Living as if Your Life Depended on It: Choosing a Philosophical Life by Sharon Lebell

This is an adaptation of a keynote address delivered at Stoicon X Women:  “Paths to Flourishing,” on June 5, 2021

A Flourishing Stoic Movement

Flourishing is a great place to start any consideration of a philosophical life, because that’s what Stoics aim at. However, let’s briefly shift our conversation from our own flourishing as individuals with the help of Stoic practice to the flourishing of modern Stoic philosophy itself. Let’s conjure the image of Stoicism’s remote ancestor Socrates, who was the quintessential outsider, a penetrating observer of the ways human beings delude themselves, fall prey to disordered, fallacious thinking, and suffer the consequences of unwise behavior that results.

Of his many gifts Socrates could disinter truths that were otherwise hidden in plain sight. He noticed what others gave misplaced attention to and the folly that ensued. He also observed what people overlook due to the sway of petty self interest or because of the blinding effect of cultural conditioning with all its baked-in biases.

 Like Socrates, women are contributing a similar invaluable outsider’s view of the different expressions of Modern Stoicism, since we have only been recently admitted to the great Stoic conversation. Women are likely not philosophically complacent, because we haven’t been members of the club long enough to over-identify with it or to have a stake in its putative doctrines.

Like Socrates, women—and other marginalized groups—are doing the Stoic movement a big favor by widening everyone’s aperture through which we view this august body of teachings. The addition of our female-specific experiences and perspectives helps all philosophers of good will deepen our appreciation of the majesty and enchantments of Stoic thought while adding a vital and necessary till-now missing large part of human experience. Our outsider status allows us to view Stoicism, as amenders and augmenters, as appreciators and as constructive critics. We can redress Stoicism’s imbalances. We can easily see what needs to be toned down; what needs to be foregrounded.

No one reading this needs convincing that Stoic thought and practice are invaluable, even transformative. Fortunately Stoicism, since the time of Zeno of Citium, has proven itself to be protean and receptive to innovation, freedom of debate, reinterpretation, and to clarifying growth. That’s why we all like it: it’s not a frozen, self-defended orthodoxy; its very essence urges us to think for ourselves. This is really the point:  to claim and deploy our faculties of reason and discernment for the sake of virtue.

If Stoicism weren’t adaptive, we wouldn’t be bothered with applying its principles and practices in our modern world.  That there isn’t a top down authoritative body legislating or mandating a univocally correct Stoicism is part of what makes Stoicism attractive to females and to seekers of truth over those who would prefer confirmation of their biases.

So, what kinds of omissions might be especially salient to female students and practitioners of Stoicism? It’s important to note that our Western moral philosophical inheritance from Plato to G.E. Moore makes only passing references to human vulnerability and to our dependence on others, whereas these are—self-evidently to females— primary defining characteristics of the human condition. Like this monumental philosophical tradition out of which Stoicism evolved, there is a paucity of attention given to our human limitations and the paramount importance of optimizing cooperation with others in the Stoic canon. This is a big deal.

Because here’s the thing: that is a heck-of-a conspicuous absence. We can love Stoicism and be honest enough to notice its minimization of the humility that is born of awareness of our weaknesses and the vastness of our ignorance. Moreover, the primacy of relationship; is the very place where we actually dwell. Stoic literature, like the great body of historical moral philosophical literature, tacitly implies the existence of mature, independent, self-sufficient rational people (the prototype of such being a man) whose social, business, philosophical, and political relationships exist in the adult world, expressed predominantly in the public versus the domestic sphere.

Childhood, if noticed at all, is a topic that receives only brief and incidental attention. Yet, do we even have to say that childhood is the swath of human development during which we become those very adults. We are intellectually, emotionally, and physically dependent children for a long part of our lives, and if we are lucky enough to live to old age, we will often be dependents then. In between those two bookends, our lives are filled with countless moments, episodes and extended periods of time during which we might be vulnerable or dependent on others to guide us, teach us, protect us, heal us, or just cooperate with us in order to successfully run a business, a country, a family, any social unit. Relationship. That’s where we live. And relationships don’t automatically function well. The ones that flourish are undergirded by virtue.

Widening our Understanding of Virtue

Traditional Stoicism soundly posits virtue as the keystone of a well lived life. It unpacks virtue into four inter-connected primary components: which are variously translated, but here let’s refer to them as: prudence, temperance, justice, and courage. Each of these virtues cultivated singly or collectively can indeed transform a person’s life in the direction of eudaimonia or flourishing.

In the Stoic scheme virtue, while composed of four parts, is single and indivisible, and is sought for its own sake. However, if you pay attention, you’ll notice these virtues help a person, an individual move towards a flourishing life. All good. Yet, something’s missing. Why? Because, these four virtues, whose cultivation is inarguably transformative, are what we can call “I” virtues; they are sought and developed by and for the flourishing of the individual. Sure, a person who sincerely labors to live a virtuous life developing these four categories of goodness, will likely be a beneficial influence on society.

However, with females largely absent from philosophical discourse till only very recently,  what we might call the “We” virtues, which predominate in a female experience of living in the world, are understated at best, and more often absent in Stoic texts and conversations. What you get is a truncated philosophy of life. It’s good as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go far enough. It is missing female ontology. The “We” virtues, which are especially self-evident, by virtue of the ability to bear children, need to be spotlighted for a complete representation of human virtue. Because, even an imagined ideal society of individuals practicing the “I” virtues, is not sustainable.

Consider a building. What we notice is what goes on in the building, what it looks like on the inside or on the outside, it’s architectural features, but in the ordinary course of affairs, people don’t think about the building’s foundation—the very thing that quietly holds the whole thing up, keeping it stable and functioning. We would notice the foundation only if it were absent or broken and thereby threatened the soundness and durability of the edifice. So, let’s say the building is human civilization and the unseen, overlooked, and under-appreciated foundation is what I call the “We” virtues, the principles and practices that hold up and sustain the building. No “We” virtues, no building; or all you have is a really dangerous unstable one.

 The “We” virtues, as I see it, are rooted in the experience of human vulnerability and dependence, conditions which exist for all people, but are especially salient for females. Nursing our babies we look down at a completely dependent, vulnerable person. More than one eminence has said that the mother-child relationship is the archetype for moral relationships. There are innumerable ways females are more aware of and can’t kick to the curb, our vulnerability and interdependence. We have to be careful not to get pregnant when it is not the right time. If we do get pregnant nothing will teach us better there are things over which we have control and things over which we don’t, as we watch our bodies make new people, regardless of how we feel about it. I can say this with authority having raised up six adult children. Then, of course, the obvious ineluctable privilege and responsibility of caring for children, culturing them, teaching them right from wrong, creating car-pools to get them to and from their sports ultimately falls to females most of the time. And, we females know vulnerability—acutely—because of the pervasive menace of male harassment and violence which forces us to have to be ever vigilant in the most prosaic settings, to take measures to protect ourselves.

 So, I would like to offer a modest proposal that modern Stoicism integrate the following “We” virtues in order to have a comprehensive and fully sustainable path to true flourishing for all, not just for the privileged, not just for men, and not just for white or able-bodied people.

Here are the “We” virtues that sustain and kindle the “I” virtues.

1): Nurturance: namely the active provision of emotional and physical care and protection for others.

2): Liberality: the willingness to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from our own; being open to new ideas, like empathy, the ability to seek to understand and share the feelings of others.

3): Kindness:  the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate

And finally 4):Altruism, the selfless concern for the wellbeing of others.

These “We” virtues are the unsung foundational perspectives and practices that are not necessarily natural entailments of the “I” virtues. These “We” virtues are the very thing our flourishing as  couples, families, neighborhoods, organizations, governments, and an enduring civilization depend on. And, let us not overlook that it is in the trenches of our relationships, that life’s meaning is luminously self-evident. If we overemphasize “I”, we are left isolated and vulnerable; civility withers. Civility, which is the glue of any functional group, is more than good manners. It is an affirmation that the problems of some are the problems of all. That a good society is built on collective responsibility.

 You can embody courage, prudence, temperance, and justice, but none of these on their own naturally cures the sting of loneliness or inevitably protects us when we find ourselves at some point in life powerless due to no fault of our own.

 Now some might say that these “We” virtues are redundant since the Stoic exhortation to be a citizen of the world is baked into the philosophy. Being a citizen of the world is indeed a worthy ideal—but it points to a kind of cosmopolitan sensibility and locates the individual principally in the public sphere, whereas we need an integrated and comprehensive virtue of “We” that functions in both the public and private spheres.          

