A life less ordinary: how to live a full life

How can we use ancient philosophy to change our modern lives for the better? Vision explores the ideas of the ancient philosophers and whether there is benefit in adopting their methods today

For many, philosophy is seen as an erudite, rather abstract occupation, which has little relevance for people trying to live meaningful lives. It was not always so. Ancient philosophy was all about reflecting on human existence and beliefs in search of the way to live a better life.

Philosophers in the West, such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus, and Muslim philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Ibn Tufail and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) – all examined the nature of being in the world and came to different conclusions about how to tackle the daily problems of existence. Their ideas are just as relevant for dealing with the problems of the modern world and its information overload as they were for the ancients.

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Aristotle, known to medieval Muslim intellectuals as ‘the first teacher'

Many of the ancient philosophers  are accessible: they are not hard to read and are full of wisdom, as Professor AC Grayling, a philosopher and the Master of the New College of the Humanities in London, explains:

“Aristotle [384-322 BCE] taught that as reason is the most distinctive mark of human beings, the best kind of life is the reasoned life: think for oneself, take responsibility for one’s choices and actions. The Stoic philosophers taught that we must have courage in regard to things we cannot control – ageing, tsunamis, death – and self-mastery over things we can control, like our fears and appetites.”

He points out that while some modern philosophical movements have become highly specialised and academic, there is an area of applied philosophy where the ideas and debates are helpful in navigating life’s challenges. “It is the ancient philosophers who still speak most  progress and spiritual resilience, the embrace of change and innovation, combined with a commitment to timeless principles,” he says.

Professor Emmy van Deurzen, a philosopher, existential therapist and the principal of the Existential Academy in London, explains that philosophy has a vital role to play in helping people tackle such challenges: 

“Hellenistic philosophy several millennia ago set out as a disciplined search for the well-lived human life… Philosophy then proposed a form of dialectical debate where individuals were encouraged to seek to clarify their beliefs about the world in order to come to a better understanding of their conflicts and the objectives of everyday life.”

The Middle Eastern perspective is described by Dr Abdul Mouti Souwed, a philosopher and lecturer at Emirates College for Management and Information Technology in Dubai: “Without learning critical thinking skills, such as problem-solving, decision-making and creative thinking, we cannot have a good life.”

He goes on to cite three ways in which ancient Middle Eastern philosophers can help us live effectively today. Firstly, through the pursuit of happiness as laid out by the Persian philosopher Al-Farabi (872-950 CE), who thought happiness could be achieved by the creation of a well-organised “virtuous” society defined by clear rules.

Secondly, through the development of human reason – the core theme of the 12th-century novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan, subtitled “The Self-Taught Philosopher”, by the philosopher and physician Ibn Tufail (1105-1185 CE). It is a story about a feral child who learns about the world through scientific inquiry. It had a significant influence on Islamic and Western philosophy and Arabic and European literature, influencing, for example, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Thirdly, through a balance between a society’s faith and reason as reflected in the work of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE), also known in the West as Averroes. Ibn Rushd is best known for his commentaries and translations of Aristotle and for reconciling Greek philosophy with Islam.

One of the starkest challenges today seems to be how to deal with information overload. Modern man is exposed to a staggering amount of data: 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, 500 million tweets are sent through Twitter every day, Facebook has 1.09 billion daily active users and Google responds to more than 3.5 billion searches every day. Content is delivered unchecked, unorganised and unfiltered, leaving people at best confused and at worst unable to know what to think.

How could ancient philosophers help with such a modern problem? Dr Herman points out that the Greeks knew that sense of confusion and bewilderment well: “Heraclitus defined it perfectly when he said ‘we cannot enter the same river twice’. And the Greeks recognised the path forward. Both Plato and Aristotle did and passed the secret on to their inheritors. The answer is reason – the rational nature that unites all mankind, when our feelings and emotional responses divide us.”

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Without learning critical thinking skills we cannot have a good life

It seems philosophy can provide a framework through which modern man can navigate through confusion to the truth and a sense of personal accountability, as AC Grayling argues: “Philosophy both ancient and modern can help by encouraging clear thinking, listening to alternative views, getting the facts, being open-minded, and ultimately (as above) taking responsibility oneself for what one decides to think and do.”

Dr Souwed takes up the theme: “In this digital, networked society, we need more than ever to have mechanisms or rational skills that allow us to face our chaotic world. We face such a flood of information that critical thinking skills are more important than ever.”

Philosophers cannot tell us exactly how to live our lives, but their thinking techniques and application of reason can provide guidance towards living a meaningful life, and achieving personal happiness. Whatever the culture or the time in history, not thinking is not an option.