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One reason I turn back to premodern philosophies so much is that they often show us questions larger than those generally asked in philosophy today. Especially important among these: “what kind of life should I live?” What sorts of major life decisions should I make? It still surprises me how rarely academic philosophers concern themselves with these questions, when we spend so much time teaching people in their late teens and early twenties – for whom these questions are in the foreground.

Lately in my mind I’ve been tossing around the hypothesis that the answers to the question “What kind of life should I live?” roughly boil down to three – and that each of the three is tied to some sort of metaphysics, a theoretical as well as a practical philosophy:

  • Asceticism: probably the most common answer in Indian philosophy, this is the favourite answer of the historical Buddha, and many traditions both before him (early Jainism) and after him (the Yoga Sūtras, Advaita Vedānta). It became highly popular in Christianity too, with its monastic traditions and suspicion of worldly desires. Everyday life is suffering, a suffering caused by our everyday desires, which arise from our ignorance of the true good. We need to take ourselves out of that everyday mode of life, to a higher and better way that disciplines those desires – renounce the everyday world, take up the chastity and poverty of a monk. Asceticism usually takes up a metaphysics in which the world as we know it is in some sense unreal, or a poor reflection of a higher reality.
  • Traditionalism: probably the most popular answer in the history of philosophy, because it tends to accept “common sense,” unlike the other two which make a radical critique of our everyday views. It’s probably argued for most explicitly by Confucius and Hegel, though it’s implicit in oral traditions that preserve older ways of life, such as dharmaśāstra. Here the best life accepts time-tested practices and social conventions, passed down to us by our ancestors. We should start a family and raise children, as our parents did for us; we should do the work that they did, or work that preserves and contributes to the social structures that took so many centuries of others’ effort to build. Epistemologically we want to “save the appearances,” as Aristotle put it: our knowledge starts where it is, and intellectual innovations need above all to make sense of that starting point. In Thomas Kasulis’s terms, traditionalism is likely to take an intimacy orientation, whereas the other two lean toward integrity.
  • Libertinism: an answer increasingly implicit in modern forms of life. Premoderns who expressed this view (Mozi, Aristippus the Cyrenaic, the Cārvāka-Lokāyata school) usually didn’t stick around for too long; but it has become more and more widespread in the modern era, especially now among the urban educated classes. The view finds its classic expression in Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism: the good is pleasure, full stop, and the best life is one that increases that pleasure. That utilitarians seek to increase others’ pleasure and not merely their own is just a variation within libertinism, as the other-oriented Mahāyāna Buddhists are a variation within asceticism. While Nietzsche scorned pleasure-seeking as such, his emphasis on the aesthetics of life is strong enough to give him close affinities with this position. Libertinism typically relies on an empiricist metaphysics like that of Hume, one which often denies that it is a metaphysics: neither a higher reality nor commonsense tradition is to be trusted. True knowledge is to be found only through our senses – and our senses tell us that pleasure is good and pain is bad.

One frequently finds these positions combined, of course. Classical Christian thought puts together a Jewish traditionalism (affirming the goodness of God’s created order) with a Platonic asceticism (suspecting the goodness of this world in favour of a world to come) – leaning much closer to the asceticism in Augustine and to the traditionalism in Aquinas’s natural law. (The Bhagavad Gītā also combines those two: be a traditionalist on the outside and an ascetic on the inside.) Libertinism has become common enough in the modern age that our common sense tends to mix libertinism and traditionalism, especially in an other-oriented way: left-wing politics is typically about allowing others to seek pleasure as well as maintain their work and family. And asceticism mixes with libertinism above all in Epicurus and his school, who believed that pleasure was the only good – but that the way to get the most pleasure is by isolating oneself in an ascetic community without being pulled around by one’s desires.

I find myself tossing around this categorization a lot because I find some appeal in all three. Practically speaking, libertinism comes very naturally to me, and I do find the goodness of pleasure quite apparent; it is probably the closest to the way of life I have chosen and am choosing. Asceticism also holds a strong appeal to me, especially in Epicurus’s terms: our desires often lead us astray and make us miserable, and we need to find ways to control them. I have decided against the monastic life, but I respect it greatly and note the happiness of those who follow it. By contrast, I’ve usually been suspicious of traditionalism as a practical philosophy, which has seemed like it may be mere self-deception. And yet in theoretical terms, I find myself being most persuaded by traditionalism and its epistemological conservatism, which seems like the best way to take account of the many partial truths offered by different traditions. I suppose all of this is just to say how hopelessly confused my own philosophy feels at the moment, but I hope these reflections are of some value to others who are trying to think life through as well.

Apologies for the giant mess of tags and categories on this post – it seems necessary for such an attempt at a broad generalization over the history of philosophy.