Why Keep Studying Philosophy?

Is there any point to studying philosophy endlessly? I believe so, although I am quick to concede that even a small amount of philosophy is sufficient for happiness.

Now, there is a minimum level we’ll want to reach once we’ve embarked. Too little philosophy, and we’re liable to make ourselves and everyone around us miserable, thinking we understand more than we actually do.

Still, there is a point beyond which more philosophical knowledge does not make us much happier. The question then becomes, why would anyone study philosophy beyond that point?

Given a little Plato, a touch of Aristotle, maybe some Boethius or Augustine or Dionysius, and of course the occasional dose of Epictetus, the determined learner will be able to cultivate a soul and a life that is as close as possible to a happy earthly existence, especially if comforts are many and sorrows are few, but even in times of uncertainty or distress.

I hope for as many as possible to have this sort of education, although there are few I’ve met who even know that such an experience is available, or who are open to the thought that it could anything else than a naive bit of ancient superstition and ignorance. (We moderns are much too smart to risk a life of sturdy happiness.)

I want as many people as possible to have it, and I could never condemn any who were satisfied with it and progressed no further in the study of philosophy. Indeed, that sort of self-restraint and moderation would be evidence of a praiseworthy disposition. It would mean that the person was studying philosophy for the right reasons, and only the right reasons.

However, I do think it is also possible to study philosophy beyond that point in a way that is consistent with virtue.

I don’t find that philosophy is like money, where taking more than you need is eventually a sign of an avaricious malady of the heart.

Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and wisdom is never fully attained in this life. We will all fall short, and we must all be content with falling short, but with that said, the pursuit of wisdom is an endless source of joy and pleasure for the person who loves it.

And there’s a secondary benefit as well that’s very powerful. By studying the history of philosophy, we have the chance to reflect on the philosophical and terminological layers of sediment that have accrued up to the present day.

Today all of us, no matter how much or how little we know of philosophy, are heirs to ten thousand half-digested bits of philosophical debate that have worked their way into our words and our conversations.

In this way, studying philosophical history helps us understand ourselves better, and our contemporaries likewise. And over time, it helps show us how to escape the quandaries and errors into which we’ve been thrown, and how to help others out of those same traps.

It’s not an indispensable part of the happy life, but for those with the capacity and inclination, it is certainly a good way to spend our time.

Embrace the Mixed Motivations

I have a clear recollection that when I was younger, I was really troubled by the possibility of doing good but with motives that were not themselves clearly good.

“What if part of the reason I’m being kind to others is because I like being seen as kind? Is that still good?”

“What if part of the reason why I’m praying before bed is because I know it helps me fall asleep? Isn’t that terrible?”

Can we ever know that our motivations are pure? I’m sure these perplexities came from a commendable desire to be authentic or something of the sort, but I have reached a place now where these aren’t so concerning to me.

I think it is worth it to accept the mixed motivations that can help carry us down the path to becoming the people we want to be.

Let’s focus on the people we’re becoming and the ways we want to spend our time. It’s hard enough to develop those virtuous habits. Why worry about the motivations when in the end, motivation will fall away and all that will be left is the habit.

Even some motivations that might seem a bit awful could have a place on the road to virtue.

“I’ll show him! Next time it won’t go the same way, I can tell you that.”

“Oh, if I can do this they are going to hate it, they’ll be so jealous, and they’ll have to stop saying those things about me.”

“You know what, not only would this make me look more impressive, it could save me some money too!”

There’s a place for mixed motivations. Let’s just make sure we have at least a small amount of good motivation mixed in with the more shameful reasons.

Without some real desire for virtue mixed in, we probably won’t become actually more virtuous. We also aren’t as likely to succeed, if my experience is any guide.

Where to Begin

In the past while, I’ve enjoyed focusing on goals that will take me years or decades to master. Language learning. Knowledge of history. Knowledge of the history of philosophy. Physical health and strength and endurance.

It occurred to me recently that I probably wouldn’t recommend any of these to someone who’s on the brink of death, whether because of old age or illness or injury.

If it were up to me, and if they had the capacity, I’d recommend that they should start where I myself had the good fortune to begin, soon after I finished my undergraduate studies.

It’s where perhaps everyone should start. After all, while some people can be pretty confident that their death is imminent, no one can be entirely sure that theirs is not.

The place to begin, in my view, is with the study that revolves around questions of happiness, virtue, divinity, truth, existence, humanity, beauty, eternity, goodness.

It’s the study that springs from the thoughts of such wonderful minds as Plato, Epictetus, Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite.

It’s the study that Socrates spoke of as a preparation for death.

Paradoxically, I have found that it is the thing that can help us feel most at home in this world during our time here.

With this philosophical “preparation for death” accomplished, we are freed to focus on the life ahead of us.

It is not good to strive for a beautiful body when we have not yet resolved to address the ugliness we find in our heart.

It is not beneficial to develop an impressive intellect when we have not yet ourselves been awed and inspired by the greatness of the things that are within humanity, and of the things that are above us.

It’s no use training to lead or help others when we have not yet learned to lead or to help ourselves.

First, let’s pursue this most important knowledge, however long it takes — and then, if there’s time, we will pursue every other good thing under the sun.

Relentless Patience

I believe that the most powerful tool available to a person can be the patient and determined pursuit of a goal.

In the last few years, I’ve gotten into the habit of using a formula like this when setting goals for myself:

I want to accomplish ____ as quickly as possible, no matter how long it takes.

As quickly as possible

In making progress on a goal it’s important to be focused, determined. Practically speaking, in the short term there’s not so much of a difference between “I’d like to do this someday” and “This is something I’ll probably never do.”

It’s good to be even more specific. Is it thinkable that the goal is attainable within five years? Three? One?

And then subdivide. If it’s a three-year goal, what will need to be done by the end of the year? And to get there, what’s a good goal to aim at for the end of the month?

We don’t want the goals to be too ambitious, certainly not anything unrealistic, but be honest about what might be possible and start working toward that.

No matter how long it takes

It’s easy and fun to set exciting goals, and they do give a boost of motivation. By themselves, however, they lead to frustration and failure.

Goals need to be balanced by patience.

People like to say that patience is a virtue, and it is, but it’s so much more than that.

Patience is basically a superpower.

With enough patience, we can accomplish unbelievable goals, can defeat almost anything. And we can feel good in the process.

Let’s say the goal is to read twelve big impressive books by the end of the year, and toward the end of the first month it’s becoming clear that you can’t even hit the halfway point of your first book by the time you wanted to be finished the first one.

The goal sounds like it was a good one. Without patience, though, the project would come to an end. “There’s no point!” So the whole project would amount to a third of a book finished, and nothing more.

The patient person can take stock and reevaluate. “Clearly a book a month wasn’t as attainable as I thought.” The goals will change.

Maybe the new goal is six books finished this year. Or maybe, to make for a challenge, eight books. Or maybe the first month was a month of sloth, and the original goal wasn’t overambitious; then the new goal might be eleven books this year.

Keep on adjusting. Keep on forgiving yourself. Keep making new goals as you learn and progress.

And keep remembering how much has been accomplished already, which wouldn’t have happened without those goals. That’ll be an enticement to keep on reassessing and reformulating the failed goals, rather than giving up on them altogether.

Choose a few things to focus on in this way (it’s hard to do much more than that), and see how much relentlessness can accomplish.

Virtue and the Economy

It is possible to be virtuous, and to pursue virtue, in any economy, no matter how it runs or what legal restrictions are placed on it. You can be virtuous in the context of communism or unfettered capitalism or feudalism or anywhere in between.

However, that doesn’t mean that the economy is irrelevant to the question of virtue. Indeed, the increase of virtue, I would claim, ought to be one of the overriding considerations in light of which an economy ought to be given its structure.

In any given time and place, the economy is the thing that determines for the greatest number of people what we will spend most of our time doing, and thinking about.

What this means is that a well-designed economy may encourage or facilitate (though not necessitate) the increase of virtue.

Much more often, however, the economy will be a force that must be resisted in the development of virtue. A shapeless or poorly designed economy lends itself to the flourishing of vice.

There are a number of directions I could go with this thought, but for now I’ll limit myself to reflecting on a couple basic positive recommendations about what can help keep an economy moving its people in a good direction.

First, private property. Publicly owned spaces and resources can be a great good as well, but private property, most of the time, will be the sine qua non for a virtuous regime.

And I don’t mean merely the permission for private property to exist. I mean an economy designed to make probable the accumulation of a reasonable amount of property by the great majority of those who want it.

I’m thinking of an economy that prioritizes the ability of a family to own a house, or of an individual to start a small business, in a way that strengthens them against the natural advantages of the big businesses and the big landlords.

People make a big deal these days about income inequality, but I think that is largely a misplaced focus. An income, no matter how large, can be interrupted, at which point anything depending on that income will likewise come crashing down. Something owned, by contrast, will provide security even if a source of income were to be cut off (and I mean something owned outright, not something financed, though financing can of course be an important step on the road to ownership).

Secondly, opposition to the extremes of poverty and wealth. It is counterproductive for the moral health of a regime, and of its citizens, if there are people living without enough money to subsist properly, and likewise if there are people whose wealth is grossly disproportionate to what they could possibly need.

The causes of poverty, and also the causes of greatly excessive wealth, are manifold and complex. There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to either. But taking steps to resolve these problems should, it seems to me, help bring about an economy that is not opposed to the life of virtue.

Self-Educating

My experience has been that the more I learn, the better I get at setting a curriculum for myself.

This might be a more positive version of that bleak cliche which asserts simply that the more we learn the more we’ll see how little we know.

Learning is hard work, and takes much time. Being strategic about what to learn, then, and when to learn it, is one of the most valuable and powerful skills that can be attained.

A beginning on the path to possessing that skill might be one of the best things a person can take away from any sort of formal education.

In my experience, three of the most effective things to hone in on, in setting a curriculum for myself, have been philosophy, history, and languages.

The study of philosophy gives benefits in our inner thoughts and also in our discussions and engagements with the world around us.

It is good to study the origins of philosophy, to see what it is in its greatest purity.

It is also good to study the progression of philosophy down through the ages, both for the sake of absorbing the philosophical elaborations that take place on the original Socratic project, and also for gaining the ability to discern the layers of philosophical sediment that inform so many thoughts today, whether common or educated.

It is worthwhile, next, to dive into key historical moments such as the Peloponnesian war, the French Revolution, World War II. These studies teach us about human nature, about the nature of politics and war. They also help us understand how the world as we know it has come to be.

And languages, lastly, have the power to open up whole worlds to us. Think of how many important texts are untranslated, or poorly translated, or are available only in dearly expensive translations. In those situations, the knowledge of different languages is a superpower.

The three are also mutually supporting and reinforcing. The study of philosophy is always, to some degree, the study of (philosophical) history. In turn, all historical study is premised on debatable propositions, approaches, assumptions, which require philosophical training to adjudicate responsibly. And of course a knowledge of languages is of great service in the study either of history or of philosophy.

This sort of self-education is a long, slow process, full of traps and tricks and temptations along the way. But with a little patience, a little persistence, I think a curriculum like this can offer us an education like no other.

Getting Insulted

Insults rate pretty high on the list of things that bother us.

I’d rather be insulted than lose a limb, certainly. But given the choice between receiving an insult and standing barefoot in the snow for ten minutes, I’d probably take the snow. Physical pain can very often be more bearable than dishonour and indignity.

The ability to receive insults with grace, then, is a rare but awe-inspiring quality.

It’s good, in a way, that insults rankle us as they do. That’s how we’re built. It’s not only sinful pride that motivates us in those moments of feeling stung — there’s an appropriate sort of human instinct that’s revealed by our fierce aversion to being insulted.

We might call it self-respect. We might call it dignity, or confidence. It could just as easily be characterized as aggression or insecurity, and all of those characterizations bring us closer to what it is.

We hate to be insulted because we love humanity.

When we cast insults, we don’t mean to bring down human nature, only some accidental defect or shortcoming we find in the particular human being before us.

But when we receive insults, it is hard to see them as anything else but a strike against our very self, and that self is worth defending because it is human, because we know that whatever it means to be human, it is something good and dignified. It is something worthy of respect, if anything in the world can be.

The irrational and insatiable rage that rises in us at the words of an insult is a magnificent champion of human nature. That force, channeled well, can bring untold goods and glories.

And yet, as I said, it’s also true that the ability to transcend that reaction is itself a marvel. How so?

Just as it is true that the person who gives insult does not mean to denigrate human nature, so also, that person is not benefited by the anger of the one insulted. The anger will always appear somehow disproportionate, unmerited, to the one giving insult, and so the two people will be drawn downward into an endless cycle of misunderstanding and offending.

How, then, can we take an insult well? I have some thoughts about this question, although I am far from having perfected the practice myself.

First, we can be grateful for the anger that springs up in us. It is a beautiful thing, in its way.

And secondly, we can accept that the insults we hear do tell us something true about ourselves. Maybe the truth is not precisely what the insulter thinks is true, but we do well to assume that if the people around us are seeing smoke, there is probably within us, somewhere, a fire.

The person who calls you a coward, with a sneer and a laugh, could be doing you a favour, if you receive it rightly.

It amounts to the same thing as when a trusted friend sits down with us and gently says that we might want to consider whether we ought to be bolder and more courageous in certain circumstances. Our enemies and our friends offer us the same help.

