To escape consumerism, moral degradation and the general decay of modern society, Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond. In his words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.” Can those of us chained to a desk in order to support ourselves or our families confront these big questions without taking a year long sabbatical? Perhaps taking minibreaks on a daily basis to read the great philosophers may provide us with “medicine for the soul.” As I head out to the lake for a 14-day retreat, I am packing along some titles that will help me ponder how to “live deliberately.”
Can we meet the challenges of modern life using the tools of ancient wisdom? This is the premise of the Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. He channels philosophers from Aristotle to Nietzsche who provide consolation for unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy and other common afflictions. The School of Life, a storefront lyceum in London founded by de Botton, offers classes and workshops on such topics as “How to make a difference” or “How to fill the god-shaped hole.”
The School of Life even offers a bibliotherapy service. Following a comprehensive interview, your personal reading consultant (we call them reader’s advisors at WPL) will prescribe a list of books that will cure your particular ailment or “illuminate and even change your life.” View their sample prescriptions for common reading aliments here.
The Happiness Project, a blog turned best selling book by Gretchen Ruben, recounts her year “test driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.” A modern day Thoreau, Ruben had a sudden realization that she was in danger of wasting her life. Seeing the years slipping by she decided to embark on a quest to discover what she really wanted from life. She consulted “experts” from Bertrand Russell to Oprah as well as current research into positive psychology in search of how to live the good life. Her experiment resulted in the book and The Happiness Project Toolbox available online for anyone who wants to explore for themselves.
How Philosophy Can Save Your Life by Marietta McCarty, a philosophy professor, presents ten ideas that merit quiet reflection or discussion. She provides questions that will stimulate fiery debates on big thoughts. She assigns “homework” in the form of practical exercises and resources to help individuals or philosophy clubs contemplate the concepts that lead to living a truly fulfilling life.
There are many paths to follow and as Groucho Marx once said “If you don’t like my principles, I’ve got others.” But, as Gertrude Stein opined “There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.”