Philosophy as the Education of Grown-Ups
See my talk at Stoicon-x Orlando 2020 based on this essay.
When I was in graduate school, I took a class called Academic Socialization. Its purpose was to prepare students for the practices and social expectations of the dissertation process, going on the job market, and eventually finding an academic job. Our textbook, Learning the Literacy Practices of Graduate School: Insiders’ Reflections on Academic Enculturation, included chapters like “Dissertation Writing and the (Re)Positioning of Self in a ‘Community of Practice’” and “The Lived Experience of Graduate Work and Writing: From Chronotopic Laminations to Everyday Lamentations.” Pedantic titles aside, it was actually a really helpful course. But sometimes I look back and think: why couldn’t we have had a course like that for life in general? Since I never even went on the job market, I ended up not benefiting much from all this great advice. But I sure could have benefited from some advice on how to live a good life and be happy no matter what kind of job you have.
This, as Pierre Hadot argues in his compelling essay “Philosophy as the Education of Grown-Ups,” is precisely what philosophy offers. His title comes from the 20th century American philosophers Stanley Cavell and Hilary Putnam, who suggested that philosophy is really just the process of answering the question, “How should I live?” This is the problem philosophers have been working on, in their own ways, from Socrates onward. So, Hadot (p. 184) concludes:
If the question of how to live is the philosophical problem par excellence, we must conclude that philosophy is exactly the education of grown-ups because it interests everyone, each individual person.
I really love this concept of philosophy as education for adults. As Stoics we are engaged in a project of lifelong, continuous self-education, and it can be useful to frame it in those terms. After all, figuring out how to live is serious business. Like Marcus Aurelius rehearsing philosophical concepts in his journal and Seneca writing letters to Lucilius, we have to keep working at it. We are learning theory and practice at the same time.
Hadot draws inspiration from Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher who is not exactly known for his practical life advice. But he was actually quite influenced by the Stoics. For Kant, says Hadot, “the ideal of wisdom, or rather the ideal of the sage, is the foundation of philosophy” (p. 185). In one of his lesser-known lectures on anthropology, Kant (1798) offers the following observation on how we might develop wisdom:
Not even the slightest degree of wisdom can be poured into a man by others; rather he must bring it forth from himself. The precept for reaching it contains three leading maxims: (1) Think for oneself, (2) Think into the place of the other (in communication with human beings), (3) Always think consistently with oneself. (p. 94-95)
While this is not specifically Stoic advice, I think it’s well worth pondering in the context of our ongoing philosophical education. If we want to learn how to think like grown-ups—working toward wisdom and showing full maturity of spirit—we should develop the following habits of thought:
· Think for yourself
· Think consistently with yourself
· Think outside yourself
Let’s consider how each of these mental habits might look in a Stoic education.
Think for Yourself
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. (Discourses, 2.11, 13)
Epictetus tells us clearly and repeatedly that we have to get rid of what his teacher Musonius Rufus called “thoughtless habit.” Most of us just coast along, doing and thinking what everyone else around us is doing and thinking. You begin your philosophical education when you realize that conventional morality isn’t always adequate for a good life. Maybe you notice that there are quite a few conflicting opinions out there and you don’t know which one to pick for yourself. Maybe you see the poor results of conventional morality: obsession with social status and material “goods.” Maybe you come to a crossroads or a crisis in your life. Whatever it is that drives you to look for answers, this is an important step in learning to think for yourself.
However, learning to think for yourself does not necessarily mean you have to come up with all the answers by yourself. Some of the wisest and smartest people throughout history have devoted themselves to these questions, and it would be foolish not to explore their answers for ourselves. But it’s up to us to adopt and adapt the ancient ideas to make them truly our own—hence our ongoing philosophical self-education.
Think Consistently With Yourself
‘He whose aim is not one and the same cannot himself remain one and the same throughout his life.’ [from Cicero, On Duties] This saying is defective, unless you specify in addition what the nature of this aim should be…The aim that we set for ourselves should be the common and civic good. For he who directs every impulse of his own toward this end will be consistent in his actions and, by virtue of that, remain ever the same in himself. (Meditations, 11.21)
This is one habit of thought that is often overlooked in today’s Stoicism, but it is absolutely essential for us to live in agreement. If we want to be happy and lead a meaningful life, our goal is inner coherence and consistency. How could you be happy or wise if you are changeable in what you want? As Epictetus admonished his students,
Don't act as children do and be a philosopher at one time, and later a tax collector, and then an orator, and then one of Caesar's procurators. These things don't go together. You must be just one man, either good or bad; you must devote your efforts either to your ruling center or to external things; in other words, you must assume the part of either a philosopher or a layman. (Discourses, 3.15, 12-13)
We need to think carefully about what our goal in life should be, but once we’ve made a decision, that decision should guide every aspect of our lives. As Marcus Aurelius points out above, the aim that we set for ourselves should be virtue, including the common and civic good. We shouldn’t just work toward our own happiness. If our aim is purely our own happiness, we will fail to achieve it. Human nature is designed so that we find happiness by contributing to our group and helping others. Happiness is a wonderful side effect of doing what we, as humans, are meant to be doing.
