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Five Essential Philosophical Schools for Understanding (and Loving) Existence


A brief tour of the current of thought inviting reflection on life.

One of the most celebrated ideas of Socrates comes to us, like all of his thoughts, through the Platonic dialogues. In the Apology, it was said that for the philosopher the unexamined life was not worth living.

Although other authors are often cited to support the idea, at this point perhaps, it’s enough to appeal to our own experiences. Who hasn’t felt, at certain moments in life, a need to understand? Who hasn’t questioned the point to human existence? Who hasn’t felt anguish at the transience of time? And who hasn’t felt imprisoned between internal desire and the impositions of the outside world?

Philosophy, the mother of all sciences, has spent thousands of years trying to answer these questions. They’re renewed all the time because the human being is in constant flux, as is the reality we inhabit.

Below is a list of philosophical schools which have excelled in the examination which Socrates advised. Beyond a brief explanation of each school of thought, we’ve also included suggestions of works and authors so that you can find out more.

What is it? The term might be impulsively rejected at first. Why should anyone want to be voluntarily pessimistic? It’s a valid question, but one still worthy of a precise answer. As a philosophical attitude, pessimism invites a consideration of the negativity of existence and reflection on it. It’s no secret that life presents pain, suffering, illness, death and similar situations and emotions. Do we do well to evade them? Pessimistic philosophers would say no, that to do so is to amputate life itself, to take away something that is its own and, even, that these things are necessary for the experience of life in its fullness. In this sense, pessimism should actually lead to a love for life.

What to read? Arthur Schopenhauer is perhaps the pessimistic philosopher par excellence, but Friedrich Nietzsche inherited something of his spirit. The first can be read in English in an edition called The Wisdom of Life. To explore Schopenhauer’s philosophy more fully, read The World as Will and Representation. As to Nietzsche, read The Gay Science and Ecce Homo.

What is it? Nihil means “nothing” in Latin, and although this name too might give rise to suspicion against such a way of thinking, overcoming the prejudice is, again, worthwhile. The “nothingness” to which the philosophical current refers might be compared to the empty space on a blank page, or to the primordial nothing hypothetically preceding the beginning of the Universe. And what if there were nothing? When you begin to think this way, you may realize that practically everything surrounding us is the result of change and accident. As much as things seem to have been there from the very beginning, the truth is that things aren’t like that. Morals, customs, social institutions, ideas, and all of our most common practices: everything can also not be, and therefore, everything is also susceptible to change.

What to read? Friedrich Nietzsche is the philosopher most often identified with nihilism, although more specialized readers will have reservations in thus classifying him. As a thinker, he taught us to doubt knowledge itself and the ways in which it’s constructed. Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Twilight of the Idols are two titles that best enter into his nihilistic thinking. Also read a short but deeply stimulating essay: “On truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Also, a study of the life of Diogenes and the anecdotes about him can serve as an initial introduction to nihilism.

What is it? Existentialism is perhaps the most persistent philosophical school of all. The very name suggests it. If philosophy was in itself intended as a discipline for the examination of human life, it might be said that the roots of existentialism extend from the days of Plato’s Symposium to contemporary discussions of Byung Chul-Han. But don’t think that this makes it ambiguous. Perhaps our species is the only one able to make an enigma of itself, and perhaps we’re the only ones who need to understand our lives in order to live them.

What to read? Existentialism is usually associated with postwar French philosophers – Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre above all. But their ramifications are a little more vast and diverse. Søren Kierkegaard was an avant la lettre existentialist, and some consider Tolstoy’s essays and even Dostoevsky’s novels as true explorations of the human soul. Miguel de Unamuno and José Ortega y Gasset have also been cataloged as existentialists. These are names which, in any case, can be added to an exploration of this way of thinking. Unlike other philosophical currents, when looking at humanity in all its complexity, the resulting works are often accessible, simple, moving and even familiar. Perhaps that’s why, among all of these authors, we find those who also write literature. In many cases, reading one of these thinkers is like talking to a friend or a person we respect, and even one for whom we feel a sincere affection. Kierkegaard’s Repetition, Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus are some suggestions. The writings of Simone Weil may also provide a pleasant surprise.

What is it? Especially in recent years, this school of thought has regained a particular interest. Especially popular in the days of the Roman Empire, Stoicism’s followers included even Marcus Aurelius, known as the “philosopher emperor.” Among his works is an interesting compendium of maxims intended for a life of virtue, sobriety, honor, and courage under any circumstance. It might be said that this is the essence of Stoicism: a reminder that life is a continual opportunity to be virtuous, fortune and misfortune, happiness and pain, daily tasks and pleasures. Virtue is the compass allowing us to navigate these seas of existence without losing our direction or forgetting the heights of our mission.

What to read? The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Moral Epistles of Lucilius or De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life) by Seneca the Younger, and The Discourses by Epictetus are among the best Stoic works, though hardly the only ones worthy of attention.

What is it? Perhaps the polar opposite of the dominant philosophical thought is hedonism, a philosophy of life and reflection with pleasure as its guiding principle. Pleasure has always been in the minds of philosophers as an essential component of the human being. Unfortunately, in nearly every historical period, pleasure hasn’t fared well outside of philosophical discussions. It’s fared even worse in social practice, where it’s seen always as a beast in need of domestication or containment (as, for example, in Plato). But this was not the case with the hedonists who invited pleasure in to the very center of existence. Although it sounds like a life of sensuality, parties, and banquets, the truth is that, philosophically, pleasure is not that simple. Pleasure is also a category that needs to be examined to be exercised. Would you be happy if you ate what you like every day? Is the pleasure you feel for any activity genuine? Or is it merely that you learned to enjoy what you were taught?

What to read? While hedonism is one of the oldest schools of thought in the history of philosophy, a fresh and luminous approach to the subject can be found in a contemporary French thinker, Michel Onfray. His book Theorie Du Corps Amoureux (Theory of the Body in Love) is a scholarly, intelligent review of the ways philosophy and society have approached sexual pleasure. The book also includes a passionate defense of the ideas of Epicurus (the greatest of the ancient hedonists).

This list is hardly exhaustive. In addition to currents of thought fundamental to the West, such as rationalism or relativism, some Eastern schools might be added. But for now, it’s enough to ask for what and why we live.

Finally, it should also be remembered that philosophy doesn’t lead to isolated or sterile reflection. Thinking is always done in the company of others. With those around us, with those we read, and with those with whom we live. Philosophy is about the reflections made within the threads of our own lives, in our actions and our decisions, and in the interest of reaching the “examined life” which Socrates reccommended. The expression itself, the “examined life,” might be understood as a life with meaning. One lives and reflects, and that is philosophizing. In the combination of both actions, one discovers the very meaning of existence.

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