Years ago, I added the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to my introductory philosophy course. Since then, students have reported on the evaluations that this is their reading, and some have even commented enthusiastically about the ways that it has changed their lives. This is consistent, semester after semester. They find Aurelius striking because they find in him someone actually telling them how to live a good life. They are familiar with self-help literature and self-improvement YouTube channels, but they notice in these a conspicuous lack of engagement with the fundamental questions of truth. Conversely, many of them have taken philosophy or ethics classes, but they have come to expect that these classes will engage abstract questions of ethical dilemmas or large-scale social troubles, leaving untouched the misery of their own lives and their perplexity at how to do anything about it.
The self-help literature is full of specific, practical instructions but devoid of ethics, while the ethics literature is full of top-level theorization but devoid of practical instruction. The self-help literature will tell you exactly how to improve your life, but will avowedly refrain from defining “improve,” since you get to define it however you want. The ethical literature will speculate endlessly about the meaning of “improve” but will never tell you how to get there.
I have further observed that this split in literature matches a split in personality types behind the books. The self-help types tend to be business people or personal trainers, very healthy, frequently smiling, very practical, untroubled by ultimate questions. The philosophy types tend to be academics and intellectuals, very deep, frequently anxious, very serious, not so healthy.
I have two theories about how we ended up at this division. First, by further and further specializing their disciplines, academics have cultivated the habit of “bracketing off” questions that touch on other departments just so that they can get their arguments on the table. The biologist brackets off questions of philosophy, and the philosopher brackets off questions of biology. Before long, the biologist develops a whole vocabulary for thinking about every question—a vocabulary that systematically avoids those pesky philosophical concerns. Conversely, the philosopher develops a whole vocabulary that avoids knowing anything about the details of biology. The self-help literature frames itself as the practical application of science (even when the actual science is dubious), while the ethical literature remains entrenched in the world of philosophical theory.
My second theory touches closer to the root, I think. In the ancient world, philosophy was divided into three sub-divisions: metaphysics, logic, and ethics; Sometimes into two: theoretical and practical. The ethical or practical branches of philosophy covered everything which touched upon the question, “How should we live?” Hence, ancient philosophers will mingle together speculation about the nature of the good life with practical advice concerning how to get there. Importantly for our purposes, they will also treat side-by-side questions of how to improve oneself and questions of how to treat others. The good man will, among other aspects of his good life, treat others with justice and cultivate friendships, so questions about the nature of justice or friendship are not foreign to questions of self-improvement.
By contrast, the dominant approaches to ethics in modern times have come to treat more and more exclusively questions about the treatment of others. Just think, for example, about what administrators have in mind when they hire an “ethicist” at a hospital. One frequently encounters in the modern literature the charge that ancient “eudaimonistic” theories are narcissistic and self-seeking. But this misses the point. From the ancient perspective, it isn’t a choice between egoism and altruism, between self and other. It’s a choice between good and evil.
I believe this shift in theoretical focus has corresponded to a broad shift in popular sentiment. Morality is more and more seen as exclusively concerned with the treatment of others—whether you will ever figure out how to live a good life is up to you and your personal preference. Indeed, the way one aims at a good life comes to be conceptualized as a “lifestyle.” Just stroll through the self-help aisle at your local Barnes & Noble and pick the cover that most aligns with your fantasized future.
My guess is that self-help literature as a distinct genre came into existence precisely to fill the void left by ethics. People want to live a good life—desperately. It isn’t always clear just what constitutes a good life, and it’s much less clear how to overcome the perennial obstacles in the way of living it even once you know what it is. When philosophers quit the task, people grope for answers and gravitate toward any guru who offers them.
In order to provide full-blooded guidance, philosophy must talk about passions like gluttony, lust, and greed. It must articulate the interplay of other-oriented virtues like justice with self-oriented virtues like discipline and integrity. And it must provide concrete spiritual practices that realistically move us toward the achievement of virtue and goodness. So long as ethics abdicates these questions, we will have self-help aisles at Barnes & Noble—So long as churches abdicate these questions, we will have self-help aisles at Barnes & Noble, but that’s a story for another essay.