Philosophy is the study of how one can live through wisdom. That includes important things like learning the best ways to think, make decisions, and act in different situations of your life.
Unfortunately, philosophy tends to be taught quite poorly in schools. It is seen as more of an abstract discipline where everyone thinks theoretically, without consideration for real-world application.
But the philosophers of old weren’t monks or sages that locked themselves up in the library to ponder theories. They were practical students of life, and they created many of their own ways of applying philosophy in the real world. The application really is the only way to bring out the best that philosophy has to offer.
Today, we will look at 4 practical ways to apply philosophy in life. Through these applications, we can get the best that philosophy has to offer and ultimately improve our wisdom.
“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.”
Socratic discussions are a learning technique invented by the Greek philosopher Socrates. The idea is to learn things by asking a series of continuously deeper and deeper questions. As you continue to ask and answer the questions, you end up fully exploring all of the possible ideas, thus gaining a comprehensive understanding of the thing you are trying to learn.
For example, let’s say that you were considering becoming a lawyer. To learn if it is the right career path for you, you might ask yourself the following series of questions:
- Why do I want to become a lawyer? — Because lawyers make a lot of money
- But do all lawyers make a lot of money? — Some do some don’t, it depends if they are good at it
- Well then, what would make someone good at law? — They would be very interested in the field of law and like to work a lot
- Are you very interested in the field of law, willing to work many hours each day in it? — Well I don’t really like working many hours each day
By asking all of those questions, we were able to dive deeper into our understanding of becoming a lawyer for a career. In this particular example, we discovered a very clear and concrete reason why exactly being a lawyer wouldn’t be the right career choice. And it was relatively easy, we just had to keep asking questions.
You can do a Socratic discussion at any time when you want to examine one of your own or someone else’s ideas. You just keep asking deeper questions until you get to the root answer. Doing so will help you learn more about the idea and your own thoughts, ultimately leading you to make wiser decisions.
“Man — a being in search of meaning.”
Plato, who was a student of Socrates, held the view that “knowing thyself” was crucial to living a fulfilling and successful life. Because without understanding who you are as a person, you will end up living a life that isn’t truly right for you.
Quite seriously, Plato advised that people should learn about themselves directly through self-exploration and head-on questions. For example, you might ask yourself the following series of direct questions:
- Is your current life what you want it to be?
- How would you define your ideal life?
- Are you heading in the right direction to achieve your goals?
- If not, how would you change it to get back on track?
- What are the specific things you want to achieve and what proactive steps can you take to achieve them?
Notice the emphasis on you — that is done on purpose. Plato really wanted people to think more before they acted. Because if you quickly act without thinking, especially in serious matters such as career, finance, and relationships, you might end up going down the completely wrong path.
But by thinking directly to understand yourself and the possible path that you may go down, you can make a more informed decision about what direction you should go in. Then all of your actions will be more meaningful as they move you forward towards a specific goal, rather than just aimlessly. As Plato says, “know thyself” to direct your life in a way that is right for you.
Establish Your Principles
“Excellence is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives — choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
Aristotle was a student of Plato. In his writings, he talks a lot about the importance of establishing principles for life and even makes a few suggestions of his own.
Principles are the governing rules that you define for your life. More specifically, you can think of each principle you have as a description of how you would wish to act and make decisions in your ideal life. Some of Aristotle’s best examples of life principles are:
- “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” — build good habits and avoid bad ones, do well with the small things as they add up to the big
- “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” — Teamwork makes dreams work, associate with smart and high integrity people
- “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” — Always do what you love, find and work with your passion
- “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” — Delayed gratification is powerful, always think long-term
If you followed those kinds of principles, they would lead you to a very particular form of life. Clearly, you would be aiming to establish good habits, work in teams, focus on work that gives you purpose, and always aim for long-term gains. The principles are simple and easy to understand, yet have very powerful and positive implications.
You can establish your own principles for living life depending on what you want to achieve. Make a list of simple, easy to understand principles that you can always refer to when in doubt, your own set of rules for life. Your principles will guide your actions and ultimately help you live the life that you want to.
Regular Training Practices
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is a philosophy that emphasises mental strength as a means of overcoming any challenge in life. The philosophy holds that the only thing one needs to be happy and successful in life is their own reasoned choice.
As a part of building up one’s mental strength, stoicism advocates a number of regular training practices. These practices challenge you to be mentally in control, thus training your mind to become stronger. For example:
- Meditating — to practice emptying your mind of any thoughts
- Cold showers — to practice your fortitude in the face of physical shocks
- Reading — for constant learning and mental growth
- Physical training — to train your mind to push your body further
- Journal writing — to reflect on the day and your own ideas
Notice how these practices really push you to improve yourself, especially mentally which is the most important thing. It’s a constant striving for personal growth.
You can come up with your own list of practices based on what you want to achieve. Stoicism was for mental strength, but you can easily make your own practices for improving your relationships, career growth, skill-building, or anything else. Having regular training practices will guide you in learning and improving in whatever you want in life.
Philosophy is often taught as an abstract subject in school. But it doesn’t have to be like that, nor was it like that for the ancient philosophers. The biggest philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and all of the stoics had a focus on the practical applications of their wisdom. In particular, we looked at 4 practical ways to apply philosophy in life:
- Socratic Discussions— for examining and understanding ideas
- Understanding Yourself — for giving yourself a fulfilling direction in life
- Establish Your Principles— for making wise decisions more consistently
- Regular Proactive Training— for constant personal growth
To learn more
50 Philosophy Classics by Tom Butler-Bowdon
The Last Days of Socrates by Plato