Philosophy as a Way of Life

Philosophy as a Way of Life

By: Donna Woodwell

By outward appearances, Neo lived an unremarkable life. He slept, ate, went to work. Yet a nagging feeling something was not as it appeared persisted. His search led him to take the red pill, and wake up to a more-real reality he never before imagined.

Nice plot for the sci-fi hit movie The Matrix. But screenwriting siblings the Wachowskis consciously tipped their hats to the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. The admonition to “Wake Up!” has a long history in Western culture.

Of course, the Greeks didn’t have a red pill. But they did have a sophisticated theories of of the meta-physical. In the agora and in their living rooms, philosophers debated how creation moved from a transcendent unity, the One, to the multiplicity of manifestations populating our mundane world. These “theories of emanations” provided model they used to explore how to (re)unite with that transcendent, divine “light.”

These “lovers of wisdom,” were not simply talking about ephemeral theories, they were, in the words of French scholar Pierre Hadot, pursuing “philosophy as a way of life.” They developed practical techniques – “spiritual exercises” – to cultivate an interior landscape conducive to the experience of joy; compassion and equanimity in the face of suffering; as well as emotional and mental self-mastery. In other words, such exercises blazed a Western path toward enlightenment, toward connecting oneself to a more direct experience of the divine light.

Such exercises were familiar (and practiced by) the Greek and Roman philosophers, including those involved with the development of astrology. Pieces of this knowledge were preserved in classical texts, inherited by the early Catholic Church and preserved in monastic orders.

However, unlike the early days of the Church, the Greeks and Roman philosophers did not necessarily divorce themselves from the mundane affairs of daily life to contemplate mystical union. Instead they saw their ordinary actions and reactions as a kind of laboratory for studying themselves, their thoughts and their reactions.  Through vigilant self-examination, questioning and reflection, they sought to discover how to shift emotions and thought processes.

One key concept was prosoche, an ever-vigilant attention to oneself. Something akin to today’s practice of mindfulness, prosoche necessitated an around-the-clock witnessing of one’s actions, emotions and thoughts.  Insights gained from this self-observation provided the raw ingredient for discovering how one’s psyche functioned. This, in conjunction with other exercises, provided a formula for achieving more expanded states of awareness which created a fertile ground for union with one’s divine spark.


Donna Woodwell is an instructor at Kepler and has worked with these exercises as part of her own metaphysical training, which has included shamanic healing, Hermetic magic, and the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.