Illustration: Simon LetchWhat can ancient philosophers teach us about living well in the modern age?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, for starters. Pursue a life of long-term meaning. And acknowledge your emotions.
These are among the concepts being explored at a conference starting on Friday at the University of NSW. Jointly organised by researchers at UNSW, the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney, In pursuit of wisdom brings together international philosophers and academics to examine ancient Greek and Chinese prescriptions for a good life.
The conference aims to further debate, shifting the focus from what the good life means to how one can be nurtured.
One of the convenors, Associate Professor Karyn Lai, from UNSW’s School of Humanities and Languages, said philosophical research often focused on ideals rather than practicalities. But there was also an emphasis in the ancient Greek and Chinese traditions on cultivation – the work needed to develop the abilities and skills to live well.
“There’s a lot of examples of cultivating not just the intellect, but also the body, cultivating certain skills,” she said. “The way we tend to view knowledge in the West is very cerebral. This conference [examines] what it takes to put that knowledge into practice.
“The emphasis in these traditions on practice, experimentation and performance could change the way we think about knowledge, learning and education.”
Associate Professor Lai said the Chinese tradition encouraged discipline, imitation and drilling. They may not sound enjoyable, but underpin many things that are, including sport and the arts.
“I do think in Australian society we tend to see [drilling] as quite negative … because we want [children] to be creative and if they’re imitating others the creative juices will never run,” she said.
“But a child can’t just be creative without knowing what goes on before them. In my work I use the example of great musicians, where they’re creative in their performance, they’re wonderfully sensitive, but this comes with years and years of hateful scale practising.”
Mistakes were also important in the ancient traditions, Associate Professor Lai said.
“If we want to teach children well, we insist they have to keep trying,” she said. “If you’re frightened of making mistakes you’re never going to take up a challenge, which means you’ll never be good. Only in making your own mistakes do you learn.” Five elements of a good life:Beauty: Understanding that beauty has a central place in our moral life. Beauty can be a reason for action: often, a good answer to “Why should I do x?” is “Because x is the beautiful thing to do.” (from Sophocles and Aristotle).Harmony: Living a life that is balanced, and that has composition – long-term meaning from beginning to end (from Plato and Confucius).Inquiry and awareness: Being aware of the world and your environment, noticing what has changed, responding with spontaneity (from Daoist philosophy).Don’t shy from difficulty: Be prepared to try things out and to make mistakes. Do the hard yards. Develop your physical, intellectual and moral ‘muscles’. Entertain paradoxes and engage your imagination (from Greek, Confucian and Daoist philosophy).Harness your emotions: Cultivate and harness your emotions rather than deny them or pretend they don’t exist. Emotions are a central part of our moral existence (from Stoic, Confucian, Daoist philosophy).
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