Matthew Sharpe | Philosophy as a Way of Life



Assoc. Prof. Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, and since 2010 has increasingly been teaching Stoic contents, and engaging with modern Stoicism.  He is working at present on a book-length study of the history of philosophy as a way of life (with Michael Ure) which will appear in 2020/21.  He is also the cotranslator of The Selected Writings of Pierre Hadot (with Federico Testa), which will be available from May 14 this year [link below].  Matt has appeared at Stoicon where he spoke on Stoicism and comedy [link and article below], and has published widely on Albert Camus, including a piece on Camus and Stoicism to mark the 60th anniversary of his death (January 2020 [link below])


  • Hadot believed that if we can understand what the philosophers were doing in the context of their time, and if you can understand what the relationship was between teachers of philosophy and their students, then we can bring those formulas into our modern day and use them to help us with modern issues which we face. 
  • The relationship between students and philosophical teachers was somewhat of a “life coach” kind of approach. It was a teacher trying to help his students to live better lives and to enhance every area of their life using philosophical techniques and practices. 
  • The questions around what it means to life a good life will never go out of fashion, so we should keep them on our mind constantly when studying philosophy so that we can see the time-tested solutions which the ancient philosophers offered. These solutions can help us to face the ups and downs of life with strength and courage, including in our relationships, our careers and our purpose. 
  • The modern personal development movement is almost a rebranding of philosophy in the context of a consumerist society. 
  • “Consumerism offers you images of happiness and it promises you products, and it shows you that these external things will make you happy.” We now know that tis doesn’t work. 
  • Where there’s a need, there will be people to fill that need. People are searching for motivation to achieve more and get more stuff, and so the modern personal development movement has filled that vacuum. 
  • Philosophy offers a different approach - one that is centred not around getting more stuff but around getting more wisdom. 
  • Stoicism offers a way of life just as does the personal development movement, and the exercises offered by Stoicism are tailored towards the attainment of the end goal of Stoicism. 
  • There are many principles taught by personal development leaders which resemble what the ancient philosophers taught. For example, Tony Robins teaches that we should live our lives as if life is happening FOR us and not TO us. This is very similar to what the Stoics taught about fate; that we should accept it as it comes and make the most of it. 
  • Matthew suggests starting with Epictetus’s manual where he starts by saying that we should focus on what we can control, and that we should forget the rest which is outside our control. 
  • Epictetus is a brilliant place to start because he’s all about practicality. He’s focused on the action that must be attached to a philosophical life. 
  • We need to use our philosophy throughout our lives and we need to embrace a process of trial and error constantly.
  • Every moment we are being bombarded with perceptions which are interpreting the world around us. In this way, the philosophical journey is one of constant introspection and questioning as to the correct response from one’s perceptions. 
  • Philosophy is best practiced in real life, and it should be a process of allowing the ideas and teachings to seep into your daily habits over time. 
  • Happiness is not a sprint - it’s a long distance race. 
  • Philosophy should aid our development of better habits which add to, rather than subtract from our lives. 
  • Like going to the gym, starting a journey of philosophy is one that requires a long-term approach. Stopping for a while will make it even harder to keep the habit, so it should be a daily process. It won’t give you immediate results, but it will change you over time. 
  • Training yourself with philosophy is exactly like training your body for a sport. It takes discipline and attention to detail. 
  • We need, as Epictetus taught, a balance of self-scrutiny and self-kindness. We need to recognise that we won’t be perfect, but that we can always make small progress which leads to massive results. 
  • Train your mind just as you would train the body. It takes the same patience and discipline. 
  • Socrates came along and warned people that they were paying too much attention to money, power, prestige, and other externals, and that they could probably spend more time attending to their own soul. This is the purpose of philosophy - to attend to your own soul. 
  • We don’t need to withdraw from society, but Stoicism offers an approach where we can control our externals rather than them controlling us. Focus on your own soul and let the rest take care of itself. 
  • We’ve largely become puppets, and Stoicism/philosophy offers us the tools to free ourselves from our perceived puppet-masters so that we can run our own lives. 
  • The goal of Stoicism, according to Seneca, is to achieve the serenity of the gods while being vulnerable as mortals. 
  • Through Stoicism one can achieve a kind of everlasting confidence that no matter what happens, things will be ok. This comes from realising that no matter what happens to you and no matter what people do or say to you, you can always try to make the most virtuous decision possible. 
  • Too often we focus on what could have happened in life or on what we would like to happen, but Stoicism centres us and makes us realise that the only thing you can control is how you respond to life right now. Life may have not gone great in the past, but you can always move on and focus simply on how to live your life now. 
  • Matthew offers this analogy: you don’t have to let the vampire into the house. He can stand out there and wait around, and if you don’t let him in then he won’t suck your blood. Likewise, certain negative emotions will always be knocking at your door, but if you don’t let them in then they won’t take over you. 
  • The Stoics encouraged us to have a healthy caution in life. It isn’t fear, but it’s just a recognition that you’re on a certain path and that there are things that could lead you down paths that are unworthy of your attention. 
  • Although the Stoics do offer a path to confidence by a recognition that fate will happen whether you like it or not, the caution comes into play so that we can navigate ourselves effectively. 
  • Some things don’t need to be answered as much as they need to be appreciated. Marcus Aurelius marvelled at the happenings of Nature, an example being when he talked about the beauty of the cracks which form on the top of a freshly baked crust of bread. 
  • Epictetus taught that everything has two handles. We choose which handle we grip. This can also help us if used in conjunction with Epictetus’ theory on duty ethics. 
  • Example: your brother deceives you or tries to harm you. You have two handles. The first: he’s a jerk and should be treated as such. The second: he’s your brother, so treat him as a brother. 
  • We’re encouraged to fulfil our duties to the best of our abilities. This means assessing the various roles we play in life and trying to fulfil those roles to the best of our abilities. 
  • Once you’ve made your decision to go down a certain path, or to grip one handle, don’t look back. Make your choice and own it. 
  • We can sometimes resent the fact that our various duties may be interfering with our path towards other goals, but this, too, is a deception in the mind. As the saying goes; act dedicated and you will become dedicated. 
  • Everything takes work, and if you want to see beautiful fruits from your various duties, like fatherhood or in your career, then you need to begin by giving these roles the discipline and attention that they need. 
  • A standard chart of a person’s happiness might look like waves, sometimes they’re happy and sometimes not. A Stoic is encouraged to completely transform his or her life, and a happiness chart may look more like a steady incline towards greater flourishing in life. 
  • Question the reasons why you don’t want to give everything you’ve got to your relationship or your other various duties or roles. If you can’t be happy fulfilling them, what makes you think you’ll be any happier going down another path? 
  • Read Pierre Hadot’s “Philosophy as a Way of Life.”
  • Philosophy is not merely an intellectual pursuit, but rather it is a journey of seeking answers to the meaningful questions of life. 
  • Anyone can practice philosophy - it’s not just for the elite. It is simply a process of thinking deeply about how one should live life. 
  • Philosophy involves exercising the mind and body, practicing better living and improving one’s understanding on the world and our fellow people. 
  • Marcus Aurelius is a perfect example of someone who embodied what it means to live a life of philosophy - a true love of wisdom. He went about his duties, and he never stopped asking questions about how he could better serve himself and his fellow humans.