The emphasis on our relationality and altruism are modern philosophical ideas. To us the link between altruism and the good life seems obvious, but it is actually a recent introduction to the broad study of ethics.  Caring for others does not explicitly feature much in Ancient Greek values. For example, there is nothing in Aristotle’s Ethics about self-sacrifice. Western philosophy stands on his shoulders evolving from his teachings.       

The best summary I can summon to describe the spirit of the four “We” virtues are the words to the chorus of a song my late friend Nathan Segal wrote:

From you I receive—
To You I Give—
Together we Share—
And from this we live

Some of us may hear those words prescriptively, “this is how we ought to live.” I, however, hear these words descriptively. This is actually how we actually live. Reciprocally. In relationship. Interdependent. And, sometimes purely dependent. If the reciprocity of “We” is not embraced as the primary value it is; if it is seen as merely an incidental part of the human experience, at best we are desperately lonely and at worst the entire edifice of our intimate relationships, our families, our communities, our world will first develop imperceptible cracks, and then eventually crumble.

Living as If  Your Life Depended on It

Let’s move on to individual flourishing. I cannot say this enough: being a human being isn’t easy. It’s really hard actually. This is acutely true in this moment we find ourselves in. Because of the fallout of the pandemic, people of all walks of life are struggling. Depression, pain, loss, illness, and grief are rampant.

Some days mere existence in our contemporary world can feel almost overwhelmingly empty. Stoicism and philosophy are not panaceas for all of life’s ills and challenges, but its practices can indeed restore order to a fractured mind through stillness and contemplation. It can point us back to our cherished principles, toward our ideals, toward whom we wish ourselves to be. And the simple effort to recalibrate ourselves can in and of itself be salubrious. This effort, this engagement with, reaching for virtue is the path to flourishing. Furthermore, this effort takes place within the apparently most prosaic moments of our lives. Because flourishing is not a shift of outward circumstance: it is the inward shift of seeing the sacredness and the mystical wonder and oneness of all things in those so-called mundane moments.

Living as if your life depended on it, what I call flourishing, is the second step in the philosophical life. What is the first step? It is an opening of the mind and heart to deliberate innocence. It is a purposeful retreat from the shaky self-protection we derive from irony. We retreat from, or at least suspend, what we are so convinced is true. We admit to the persistent disquiet that hovers around the edges of our daily experience. We quit pretending and acknowledge the fragility of our minds, especially of our fears that most of the time we push away.

We choose a philosophical life by deliberately suspending, examining, and thereby seeing the unsusbstantiality and unnecessary burden of our soul’s turbulence, so that we can recalibrate our focus.  We let go of the rope and thereby encounter ourselves and our experience from the vantage point of unencumbered wonder. Because—hey wait a minute: whatever our suffering, our fear, our anxiety, we remember—We. Are. Alive. We were given free premium seats in the theater of life. That’s amazing! Even in the midst of intense confusion, if we can still our minds with their nattering monologues, then wonder can sneak in through the back door. Wonder is the starting point of choosing a philosophical life.

So, the first step, is being willing to let go of all the things we think we should know, and to, in some sense, deviate from the spirit of the long mostly rationalistic tradition known as Western Philosophy to allow ourselves to inhabit a posture of receptivity, of listening, of being willing to be a teachable child. Wonder is where meaning can make a home for itself.

Flourishing means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. One of the best definitions of flourishing I’ve ever encountered comes from David Foster Wallace speaking about freedom. But I’m going to substitute the word flourishing for freedom, especially because they really are the same thing.

Wallace says “there are all different kinds of “flourishing,” and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying….The really important kind of “flourishing” involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real flourishing…the alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the ‘rat race’—the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

The title of this piece is “Living as if Your Life Depended on it: Choosing a Philosophical Life. This means not falling into one’s default patterns. Living as if your life depended on it —flourishing., in other words—is stepping out in faith and taking your life seriously. It’s deciding what matters and who and what you are going to love and then it’s time to go full bore.

I think when we choose a philosophical life, we are coming from the same impulse that turns some people to prayer. We are seeking a palliative for our existential anxiety. We want to know how to be happy, how to be good, how to be loved, and how to live in a world of change and loss. Mostly we are seeking a way of living that is unburdened by anxiety and self-consciousness. We want to know how to endure crisis and how to adapt.  We want to make peace with our rogue natures. Much of our lives is a struggle for happiness. longing for a felicity that always feels out of reach.                           

