Philosophy: The Examined Life

Who are the philosophers?


In order for one to be a philosopher, do they have to spawn the social and historical critique of society, à la Marx? Do they have to win a nobel prize, à la Bertrand Russell? Do they have to invent a whole new method by which we inspect the world, and therefore, ourselves?

Some would have you believe that you must be one of these things. Others think that philosophy is much more simple or much more complex than that. That in order to do philosophy, one has but to sit down and ponder their life’s doings and come upon a reasoned conclusion of its meaning. My reading of Daniel Desroches‘s “La philosophie comme mode de vie” (“Philosophy as a way of life”) so far, has revealed to me that even that question is difficult to tackle. In order to find an answer to it, we must constrain as much as possible, the venues from which answers may pour out.

Indeed, when inspecting currents of thought, Daniel seems to indicate that we can’t situate philosophy’s beginning with the pre-Socratics. Thales of Miletus may have spawned the first recorded existence of a school of philosophy, with his multiple disciples and descendants, but only in the Occident. A cursory look at history, reveals to Daniel that even ancient societies had specific instructions on how to regulate breathing, to encourage peace of mind.

(he cites, in page 40, that in 2600 B.C., the Minoan civilization had such practices, indicating strong evidence for the traces of what we now  call “philosophy”)

In fact, it was not until late in Greek history that words such as “philosophos” began to become more commonplace in Greek language. Not only that, but he addresses the fact that we tend to look at philosophy, in the West, as the dry academic writings of famous authors. When Pierre Hadot (from whom he cites frequently) inspected these antique writings, in order to find out why they appear to be so disorganized, so loosely connected and contradictory, as to confuse one as to what was really being taught?

The error resided not in the writings of the philosophers but in our lens, as moderns, that would have us look for a structure that we can find in 20th century philosophers. Hadot appeared to have made the discovery that Greek philosophers did not write in a structure that we were familiar with, causing us to see these contradictions where in fact was nothing more than the expression of changing cultural norms and mores. There was no theoretical dialectic to follow, merely the teachings of men who lived as what they taught.

Diogenes was a man who lived according to the creed which he taught: Simply, in poverty perhaps, but simply nonetheless. Plato was a man of letter and a strong character. His political life was testimony of this. Socrates was a man who taught very important things, particularly that of restraint toward the self, questioning our own beliefs. He would be made fun of for not using his intelligence to profit, unlike his adversaries.

In more modern times, Simone Weil was teaching an egalitarian method of seeing her fellow humans. As such, she worked jobs that some would claim were beneath her, being such a smart individual. Yet, that did not keep her from doing so and still write the books she wrote. These people lived as the philosophy they taught. Something a lot of academic philosophers referred to as “the good life” or “eudaimonia”, but taught in such a way as to make it seem the project of the elite alone.

The postulate, therefore, is not that we should all live like Plato or like Confucius, but that the philosopher needs to stick to a self-prescribed code that they remain true to as much as they can. Confucius was true to his code as much as he could, but he did not refrain from admitting his faults. That is also sticking to this conduct, by admitting when we are going away from our own teachings, allowing us to perhaps see them from an exterior angle and polish them.

So, in a nutshell, philosophers are individuals who live a life as observers, inspectors and sometimes activists, who scrutinize the way we live and question why we do so, then apply their findings to their own lives. If their philosophy is worth teaching, then merely by virtue of existing, they shall teach others how to live the life of a philosopher. Because the risk, as in all things, is dogma, and philosophers would do well to guide away their pupils from only following their teachings, and to find their own path.

Spirituality in philosophy

I’m getting the feeling, the more I read Desroches, that philosophy is some kind of spiritual conquest of the mind. As if philosophers turn inwardly with a shield and sword and seek out their own prejudice and dogma, with the aim of defeating them and then becoming as serene individuals as they can be. After all, this is what I personally think the “eudaimonia” consists of. Were I to teach something to pupils (should I ever get any), it would be that life never presents itself to us the way we want to, and that only in restraint of our expectations can we be happy. In fact, the search for happiness is how we alienate it from our lives. Why, do you gather?

That the more we think of how happy we could get, the more we realize how unhappy we are, because what we would like for life to be is not as it is and may very well never be. Does that mean that if I am poor I should remain poor? No, of course not. There is exhilaration if we choose the path to happiness and know ourselves to be capable of reaching it. Once we reach the milestone we sought, there is liberation of a sort, but that is not the life of a philosopher. A philosopher is not seeking a milestone like becoming a CEO of his own company. That might be a peripheral goal that he wishes to fulfill, but the life of a philosopher is in the endlessness of his journey.

There is no milestone to reach. The philosopher’s life is not lived between the past and the future but in all of them. Everything can be a source for his contemplative thought. You can see a form of pantheism here, perhaps, but a belief or lack of belief in God is not necessary for a philosopher to be. The only thing he should guard himself from is dogma. At all times, dogma is the only enemy of philosophy. Once it sinks its fangs into the mind of the philosopher, he ceases to be a philosopher and he becomes a Professor.

“There are nowadays professors of philosophy but there are no philosophers.”

This is a saying by Pierre Hadot, as this realization settled in from his research. It refers to the impracticality of studying philosophy, particularly the task of teaching it as it conforms to the methodologies of education. In the times of the Greeks, philosophy was not taught by one man in an assembly, with students sat at desks and waiting for him to pour out his wisdom. It was a constant exchange of words and wisdom. Compared to the way we teach philosophy today, you cannot but notice the stark difference.

While the systematic teaching of philosophical notions that prove practical in everyday life is laudable, to study them does not make one a philosopher, merely a person who knows of philosophy and how some of its components work. Next should come the question of applying these notions to our lives. It is not only the ability to look at things logically that is important, it is also the restrained disinterest that philosophers showed toward the world at large. Not in a way as to seem careless, but as to seem impassible, untouchable by mere insults or character assassinations.

Philosophers were and have been individuals that would promulgate their thoughts with nuanced approach, where applicable, and kept quiet when their knowledge was superseded by another’s in a given field. This is also important: A philosopher does not hold all wisdom and therefore authority in all things. No, the philosopher must recognize his ignorance, because it’s only in recognizing it that we may overcome it. Guard yourself from the delusion of being able to overcome it for long, because as you progress spiritually from your self-interest, the mind always drives you back to it.

At once, you are wise and the following moment, you are furious with anger, ready to lash out against all who oppose you.

To do philosophy

One must therefore do the following:

  1. Step outside of yourself.
  2. Inspect the world around you as if it was the first time.
  3. Correlate the thoughts you gather from this new regard with your old view.
  4. See where you might have failed and correct these errors or silence yourself until you do.
  5. Own up to the mistakes you make, right when you make them.
  6. Never take anything that you know for granted and never presume that you should always be teaching, because we are all teachers and we are all students.
  7. Be compassionate toward your fellow human being, always. For life is anguish and suffering, but it takes a compassionate heart to make it a tolerable experience.

Now these are guidelines, as Daniel says himself in the book, and you shouldn’t expect me to have the final word on them. These are simply what I have gathered. You should, as a philosopher, make your own path and your own guidelines, but number 7 is key to holding an honest view of the world. There is misery, there is untold violence and there is sheer cruelty, but one person’s kindness can pave the way to change in another’s heart.




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