As we wander through the weeks and push forward through time, the headaches and heartbreaks of an inexorable existence, an insurmountable distance, can sometimes feel crushing. People are cruel, life is struggle and no amount of effort or optimism can ever compete with the indifferent strokes of fortune. In times of doubt, humans have turned to religion and idealism, while holes etched by grief and despair have been be filled with art, nature and the council of others. Indeed, these medicines to the human condition can adequately provide comfort, but for the resilience to deal with discomfort, one must look behind and beyond, within and without. Philosophy, in my experience, is less the solution to life’s problems, as it is the vehicle to enjoy life in all its curves and chaos. Not rose-tinted glasses but rather a philo-filter through which the miraculous complexity, the impossible inanity of life may be discovered and duly marveled. In the spirit of this year’s EEB Philoday theme of “Change”, I give you my musings, free of charge and claims to truth, on how a new-found philo-filter has changed my perception of two interlinked worlds: the collective one we share and the personal one I shape.
Firstly, it must be noted that philosophy is not, and was never intended to be, something confined to a classroom, nor should any curious human refrain from calling themselves a philosopher for fear of masquerading. Yet, if “Socrates called Philosophy down from the heavens”, it seems that today’s age of science and lower-case cynicism, of hustle and cancel culture, has shot it right back up, reducing this once omnipotent discipline to an archaic bundle of dusty manuscripts, lofty male professors, and unintelligible, unimportant ramblings. Like the sidelining of Christianity, marked in the writings of Nietzche, it seems now, that the once invigorating art of philosophy has been comparatively shunted from the public eye into vapid self-help books and spiritual Instagram accounts. In the case of the latter, this skeptical shunting is done at the expense of our species since, as Schopenhauer recognized, “we’re just like animals except, with our greater self-awareness, we’re far more unhappy.” Studying philosophy, not to pass an exam nor impress a date, but for it’s very real and relevant purview, is key in doing this thing called living and doing it well.
To testify the all-permeating nature of philosophy, I need search no further than the most intimate and reflective written recording of myself; I’ve quite unintentionally reached a point where my personal journal bears a striking resemblance to my philosophy study notes. Among the to-do lists, memories and ticket stubs, I have peppered unintentionally philosophical wonderings, favorite quotes and food for thought. One of the first pages has scrawled my interpretation of Diogenes’ idea that philosophy gives sobriety to the young, comfort to the old, wealth to the poor and humility to the rich. Then, influenced by modern-day philosopher and utilitarian Peter Singer, I recorded my decision to become vegetarian when I came across a Ted Talk he gave, extrapolating upon Kantian ethics to fight for animal rights; “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?” In a list of New Year’s resolutions, I demonstrate a general striving for life affirming, fate embracing goals surmised in Nietzche’s oft-misinterpreted ideas of the Ubermensch. After moody spells, stereotypically attributed to my age group but liable to affect all thinking things, my journal records the consolation I found in Hegel’s theory of Dialectics- the writings of this sullen-looking German lend themselves to the acceptance that “there’d be days like this” and propose the encouraging thought that as a pendulum swings, life and human progress is not linear but rather oscillating between periods of tumultuous thesis, extreme antithesis, and soothing synthesis. The teachings of the ancient Stoics reveal that the peaceful life is about learning to prepare for the worst while rejecting the futile act of worrying and I record this life lesson in ostentatious calligraphy finishing with a personal touch; to have the brain of a pessimist but the soul of an optimist. When I begin to feel too big for my boots, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke is on hand to remind me of my nothingness in the face of the sublime. In response to angst and regret, Kierkegaard has much to teach about the absurd and the serious job of humor. When I worry about my reputation, I can refer to the part of my journal where I have summed up Hume’s Cluster Theory of the self or when I chide my childish side, I need only re-examine Freud’s thoughts on the Id or recollect Proust’s beautiful advice for childlike wonder in everyday life.
As a filter, and not just a mere subject, philosophy helps me appreciate all other aspects of life including art, religion, politics, other people and myself. In today’s terms we can refer to philosophers in the same categories as authors, movie directors, certain youtubers and those increasingly referred to as influencers. Indeed, to rejig Plato’s iconic aphorism, the end may come to man’s troublesnot “when philosophers become kings” but when philosophers become influencers. Philosophy has as much a right in our thoughts and conversation as poetry or news events, and a great deal more value than celebrity scandal. Its dialectical nature lends itself to the fight against intransigence and in today’s globalized world where cultures continue to collide, it is vital that philosophy be galvanized. Of course, aside from simple laziness, I’m aware that some people shy away from philosophical thoughts or discussions for reasons they deem to be born of humility. This is an absurd and lamentable state of affairs. To avoid offence or error, today’s culture is one of extreme hesitance when it comes to opining on any type of meaningful topic. While I would certainly not wish to advocate dogmatic declarations, it is pivotal that we find the “golden mean” which allows us to comfortably express beliefs and to accept criticism without fear of humiliation or appearing conceited.
Despite the ever-catchy Beatles lyric, in my hour of darkness it is not Mother Mary but Lady Philo who speaks to me, whispering amor fati; let it be. She illuminates the absurdity of ‘common sense,’ the allusiveness of logic, the chinks in the glamorous armor of modernity. That is why, in my humble opinion, no personal journal is worth keeping that does not contain some amount of philosophy. This is why, as Plato long ago advised, ‘the un-examined life is not worth living. Through the philo-filter, one may avoid intellectual cul de sacs, begin analyzing objectively and criticizing rationally on the daily. From macro to micro issues, philosophy teaches us to challenge the status quo, not as a truculent children or contrary teens, but as active citizens, informed academics, and empathetic human beings. Educating yourself is not the impossible feat it may now appear… To taste philosophy, one may begin with a simple YouTube video, novel or article- such as the one before you now. Whether this is your first introduction to philosophy or just another step in your journey ‘out of the cave’, I offer my congratulations and well wishes. Your philo-filter is forming.
Tola NI SHUILLEABHAIN / S7ENA / EEB1 Uccle