The practical need for Philosophy in life - Q&A
This year the School of Practical Philosophy is celebrating the 47th anniversary of its foundation. It is an Educational Association founded in 1970 and operating in Nicosia from that time and in Limassol from 1979 and in Larnaca from 2007.
The School was founded in the climate of uncertainty of 1970.Such a climate often obliges man to remember essential questions which had once occupied him and then been forgotten during his subsequent life. Thus, this inauspicious situation was propitious for a lively study of philosophy, with the aim, according to the Platonic tradition, of it becoming a practical pursuit. Thus, people gather together to study philosophy. All are welcome because the fulfillment of philosophy is the birthright of every human being.
The School offers a series of lectures on practical philosophy. This is not conditional on previous knowledge, only on the desire to listen and participate.The School has been offering these courses in the study of practical philosophy for 47 years and has given the opportunity to many people to participate, to the depth they chose, to study philosophy, based on the principles that whatever we learn is for the benefit of all and that the teacher must never stop being a student. Most have found that they have become much happier, much richer spiritually, much more honest and that they contribute to the wider community in a principled manner.
Apart from the main lessons in philosophy the School also offers, from time to time, lessons for members who are parents and Good Company for their children. In addition, lessons are also given on many other subjects such as Dialectic, Law, Economics with Justice (for a fair economic system that fits with man’s nature), Philosophy in Business etc.
Firstly, because it is in man’s nature.Enquiry is inherent in this.
Secondly, because it provides an aim and a meaning to life and is the basis for harmonic relationships and happiness.Otherwise life is aimless, mechanical, reactionary and barren – devoid of inspiration and creativity.Society cannot be uplifted.Man is truly alienated.
Thirdly, because philosophy (which cannot be dogmatic if it is philosophy) simply asks that we live in the present and that we look at everything afresh every time.Thus, when we escape from the humdrum disaster of daily routine, (even though we still have to confront this routine and also the more important matters of life), the essence of the present allows our attention to be focused naturally, to draw back from the myriad thoughts and feelings in which it can be lost, and to allow the attention to focus consciously and completely on every object of observation and on every issue being examined.
Fourthly, because it is extremely important to understand, in all aspects of our lives, the principle which governs every issue with which we are faced.In this way we are not confused, we do not vacillate, we do not live with doubts and we are not fragmented morally and spiritually.
Fifthly, because our tradition, i.e.theinheritance of mankind, strongly attracts us towards philosophy.Its glory and application place us on the road to liberation, to the final goal of ‘KNOW THYSELF’.
How is it that philosophy comes naturally to man when we see him wandering, lost today?
In reality, philosophy does come naturally to man.His mind naturally seeks for knowledge and truth and within his heart are held awe and mystery and the love and desire for the supreme.The word of man- his essence before he learns other words, the stereotypes by which he lives – naturally turns him towards the eternal when he later recalls magnificent words from out of the depths of his soul.He abandons aimlessness and progresses towards the goal.Evidence of this can be found in wonderful works of music, painting, architecture, sculpture and in art generally and in man’s use of word and reason which bring to light wonderful visions of wisdom.Even his pain at the tragedies he causes or in which he participates, and in the wretchedness of his actions, and because of his daily life, shows that within himself he desires something better, something finer than all that. As Plato says, pain is the source of meditation and remembrance.
The way we live now, it seems we have filled that eternal, said to be our true nature, with noise. The technological speed of the times has put meanings into the words we use ‘which are nearly the same as the material objects and thus we devalue greatly the essence, so that the words lose their original form’.Man’s being is imprisoned by materialism and oppressed by foreign substances, by irrelevant words which are fleeting, aimless and limiting.He cannot free himself from this coating of incoherent words which of course cannot bring about clarity of thought.He has thus lost a vital dimension of life, the dimension of depth. Instead of knowledge he mainly seeks for information.Instead of understanding he wants to know. Instead of loving he becomes identified.He lives in a prison house, in a house of slavery.He does not realise this – or acts as if he does not.And when he begins to suspect that he is imprisoned and that there is a happiness incomparably than the one he is living now and that there is something higher, a great mystery waiting to be revealed then a thrill runs through him and makes him open up and turn towards philosophy. Philosophy which is comprehensible and not just speculation. Philosophy which is living, neither hypothetical nor mystical. The philosopher wants to find his true identity and at the same time help uplift society. -We occupy ourselves then, with what we call ‘practical philosophy’, i.e., that which fills the gap between theory and living – so that all the longing from the depths of our being can be brought to light and met openly.The work of man is to unite his mind, heart and energy, in the living present, into one unit, one being, instead of going around without a centre of being, divided, fragmented, and one might say, - astray.
