The nature of philosophy – the pursuit of truth and wisdom – has persisted long throughout human history. Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese philosophers may have been among the first to document their findings, at least in writing that has remained extant over the millennia, but most likely it has been going on for far longer. Possibly as far back as when humans first obtained consciousness, in fact, for ever since then humans have had to utilize that ability in order to survive, and doing so by establishing a better understanding of the world we’re living in. And not only did the species manage to survive, but over the following hundreds of thousands to millions of years, they exceeded any accomplishments of other species – modern civilization.
In this civilization our ancestors have built, both with its wonders and imperfections, we have a myriad of opportunities we may choose to exploit, and by extent take a role in further improving what they started. All of this is possible because of our minds – the ability to think out ideas and organize resources to actualize them. As a field of knowledge, philosophy may have somewhat of a poor reputation as complex and theoretical (if not boring or nonsensical), but, on the contrary, philosophy as such is actually highly practical, and can be used as a guiding mechanism to excel at pretty much anything. As Henry D. Thoreau wrote,
To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.
Thus philosophy is not only a field of knowledge, but also a way of life – of persistently seeking to further improve your abilities and your knowledge of the world. The study thereof, however, does play a significant role in how well you’ll manage to maintain that lifestyle. You may manage to come up with some good ideas by yourself, but though reflecting over personal experiences is essential for a philosophical lifestyle, studying other philosophers provide outside perspectives and insights you can take basis in for better understanding your own experiences and how the world works.
With all the complexities our world consists of, one can often get caught up in simplifications and fads the culture we live in impose upon us. Despite all its potential, our minds often look for shortcuts to minimize the expenses of energy and stress required to think out solutions to the problems and circumstances we end up finding ourselves in. As a destructive environmental impact that encourages this tendency, the news and education system in our current age appear, to a great degree, to be more inclined to tell people what to think, than the methods of how to think analytically and independently. This combination explains the unfortunate phenomenon that, oftentimes, “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them” (Thomas Jefferson).
Our species may be termed “thinking being”, but we must also recall that in addition to reason, also emotions strongly impact our judgments and behaviors, some would say even more so than the former. Thus, for instance, if our emotions are manipulated by signals of power and authority to trust and believe something to be true or not, we may not feel the need to venture to think about the issue by oneself. Outsourcing work is an important element of the division of labor, but when it comes to the activity of thinking, it leaves you open for manipulation to whoever figures out how to influence your emotions to act in accordance with their wishes. In order to truly be in control of yourself to avoid such risks, you must learn to master both your emotions and your reason – and for that, philosophy is likely the best instruction manual there is.
In challenging times, having solid principles to base your decisions upon may be the only way in which to maintain your honor and integrity. We should all know well from the historical record by now that the most horrific crimes against humanity have acquired at least some public support by tyrants packaging and propagandizing it with emotional appeal and pseudo-philosophical reasoning. And while it’s a convenient defense mechanism for us to believe that they were just stupid or gullible or both for falling for it, the unfortunate truth is that there were many highly intellectual people among them – those with strong abilities of perception and reflection – doing it for opportunism and adaptation to the changing environment, self preservation, having mutual interests with them, or simply just for actually resonating with their pseudo-philosophical reasoning.
It should go without saying that being smart doesn’t mean also being moral, and that many use their intelligence for malicious purposes. As such, a significant part of the practical application of philosophy is to establish a moral framework with concrete principles to guide your decisions in accordance with, and thus you’ll recognize when you find yourself in situations in which you may be inclined to violate them and know which line you’re potentially crossing. As I discussed in my last article, where I outlined a suggestion for a framework of objective morality, individual conscience is in its nature subjective, and can be subject to change and vagueness in line with one’s emotions, whereas well-reasoned principles can potentially be applied almost universally. Both those far above and below average intelligence can potentially be convinced to take part in immoral activities, but having settled solid principles that you stand by and thoroughly believe in work as a significant hedge to prevent yourself from being lured that route.
To summarize, I’ve here discussed three reasons to study philosophy: (1) acquiring better perspective and understanding of yourself and the situations you find yourself in – which you can leverage to your advantage for pursuing success, (2) to stay focused on the real important things and opportunities in your life rather than being constantly swung back and forth in accordance with the changing simplifications and fads perpetuated in the culture you’re living in, and (3) to build up your moral character by establishing principles restricting yourself from crossing the line between moral and immoral activities. Though you may previously have had the assumption that much of philosophy is boring, impractical, or nonsensical, I thereby encourage you to take a new look at the field of knowledge in light of the points I’ve here presented.
Sapere aude – Dare to know
If this essay has sparked your curiosity to want to begin studying philosophy, here are some books I’d recommend for starters:
- Thinking as a Science – Henry Hazlitt
- How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life – Massimo Pigliucci
- The Existentialist Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age – Gordon Marino
- The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion – Jonathan Haidt
- The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society – Carl G. Jung