Contented Reader

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

By Jules Evans

New World Library, 2013

In my college humanities courses, I studied a little bit about philosophy.  I learned the names of important philosophers, and to summarize their teachings, and in some cases, I learned how those philosophers influenced the literature and politics of their time, or were influenced by them.  As far as I remember, I didn’t learn that philosophy could be a tool for improving myself and my life in college.  That, I learned on my own.

About five years ago, a post on Boing Boing, of all places, led me on a journey of discovery of ancient Greek philosophy.  Epictetus and Epicurus became my guides to a new way of living and thinking, and I kept their writings on my desk at work for several years, reading and re-reading them, and applying their advice to my life.

From Epictetus, I learned classical stoicism, starting with the utterly simple and utterly transformative idea that in life, there are things that we can control and things that we can’t control, and that the best approach to life is to take firm action regarding the things we can control, and accept the things we can’t control without resisting them or complaining about them.  That was the advice I used to transform my life at work, as I tried to stop complaining about the aspects of my job I couldn’t change and empower myself to make changes to keep my pile of ungraded papers and my roomful of unruly students within self-defined limits of what I was willing to put up with.

From Epicurus, I learned that happiness is the goal of every human being, and that happiness can be very obtainable when we allow ourselves to enjoy simple, easy-to-get pleasures and let go of the desire for expensive, harmful pleasures.  I learned to ask myself questions like, “Is the amount of pleasure I’m going to get from this likely to be greater than the amount of discomfort and trouble it’s going to cause?” and “What would feel good right now?”  I stopped buying stuff, and started enjoying library books, sunshine, parks, and rice.

Between them, Epictetus and Epicurus made a lot of aspects of my life better.  But I felt like I was the only person who had discovered their secret.  Their names sound like something you vaguely remember studying in college, like homework, not like self-help or pleasure reading.  It didn’t take me long to realize that no one wanted to know what I’d discovered, so, in good Epicurean spirit, I just quietly used it and enjoyed it and let go of my need to fix other people.

This book – Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations – reminded me of how much my life was transformed by those two philosophers, and told me something I didn’t know: that there are other people who have also had their lives transformed.  Each chapter discusses an important philosophical approach, explains how it can be used to make a person’s life better, and introduces a person or group of people influenced by that philosopher.  All over the world, it turns out, people like me have been finding help and meaning and self-improvement in the works of the ancients, and have been forming tiny communities of like-minded people to share what they’ve learned.

Evans also spends a significant amount of time connecting ancient philosophy – especially my old mentors Epicurus and the Stoics – with the modern practice of cognitive behavioral therapy.  He claims that CBT has borrowed many of the ideas and practices of the Stoics and Epicureans, but in a stripped-down form, and that many people might benefit from using the old writers as a supplement to their therapy.

This book would be a great starting point for someone who wants to learn more about how ancient philosophy can make a person’s life better.  For me, it was a great refresher course, with an introduction to some voices I hadn’t heard before, and ideas for where to read further.


Written by Contented Reader

June 22, 2015 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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