We seek respite from our blabbering inner apologia; that inner soliloquy that just won’t shut up. Where do we start a journey of loving and living wisdom? I believe it begins when we close that book on Wittgenstein, when we put down our glass of wine on the table and leave the café where we were earnestly comparing ideas about Hellenistic Ethics, Post-Modernism, or what have you. All those things are important and have their time and their place.

But, a philosophical life starts when we remove our ear buds that are playing that clever lecture and instead we head outside to our back yard or to a park, or to a beach or to a cemetery and we lie down supine and gaze into the sky. If it is daytime, perhaps we behold the mesmerizing shifting shapes of the clouds. If it is nighttime perhaps, if we are lucky, we encounter a starlit sky. We look and we listen, and life unmediated speaks to us directly through our senses. What we behold doesn’t care about our personal story. We are a speck looking up into an incomprehensible vastness enveloped by sound and smell, raw experience. We see that we are but an animal in nature. And we return—how can we not—to wonder. This is the starting gate of the philosophical life. As Wittgenstein himself reminds us, living well was never a theory. Flourishing, eudaimonia will never be a theory, it will be a raw direct encounter with life itself.

So, we start with wonder. With deliberate innocence, With wow. With: I don’t know anything. We decouple from the culture we live in. We see that life says “Yes, you belong here.” Nature says to us: “I need you just as you are, just where you are now. You are necessary, and life is ultimately a friendly place. “Yes, friend, you belong here; you are even essential and inevitable in this moment, but that doesn’t mean I will unveil all my secrets. They are hard won. You will have to love. You will have to try. You will have to imagine. You will get really really hurt. And you will stand up again. You will have to suppose. You will have to reset and proceed. Again, again and again. And that is flourishing.

Final Words on Stoicism and Artistic Expression

Finally,  a few words about how Stoicism informs my life as a musician, composer and artist: The Greek word deon, meaning duty, is one of my favorite concepts in Stoicism: the idea that we accept our place in the world and do our duty.  As Marcus describes at length, our duty is to fulfill specific roles.

I think it’s safe to say that all of us live two simultaneous lives, our outwardly lived lives, consisting of our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds and our un-lived, or as-yet lived lives, the aspirational part of ourselves who knows exactly who we actually are if we were to quit hiding and people pleasing. I’m talking about that ever-present undercurrent reminding us of our possibility: the self that has the courage to change, to step out, however wobbly and unprotected, to shine, to love anyway, to cut the crap and stop worrying about what other people might think or what we might have to lose. How do we get those two lives to kiss, to become one?

The Stoic idea of duty is the ticket here. I think of duty as a sense of a covenant with ourselves, with others. All those promises we make, the ones we want to make. When we start to keep those promises, even the small ones, to ourselves and others, we move toward virtue, toward wholeness. We stop feeling like fakes and poseurs. We drop the ego, we drop our obsession with outcomes, and we obey our destiny. 

What does this have to do with the arts or creative expression? Let me give you one personal example. I have a covenant with my one-of-a-kind musical instrument. By chance a long time agoI heard a very small, kind of embryonic version of the one-of-a-kind 106-stringed hammer dulcimer that I’ve now played and performed on for decades.  When I first heard the sound that first instrument made, I knew it was my duty to liberate and share that celestial sound. Who else was going to do it? It’s been my duty ever since. This sense of duty makes me exert myself to practice, to push myself especially when it’s uncomfortable. I’m able to do this, because life has situated me in such a way that I have the gift of this sacred duty. My duty to this instrument helps me locate myself in the world, to flourish.

Eudaimonia is not an inert idea, but a real lived experience To best understand flourishing, I am put in mind of Louis Armstrong attempting to explain jazz “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.

Finally, what do we do with philosophy? Since it is the doing over the theory that matters. We do our duty to create a civil society, to repair our broken world. We tell the truth to ourselves and to others. We love, however clumsily. We give, however hesitantly. We consecrate ourselves to a cosmos that needs us, even if we don’t know what for. We affirm that our life matters. That everyone matters. That this moment counts. We count and we care.

