not rely, for the most part, on authority or revelation to carry the day. We may not agree with them, but from ancient times to the present, philosophers have explored many ideas about living well, the nature of a good life for human beings, the art of living, and the best routes to happiness.
The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in life. Doing well means acting morally and justly. Faring well has to do with prosperity, good health and general flourishing. The art of living is to become skilled in this. It is learning to do well oneself and create the best chances of faring well in life. Doing well and faring well differ, to my mind, in that the latter requires a bit of luck and the cooperation of a wider world. Doing well (acting justly in the world) is within one’s own power and requires no external conditions to make it possible. Ancient philosophy, in particular, has much to tell us about these topics. Consider the Stoics and Epicureans.
The Stoics hammered home the point that no one can force us to do evil and that there are worse things than death. What happens to us cannot determine how we think and feel. Our responses to what happens to us can come under our own control. In addition, they advocated detachment and a lessening of desires as a way to combat the sufferings of life. For the early Stoics, the art of living meant cultivating ‘Ataraxia’ or ‘Painlessness’, and this meant becoming indifferent to the things most people crave the most. According to Zeno, the first Stoic, we are to become indifferent to pleasure and pain, wealth and poverty, health and illness, indeed, life and death themselves. Each of these goods and evils are of no value in themselves, and are never to be preferred or avoided at the expense of reason and virtue. The art of living, for the Stoics, means following the universal laws of nature and facing whatever comes your way with equanimity, neither exulting in victory nor despairing in defeat. Stoic wisdom is all about doing your duty as reason and nature direct your reflective actions. Wisdom is the goal, not pleasure. At best, pleasure is a distraction from duty. At worst, it is destructive of the lives and fortunes of persons. Wisdom and right action are the goals of life.
The Epicureans also claim to follow reason and nature, but here pleasure in one form or another recommends itself as the good we all seek for ourselves. Its founder, Epicurus, tells us that life is simple, the good is easily within our grasp, and happiness is living in harmony with your friends. Nothing more is needed. In fact, having more than one needs to satisfy legitimate animal desires leads to an uneasy mind filled with imaginary fears of losing what you do not need in the first place. The art of living, here, is to develop the skill to avoid the idols and temptations of the world, and simply to cultivate your garden in harmony with yourself and nature.
For Epicurus, the art of living gives us the ability to maintain peace of mind. Part of this freedom comes in releasing an excessive fear of death. Such a fear, more than any other, hinders us in living. Death is nothing, and so nothing to fear. “Where I am, death is not. Where death is, I am not.” And if you say that it is precisely this ‘nothing’ that you fear, the reply is that it can only be something to fear while you are alive, so why waste the time. Again, we can lessen our fears by negotiating life in such a way as to avoid the shoals of superstition and the stares of vengeful gods. If gods exist, and are happy, then they will not associate themselves with unhappy humans. If the gods do not exist, it is the same. Stick to natural desires, which are easy to satisfy. Avoid vain desires that are expensive to satisfy and cause mental disturbances.
Both the Stoics and Epicureans have worked out ways of living that recognize the pains and sufferings of human existence while negotiating a way through them. It is true that Stoics tend to keep the idea of God to give the universe a providential frame, but they revere the God of reason and the laws of nature. The stoic follows nature and tries to see everything that happens as only a tiny part of a greater universe. The Epicureans do without supernatural consolation, but since no one will ever taste death (only dying), we do not have to worry about it. Where the philosophy of Epicurus sits uneasily is in philosophies or religions that denigrate the body and, especially, the pleasures of the body. However, when we read what Epicurus said, it turns out that the life he recommends is miles away from the common idea of hedonists as irrational pleasure seekers and addicts. Plain living and high thinking are his prescriptions for the good life. Though the stoics and Epicureans disagree, there is nothing to stop us learning from their insights about how to do well and fare well in this (human) life.