However, despite the waywardness of man, he clearly has a philosophical leaning by nature – and even if our enthusiasm wanes – and our second nature triumphs – and the memory of truth and justice becomes blurred – and we compromise our principles, we can perhaps recall that first stirring, the promise we made to ourselves without any fanfares as adolescents, to that first awakening of reason and discrimination, that we would never become like those adults, forever old, who ignore the freshness of creation and live mechanically with stale knowledge, or who approach the world ‘literally’ and God, semantically.
Philosophy is the most important subject in the world. That is because it deals with ideas and causes- and these are what rule the world, and of course, our daily lives even if we do not notice it.
What is the method of practical philosophy?
As Socrates tells us – self-examination. Philosophy gives us the opportunity to achieve understanding of those important questions relating to God and man and creation, and to occupy ourselves with self-examination. Self-examination – not of the egotistical picture we have of ourselves, and which governs us, but of our essence as compared to the false image. The study of philosophy is for each and every person. Everyone is welcome to join us in our studies regardless of ethnic background, faith or age. “There is no need for anyone to think that it is possible for humankind to have different aims …. Because humankind is one and its aim is one."
What is the importance of a people’s tradition in the pursuit of philosophy?
It must be noted that philosophy can, because of its dialectic nature, arise from many sources. It is not possible for it to thrive except if a people first dwell into its own tradition. Only by living it is it possible to transcend it. Rejection of it leads to a levelling and passive acceptance leads to dogma. In this case, meaningful enquiry comes to a halt. Nevertheless it is possible for the heart to open up so the enquiry can continue.
How exactly does philosophy provide an aim in life?
Here is how philosophy gives a goal, as well as a meaning to life and the basis for harmony and happiness. Without it, it is said, life is aimless, mechanical, barren, devoid of inspiration and creativity.
With philosophy – and gradually getting to know myself – I am thus able to understand other better. I get to know my proper relationship with society. With the dialectic of the philosopher, the School together with society is uplifted. Melancholic and impersonal societies and melancholic people cease to be and people find the true goal of their lives. Consider the golden age of Athens. Is it really lost?
Putting philosophy into practice means connecting to the present which shows us the unity, our inner peace – as well as acting in the memory of the Self. To live in the essence of the present – and not in absence or in irrelevance- in a stage of refined words which we gradually come to live, so that we accept everything and everyone within the bliss of the unity of the Self. Then the vision of the future arises. The environment is seemingly limitless. This is because the present moment is the real time, real freedom – where man can receive the outpouring of the grace of the Absolute, the love of God. There is no overshadowing from the cloud of the past nor from a dream-like future. There is no exaggerated action which banishes Grace. In the present, the reflection of ‘I know nothing” is paramount. With consistency everything appears fresh and bright – and one!
Listen to how the poet describes it:-
The road was wide and regular, from afar hands could be seen working at digging, In the sky, billowing clouds and now and again a golden trumpet and a rosy evening. As I approached the people who were working, women and men with pickaxes in ditches, suddenly I was walking and I wasn’t walking. I looked at the birds in flight and they were made of marble, I looked at the sky and it was blurred, And I lowered my eyes to what was around, girls were kneading bread without touching it, women were spinning but the spindle was not turning, sheep were drinking but their tongues were not moving, above green water which was asleep….
That is what George Seferis said in his poem ‘Engomi’.
