How can we live better? It’s a big question for 2010, what with financial belt-tightening and becoming a bit more green. And it’s an opportunity to seize not shirk, a chance to focus on what really counts. It’s an issue the ancient Greek philosophers, those masters of good living, understood well. They lived through a time of uncertainty too and it sparked a lifestyle revolution. We call it philosophy.
So what would they advise us at the start of a new decade? Here’s a few suggestions:
1. Diet, but not to lose weight. For there’s a more interesting and enriching reason for eating less. Epicurus, who was known as a hedonist, wasn’t like today’s hedonists. He didn’t argue that the pursuit of more was the key to happiness. Quite the opposite. He said he was as happy as Zeus when all he had to eat was a glass of water and a barley cake. Enjoying less, not more. Pleasure in small things. That’s the real test for us in a consumer age.
2. Work to live, don’t live to work. Cleanthes, who was a Stoic philosopher and also known as the water-carrier, worked by night so that he could do philosophy by day. He was clear that he would work enough, and only enough, to support his real passion, the thinking and writing. His story is timely, for in a year that will be marked by more job insecurity and credit crises, it will be even easier to work so hard that you miss what you want.
3. Meet a friend face to face, when you might have chatted online. Aristotle is our advisor on this matter. He argued that good friendship – soulmateship – is only possible when friends ‘share salt together’. He meant that they sit down with each other, not just over the occasional meal, but frequently and often. Then, you see each other body and soul. Texting and websites are part of modern friendship, but alone, they are not enough.
4. Start each day by contemplating the worst that can happen. It sounds like a recipe for pessimism. But the odd thing is that it isn’t. In fact, the day will never look better. Zeno, the Stoic, advised this practice. His point was that we spend too much of our time anticipating the worst, when mostly there’s nothing we can do about it. So embrace the worst; it probably won’t happen. And enjoy the day.
5. Take a technology Sabbath. Take a break from the relentless churn of emails, blogs and websites. They flitter in front of your eyes, and it’s too easy to fritter your life away in front of them. So have one day off a week from IT. Read a book, talk to friends, go for a walk instead. Secundus the Silent is our advisor here. He vowed not to speak, realizing that words are typically wasted. And he found it made him wise.
6. Talk to a stranger. There is a source of knowledge and insight all around us, and yet we barely notice it’s there. It’s not Google. It’s the strangers with whom share our world. Socrates realized this, and so started to ask people questions as he walked the streets of Athens – what is friendship, what is happiness, what is love? It was an extraordinary thing to do, and led to nothing less than the invention of philosophy.
7. Go on retreat. To take time out, away from the world, is an old religious practice. The pace of life is slower. It creates time for reflection. It should be easy to do, but actually it’s slightly frightening, for fear of what might emerge. Which is what Onescritus discovered. He went to India, and sat with the sages. He came back a changed man.
8. Write a blog for one week. If there’s one quality that you need not just to live, but to live well, it’s curiosity. With that, you’ll really see the world, and your life, and imagine it in a different light. This is what Sappho could do. Her verse changed the world because she gave women voice. Poetry is hard, so turn your observations into a blog. And see how you see things differently.
9. Do something that will surprise your friends, and you. One day, Diogenes the Cynic observed a mouse running about. He was shocked at how free it was, and how inhibited he was in comparison. Immediately, he took up residence in a barrel. His philosophy was that conventions trap us. So try breaking one or two, he’d say. A real taste of liberty will be yours.
10. Decide what you want at your funeral. We are different from other creatures, perhaps in several ways, but one must be that we often contemplate death. Some philosophers, like Plato, believed that death directly or indirectly shapes our every waking moment, and perhaps those during sleep too. But it can be tamed, by befriending it. To learn how to die, is to learn to live well.
Mark Vernon is a faculty member of The School of Life.