Philosophy is often associated with Big Questions such as ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ or ‘What is the purpose of life?’ Ancient philosophers were particularly interested in the ways philosophy could help us living better lives, that is, feeling better about ourselves. Thinkers like Epicurus and Seneca became models of a new kind of virtue no longer driven by public honours and reputation but by the demands of an ‘authentic’ life, reflecting the true nature of each individual. The theoretical purpose of philosophy is to instil in its practitioners an independent way of thinking founded on the use of critical reason and logic. But what about its more immediate practical applications? Philosophy can play a therapeutic role in our lives and help us achieve some degree of inner peace though the lessons learnt by past thinkers. Philosophers are often wrongly portrayed as ‘misery guts’ too happy to delve into our tragic human condition and the prospect of our inescapable personal extinction. After all, Jean-Paul Sartre had to deny the ludicrous accusation that existentialism was intent upon celebrating ‘the sordid and the base’ in humanity while ‘ignoring beauty and the brighter side of human nature.’
Being ‘philosophical’ necessarily implies a unique way of perceiving and judging the world around us without being fooled by its deceptive trappings. To become a Sartrean existentialist requires the same radical open-mindedness as Plato’s prospective philosopher leaving his cave of ignorance behind. The sceptic Epicurus remarked that the key to well-being lies in clearly understanding the distinction between desires that are natural and necessary and those which we may chase for most of our life only to find them hopelessly transient or simply unattainable. Philosophy tells us about accepting our own limitations and gradually becoming impervious to false hopes and empty temptations. The Renaissance man, Michel de Montaigne, had the walls of his library tower covered in words of wisdom from his favourite ancient philosophers. His main ambition was to understand himself better and come to terms with all the confusing aspects of his complex personality. Montaigne was not pursuing some eternal, absolute truth but his own personal truth. In this respect, he aimed to think and live ‘philosophically’ and fully accept his ‘true’ self, warts and all. At a time of religious wars and growing sophistication in the arts, Montaigne was not afraid to strip his ego on the page and invite his readers to share his most inner desires and fears. His famous saying that ‘to philosophize is to become accustomed to the idea of death’ is an echo of Epicurus’ comment that ‘death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.’ Like Montaigne, every true lover of philosophy eventually finds his own personal ‘therapist’ , the philosopher who shares his vision of existence and brings him comfort when he most needs it. For it is, indeed, in times of uncertainty and crisis that philosophy reveals itself as the cathartic antidote to a reality suddenly perceived as too oppressive to bear.