Thursday, 1 October 2015
IS PHILOSOPHY JUST A HOBBY - Part 4
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” - Henry David Thoreau
RR: Last week we agreed that this time we would talk about how philosophy can be a way of life. Since then I have read some philosophy and started a journal, but I could use some more guidance. For one thing, it’s hard for me to figure out where to start, what to write about.
Don’t worry about that too much. You have already started a philosophical approach to life: you’re reading, you have the two attitudes of deep curiosity and deep skepticism, so you can let them take you wherever they may at first. You will soon get a sense of what the pressing issues are for you at any particular time. Putting your conclusions into some sort of order can wait a while. But let’s back up a bit.
First of all - you may have discovered this already - philosophy is intrinsically satisfying. Like art for artists, it’s something philosophers value for its own sake. Sometimes it can even be fun.
Philosophical curiosity can also expand your appreciation of life’s ordinary wonders. A great example of this is Robert Rowland Smith’s Breakfast With Socrates (2009) in which he takes you through an ordinary day in the company of some of the great philosophers past and present who offer insights on what you are doing hour-by-hour and what you can learn by reflecting in different ways on those activities.
For example, Chapter 1 is titled “Waking Up.” One of our members talked about this at a recent meeting. If you think deeply about it, he said, you can’t help but realize what an amazing event waking up is. Smith agrees and has superstar philosophers Descartes, Kant, and Hegel show you just how deep you can go with this while you’re sipping your breakfast coffee. Later at the gym, the social historian Michel Foucault works out beside you and cautions that your exercise routine may be a form of social control. Karl Marx sits beside you at work and whispers in your ear about why you’re feeling alienated toward what you do for a living. The titles of other chapters - “Going to the Doctor,” “Shopping,” Cooking and Eating Dinner,” “Arguing With Your Partner” - raise all kinds of deep questions about what you do in your average day. Are you as thoughtful about your life as you could be? Do you take too much for granted? Is your freedom needlessly constrained by your own complacency? If thinking about your life in this way doesn’t lead you to make some changes, I’ll be surprised.
RR: So I can get ideas about what to think about just from looking more carefully at my everyday activities and from my reading.
That’s usually the way it works. Conversation with others will also stimulate your thinking. These days access to online blogs and forums is a terrific advantage to philosophers. The Internet allows you to keep up with developments in the natural sciences, social sciences, psychology, and popular culture, too. All of those are important for developing a comprehensive worldview, which in turn will affect your life.
Suppose you see the late George Carlin’s routine “Too Much Stuff,” a wicked put-down of consumerism. You look at your own life and realize you have too much stuff. What’s up with that? You realize that buying more and more stuff you don’t need doesn’t really improve your life. It leaves you feeling empty after the first flush of retail ecstasy. It has to do with boredom, perhaps status-seeking - keeping up with the Joneses - or just being a sucker for advertising. Your inner philosopher will no longer tolerate that. You start downsizing your ownership, hold a garage sale (Socrates is there in his tattered cloak, nodding his approval), perhaps even join the voluntary simplicity movement. You’ve become freer, more your own person.
RR: Speaking of my own person, that’s another aspect I want to talk about. I see that philosophical thinking can help me change my external lifestyle, but what about my inner life? Can philosophy help me with that, or do I need counselling or maybe watch Oprah more often?
I don’t watch Oprah, so I can’t advise you about her, but I do notice that every cover of her magazine displays herself in some new fashionable outfit and radiating the joy of being Oprah. So I’m not sure she can help you with your shopping addiction or your narcissism. Without getting too personal, what’s bothering you?
RR: Well, I’m not as bad off as the guy on Ted Talk …. you remember - Jules Evans, who talked about how philosophy saved his life. But I’ve got hang-ups and habits I don’t like, so I’d like to know how, or if, philosophy can help me work on those to become a happier person.
Let me guess: you suffer stress in your job, home life, relationships with friends or a lover; you’re worried about financial or job security or your health; you’re lonely, experience a lot of boredom, watch too much TV, eat too much, drink too much, party too much, and so on. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with what you’re doing or achieving in life; you have a generally bad opinion of yourself; you don’t measure up to other people you think are more successful or happier than you. I could go on. Any or all of the above?
RR: Not all, but some of them, yes - actually quite a few of them.
Welcome to the human race. Your condition is what earns the psychiatric profession and the vast self-help industry billions of dollars every year. Well, let’s see, you can pay $80 - $200 an hour for psychotherapy. Are you up for that?
RR: No, I can’t afford it.
Philosophy is definitely cheaper, and besides your neuroticism is quite normal. There’s no need for you to pay big bucks for therapy, unless you insist on taking Woody Allen for your role model. Look, start with this astonishing insight: the world is not structured so as to guarantee your happiness. In fact, happiness as we define it may not be what life is about at all. The Buddha taught that life is dukkha which means ‘disappointing’ or ‘unsatisfactory.’ He taught an 8-point approach to life leading to liberation from the inner turmoil that we all suffer from. It includes very specific daily practices for gradually transforming your life toward greater self-control and peace of mind. So Buddhism is one philosophy you can check out. It’s popular these days; you’ll have no trouble finding information and teachers.
RR: I admire Buddhism and I’ve looked into other spiritual systems. But they’re not really for me; I’m just not into meditation.
Ok, there are options. In the West, academic philosophy is not a lot of help. The practical wisdom traditions of the ancient world are pretty much ignored in university programs, which is unfortunate. The Graeco-Roman sages, for example, knew all about the problems of living - ignorance, delusion, fear of death, the difficulty of controlling the 'passions' (emotions, impulses). They were more concerned with virtue and building character than with philosophical theory. They had plenty of advice and even training programs for the perplexed. Luckily for people like you, those traditions are not dead. Some of them - Epicureanism and Stoicism for example - are making a comeback in our time. I’m especially impressed with an organization called Stoicism Today which offers books and online courses on Stoic philosophy and practice. Why don’t you check out their website at http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/stoicismtoday/ and see if it appeals to you?
In the meantime, here’s something you can start doing as soon we finish here. It’s similar to the Stoic use of maxims. For the rest of your day, whenever some negative emotion comes up, say to yourself, “I am not my feelings.” Do it for at least a week and record the results in your journal . If you like what the practice does for you, keep it up for the rest of your life. There are many other techniques for you to experiment with.
Gotta go. It’s been a pleasure. I’d wish you luck, but what we’ve been talking about is not a matter of luck. Sapere aude, young man. Dare to be wise.