Art and Craft
Just as wood is the material of the carpenter, and bronze that of the sculptor, the art of living has each individual's own life as its material.
Epictetus, Discourses, 1.15, 1
Like many other people during the pandemic, I started watching The Great British Bake Off (called The Great British Baking Show in the U.S.), even though I’m not a baker. It’s an appealing show: 12 amateur bakers races through three timed challenges to create all kinds of crazy baked goods, ranging from fanciful wedding cakes to obscure Victorian puddings. Their bakes are judged by famous professional bakers, and each week the worst performer has to go home. At the end of the season, one baker is declared the best amateur baker in Britain. It’s all very good fun.
What fascinated me, as a non-baker watching the show, is how often the best bakers were either artists or scientists. When they set out to bake, they brought all their talents with them, whether they were graphic designers or engineers or carpenters. They often played to their strengths. Many (but not all) of the engineers and scientists were technically precise, experimenting with new ingredients and techniques and implementing well-executed plans. Many of the more artistic bakers brought stunning creativity and design flair, resulting in exquisite miniature works of art. All of them were impressive.
The reason both artists and scientists do extremely well at baking is, of course, that baking is a combination of art and science. It is a technical craft, so masters of the craft will have technical understanding: if I add baking soda to the batter, it’s going to taste a certain way and rise in the oven; if I mix it in at a certain time, it’s going to perform better than at another time; it’s going to interact best with these ingredients and the cake should be baked at this temperature in the oven. But at the same time, it is an art requiring creativity, adaptiveness, and panache. The baker needs to know how to respond to small changes in the environment, improvising as they go along, staying true to their artistic vision throughout the process.
As in baking, so in philosophy. Or I should say, so in Stoic philosophy, which sees philosophy as a technical craft that might be called “the art of living.” Let's look at this metaphor, which is dissected at length in one of my favorite modern Stoic texts, John Sellars’ The Art of Living. (I highly recommend this work to anyone who wishes to deepen their understanding and practice of Stoicism.)
If we want to be happy, the ancient Stoics said, we should see the work of our lives not as acquiring external goods or racking up external achievements, but as perfecting the living of our lives. Each life is an artwork in progress. But the art of living differs from baking in that it is a performative art, like acting, dancing, or playing the violin, in which “the performance itself is the product” (Sellars, 2003, p. 168). Our primary goal is not to produce anything (although that could be a secondary goal), but to play our parts well.
Once you start thinking about your life in this way—that every moment is part of a performance, and that the performance is your life—you experience a radical shift in your perspective. Instead of putting all your energy toward an external product, which will be produced at some distant date in the future, you begin to concentrate on each moment, because it too is part of the performance. Each thought and action becomes more significant, because each one is part of the total artistry of your life. There are no dress rehearsals. You are already in the performance, whether you like it or not, so you’d better get your act together.
But the art of living is not just about improvisation. It’s also about perfecting your technique and honing your skills as you go along. Bakers must know how to mix ingredients together into a pleasing combination, and musicians must know how to string notes together harmoniously. Our task as philosophers is to systematically inquire into the way of life that produces the best performance. Not just any mode of living will result in a good life. In fact, Epictetus says the starting point of philosophy is an awareness of our own weakness in understanding life (Discourses, 2.12, 1). Most people are overconfident in their abilities to distinguish good from bad, but once we start really thinking about it, how do we really know that we’re acting rightly?
