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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Role of Philosophy in Spirituality

Sophia, goddess of wisdom. (cc) Chris Beckett.
Sophia, goddess of wisdom.
(cc) Chris Beckett.
Our Education Director, B.T. Newberg, has published an article for us discussing the role of science in helping us find a Way of Life. So, I thought it would be fitting to cover the role of philosophy in our practice, as philosophy is something we discuss and write on a lot at the Society.

Just the other day, I overheard a philosophy student at a local coffee shop conveying doubts to a friend about continuing to get a doctorate in philosophy. He said that many of the people in the philosophy department are simply not the kind of people he enjoys being around. He described them as pretentious, snobby, and so on. Now, of course, we cannot say all philosophy students, professors, or enthusiasts are like this, but this person’s perception was also not unheard of.

This is because academic philosophy has, to a large extent, become an overly intellectualized, abstract, and often egotistical perversion of what philosophy was originally supposed to be about; at least if we go by what came out of Ancient Greece’s golden age of philosophy. I would venture to say that many writers and professors of philosophy, who are often called ‘philosophers’ do not actually fit the definition. In Socrates’ times, people who performed these services for money were called ‘sophists’ and received condemnation from the philosophers. However, it would not be practical or reasonable for us to condemn strictly academic philosophers of today in the same manner given the realities of our world. They, in fact, are doing noble work in education. But it is crucial to understand the important differences between the philosophy we often see expressed as an academic subject in our schools, and the applied living philosophy of the ancient philosophers.

In The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Mark Forstater describes what Pierre Hadot says about ancient philosophy:
“To the ancient Greeks, philosophy (the striving after wisdom) was not a dry, analytical discourse but a means to living life correctly. Philosophy was a tool: a method you could use to maintain harmony in your life, to control negative passions such as anger and hatred, to reason out the best action to take, to understand how the universe worked, and to find your place in it.”
Most people know the word philosophy means “love of wisdom”. If we remember that wisdom is not the same as knowledge, then a philosopher is not someone who simply spouts off technical jargon and name-drops thinkers of the past. Rather, in essence, a philosopher is a person who asks, “what does it mean to be wise, and how can I be wiser?” More specifically, any time you are asking “what is?”, “what ought to be?” or “how do I know either?” you are doing philosophy, or some subset of it.

More importantly, a philosopher is someone who does more than think and talk – opinions are a dime a dozen and matter little. But philosophers also act according to that wisdom and seek to make their lives a living example of it. Having a degree in philosophy from a university doesn’t make you a philosopher; nor does writing books, having a high IQ, or knowing a lot of trivia about philosophical history. Increased knowledge is bound to happen as we pursue wisdom and degrees can be one way to help with that. But it is the pursuing of wisdom and living a thoughtful, principled, consistent, and examined life that makes you a philosopher.

In this sense, when philosophy is practiced as a lifestyle, it will intimately connect with our spirituality. If Spirituality is about focusing on the essential things in life in order to cultivate ourselves for greater flourishing, then this cannot be done without sound and consistent philosophy. This is why traditions such as Stoicism and Buddhism are both philosophies, as well as religious and spiritual paths. With a sound philosophical underpinning, our practices make sense – connecting our understanding of the world with how we live in it, and providing the rationale behind that system of practice and the goal it is designed to achieve. One might say philosophy is the blueprint, spiritual practice is the construction, a life well lived is the building, and flourishing is the home – and all of this is of what our spirituality consists.

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