“The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, that without end.”— Ralph Waldo Emerson
“It is astonishing what force, purity, and wisdom it requires for a human being to keep clear of falsehoods.”— Margaret Fuller
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”—Henry David Thoreau
There is a wonderful scene in the movie “The Matrix” when Morpheus, a teacher of secrets, is taking Neo out for one of his first training programs after being painfully liberated from the illusion of the Matrix. They have entered the “Jump program” and find themselves standing on top of a high rise building. Morpheus turns to Neo and poses this challenge, “Free your mind”, and then proceeds to leap impossibly several hundred yards to the nearest building suggesting Neo follow behind. Neo’s response . . . “Whoa.”
Philosophy rightly understood is about freeing the mind. It is about the “clarification of ideas and the removal of muddles.” Before we can grasp how we can free the mind it is imperative to first understand how the mind is manacled in the first place. We are, all too often, strangely unaware of what ideas are coloring our perceptions. Like a set of colored glasses our perceptions are all tinged with blue or red or green depending upon the lens. These ideas we hold to be true are often adopted without inspection or evaluation. What religion we come from, what society has nurtured us, what core life assumptions came from our education , what values our family has imparted all form a kind of lens through which we view the world, life and ourselves. Our inability and often unwillingness to break away from these established lens’s, even momentarily for evaluation sake, form a kind of prison cell of perception. Like Neo in the story “The Matrix”, we have an unsettling feeling that there is a larger perspective, a broader view, a more comprehensive understanding that evades our current range of perception.
These traps are easy to recognize in the political dialog of today. People gravitate to one camp or another and view all events, all debates, and all positions from the standpoint of whether or not it furthers the cause of their camp. To approach a social problem from outside of the camp, to look at it independently is extremely difficult. Religious and cultural biases are equally easy to recognize in contemporary society.
The ideas we hold, the values we accept, the perspective we assume all have a direct bearing upon the choices we make throughout a lifetime. If this be true then is it not advisable to take a moment and examine them? If we are honest with ourselves most of the ideas we accept are inherited and not thought through or even chosen. This is true for little things like what our personal likes and dislikes, favorites and not-favorites.
Many ideas passed on to us through our culture simply live on in our minds unchallenged. For example there was a time in Europe not that very long ago when the idea of the earth being flat was the common belief.. It went unquestioned for centuries. Similarly modern western culture assumes we only live once. Few doubt it. For a great deal of recorded history slavery was deemed acceptable. Many cultures consider women inferior. Some religions view dark skin as a disapproving sign of God. These assumptions and positions go unquestioned in many circles.
Philosophy is intended to be an adventure of the mind. An invitation to step outside of the prison cell of our current consciousness and explore new fields, new dimensions, new perspectives. Those who remain inside the prison cell, no matter how large, are in the words of Beckett in his Murder in Cathedral “living and partly living”. Thoreau considered a life devoid of such exploration a life of “quiet desperation”. And Emerson’s quote that precedes this article is testimony to the ever evolving circle imperative.
So this is the bondage about which the great philosophers , particularly of classical times, addressed themselves. This central human predicament is relevant to the circumstances and choices of every single human being who has ever stepped upon the face of this earth. The concept of philosophy was conceived to remedy and address this fundamental human conundrum. To live a good life one must begin to think and raise questions, these great souls would say. To ignore the big questions of life is to opt out of the fundamental human adventure.
We know the word philosophy was coined by Pythagoras in pre-Socratic days in Greece. Philo=Love and Sophia=Wisdom. But the idea of philosophy is extremely ancient and has been referred to with other words and conceptions in various cultures throughout human history . What all these ancient conceptions have in common is the notion that the human mind has immense hidden power and vast untapped potentiality. And this, according to ancient philosophers is due to the connection the human mind has to the Whole, Oversoul, or the Divine, however conceived. Modern philosophy in its normal academic setting has often crippled the notion of philosophy and relegated it to mere logic and semantics. In modern times it has lost the luster of its arcane roots. In ancient Greece for example, man is the “microcosm of the macrocosm”. There is nothing in contemporary thought that approaches this Olympian vantage point and therefore the depth and breadth of the mind are significantly “crimped, cabined and confined” as Shakespeare says in Macbeth.
