Applying Wisdom Through the Ages to Everyday Life

Robert Woods, Former Fellow

What is the good life? How should we live? What does it mean to be human? What is happiness? When is work good? Why am I here?

I was simply wrong and I had to finally admit it. I was under the false impression for years that philosophers were old men who sat around in draped sheets talking about issues that had nothing to do with everyday life. Even though I had read many books on philosophy and had taught philosophy for years on the college level, I still had a false notion about being a philosopher and doing philosophy.

It wasn't until I read a story about Socrates several years ago that my attitude changed. It seems that Socrates was constantly in the market place and other areas where crowds were gathered. In his pursuit of wisdom, he didn't surround himself with just a few students and charge tuition, he went into the common areas and spoke to average people who were interested in wisdom like he was.

That revealed another misunderstanding I had to correct. I came to realize I had believed that wisdom was only for a select few who would painfully endure many mind numbing hours of philosophy lectures. Wisdom has historically been understood as applied practical knowledge. At different times wisdom was synonymous with good judgment and common sense.

Aristotle believed that real wisdom had to do with the proper ordering of all the parts of who you are, with all the activities of the day.

Plato, another one of the great philosophers of all times, said that real wisdom had 4 elements:

1. Discretion (prudence) - the habit of doing the right things.
2. Evenhandedness (justice) - the tendency to do good things everywhere.
3. Firmness (fortitude) - the will to always do the right things.
4. Moderation (temperance) - the resolution to live a balanced life.

Good philosophy is wisdom applied to everyday life. Take for example one of the many wise remarks from Epictetus who once said, simply:

Some things are within our control and some things are not within our control.

Reflect for a moment on how much better your life would be if you really lived this simple, common sense bit of wisdom. What if you let it really govern your emotions? How much frustration at home and work could be relieved if you took those things in your life that are beyond your control and determined that you would no longer worry about them? And how much more unnecessary frustration would be relieved if you took action on all those things you can control but have allowed to remain in an unsatisfactory state? Why don't you make a list of those things in your life that are troubling you now and yet may actually be within your control and write out a wise plan on how to handle them?

Let's take another bit of philosophy and see how practical and helpful it is to your daily life. Seneca once said,

Every evening we should look back at the day and think about it. What problems did I solve? What harmful habits did I change? What wrongdoing did I avoid? What good habits did I practice?

Or in a similar vein, look at the words of Pythagoras,

Do not go to bed until you have gone over the day three times in your mind. What wrong did I do? What good did I accomplish? What did I forget to do? Begin with the early morning and continue through bedtime; and finally be happy, with the good you accomplished and troubled by the wrong you did.

Most of us have day planners and may begin the day by looking ahead at upcoming activities. Why not have a period of time at the end of every day when you reflect back on the various activities that have taken place? Don't just look at goals accomplished and objectives completed. Think about all the experiences of the past nine to fifteen hours and look at the quality of the day you just lived.

If you have more than fifteen hours of activities to look at, you should have already been doing this exercise, with an eye especially on Plato's "moderation".


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