Philosophy as a Way of Life—IV—Only the present is our happiness

by Massimo Pigliucci

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote a letter to his long-time correspondent, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, to lament our inability to live in the present moment, to grasp its essential healthiness. The Greco-Romans, says Goethe, understood that the present is pregnant with meaning, and to them it was sufficient in itself. By contrast, Goethe continues, for us moderns the ideal is the future, while we consider the present to be banal.

“Then the spirit looks neither ahead nor behind. Only the present is our happiness.” (Second Faust)

Pierre Hadot—in his Philosophy as a Way of Life—reminds us of Goethe’s analysis, adding that the ancients articulated the concept of kairos, the favorable or decisive instant. To be able to grasp the kairos is the key to our accomplishments. For instance, a good general strikes when the kairos is right; a good artist fixes in marble or on canvas the best kairos of whatever scene she is working on; and so forth.

But Hadot also warns against idealizing the Greco-Romas, thinking that they somehow managed to live a life of bliss and lack of stress. On the contrary, they were just as burdened by the past and preoccupied for the future as we are. And that’s exactly what prompted the evolution of life philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism. In fact. to “convert” to a philosophical way of life means, to a great extent, to develop a renewed appreciation for the healthiness of the moment as a way to achieve serenity. … (continue at Substack)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

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