Philosophy is a Skill, Not an Academic Subject

It's tempting to treat philosophy as a purely academic subject. Fundamental philosophy concepts such as virtue, courage, reason, knowledge, and values all sound quite theoretical. But what is the point of it all if you never apply it?

In modern schooling, philosophy is taught by telling students to read books and write essays about them. But in the old days, philosophy was a skill to be practiced and eventually mastered, just like an athlete masters their sport. The stoic philosopher Epictetus once had this edifying exchange with a student:

Student: "Is it possible, then, to derive advantage from [hardships]?"

Epictetus: "Yes, from all of them.

Student: "Even from someone who insults you?"

Epictetus: "And what advantage does a wrestler gain from his training partner? The greatest. And that man, too, who insults me becomes my training partner; he trains me in patience, in abstaining from anger, in remaining gentle โ€ฆ And yet you say that if someone trains me in abstaining from anger, he brings me no benefit? It is simply that you donโ€™t know how to draw advantage from other people."

The way to get real value out of all your reading and studying is to practice like an athlete:

  1. Learn the initial theory of the subject
  2. Apply it in the real world
  3. Reflect on your results to see what went well and what didn't
  4. Correct your mistakes to improve
  5. Repeat steps 2 to 4 forever, occasionally coming back to step 1 if you find that you're missing a fundamental understanding

Notice how the emphasis is on application and the continuous improvement of that application. That's because knowledge only becomes valuable when it is applied. Life has plenty of opportunities for applying your knowledge: at home, at work, in business, and in social settings. The value of your knowledge will increase even more when you observe your results, correct mistakes, and then try again.

Philosophy is an amazing subject, capable of totally transforming your life for the better. But to get the most possible value out of it, you have to put it to work by treating it as a skill. Learn the fundamental concepts, then take that knowledge into the real world and apply it. Keep practicing and work your way up to mastery just like a top athlete would. Before long, you'll find yourself living the beautiful life that philosophy so often promises.

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