These days philosophy is mostly an academic discipline. People sit around thinking, reading, and debating. Such things are wonderful in the context of a fuller life, but there is more to life than talk and contemplation. Sometimes life is downright hard. And either way the life comes from making something good out of whatever is given to you. This is why I came to philosophy, to face life and to grow. This is practical philosophy, as contrasted with academic philosophy. I find that half the academic philosophers I speak to are very positive about this other approach, while the other half often look at me with narrowed eyes, as to be anything other than a scholar is to be a charlatan. In reality that accusation is nothing more than a cover story for territorial egotism, yet it is nonetheless an invitation to give robust expression to what practical philosophy is, and in particular to what philosophy in counselling is.
Ancient philosophy involved pure contemplation on the one hand, and on the other many philosophers who reflected in order to live well. That was the point: philosophical reflection must be grounded in the realities of life, and it must change how we live. These ancient philosophers were concerned with truth, but equally with the effect of speaking the truth. This is why Socrates is the paradigm philosopher, and why his conversation looked so different to modern academics. He wanted people to seriously examine their lives. He wanted us to strive for greater truthfulness, goodness, and beauty in our way of living. For him philosophy should lead to an increase in virtue, flourishing, meaning, and goodness. If it does not, then it does not matter how logical and clever it is. People imagine that Socrates was concerned with our becoming more logical. Read the dialogues of Socrates' and you will conclude that reason was merely a tool for him, in the service of those higher values and goals.
Socrates confronted people with the need to examine their lives. He was executed for this. Real philosophy is dangerous. This is why every totalitarian regime seeks to stifle it, for it makes us more free. It is dangerous for individuals also, for it challenges us to use that freedom well.
The role of philosophy in my work is Socratic. I help you take stock of your life and clarify your mindset. We seek a better vision of what your life can be. And we set about actively making that happen: shaping heart and mind. This is the adventure of philosophy at its best.
For a practical philosopher like myself, the true measure of philosophy is this: does it make life better?
Some books of philosophy to start with
I recommend Plato's The Apology and the Symposium, both of which feature Socrates in dialogue.
One of my favourite philosophers alive today is Raimond Gaita, and I recommend his memoir Romulus, My Father, which shows the spirit behind philosophy in the context of his challenging childhood in 1950s rural Victoria.
Ryan Holiday has written some great modern books of Stoic philosophy, such as The Obstacle is the Way.
James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven and a half years and drew on Stoic philosophy to survive the life of torture and lead his fellow prisoners. You can read his story here.