(CC) Andrew Becraft. Flickr.com
Philosophy has always had a tendency to illuminate where we are going wrong, as individuals and as a society. It pokes and prods at the assumptions of society and can have an undermining effect on its norms. As such, it shouldn't be surprising if, as we learn more and think philosophically more, we will eventually begin to see that the 'best way to live' is pretty different from the way most people in our society behave.
So then we face a quandary. How far do we go in living our philosophy and in the process, become ever more alien and incompatible with our friends, family, and colleagues? Socrates, a "trouble-maker" who got himself sentenced to death, didn't exactly 'fit in' after all. There are many other examples of philosophers being imprisoned, excommunicated, banished, or put to death - and, more relevant, many times that number who simply lived lives feeling disconnected from others and lonely. Subtle and less extreme examples include the difficulty of fitting in with others at gatherings when practicing vegetarian or vegan diets.
But if we decide to forgo some practices, or modify them, are we hypocrites who know one thing but practice another just to fit in? Are we refraining from being ourselves just to seek the approval of others? On the other hand, if we decide to go our own way and that makes us into a hermit, how do we know the difference between enlightenment and being a wacko, without the ability to check our ideas against the insight of others? Or, worse, such an attitude may be the seed that opens the doorway to extremism.
No, surely a continued exchange - a true dialog which is one of equals who listen and not a one-way sermon - is essential to philosophic practice. But in this exchange there must be proper discernment. We cannot make ourselves into the 'follower of the crowd' simply seeking approval and giving up who we are at our core. But at the same time, we must be open to the possibility that others are wiser than ourselves, or have some nuggets we have yet to fully comprehend. That requires a trust in ourselves - a trust that we can take in the opinions of others, digest them carefully and thoughtfully, and then properly discern between the wise and the foolish (and the as-yet-unknown). Having an open mind means all ideas are welcome to come in for an audition - but not necessarily to end up in the play.
Another important measure in exchanges with others is not to pigeonhole others - not to hear one thing about them or their position and think we know everything they think and believe immediately. Sometimes our terms, definitions, and labels can be very misleading. We may think of ourselves as a capitalist, for example. Then after meeting one person who calls himself capitalist and another communist, that we actually agree more with the latter, simply because of different understandings and uses of these terms. Without careful and subtle appreciation of our varying use of the language, we run the risk of letting semantics be a tool to alienate ourselves and others.
We should also understand that we have the ability to communicate the very same messages and maintain the integrity of our position and who we are - but phrase our position in ways and present it in ways which will not cause conflict, keeping lines of communication open and productive.
But lastly, we must understand that some people are simply not interested or ready to discuss things philosophically. Some go about life without introspection and will never be interested in it. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, yet that is their right and if they are not willing, then it is best to accept that. Some may be open to introspection, but simply not at this time or on a certain topic. Use these times as a chance to engage them in other ways and learn something about yourself. We cannot control the actions of others; only ourselves. Eastern philosophies might use the analogy of cultivation: even with the best seed, we must wait for the right conditions to plant it.
If our philosophy takes us down a road of contrast to the prevailing culture, there seem to be different ways this can manifest. When we look at examples of people who have 'gone off on their own tangents' philosophically, we see two sides of one coin. On the one side, we have the hermit - sometimes respected but a mystery to others, sometimes hated, often unknown. On the other side, we have the beloved visionary - people like Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and so on. What is the fundamental distinction between these two paths?
The hermit's philosophy is for himself. He hordes it and focuses on his own enlightenment and progress. To others, he might say they are a lost cause and society will never learn. Or, he might say that they too should focus on themselves, because we can only control what we do and should not be concerned with telling others what they ought to do. I have recently taken to heart the notion that if we want change, we must focus on the 'man in the mirror' (as the Michael Jackson song declares). It is not philosophy that heals, but the practice of it. That is something that is up to the individual.
But isolationism and extreme individualism cannot be the answer either. This denies that others are wiser than ourselves. It also shows a lack of concern for others. Surely, we don't want to be the 'preachy' holier-than-thou type. But unless we share with one another, not only can we not grow - but we cannot carry on the wisdom which we ourselves enjoy. I've read recently that one possible reason for the decline of Stoicism was that Epictetus held a high regard for practice and a lower regard for commentary and writing. Thus, it only took a few generations with that extreme focus to put a damper on the continued spread of Stoic thought. It behooves us not to focus exclusively on practice to the point of disregarding others or society, becoming self-made outcasts.
The examples of visionaries I've mentioned were not 'preachy', but were respected for their distinction from the norms of society. One way they accomplished this was by doing over saying. Showing in our life deeds over words will always be more respected, and something many of us (this author included) need to work at more. Another way they took a different path without isolationism was that they had a compassionate nature. They had ideas that stood in contrast to the prevailing winds, but they shared them with others out of love. They understood that, as they focused on their own actions and personal practice, it was important to exchange with others in respect (both sharing and learning) and with a caring purpose. Their philosophy was not only for themselves, but to be shared for the benefit of all - even while understanding that it is up to each person to decide for themselves to accept or act on that.
When our discussion began I was unclear about these questions. While there is still much more to think about here, I was fortunate to gain some clarity on some of this. The above are not solely my thoughts, but an amalgamation of ideas shared by all of the participants of the gathering. I thank everyone who attended with me for this. I'm sorry I don't have all of their names, but invite them to comment below, tell us who you are, and what thoughts you contributed!
[main Socrates Cafe website].
Until next time :)