Everyone, Unknowingly, Has A Philosophy Of Life

Everyone, that is, each one of us, has a philosophy of life that not only provides the coordinates for how one lives but also shows up in how one conducts oneself. For most people, this philosophy of life remains that to which they remain unaware.

You might think, if this is true, that the best way of discovering someone’s philosophy of life would be to ask that person what he or she believes, what gets him or her up in the morning, what is that person’s life for, and so on. Reasonable for sure but mistaken. A far better approach is to just observe how that person conducts himself or herself on a daily basis. What thoughts arise in that person’s consciousness? What habits are sedimented? What actions and what goals recur?

Let me illustrate this approach. A few years ago, I was speaking with a high-level executive at a major tech firm. He was telling me that he was a devout Christian and that he was soon going to be married. Yet what did he think almost always about? Namely, how to make a favorable impression on his boss. How to come up with killer strategies at work. How to be lauded. In brief, what he really cared about was success, status, and reputation, and these teloi were action- and thought-guiding. Here was the center of his philosophy of life.

The crux at the heart of this approach is that the unexamined life entails not knowing oneself in a very real sense. To lead an unexamined life just is to be living either on autopilot or, as it were, schizophrenically. On autopilot in those cases where someone does not know, because he or she has never examined, why it is that he or she lives. The person controlled by autopilot is also very likely the person who accepts external, provisional goods like wealth, status, and success as the highest goods. This one I call “idolatrous.” Or schizophrenically because what one declares to oneself and others may bear no resemblance whatsoever to how one actually lives or, even worse, may be genuinely at odds with how one actually lives.

The lesson? Examining one’s life is one way in which one can truly become wise. Sans self-examination, one may remain one’s entire life half-alive.