By Derek Parsons
When someone asks me what I teach and I respond by telling them philosophy, I occasionally am asked what topic in philosophy do I enjoy teaching the most, similar to how someone might ask a history teacher what topic they enjoy the most: The French Revolution, World War One, or Classical Rome?
There are a great many questions in philosophy I enjoy kicking around, such as:
- Is what we consider a mind the same thing as a soul and does it have eternal consciousness or is our mind a result of physical events in our brain and nothing more?
- If God is Omnibenevolent, meaning God’s nature is good and he can do nothing other than good, does this mean he has free will?
- If the universe is expanding, what it is expanding into?
- Are homo sapiens something special or are we just highly developed animals?
These kinds of questions are a lot of fun, excellent for stretching the philosophical muscles and getting the mind thinking in a non-linear fashion. They are also, however, not terribly helpful in answering the questions that pertain to what it is to live a good life, and if philosophy isn’t helping us answer that question, then what’s the point?
What is Philosophy For?
I hate to be pragmatic about this because within this chest beats the heart of a romantic, but if philosophy isn’t helping humanity towards a greater future by applying inquiry and critical thinking to the issue of how one should live, isn’t it just a sort of intellectual vanity project? Who cares how many angels can fit on the head of a pin? This hardly helps the child who will go to bed hungry tonight.
Recently there has been a big push towards personality tests. These inform you about the tendencies to which your personality is predisposed, which is great; I’m a big fan of knowing thyself, but while these tests are very good (sometimes scarily good) at telling us who we are, they are very poor at telling us what to do with it.
I like to engage with philosophies that have to do something with the very real questions related to our everyday existence of how to live well, whether that be Stoicism, Existentialism, Daoism, the Platonist concept of The Good, Aristotelian virtue ethics, or the many varieties of religious systems.
I have recently taken the plunge into the philosophy of Existentialism. It has its problems as a philosophy for living (as do all philosophical viewpoints, I’ve found) but I’ve been intrigued by its adaptability to various approaches, such as theistic existentialism, its focus on freedom and responsibility, emphasis on the individual (not to be confused with individualism), the importance of authenticity, and the central role of the passions.
Whatever system, or combination of systems, of living a good life you land on, I encourage you to do so deliberately. Too often we drift through life floating from one moral view to the next choosing whichever one is the most convenient or advantageous at the time.
You do not have to engage in years of studies of ethical/philosophical systems before you live a well-lived life. In fact, Kierkegaard would advise you to throw yourself with passion into your life, into your questions. On this count, perhaps the best advice is from poet Rainer Maria Rilke who advised to,
“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Navel-gazing and contemplating the starts don’t get us very far, something philosophers are prone to do. Like the character Aughra in The Dark Crystal who spends her time gazing into the universe and one day wakes to find that the world on which she lives has moved on dramatically without her, what good has her star gazing done? If philosophy does anything for us, it should be that it helps us answer these questions of living, or at least equip us with the tools to help us come closer to doing so.
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