CM Magazine Cover
From Vol. 5, Issue 2, February 2023

The importance of philosophical friends

Practicing Stoicism || Sharon Lebell

View PDF Back to Latest Issue

The ‘aloneness’ of wisdom seekers

The archetype of the philosopher as exemplified, for example, by Rodin’s famous bronze sculpture, “The Thinker” is deeply lodged in our collective imagination. What does this image tell us about who a philosopher is, what a philosopher does, and what a philosopher values? With his right elbow resting on his left thigh, his body and presumably his attention are torqued inward. This figure is meant to signify deep contemplation. He is a solid, naked, heroiclooking man. He is alone. Is this image of the human quest for wisdom the one to which we would aspire?

Both ancient Stoics and modern students of Stoic principles and practice pose a challenge to this solitary, introverted representation of the true philosopher. It’s not that the image is evil or wrong; it’s just insufficient, because it eclipses the essential communal dimension of the philosophical life. Where we live most of the time is not alone but in relationship. We inhabit these relationships not as solitary heroes, but as very imperfect but well-meaning human beings. A life well-lived is one that is rooted in honest, if sometimes clumsy or halfbaked dialog: with our family, with our work mates, with our friends, and with ourselves. The best ideas are tested and honed by dialog with others.

Finding people who summon the best in us

Throughout the Western philosophical tradition, we encounter the importance of finding people who summon the best in us, who prevent us from drifting into the excesses of grandiosity, delusion, or selfloathing to which the solitary thinker is prey. The practice of philosophy, which is the effort to live life honourably and truthfully, is best nourished by carefully chosen friends who share our ideals and view the idea of virtue with reverence. It’s not that fun isn’t allowed, but fun, ease, and confirmation of one’s view of the world are not the guiding ideals of the philosophical life.

The comfort of echo chambers

How tempting it is to surround ourselves with people who merely mirror our biases, inhabit a similar demographic, reinforce our long-held interests, and praise us no matter what we do our say. This is the easy, convenient approach to friendship and to life more broadly, and it is as common as it is socially acceptable. However convenience is not a hallmark of the philosophical life.

I recently visited a friend at his office where I spied a small line of text taped to his desk. It said “Is it supposed to be convenient?” That’s it: Is philosophy, a well-lived life, supposed to be convenient? Of course it isn’t. When you think about it, everything that is precious is inconvenient in some way. If you are to build a great love with another person, you have to care so much that you go out of your way, you take extra time to do things to caretake that love. If you are a woodworker constructing a gorgeous cabinet with an eye toward the highest level of craftsmanship, the process will not be easy, efficient, or convenient. For everything that is truly of value, be it raising a child, building a business, making a work of art, we have to drop comfort, efficiency, and most of all convenience, to give our hearts, minds, and time over to our most sacred of tasks.

The beauty of inconvenience

The philosopher sees the beauty of inconvenience: perhaps the inconvenience that accompanies caring about others and worthy causes and making beautiful things, and fixing the broken. A worthy philosophical friend reminds us of this fact every time they urge us on to choose valour over expediency.

I am optimistic about the growing emphasis on philosophical conversation within communities of like-minded individuals. It is exciting to see the growing number of groups around the world, both in person and online, who are building deeply-caring philosophical societies. We are watching the solitary philosopher rise from his rock and his introversion to seek earnest connection with philosophical friends. Coffee is being shared along with the questions that weigh most on our hearts. Perhaps this emerging communal approach to living the philosophical life might be a model for how we might all cooperate to solve some of our world’s most urgent problems.

Sharon Lebell is a founding member of the Walled Garden Philosophical Society and the author of The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness.