PHILOSOPHICAL SELF-DEFENSE: A BASIC PRIMER
A few reasons why it's good to think life through
Once upon a time, philosophical self-defense might not have been all that necessary.
Times have changed.
Philosophy today isn’t a luxury.
To be clear: mere academic philosophy, as it’s often practiced today, is a luxury.
A person can lead a wonderful life without ever delving into what often seem like odd, hyperintellectual bouts of mental gymnastics over obscure, unsolvable riddles. (That, in this humble opinion, is what no small part of “academic philosophy” amounts to.) Those who avoid this entire goose chase might well wind up better off for it. (Plato, by the way, would probably agree with that.)
But real philosophy, on the other hand, is different.
That’s never been a luxury.
There’s never been a time when our most fundamental ideas about life aren’t important.
Our basic life philosophy governs everything we think, feel, and do. It’s a key ingredient of existential fitness. It’s central for anyone who wants to find some sort of genuine happiness, to achieve psychological health, to live without regrets, to be able to deal with the suffering life throws at us, and so on.
Yet strangely enough, we’re often discouraged from even getting within ten feet of it.
It can be taboo to bring up in conversation. Small talk is often mandatory. We’re encouraged to enjoy ourselves, distract ourselves, and amuse ourselves, but not to know ourselves.
That doesn’t just put us at a disadvantage when it comes to squaring up with life.
It puts us in harm’s way.
Two stories illustrate this well.
In Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll wrote a narrative poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”
It tells a story of a Walrus and a Carpenter walking on a beach.
They come upon an offshore bed of oysters. The Walrus says,
“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”
It’s an invitation for “A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk” – a fun, harmless romp, it seems. The oldest Oyster “shook his heavy head,” and declined the invitation. The younger Oysters, however, decided to accept the invitation, and left their oyster-bed to join in on the fun.
“Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more and more and more-“
The young Oysters make the journey, and are ready to party. But what happened next probably surprised them.
“’A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
‘Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed –
Now, if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.’
‘But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!’
‘The night is fine,’ the Walrus said,
‘Do you admire the view?’”
The Walrus and the Carpenter then proceed to eat the young Oysters.
The second story won’t involve Matt Damon.
This tale was told by George Gurdjieff, as described by P. D. Ouspensky in In Search of the Miraculous.
It goes like this.
“There is an Eastern tale which speaks about a very rich magician who had a great many sheep. But at the same time this magician was very mean.”
The shepherd didn’t want to hire shepherds or build a fence. The sheep, unsurprisingly, caused the shepherd lots of trouble and often ran away. After all, the sheep knew that the magician wanted their flesh and skins, and they weren’t inclined to cooperate.
“At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them first of all that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned, that, on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place he suggested to them that if anything were going to happen to them it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further the magician suggested to his sheep that they were not sheep at all; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to other that they were eagles, to others that they were men, and to others that they were magicians.”
“And after this all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.”
“The tale is a very good illustration of man’s position.”
On the surface, these two tales might seem very different.
In the movie Dogma, Matt Damon played a character who quoted Lewis’s poem (in a conversation with a nun) who interpreted Lewis’s poem as a rationale for atheism (although it also could have been interpreted as a rationale for going spiritual but not religious).
Gurdjieff, on the other hand, aimed in the opposite direction. Hardly an atheist, he spent his life learning and teaching a system of spiritual development.
When it comes to “the moral of the story,” these two approaches seem to be on completely opposite sides.
But in fact, they both agree on at least one basic, underlying idea.
None of us want to wind up Oysters.
Nobody wants to be like the sheep with the mean shepherd.
No one wants to be fooled, used, and discarded.
Especially when it comes to things that are important, like life itself.
That seems reasonable enough – something we can all agree on.
But that leaves us with a new problem.
After all, the Oysters and sheep probably weren’t fantasizing about the fate they eventually met, either.
So, why did it happen? And how?
To say they were “fooled” isn’t quite enough. Even to say that they were literally “hypnotized” still doesn’t satisfy us, for our purposes here.
What made them so easy to fool, or hypnotize?
Here’s one way to explain what happened.
Someone else answered The Big Questions of life for them.
The Oysters and sheep allowed someone else to answer the Big Questions for them.
But why would they do that?
The conditions for that were already in place beforehand, it seems.
The Oysters and the sheep had weak answers to the existential riddles life gave them.
After all, everyone is a philosopher, whether we’re aware of it or not (including Oysters and sheep.)
In some ways, our philosophy – our answers to The Big Questions – is the most important thing in life. And if we don’t answer The Big Questions for ourselves very well, then plenty of others will probably be happy to answer them for us.
The lack of a good and healthy philosophy allowed the Walrus/Carpenter and Mean Shepherd to muscle in and answer those riddles for them. As it turned out, those answers worked out pretty well for them (the Walrus/Carpenter/Shepherd) – but not so well for the others.
But what does it really mean, “weak answers”?
The Oysters seemed to have the idea that the meaning of life was just to have fun, do pleasant things, be happy, and enjoy themselves.
The sheep apparently had some blurry answers to the “Who am I?” question. This allowed the Mean Shepherd to feed them various other answers – “You’re a lion! You’re an eagle!” – and so on. Those answers were flattering, comfy, and fun to hear, most likely – yet ultimately, they only served to transform them into easier prey.
If our answers aren’t good, we become vulnerable.
A weak or unhealthy life philosophy leaves us defenseless.
One of the primary jobs of a society is to equip us with a strong life philosophy.
When a society fails to do this, it can leave each of us confronting fundamental life problems that we can’t solve. We can wind up facing existential monsters armed only with a head full of celebrity gossip and a plastic spork.
Some individuals in recent generations have been raised more by marketing departments and entertainers than any kind of serious religious or philosophical framework. We’re some of the first humans in history to be guinea pigs in this vast experiment. And the results, it seems, aren’t really turning out all that well.
In conditions like these, it can be easy to wind up with a life philosophy of vagueness.
Hundreds of contradictory ideas can float around in our heads, bumping into each other, all of which seem equally true and false. It gives us less of a “code to live by” than an intellectual demolition derby. Uncertainty rules the day. It makes it easy to meander through a random assortment of games in life, searching for a trophy worth the effort. The eventual result of this life in the shallows can easily be nihilism, or fanaticism, or a long buffet offering a wide variety of existential vertigo.
Amid all this, if someone suddenly appears with a clear, emotionally compelling, easy-to-digest narrative that seems to make sense of it all, it can seem quite attractive.
“Want to go for a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk?”
So, what’s the answer here?
Is there any kind of resolution to this situation?
If anyone’s life philosophy seems anything less than an impenetrable fortress – what to do?
The answer, it seems, lies in strengthening our philosophical immune system.
Life throws existential riddles at us all the time. We might wrestle with them, get flattened by them, or hide under the carpet at the sight of them. If our answers to these riddles seem limp, or blurry, or like a lukewarm bowl of oatmeal and mayonnaise – then a better response might be to live real.
This can mean swimming against more than a few currents of modern times. These tides often pull us toward Oysterhood and Sheepness, and the current can be pretty strong. Plenty of people seem to benefit from us becoming Oystery and Sheepy. The main ones who don’t benefit from that arrangement, however, are us.
Resisting this can mean not running away from the Big Questions, but turning toward them.
And not just turning toward them, but actively working to answer them.
And not merely answering them, but answering them really well.
It means, on some level, becoming a “seeker.”
To continue on this path, see How to Rethink Your Entire Life: Foundations of a Life Philosophy