At some point, western philosophy became alienated from its original intention: to help people live well. Pierre Hadot, a historian of philosophy, pointed out the difference between philosophy practiced, on the one hand, as a way of life (as Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans did) and, on the other hand, philosophy practiced as mere discourse. Much contemporary philosophy is practiced as discourse—conversations about fascinating and meaningful ideas. However, this characterization is not universally true. One man who brought back to the modern, western world a welcome cross-pollination between living and thinking was B.K.S. Iyengar, an Indian teacher, author and yogi who died in August at the age of 95.
When listening to NPR's radio obituary on Iyengar recently, I was struck by the incredible similarity between his description of the goal of yoga and an Epicurean doctrine. At one point, Iyengar says: “Goal - one to be free from the afflictions of body and mind. So when the afflictions are gone, one is in heaven.” We can find a nearly identical sentiment preserved in a 14th century Vatican manuscript of Epicurean teachings: "The cry of the flesh is not to be hungry, thirsty, or cold; for he who is free of these and is confident of remaining so might rival even Zeus for happiness."
From these statements it is possible to draw four significant parallels between Iyengar’s philosophical teachings and Epicureanism. (1) Each is a committed way of life—if you are a serious yogi or Epicurean, you don’t just follow that path for a day or two. Rather, that path animates your life in an ongoing way. (2) Both revolve around a community with shared meeting times or meals—yogis congregate in studios or more traditionally at ashrams while Epicureans initially lived together in Epicurus’ garden, while later Epicureans lived in communes. (3) These communities share an ideal that Iyengar calls being "free from the afflictions of body and mind,” or as we saw in the Epicurean doctrine, to be free from the “cry of the flesh.” (4) Both use particular practices such as health programs, mantras of key doctrines, or dietary guidelines to help their disciples strive after their goals. Pierre Hadot suggests that these four characteristics are the essential features of ancient philosophy.
It is amazing to think that a practice so ancient is alive in so many places today. Even if a person does not practice yoga, we can all appreciate the dedication and love that Iyengar infused into his practice and teaching. Is Iyengar yoga philosophy? If we say yes to this question, then what should we call "philosophy"? What makes something philosophical besides being part of a tradition? Must we read certain texts? Pray to certain gods? Use certain arguments? Practice certain physical postures? If you want to explore these questions further, you might want to become a P.E.L. citizen (if you are not already) and join my Not School group (the new iteration of the Intro Readings in Philosophy group) called “Show Me How to Live: Essential Texts in Ancient Greek Philosophy." We will be reading a variety of ancient texts to see if we can figure out what philosophy was to these authors. Doing so will place us in a position to examine what philosophy is for us today.
Suggested Further Reading:
Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot
What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot
Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar