What is philosophy for change?

People often confuse philosophy with metaphysics and epistemology, the branches of philosophy that study reality and what we can know of it. They thereby assume that philosophy is an austere discipline requiring years of study, full of obscure questions that only throw up more questions, leaving us dizzy and confused.

Philosophy is a broader field of study than metaphysics and epistemology. It includes moral and political philosophy, two very practical forms of inquiry. Anyone can do practical philosophy. You don’t need a degree. Most of us know a little practical philosophy that we’ve picked up here and there, often without realizing it. [Read more…]

Reflections on empowerment

Do not underestimate the desire to think and learn. You know what Parmenides said — thinking and being are the same.

Do not underestimate the wonder in discovering a new sentiment or passion. Don’t you remember the first time you fell in love?

Do not underestimate the value of learning a new activity, or acquiring the ability to tackle a new task. These things can transform lives.

Do not underestimate the human need to be and belong. To say ‘I am…’ and have that mean something… It gives meaning to life.

What do these experiences have in common? They are all forms of empowerment.

No one knows what they are capable of thinking, feeling, doing, or being. No one knows the true extent of their powers. The adventure of life is to find out.

Camus, absurdity, and revolt

Albert Camus (1913-1960) was a French writer and existentialist philosopher. He was born in Algeria, then a colony of France, which gave him a unique perspective on life as an outsider. Camus is widely acknowledged as the greatest of the philosophers of ‘the absurd’. His idea is simple: Human beings are caught in a constant attempt to derive meaning from a meaningless world. This is the ‘paradox of the absurd’.

Camus’ novels The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), and The Fall (1956) are classics of existentialist fiction. His philosophical writings The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) and The Rebel (1951) are profound statements of position. Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Unlike fellow existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, he accepted it.

It is instructive to consider the differences between Sartre and Camus. The men were friends in the war years. Together, they edited the political journal Combat. But Sartre and Camus fell out on account of their views on Stalin and communism. In the 1950s, Sartre threw his support behind Stalin’s vision of the global communist struggle. Camus was unimpressed by the “ends justify the means” mentality of the communist revolutionaries, and would have no truck with Stalin’s mass production of a perfected humanity. In The Rebel, he made his criticisms plain. Sartre responded in anger and ended their friendship. [Read more…]

Stoic happiness: a pagan apotheosis?

Psychologists and self-help gurus link happiness to positive emotions and feelings. To be happy, you need to go about maximizing your positive responses to life. It is true that happiness involves positive emotions and feelings. But the relentless pursuit of happy experiences can easily lead to unhappiness, which suggests that positive feelings are not the original cause of happiness itself. A better way of thinking about happiness is to see happiness as the product of the flourishing life.

Mark Vernon, author of Wellbeing, argues that happiness is, or ought to be, a by-product of a life lived well. This view has an impressive pedigree, running all the way back to ancient times. It is first articulated in Aristotle and the Stoics.

The Stoics have a fascinating account of how happiness binds us to the natural world. Like other ancient philosophers, the Stoics see the point of philosophy as being to achieve a state of happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia). But the way that the Stoics understood happiness or flourishing is quite different to how we’d understand it today. [Read more…]

Philosophy and courage

Courage is an ancient philosophical virtue. Some people are surprised by this fact. Philosophers, in the public mind, are forever associated with petty debates far removed from the hot-blooded concerns of life. When we think of philosophers, we imagine fusty academics puzzling over questions like: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ – not stalwart, heroic, types brimming over with courage and forbearance. Yet courage was an essential philosophical virtue in ancient times. Socrates and Aristotle affirmed this virtue, and other philosophers echoed the idea. Philosophers were made of sterner stuff in the ancient world. Philosophy wasn’t just an education in ideas. It involved a rigorous personal training aimed to free us from false ideas, and to prepare us for whatever hardships life could throw our way. [Read more…]

Nietzsche’s three metamorphoses

I wanted to know all about everything when I was a kid. I was an inquisitive child. The will to knowledge took root well before I was in any real position to pursue it. I remember, as a child, being conscious of a realm of adult understandings that I just didn’t have access to. There was a universe of truth and wisdom beyond my ken, and it fascinated me.

Things are different for kids today. Thanks to the internet, the truths of adult existence are only a mouse-click away. But I didn’t have recourse to instant internet gratification. I was left to think about things. My search for knowledge, as I travelled through childhood and teenagerdom, led me to dwell on the weightier things in life. Intuitively, I knew that many of the adult things beyond my experience were sombre, perhaps even dreadful, matters. The more that I reflected on these matters, the more I became a sombre person myself. I was weighed down by what I knew. I stared too long into the abyss and I started to see the abyss in me.

This was before I read Nietzsche. I started university later than most, at the age of 24. Attending philosophy classes and reading Nietzsche was a revelation for me. I had a Damascus road experience – broke with much of my past life, and devoted myself to philosophy broadly.

Looking back, I can see there was a spiritual transformation that came along with this as well. I went from being a camel to a lion. I transitioned from the first to the second phase of Nietzsche’s “three metamorphoses.” [Read more…]

ABC radio interview, January 1st, 2010

I was interviewed by Sophie Longden on ABC Radio on January 1st, 2010. It was a great way to start the year – particularly as I was sitting in a house on a hill in the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, on the east coast of New Zealand. I had a lovely perspective at the time.

Sophie and I spoke about practical philosophy and the challenges of self-reinvention and change. You can listen to the interview by clicking on the audio file below.

Tim Rayner ABC Interview Jan 1 2010

Heraclitus, change, and flow

The ancient philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (530-470 BC) is one of the most important thinkers in history. Heraclitus’ views on change and flow stand in stark contradition to the picture of the static universe presented by his predecessor Parmenides (5th century BCE), and fed into the work of untold philosophers from Marcus Aurelius (121 AD–180 AD) to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900 AD).

Heraclitus’ philosophy is a good starting point for anyone concerned with change in life. Heraclitus said that life is like a river. The peaks and troughs, pits and swirls, are all are part of the ride. Do as Heraclitus would – go with the flow. Enjoy the ride, as wild as it may be.

Heraclitus was born into a wealthy family, but he renounced his fortune and went to live in the mountains. There, Heraclitus had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the natural world. He observed that nature is in a state of constant flux. ‘Cold things grow hot, the hot cools, the wet dries, the parched moistens’, Heraclitus noted. Everything is constantly shifting, changing, and becoming something other to what it was before.

Heraclitus concluded that nature is change. Like a river, nature flows ever onwards. Even the nature of the flow changes.

Heraclitus’ vision of life is clear in his epigram on the river of flux:

‘We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not’ (B49a).

One interpretation of this passage is that Heraclitus is saying we can’t step into the same river twice. This is because the river is constantly changing. If I stroll down the banks of the Danube, the water before my eyes is not the same water from moment to moment. If the river is this water (which is a debatable point – the river could be its banks, the scar it carves in the landscape, but let’s leave this aside), it follows that the Danube is not the same river from moment to moment. We step into the Danube; we step out of it again. When we step into it a second time, we step into different water and thus a different river.

Moreover, we step into and out of the river as different beings.

Most interpretations of Heraclitus’s river fragment focus on the idea of the river in a state of flux. But Heraclitus says more than this in this fragment: ‘We are and are not’.

The river changes and so do you.

We are familiar with the principle of biological generation and corruption. Heraclitus puzzled over this principle two thousand years before the birth of the modern biological sciences and drew the ultimate lesson for the human condition. As material beings, we live in a world of flux. Moreover, we are flux. As physical bodies, we are growing and dying all the time, consuming light and resources to replicate our structure, while shedding matter continuously.

Change and death are ubiquitous features of the natural world. Maybe this is what Heraclitus meant when he said, in his inimitable way:

‘Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living their death, dying their life’.

Or maybe not. With Heraclitus we can’t be sure. What we know of Heraclitus comes from his commentators (nothing survives of his original work), and so Heraclitean epigrams can seem dubious in provenance, attributable to other authors. Everything changes, and history has changed a dozen times since Heraclitus’ time; yet I believe we can still take value from Heraclitus, particularly in a time like today, which is so clearly calling out for deep institutional and infrastructural change (I am speaking to people who are looking to make deep changes in our environmental and energy systems; our political, representative and regulatory systems; in our economic system – market capitalism – which is intrinsically indebted to the kind of society we really don’t want to be, an industrial society).

I think that Heraclitus gets it right. Reality is change and flow.