Daily life seems so full of pushing and pulling that it may be difficult to occupy ourselves with issues to the depth we would wish for.Forgetfulness is our greatest enemy. It subtracts from truth. Thus with habitual speed we take as given and certain the answers, we underestimate, or forget, or pass by, subjects which naturally and fundamentally are of interest to us – such as- What is truth?... What is my real identity?.... What is this creation?.... Who is its Creator?... What is my role in all this?...How can real contentment and happiness I life be found?... What is freedom?...
Memory is the Great companion. As soon as there is a question it runs to help. That is why it is said the philosophy begins with a question … It stops when you have the answer in your hands!
What exactly do we mean when we say that in practical philosophy our tradition is calling us?
In reality, in the study of philosophy, our tradition, which is the birthright of all mankind, is calling us strongly. As has been mentioned before, the application and glory of it, place us on the path to freedom, to the final goal of KNOW THYSELF.
Here we have the tradition which has been handed down to mankind over the years and which is passed on by different civilisations.Man responds naturally to this because these callings stir within him the memory of truth.The philosopher is free to ponder on and to study ideas which are presented to him.There are no limits on the study of truth.The national poet, Dionysios Solomos, has said that a nation must learn to accept only what is true as belonging to the nation.In the Philokalia, the saintly Neilos the Hermit (442 AD) says, ‘Above all a philosopher must be free.Philosophy is the consistency of moral principles together with the aspiration of knowing true being’.
The human being responds naturally to words of truth no matter where they are from.At the same time people of different nations respond immediately, according to their psychological make-up, upbringing and education, to the callings which emanate from their own particular traditions. Some people are fortunate, but also have a great responsibility, if their country and history have progressed and left behind the traces of a unique civilisation.Here we have that precisely, apart from the pre-socratic, we also have Platonic and Christian philosophy which were reconciled from the 4th century AD as a consequence of the wonderful Renaissance of Learning.From then on they have proceeded hand in hand.The Church calls the death of Socrates ‘ a model for the death of Christ’, while Vassilios the Great exhorts us in a very Socratic way, saying ‘ Examine yourself (who you are).Know the nature of yourself.Watch yourself, neither kin nor those around you, but yourself alone (watch only yourself) Here he turns us in the direction given to Socrates by the Oracle at Delphi KNOW THYSELF, which is connected to the saying of Socrates ‘An unexamined life is a life not worth living’.
How can the being be purified by practical philosophy?
Faced with such a lofty goal it is obvious that our being must return to a state in which it is truly able to serve the aim of Truth. There is a marvellous guide in the Old Testament, ‘Be still and know that I am God’. A vital stillness is the correct set-up. Awareness and Livelinessform the first great leap forward.This presupposes the gradual termination of the private use of the mind and the opening up to the universal and to the idea of the Absolute, ‘The Absolute Good’.For this, daily practical application and a harmoniously measured life are needed.Each day a little time is necessary for reflection and also time for study (and there is plenty of time in the material world) and to serve the Need, the Will of God, as it appears before us, with detachment and without losing the awareness of the presence of ourself, or our spontaneity.
The excellent philologist, Theodorakopoulos, says that there should be three goals in life.The journey into the past, the journey to the world outside, and the greatest and most difficult, but also the most productive, the return to ourselves.
It could be said that the journey to the world outside means in practice coming out of what we are not.Usually we live in boring and shallow introspection, centred on the image that we have of ourselves – or the pictures we have of ourselves – ‘my name is legion’ – together with endless, illogical circulating thoughts, so we are neither within nor without.We must progress. Plato directs us towards love in ‘The Republic’.This Republic could be the Universe. It could be ones neighbour – It is nothing other than Myself.
In our studies of philosophy, for now we are studying the philosophical content and indications of our own rich tradition, the Christian and Platonic but not from any dogmatic aspect.That does not belong in philosophy.Devotion and the exercise of religious commitment is the duty of each and every Christian personally.And as Christians that is what we do.Apart from that, it would not be possible to introduce dogmatic elements into philosophy as that would mean that someone from a different tradition could not be involved.All people are welcome in philosophy because the search for truth is the birthright of every person.
What is the significance of the Platonic tradition?