The difference is, it’s much easier to receive that help from our friends. It takes someone truly strong, and truly wise, to receive such help from the people who seem like enemies.

This is truly one of the most difficult teachings I’ve ever attempted to embrace, but whenever I get this even partly right, it is a great blessing.

It’s said that if you rebuke the wise, they will love you for it. Be like the wise. That is how to defeat an insult.

On Conspiracy Theories: A Proposal

I want to propose a right-wing conspiracy theory about right-wing conspiracy theories.

Let’s theorize that there exist left-wing operatives who seed ridiculous and uninformed conspiracy theories among right-wing online discourses. The operatives do this, of course, in order to make right-wing views seem easily discredited in the public eye.

Fortunately, their clumsy and uninspired efforts are usually all too easy for us to detect!

If we accept my proposal, then the implication would be that a really good right-wing conspiracy theorist is someone who constantly guards against all such ridiculous theories, and who will identify and denounce these theories wherever they make their obvious appearance.

I submit that this would be a worthwhile and socially advantageous conspiracy theory to encourage.

Prepare for the Worst

I think it’s a helpful practice to review periodically the things that could take our happiness away, and to give them some thought.

Epictetus distinguishes between the things that are outside our control and the things that are within our control. He notes that, whether you agree with it or not, most people in most moments of our lives are aiming to secure the sorts of things that are not truly within our control.

We want our bodies to remain (or become) mostly pain-free. There’s nothing wrong with that desire, but we can recognize that we aren’t fully in control of whether it is fulfilled or not.

We want our loved ones to be alive and healthy and living nearby and on good terms with us.

We want financial stability.

We want to be respected by the people we admire, and even by the people whom we ourselves don’t much respect.

We want to eat food that is tasty and filling and (perhaps?) healthy.

We want to be challenged just enough that we don’t get too bored.

We want to be entertained by people who are skilled in holding an audience’s attention and providing terror and delight.

I’m sure the list could be made much longer, and of course each point already listed could be divided into more specific sub-points for a given person.

My point, though, is that each of these things is outside our control.

No one plans to get sick or injured — there’s no way to protect ourselves and our loved ones absolutely.

We don’t control movements of the economy, or the fortunes of our employer and our market, or the laws (eg taxes) of our nation.

We can’t control when or whether people spread rumours about us, either true or false, turning perhaps the whole world, perhaps our closest friends, against us.

We can try to minimize the risks of some of those things occurring, but that just makes it all the more horrifying when it happens anyway.

The question, then, is whether there’s a kind of person who can be in chronic physical pain, financially helpless, alone, and hated by all, and still be happy.

In the history of philosophy, many smart minds have divided on this question. Some say yes, it is possible to be such a happy person, and others reply in the negative.

I believe it’s worthwhile to try to become such a person, even if we’re agnostic about the possibility of such a happy person existing.

Even if we fail to become that person, moving any distance in the direction of being that person will bring us incalculable benefits.

The time to begin is now — it will be much more difficult to rally the effort necessary to make the change once we’re already plunged into the worst.

And, here’s the thing: If we can become like the person who is happy in even the worst of circumstances, then the unavoidable consequence will be that right now, in a moment when most things are not at their worst point in our lives, being happy day after day should be not a terribly difficult thing.

Who could say no to that?

Study Rhetoric

The study of rhetoric is a valuable thing. It’s somewhere partway between poetry and philosophy, two other eminently worthwhile objects of study. But it is distinct from both of them, and merits consideration in itself.

Rhetoric used to be a standard part of the curriculum, over many centuries, spanning from ancient Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages, and well into modern times. In the past century or so, however, it has lost its place of honour.

Rhetoric is valuable to study even if you never use it to convince anybody of anything. It helps us think through our own ideas more clearly, and helps us listen to the ideas and argumentation of others in a way that is both more critically aware, and also more artfully appreciative, than we might otherwise be capable of.

Study rhetoric, even if you think you will never use it. Study rhetoric, and maybe someday you will use it.

You never know when you might have the need or the opportunity to speak up against an injustice or to honour something that is undervalued. The more potent our words in such a situation, the more likely we are to shape the world around us into something better and more beautiful.

The study of rhetoric is a useful thing, and it is a bridge by which we may learn to value other things that are just as valuable even if not always so obviously useful. Love of rhetoric may spark an interest in philosophy. It may help make our ears sharp to the ways of the poet. It may help us care about questions of virtue and honour.

Rhetoric should not be our sole passion, but there’s still an important place for it. It is a good supplement to many other worthwhile objects of study, and in the arenas where it is useful, it is very useful indeed.