Sharon Lebell is a speaker, writer, composer and musician.  She is the the author of  The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness., and the co-author of  Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day.

9 thoughts on Living as if Your Life Depended on It: Choosing a Philosophical Life by Sharon Lebell

  1. Terry Kinzel says:

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  2. Maverick N. McGovern says:

    Thank you for this illuminating article by Sharon Lebell whose little book on Epictetus I have been reading for the last two decades. The pithy instructions have always been powerful anchors for me and I review them in my second book I am finishing now.
    I find it refreshing that Ms. Lebell proposes four “We” virtues, as I posit 46 virtues in addition to the Four Cardinal Stoic virtues in my book. Two of mine, altruism and kindness, are identical to ones she submits and two others of mine, protection and empathy overlap with hers.
    Thanks again

  3. Pat Kennedy says:

    I enjoyed your discourse, I agree on the virtues and flourishing, though not just stoic, the overall Greek philosophy and of course others, like Indian, Chinese, Jewish, cause and effect, reaping what you sow, and the like is paramount to what our individual actions may cause, that is, the ripple effect or worse, or better, we all have our circle of influence. It is up to us to influence for the positive.
    I do think that the exclusion of women were and is a big mistake, as it has been from the beginning. Imagine a union of marriage where two act as partners to travel this world rather than one subservient and the other overly dominant that creates resentment and strife, unnecessary and avoidable. And now that societies are more inclusive, this would be all partnerships and families, working towards a common goal of a flourishing life for as many as we can touch with our good fruit and good effect as we journey through this life.
    Adversarial relationships, prejudicial relationships, and clinging to cultural norms that are counter productive and are used to divide need to go by the wayside. We see great strife and division in our world today, it has always been, but now we know, now we can see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. Let us seek common ground, we have but this one world, this envelope of air, water and soil, let’s be a positive force, let us be conscious of cause and effect, the ripples of soothing social norms, or tsunamis aimed at destruction.

  4. Eden Reyes says:

    Freedom and florishing is never the same. freedom is freedom period. when one flourishes, she/he improves.

    • Pat Kennedy says:

      When I worked at a Japanese manufacturing plant, we would learn the seven tools, “kaizen,” continual improvement, in this case, the product or the production of the product. It was also used as a euphemism as brainstorming. These ideas were introduced by an American, I forgot his name, but he was well versed in efficiency. Like just in time inventory. How often do we move things around in our lives, but not used or little used, but we keep moving it about, in our mindset of “save for later?”

  5. Wosukira Jackson massa says:

    This is not only academic but life

  6. Martine Sejour says:

    Your article is profound and an eye-opener. I hope it reaches a lot of people , because it appears that they are individuals who are lost in ways to conduct themselves socially. They seem to forget how to conduct independently and altruistically. I do believe that life tailors us based on our experiences, wisdom, values, and beliefs. It’s when we try to fight our true nature, purpose, and intentions in “our world” that causes catalyst energy. Where we fail to understand the very true nature of our destiny or the person (s) we choose to incorporate in our lives. One must be very selective in who they won’t associate themselves with. Yes, we do exists, we are the creators of our world, and we manifest into endless possibilities and growth if we are more than willing to make the necessary changes in our lives. As well as, “view life as an open library” One should not have to follow anyone blindly that doesn’t align with their morals, beliefs, or values. Those that intentionally inflict or impose their views on a person should be the ones to undergo constant supervision. Life is short! It deserves and begs us to explore our world and Universe constantly. The problem is when you’re intertwined with an obtuse individual that is unwilling to make necessary changes for the betterment of all people or at least the people that they choose to constantly influence. Fear grapples our minds and behavior to such an extent that living bravely is viewed as being insubordinate. Therefore, you’re subjected to harsh treatment and unfair procedures. You express that for us to ‘flourish’, we must live life by our terms. But that’s what fear does. It stops progress, it hinders us socially, humanly, and artistically. I do concede, the world does feel lonely and isolated when you are the one observing “your world or life” from within, because an organization is pulling the strings that one must fall in like an assembly line when they are being forced to. Is it better to accept the norm or go against the grain (fight, for the life you once knew) without the possibility of advancement? Wouldn’t you say that statement alone causes a certain amount of fear as well? I choose to and always have to strive for an abundant amount of opportunities and development. Assessing how this mindset of mine will come to fruition and flourish.

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