‘Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sickness of bodies, so too is there no use in philosophy unless it casts out the sickness of the soul.’ ~Epicurus
I started studying philosophy because I thought it would answer my questions about life. I was young and confused and in a hurry to figure things out. Other people I knew took their parent’s advice and enrolled in practical subjects like law, engineering, or business and economics. I thought I was clever by diving in at the deep end. I figured that once I’d answered the big questions of life (like ‘What is goodness?’ What is truth?’ ‘How do I know I’m not living inside the Matrix?’), the other subjects would be easy. First things first, right? Aristotle would have been proud. My parents, who’d never read Aristotle, were not so impressed.
But I persisted. I soon realised that I’d been wrong about philosophy. Not that it didn’t tackle the big questions of life. It was just that it didn’t produce many answers. Philosophy offers lots of theories, but these only seem to create more questions. Semester by semester, year by year, I watched my philosophy buddies and fellow seekers give up in frustration. I kept on. After a while, I had an epiphany. I realised that philosophy isn’t about answers at all. Philosophy is about asking the right questions. It is unlike other disciplines, which focus on communicating knowledge about the world. Philosophy isn’t really about anything. Nonetheless, it is a practical discipline insofar as it teaches us to step back, zero in on this or that aspect of life, and ask: why?
Anyone can do philosophy, but it takes practice. The point is to learn how to question things, and through questioning, to reflect deeply on them. Knowing how to slow down and ask questions is an extremely valuable skill in our age of on-tap answers and constant action. This is why I say to people: read the philosophers, learn what have to say, by all means. But once you’ve done that, ignore them. Put the books aside and for heaven sakes, don’t bore everyone by talking about them. Stop talking about philosophy and do it.
You might ask: what’s the payoff? What does one get from learning to question things? I am fond of the answer that Martin Heidegger gives to this question. Instead of asking what we can do with philosophy, we should ask what philosophy does with us.
Philosophy opens our mind to the mystery of being. This can be unsettling, at first. But if you can find your way to this state of mind and stay with it awhile, it’s liberating. Philosophy has always been associated with freedom. Freedom from unwarranted fears and desires. Freedom from easy answers and shallow beliefs. Freedom from poorly-founded passions. Freedom to make real choices about things that really matter in life.
Ancient philosophers understood this better than their modern counterparts. Take the philosopher Epicurus, whose timeless wisdom heads up this post. It is from Epicurus that we get the idea of an ‘epicurean’, someone who enjoys good food and wine. Epicurus, however, wasn’t a hedonist. He was a practical philosopher who taught simple wisdom for life-long happiness. Epicurus lived in a garden with his friends and followers. The Epicureans enjoyed food and wine, though only in moderation, for overconsumption of anything was the cause of displeasure, they stressed. Mostly the Epicureans spent their time chatting, questioning, and reflecting on life – in short, doing philosophy.
We can learn a lot from Epicurus. Sometimes we don’t take the time to question and reflect. We race through life hot and bothered, building, connecting, accumulating and consuming, until life has become so crammed full of people and experiences that we can scarcely breathe, much less turn around and take a look at how we are living.
Does this sound like you? You need to learn to wonder, my friend. Slow down, take care. Spend some time looking at the stars. Question. Reflect. Try to take stock of it all. This is how you become a philosopher.
This post was written for the community blog of The Centre for Personal Development, Chicago USA. Many thanks to Christopher Zurawic, PsyD, for inviting me to contribute.