“To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” – Henri Frederic Amiel, 19th century Swiss philosopher.
The Forum in the fourth quarter 2019 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine is titled Finding Wisdom, and consists of four essays – a total of only 18 pages of reading. In the introduction, we learn this project arose in response to letters requesting more practical philosophy. The authors are two men and two women professors of philosophy who were asked to take up a single philosopher or school.
Massimo Pigliucci’s piece, Wisdom: What Is It? examines the Stoic tradition. Following Socrates’ thought that wisdom equates to virtue as it is the only intrinsic good that cannot be used to do evil, Seneca offers the corollary: “Virtue is nothing else but right reason.” Such reason can be defined as “fitting expertise” in the “art of living.” Pigliucci suggests three tools for mastery of this art: (1) reading biographies of persons to emulate (e.g. Cato), (2) review of theoretical treatises (such as Seneca’s On Anger), and (3) study of practical books (e.g. Epictetus’ Enchiridion). From these we learn the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom which allow us to center our lives with a moral compass to achieve arête, the best way of living.
Catherine Wilson follows with Epicurean Wisdom wherein subjective pleasure and the avoidance of psychological and physical pain and deprivation are seen as the highest human goods when paired with the avoidance of selfishness and harm to others. This doctrine historically urges one to avoid unnecessary political and social involvement preferably by living in a communal setting with like-minded individuals. Wilson sees this as a problem for modernity as most of us do not wish to withdraw from society; instead she extrapolates the following lessons for contemporary living: (1) oppose oligarchy legislatively, (2) seek not eternal youth and longevity nor fear death and inevitable deterioration, rather prepare for them, (3) support justice defined as the prevention of harm, and (4) deploy utilitarian governance as the societal expression of Epicureanism.
(continued next post)