Think Outside Yourself
Of all Kant’s three maxims, this one perhaps challenges us the most. And yet it is essential for developing into fully mature adults. As Hadot (p. 187) reminds us,
True maturity is being able to put one's self in the shoes of another, to respect him, to liberate yourself from your own point of view, which is always partial, in order to situate yourself in the other person’s perspective, to understand the reasons he might think differently from you.
We want to be sympathetic and charitable toward others because we know that people always do what makes sense to them. If they hold certain beliefs about life—for example that power or social status are the highest goods—then naturally their actions will reflect that.
When you are shocked at another’s wrongdoing, pass on at once to consider what similar faults you are committing on your own account; as when you judge, for instance, that money is a good, or pleasure, or fame, and the like. If you turn your mind to this, you will soon forget your anger, because it will occur to you at the same time that the other is acting under compulsion—for what else can he do? Though if you can, free him from this compulsion. (Meditations, 10.30)
It might seem like a contradiction to think from someone else’s perspective while also believing his views are incorrect. But it’s not a contradiction—it’s just very, very hard. We can realize that someone else holds inaccurate beliefs about life, while still sympathetically trying to understand why they hold those beliefs. And by understanding why they hold those beliefs, we can more effectively bring them around to our way of seeing. Thinking about things from another person’s perspective simultaneously enlarges your frame of reference and makes you more skilled in speaking with others.
A good guide, when he sees someone wandering astray, doesn't abandon him with a dose of mockery or abuse, but leads him back to the proper path. So you too should show him the truth and you'll see how he follows. As long as you fail to make it clear to him, though, you shouldn't make fun of him, but should recognize your own incapacity instead. (Discourses, 2.12, 3-4)
Just because we are sympathetic toward others does not mean we shouldn’t engage in discussion or debate with them. If their reasoning doesn’t make sense, we can respectfully engage in dialogue. But we want to do so charitably, from a mindset of pursuing the truth, not with a sense of superiority. We are, after all, subject to the same errors in thinking as they are.
So far we’ve come a long way toward thinking like a grown-up. But we’re not quite done with our education. There is one final component of thinking outside ourselves that is the hardest of all.
Putting yourself in the place of others is ultimately putting yourself in a universal point of view represented by rational discourse, which means detaching yourself from the self in order to attain objectivity, impartiality, justice, and knowing how to enter into dialogue while respecting the other's point of view…This concept of universality is very important. You might say, it seems, that to educate yourself, to become an adult, is to “universalize” yourself, both putting yourself in the place of others but perhaps also re-situating yourself in the universe. (Hadot, pp. 187-188)
In other words, thinking outside yourself is not simply about empathizing with another person. Empathy or reciprocity is something even children can do. Rather, it’s about developing a sense of universality—acting with reference not just to yourself or to the immediate context, but with reference to the greater good. Marcus Aurelius demonstrates this perfectly when he says,
Make haste to look into your own ruling center, and that of the universe, and that of your neighbor. Into your own, to ensure that your mind holds to justice; into that of the universe, to remind yourself of what whole you form a part; into that of your neighbor, to know whether ignorance or judgment rules, and to recognize at the same time that his mind is of one nature with your own. (Meditations, 9.22)
By “re-situating ourselves in the universe,” we are reminding ourselves that we are just one part of a larger whole. In the final analysis, we benefit ourselves by benefiting the people and things around us. But we can only realize this if we are mature enough to think outside our own narrow interests. The three steps we’ve examined—think for yourself, think consistently with yourself, think outside yourself—all help train our minds to see the world rationally and objectively. And this style of thinking is necessary if we want to become wise, just, and happy with our lives.
No one ever said growing up is easy. And learning to think like a grown-up—that is, reaching our potential for mature adult thinking—is definitely not easy. Nevertheless, if we want to lead good and happy lives, we can strive to be lifelong learners working toward that goal!
 See Doyle, D., & Torralba, J. (2016). "Kant and Stoic ethics," in The Routledge Handbook of
the Stoic Tradition, ed. John Sellars. Routledge, New York.
Casanave, C., & Li, X. (2008). Learning the Literacy Practices of Graduate School: Insiders’
Reflections on Academic Enculturation. University of Michigan Press: University of Michigan.
Hadot, P. (2010). “La philosophie comme éducation des adultes.” In La philosophie comme
éducation des adultes: Textes, perspectives, entretiens, eds. A. Davidson & D. Lorenzini. Vrin:
Paris. My translation.
Kant, I. (1798/2006). Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Loudon, R. & Kuehn, M.,
eds. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.