The Practice of Wisdom

Wisdom is not a mind-hack or life-hack or any kind of hack. It’s not a way of cutting through life’s difficulties with tips or tricks. It’s not a set strategies or operations that can be adopted in piecemeal or applied in pertinent situations. It’s more of a path than a hack. It’s a way of life. As a practice, wisdom demands a total change of lifestyle, or it is nothing at all. What is that lifestyle? With characteristic Judeo-Platonic-Stoic syncretism, Philo of Alexandria gives an exemplary description of the practice of wisdom in this passage from On the Special Laws [trans. F. H. Colson. (Loeb Classical Library), 2.44-49].

All who practice wisdom, either in Grecian or barbarian lands, and live a blameless and irreproachable life, choosing neither to inflict nor retaliate injustice, avoid the gathering of busybodies and abjure the scenes which they haunt, such as law-courts, council-chambers, markets, congregations and in general any gathering or assemblage of careless men. Their own aspirations are for a life of peace, free from warring. They are the closest observers of nature and all that it contains; earth, sea, air and heaven and the various forms of being which inhabit them are food for their research, as in mind and thought they share the ranging of the moon and sun and the ordered march of the other stars fixed and planetary. While their bodies are firmly planted on the land they provide their souls with wings, so that they may traverse the upper air and gain full contemplation of the powers which dwell there, as behoves true “cosmopolitans” who have recognized the world to be a city having for its citizens the associates of wisdom, registered as such by virtue to whom is entrusted the headship of the universal commonwealth. Such men filled with high worthiness, inured to disregard ills of the body or of external things, schooled to hold things indifferent as indeed indifferent, armed against the pleasures and lusts, ever eager to take their stand superior to the passions in general, trained to use every effort to overthrow the formidable menace which those passions have built up against them, never swerving under the blows of fortune because they have calculated beforehand the force of its assaults, since the heaviest adversities are lightened by anticipation, when the mind ceases to find anything strange in the event and apprehends it but dully as it might some stale and familiar story—such men, we say, in the delight of their virtues, naturally make their whole life a feast. These are indeed but a small number left in their cities like an ember of wisdom to smoulder, that virtue may not be altogether extinguished and lost to our race. But if only everywhere men had thought and felt as these few, and become what nature intended them to be, all of them blameless and guiltless and lovers of sound sense, rejoicing in moral excellence just because it is what it is and counting it the only true good and all the other goods but slaves and vassals, subject to their authority, the cities would have been brimful of happiness, utterly free from all that causes grief and fears, and packed with what produces joys and states of well-being, so that each season as it comes would give full opportunity for cheerful living and the whole cycle of the year would be a feast.

Philosophical practice involves a lifestyle of self-control or self-mastery (enkrateia), including a mastery of attention (prosoche) to all aspects of life. Peter Sloterdijk describes the subject of philosophical practice in terms of a sovereignty that requires a profound interruption of one’s integration into conventional lifestyles.

We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free […]. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society.
[Neither Sun nor Death, trans. S. Corcoran (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), 84]

10 thoughts on “The Practice of Wisdom

    1. Sloterdijk replied impatiently. “The Americans gave us this idea of multiculturalism that suited their society fine, but which, as software, is not compatible with our German hardware of the welfare state,” he said. “There’s this family metaphor spreading everywhere: the idea that all of humanity is our family. That idea helped destroy the Roman Empire. Now we’re in danger of letting that metaphor get out of control all over again. People are not ready to feel the full pressure of coexistence with billions of their contemporaries.”

    2. I think Jongen was just a student. “Disciple” is probably a bit of an overstatement. In any case, even aside from this guilt by association, Sloterdijk’s political statements and affiliations are, at best, a mixed bag. The political implications of his philosophy are quite rich though, particularly in light of his attack on the idea of the solitary individual.

      1. wasn’t he not just a student but an assistant,?
        that aside do we have much/any info on how PS has ever practice on his work what he has prescribed on the page?

      2. Alright, Jongen might have even been a disciple or devotee for that matter. I should probably concede that point.
        We do have a little bit of info and a lot of hints about some of Sloterdijk’s practices, especially in light of the copious interview material being published/translated. I would say that there are at least two practice regimes going on here. One thing is that Sloterdijk basically did the counter-cultural tour of his time, with communes and nakedness and therapy and trips to India and trips on psychedelics, hence some of his references to Ken Wilber, Rudolf Steiner, and Stanislav Grof. He might not do much of that anymore, but it seem formative. The other thing is that his reading and writing is itself a practice, in which case his voluminous output of baroque exaggerations is indicative of a deep dedication to a relatively esoteric scholarly practice, theoria. Also, he’s always very calm in interviews, so he might be a master of some kind of Stoic “apatheia.”

      3. I ask because I find that many people call for this kind of approach that Adam and you are outlining but they don’t actually give us any details of the how this is actually done and as we know there many folks who folks who thrive on writing speculative works about subjects that they don’t know how to actually perform.

      4. That’s a good point. Sloterdijk seems like an expert philosophical performer to me. When he writes about topics like design, it’s probably good to keep in mind that he’s not an expert performer of design, but he’s not writing as a designer. He’s writing as a philosopher, a scholar, and a contemplative/mystic. His television performances are exceedingly dull, but I attribute that to expert levels of Stoic training.

      5. if performing means academic sorts of tasks than ok he’s obviously has some success there.
        do you know if he has an actual stoic training, what it consists of, how would it be judged, etc?
        he’s infamous in Germany for his rants/fights and such.

      6. I think it’s safe to say that Sloterdijk has actual Stoic training. It might be hard to perfect, but Stoic training is not hard to get. It overlaps with a lot of academic sort of tasks (not to mention the close connection between academics and Plato’s Academy, which was a key model for Stoicism). Especially after Cicero, Stoicism has had a lot to do with sitting quietly and reading. It also consists of things like attention, inner freedom, indifference, cosmopolitanism, and system building. The specifics of the training and criteria for evaluation are elaborate, and understanding their classical formulation requires years of practice. There is considerable variation, from the early and late Stoa in the ancient world to neo-Stoicism today, like “Stoic pragmatism” (Lachs) and “new Stoicism” (Becker) and the ‘mind-hack’ and self-help varieties of Stoicism. Also, Stoicism doesn’t preclude syncretism, and it’s pretty clear that Sloterdijk has taken on a lot of Hellenistic teachings as well as mystical theologies and some countercultural commune and therapy stuff. His rants and fights are in line with his devotion to Diogenes. A lot of Hellenistic schools agree that there is no conventional measure of success for their training, since so much of the training is predicated on withdrawal from conventional standards.

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