I have a guilty pleasure to confess. OK, it’s not that embarrassing. It’s just that I like to read self-help books. It’s exciting (and funny, and unbelievable) when an author thinks he has the keys to greater happiness, or weight loss, or getting rich.
At various points in history, it’s been the job of philosophers to write such things. See ancient philosophy especially, and read the handbook of the stoic philosopher Epictetus, if you haven’t already. It’s a list of tips for good living—53 in all. It could have been called 53 Secrets of a Better Life, if only Epictetus had had a good editor.
My new book The Weight of Things is about what it is to live a good life. I look at this as a philosophical question, exploring all sorts of possible answers. There’s no advice in the book. But when you think about it, if you say a good life is X, that can be translated into advice. If a good life is X, then there are things you should and shouldn’t do. If Epictetus could offer 53 bits of advice, couldn’t I have come up with 10…and called my book 10 Secrets of a Better Life? And made lots and lots of money?The primary secret in Epictetus is that we tend to obsess about outer things, when it's really inner things--virtue, in a word--that both matters and can be controlled. Most of the other 52 tips proceed from that starting point. It's no wonder Epictetus is still read today. This is a comforting idea. If you buy it, you'll get an increased sense of being able to control your own destiny.
Is there a comforting central idea in my book? If there is, it's the idea that there are many necessities, things we must aim for to live good lives. Gee, that sounds bewildering, not comforting. The comfort in it (if there is any) is that if you find yourself unwilling to put all your eggs in one basket, that's as it should be. Whatever one thing you are focussed on, there really are other things worthy of your attention and effort.
The charm of Epictetus is that he uses philosophical ideas to help people with everyday problems--how should you react if your slave spills the precious oil, or breaks your favorite pot? To achieve the same effect, I'd have to help people with today's aggravations. What should you do if your husband spends too much time online? Should you miss an important work meeting to go to your child's soccer game?
The problem with coming up with 10 secrets or 53 secrets is that I think the pleasure of philosophy is that it lives in a space of uncertainty, where considerations point in this direction, but on further reflection, they point in that direction. A list of secrets is missing the electricity of argument and counterargument. For all that self-help books are fun and Epictetus is charming, I can't follow their lead.
So much for 10 Secrets of a Better Life.