Many philosophy courses in college or high school take a tour through a laundry list of significant thinkers usually in the western tradition. Descartes, Hegel, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, and sometimes ancients like Plato and Aristotle usually get touched upon in these classes just to name a few. It is good training to try to understand these thinkers but the main point is missed. What are the enduring questions? Why are they important to YOU? Once you have raised the big questions: Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is justice? What is real? What is my role in life? What is life for? What happens after death? etc. it might then interest you to find out what other people think as well. But until these are burning questions for you academic philosophy will remain nothing more than intellectual gymnastics and the point will be missed. Philosophy is not about a survey of what other people think, it is an investigation into what is true and important to you. In the end you must make choices as to HOW you are going to live.
There are many fundamental differences between ancient philosophy and it’s modern shadow. Consider this, according to Buddhist thought the difference between an enlightened human being and a normal person is equivalent to the difference between a normal person and a black beetle. Plato speaks of an elaborate fifty year educational process necessary in developing a “Philosopher Kings” worthy of advising society from the standpoint of universal principles, seeing where justice lies and interpreting the Good.
What is overlooked and often misunderstood is that the very notion of wisdom in the ancient world (the Greeks for example, and certainly in the minds of great souls like Plato, Plotinus and Pythagoras) means far, far more than the quaint conventional idea of wisdom found in contemporary times. For us the word “wisdom” in common usage has to do with truisms and perhaps axioms that help us navigate through life more gracefully. An idea like Franklin’s, “a penny saved is a penny earned” is usually considered an article of wisdom. But for the ancients of Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, and many indigenous peoples of the world like the Hopi and Navaho in North America or the Australian Aboriginals, wisdom has a much more profound meaning. It represents the liberated mind, the enlightened mind or direct spiritual perception, “the ability to see into the hidden source and pattern of things, to witness spiritual ‘Noumena’ ”. In other words wisdom was measured in degrees of enlightenment. Wisdom is not something you have it is something you become. In most ancient cultures, and sorely missing in our modern one, people revered wise men, sages and seers because they understood how life works and what life is about in a more profound way than the average person.
Another limiting factor that ancient philosophers like the Buddha, Krishna or Lao Tzu addressed is the illusion that what is real is what can be experienced through the five senses. All that seems real to us is what we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste. But we know the senses are severely limited in their perceptive powers. We know that the human eye can only recognize a very small band of the electro-magnetic scale. An eagle can see distances more acutely than the human eye. A dog’s sense of smell is much stronger than ours. And with instruments like a telescope or a microscope we can extend the range of human sight. So it is clear that the five senses have their perceptive limits. Hence the limitation of the senses also create a prison cell of perception of sorts.
According to the ancients, the mind works like a laser when focused in particular ways, enabling broad ranging perceptive power. But for most people the mind is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch, attraction to attraction, desire to desire, like to like, and rarely stays focused for any length of time. If a person is able to simply observe the activity of their mind for just five minutes one would discover how inconstant the mind is and how it resists focus. This is precisely why calming the mind and bringing it into focus is a first prerequisite of philosophy and contemplation in the ancient traditions. Practices to remedy this condition can be found in Platonic thought, Vedic teachings, Patanjali and Buddhist philosophy for example. They can be found in the mystical traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism as well.
Thirdly our depth of perception is also severely limited due to our range of sympathies. A Christian would say the depth of our love, a Buddhist would say compassion perhaps. If I fiercely identify with my ethnic group, country, family or my community it has an effect on what one would think and care about. Additionally if I fiercely identify with a group of personality traits, favored activities, likes and dislikes this also determines the range and reach of one’s perceptions and sympathies. The aim of philosophy is to grasp the whole and to transcend the parts, no small task.
So put another way philosophy is important because it has to do with seeing things as they are and not as we want them to be or as they appear to our limited senses or the range of our social concerns or our personality or prejudices. The goal of true philosophy is to perceive the Truth. It is to gain a universal perspective and to become liberated from a private, personal, partial and parochial ones. (It is best to assume that most all of us labor under these limitations in differing degrees all the way along the path until some level of transcendent enlightenment is achieved. And even with enlightenment, like a black belt in karate, there are additional levels of refinement available we are told by Great Teachers.)