by Eleonora Vaiana
“TAKE IT PHILOSOPHICALLY”
A common refrain, most everyone has heard this expression aimed at them at one point or another. Likewise, it springs easily to the lips when someone we know faces a problem for which they see no solution. It is at once comforting and condescending, an acknowledgment that sometimes life is hard, and there’s nothing to be done but endure. But what does this well-worn platitude really mean?
There are many, and often a not-so-silent majority, who consider philosophy to be a useless discipline. It is a waste of time, they say, a frivolous intellectual diversion which produces nothing useful for oneself or for the world. But this statement is drenched in irony, as it – a proclamation of one’s own personal worldview – is inherently a philosophical declaration.
So can we really be sure that philosophy has no use in everyday life? Or is it perhaps already perfectly integrated into the very way we think and the mindset with which we approach obstacles?
“Love for knowledge,” in more ways than one
To answer these questions, we must look to ancient Greece. “Philosophy” comes from the Greek philosophía; composed of the words phileîn (to love) and sophía (knowledge), it is perhaps unsurprising that it literally translates to “love of knowledge.” However, this is at best technically correct; such a simplistic definition does not do justice to the timeless magic of philosophical inquiry.
Indeed, one must further explore Greek mythology in order to fully appreciate the nuances of philosophy. We must first understand that to the Greeks, there are many kinds of love; when we hear that “philosophy” means “love of knowledge,” that conjures a certain intellectual connotation. But the great thinker Plato, drawing from his own experiences, says the philosopher’s mindset is shaped instead by a uniquely erotic tension.
The word erotic itself derives from Eros, the Greek deity of passionate love. Son of Pòros (richness) and Penìa (poverty), Eros aspires to discover the absolute truth, but due to his mother’s influence, he instead wanders eternally in the darkness of ignorance, condemned forever to seek, yet never to find. Fitting then, that though Eros is commonly thought of as a god in modern times, the ancient Greeks would not have agreed. In fact, they more likely would have referred to him as a capricious demon – just as love itself is a source of both exquisite joy and great pain.
According to Socrates, and later to Plato as well, the philosopher must walk this same line. Voraciously, one seeks absolute knowledge, yet is painfully aware that the inherent nature of ones’ quest makes it doomed to fail. And isn’t this the very definition of the human condition?
Better living through philosophy
Consider the progress in medicine and science since the time of Plato and Socrates, and how important it has been for the development of humanity. Without the ever-questioning thirst for knowledge rooted in these ancient thinkers, could we say that our race would have accomplished so much, so quickly, or even at all? At its core, philosophy is the basis for all of human advancement. In light of this, a better definition is in order.
Philosophy is not some useless abstraction, the purview of those with too much time and too few problems. Nor is it something we must adopt into our lives in order to serve some purpose. Philosophy is an inherent part of being human; the part of us that questions, that seeks, that hungers to find. It is the part of us that allows us to be conscious of ourselves and to live more consciously in the world around us. Much more than a taste for learning, philosophy, truly, is the pursuit of a better life, for ourselves and for everyone. It is not something to be found; we must merely rediscover it within ourselves.
We touch it when we lose ourselves in a book, when we marvel at a movie, when we appreciate the wonder of nature. Children are the ultimate philosophers, with their curious eyes and their endless “why?” It is only after we’ve grown that many stop questioning. And no wonder: It’s easy as one grows to succumb to the pressure of life, to dull the inquisitive edges of our minds against the stone of calamity and hardship. But we must always remember that often, it is not the answer that is important; it is to always be asking questions. This is the key to finding opportunities among the obstacles, to improving ourselves, and, one step at a time, to improving humanity.
So if you find yourself overwhelmed by problems, unable to find a way out and wishing you knew how to make a better life: try taking things a little more philosophically.
Photo by: Magda Ehlers