Do you have anything to show us, then, over and above your personal opinion, that would enable you to make a better application of your preconceptions? But does a madman do anything other than what seems good to him? And would that be a sufficient criteria for him, too? Look now, this is the starting point of philosophy: the recognition that different people have conflicting opinions, the rejection of mere opinion so that it comes to be viewed with mistrust, an investigation of opinion to determine whether it is rightly held, and the discovery of a standard of judgment, comparable to the balance that we have devised for the determining of weights, or the carpenter's rule for determining whether things are straight or crooked. (2.12, 12-13)
It is thus that things are judged and weighed when one has standards at hand, and the task of philosophy lies in this, in examining and establishing those standards. As for the use of them, once they are known, that is the business of the virtuous and good person. (2.12, 25)
If we want to bake well, we shouldn’t just randomly start throwing ingredients into the bowl and hope it turns out well. We need to know which ingredients blend well and how long they should be baked. Likewise, if we want to live well, we need to know what makes for a good life and then aim to achieve it. As John Sellars writes, paraphrasing Zeno, “The art (techne) of living is a systematic body of knowledge based upon empirically derived principles and brought together through practice” (Sellars, 2003, p. 75). We build up our understanding of the world through observation, experience, and correct reasoning about our observations and experiences. We practice, add to our knowledge, refine our technique, and practice some more. It’s a continuous cycle of reflection and self-improvement—the same process required for mastery of any art or craft.
To be very technical about it, I should mention that for Stoics only the sage has the requisite expertise to truly perform the art of living, because only the sage has secure and systematic knowledge of life. (I hope to examine this further in a future blog post.) The rest of us, who have not reached a full and complete understanding, are not good enough to give a truly virtuoso performance. But we can still give our best effort. On the stage of life, none of us are professionals, but that doesn’t stop us from being very good amateurs.
There is a danger lurking here, however. Music and drama are usually concerned with the aesthetic results of the performance. If you stretch the analogy too far, you could come to see your life literally as performance art, or to use Pierre Hadot’s term, a form dandyism. In these types of performances, the artist cultivates an aesthetic mood to induce a certain reaction or emotion in the audience. The dandy, in particular, is almost exclusively focused on external image rather than internal substance. And although pretty much no one uses the term “dandy” anymore, the idea of curating your image is more in vogue than ever before. We have more ways than ever of branding ourselves, expressing who we are by performing certain social activities, cultivating certain social viewpoints, and advertising it all on social media. In popular culture, it seems, your lifestyle defines you.
The true art of living, on the other hand, is not concerned at all with aesthetics or audience, but with the internal disposition of the performer. As Stoics we know that our actions flow from our beliefs and opinions, and it is these beliefs and opinions that actually create the performance. A person who focuses too much on external appearances is missing the point. Shallow image cultivation leads only to unhappiness and should be avoided.
We should also be careful to avoid another common pitfall of self-help approaches: focusing too much on the self. Stoicism is an entire philosophy, not a mere self-help technique, and it provides an antidote to the problem of egotism. Remember that Stoic philosophy encompasses our three primary relationships in life: with ourself (logic), with other people (ethics), and with the world at large (physics). We should try to balance our attention towards all three aspects. Humans naturally have a tendency to focus on ourselves, but part of becoming fully mature adults means we expand our focus equally to other people and to the wider world. Self-help tends to focus our attention even more on ourselves, which just worsens our problems. The only way we lead meaningful lives and become happy and fulfilled is by getting outside ourselves to connect with other people and with the natural world.
So while conceiving of life as the art of living is extremely helpful, we need to be aware of the potential misinterpretations to make sure we avoid them.
We can correct the tendency to focus on the aesthetics of our performance by remembering it is our internal disposition, not our external image, that counts. Only depth of character leads to fulfillment and happiness.
We can correct the tendency to focus on ourselves by giving equal emphasis to other people and the wider world. Turning our attention outside ourselves reminds us that we are linked in companionship to other people, and that we all live in a breathtakingly beautiful world that does not revolve around us.
Thinking about life as a technical craft--a combination of systematic inquiry, adaptive art, and lots of practice--helps us reach our goal of living in agreement, which leads to a happy and fulfilling life. So whether you are mixing up ingredients in the kitchen, running a business, or just focused on being a good person, remember to be both an artist and a scientist. The material you are working on is your own life.
Sellars, J. (2003). The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy. Bristol Classical Press: London.