The Platonic tradition contains excellent guidance for the steps we have to take on the return to the desired land of truth.Socrates says that philosophy is a daily pursuit.What does this mean?It means we must introduce the dialectic into our lives.We need questions and dialogue in order to get out of the mire, questions that direct us towards truth so we can clear out the grey areas of our being.We are guided to live a life which is not – unexamined – which Socrates says is not worth living – but to self-examination.We are guided to the harmonisation of our mental, emotional and vital functions.And at the same time, to the highest function of man, reason, discrimination between what is and what is not.We are guided by meditation, to a very deep reflection, referring always to the Idea of the Good.We are led through the different forms and levels of beauty up to the divine beauty, supreme and heavenly.Plato even speaks of the ‘death’ of the philosopher, that is to say, the distancing of the soul from everything which impedes the vision of the Idea of Good.He is speaking of union with God and of real freedom.Even by using myth, he awakens the mystery which is in the heart.
However, if we approach the ancient world in a merely philological way, if we ignore the practical application, then we strip away the meaning and it becomes prosaic.The next step is to remove it gradually from our education.In that way we remove reference to principles, reference to the idea of the Good, in the virtue ofJustice, reference to the Absolute, remembrance of the Creator, from the education of our youth, with all that that entails.
Justice, says Plato, does not rely on the outward actions of man but on what is happening inside him, within himself.All of this is bound together until the many become one only, completely wise and in harmony.
Socrates is the perfect teacher, he does not have a teaching set down.He does not have a dogmatic philosophy.He did not found a philosophical system nor did he ever write anything.He acts from the magnificent ‘position’ of‘I know nothing’.
What is the practical significance of Christian philosophy?
‘Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away’, says Christ.Everything is contained in those words.It is sufficient to really hear them and believe them.These are the conditions for Life.In order to hear, the mind and heart must be purified.We have just heard the wonderful ‘I know nothing’ from Socrates.Take the example of Isaiah the Hermit (370 AD) in the Philokalia, where he says ‘ If the mind is freed, ‘the division that there is between self and God disappears’.Further in the Philokalia, Simeon, the New Theologian (1000 AD) tells us:-
The mind can only transcend its own nature when it is directed wholly above the comprehensible. Impersonal and without shape it becomes totally absorbed in God, without form, without beginning, infinite, above even its own cohesion’
Staying with the Christian tradition, we can hear Isaiah the Hermit again, ‘If the mind is free from every worldly aspiration, that is the point at which sin dies within you’.The mind is being prepared for immortality.
We often hear about the principle of unity – is that within our tradition?
This principle is defined in a wonderful way in The Gospel according to John.The product of discrimination, defined by Socrates in ‘Timaeus’,between the being and the non-being is the unity of the being, - the becoming is not the being. There is no intrusion of duality here since the non-being cannot be thought of as one of two, as there is only one – the real being.Socrates views the investigation of nature, on which so many systems have been based, as a game of the spirit with objects.The spirit however, must return to Itself and within itself to attempt to find the beginning of knowledge and philosophy.Socrates says in ‘Phaedon’ (79)‘When the soul meditates upon itself, from there it goes to the pure, the eternal, the immortal, the unchanging and since the soul is related to these , when it becomes one with itself and understands itself and stops being deceived, then it lives there forever…..’
Marsilio Ficino, who during the period of the Florentine Renaissance, united Christianity with PlatonicPhilosophy, in the West says :- ‘The main work of divine Plato … is the revelation of the principle of unity amongst all things - of which he appropriately says “this very self.. is unique”.He also concludes that in all these things there is one truth, that is the light of One Itself, the light of God which permeates all minds and all forms….’
The idea of unity is referred to over and again in the Philokalia, ‘The word of the monk’ tells us, A monk is he who sees how one self is with all since in everything he unfailingly sees the self.
In the Philokalia we also hear from Simeon the New Theologian (1000AD) , ‘He who sees within the one, sees everything.’
What do we need?
Since we have been speaking now about Christian Philosophy, let us hear this philosophical encouragement from the Philokalia (Kallistos Katafygiotis - circ 14th cent)
‘We must turn then, to the discovery and to the knowledge of the only one, where the principles of everything and the end of all are found.Dig deep within yourself for loftier work, Know not that which limits you – but instead your self’.
Are we ready to follow these directions?