The following piece is entitled “Applying Philosophy to Your Life,” and constitutes chapter 14 of the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). My philosophically-minded and accomplished partners in dialogue are Arthur Dobrin, Ph.D. and Tom Morris, Ph.D.. Tom’s words are indicated by the initials TM, Arthur’s by AD, and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type. Enjoy this look at applied philosophy, values-based living, personal growth, ethics and applying philosophy to your life with Tom Morris, Ph.D. and Arthur Dobrin, Ph.D.
JM: How can one apply philosophy to one’s life? How should we live? What is the right thing to do? Are we really free? What ancient ideas and teachings are still applicable to modern life? What can professional philosophers offer us that we can use in a practical way? These are important questions from the realm of applied philosophy, which is an ideal discipline to identify astute questions and provide insight into potential answers. However, the long line of philosophical inquiry is shaken by modern society and relatively recent developments: “Today, philosophers have left the field to religion and psychotherapy when it comes to how to live a good life; they have largely abandoned – perhaps betrayed – Socrates” (Jack Hernandez).
I think Dr. Hernandez might be a bit pessimistic.
“Socrates put a question to us that has intrigued me all my life: how should one live? This, he maintained, is the most important question a person can ask. …He believed ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’” ~ Gary E. Kessler
To gain insight into these questions that confront and ennoble us all, I’m joined today by two special guests: philosopher and humanities scholar, Arthur Dobrin and public philosopher par excellence, Tom Morris. I couldn’t have better counsel. Arthur Dobrin, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Management, Entrepreneurship, and General Business at Hofstra University. He is also the leader emeritus of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island. He and his wife were in the Peace Corps in Kenya in 1965-67, and return regularly to visit the village in which they worked. Dr. Dobrin is also a founding member since 1976 of Amnesty International #74. It’s remarkable how many books he has either edited, written, or contributed to; the titles are great: Ethical People And How They Got to Be That Way, Being Good and Doing Right: Readings in Moral Development, Teaching Right from Wrong: 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child, Ethics for Everyone, and Love Your Neighbor: Stories of Values and Virtues. I’m proud to introduce you to Arthur Dobrin.
AD: Nice to be here, Jason.
JM: Hi. May I call you Arthur?
AD: Oh, I prefer it.
JM: Okay, thanks. Your list of books is remarkable! I would be very happy if when I died I had a list of books such as that.
AD: Well, thank you. But I think that everyone is capable of doing that— perhaps not by writing books, but just by how it is that they live.
JM: Absolutely. Well, that’s the topic of today’s discussion: applying philosophy to your life and living in a way that a wise person would. Since you are a professor of humanities and you study ethics, you have more knowledge than other folks such as myself about what a good life is, how to live a life of value, how philosophy and ethics can be applied, etc. Is that something that everyone has the potential to understand and actualize, even if they don’t go as far as you have in their education?
“The defining mark of philosophy is a mode of criticism designed to test the validity or truth of propositions.” ~ Daniel N. Robinson
AD: Oh yeah, sure; I think there’s no question about that. But like anything else, the more you know about it, the deeper the appreciation becomes, and perhaps, the better you can be at it. Anyone can play some game decently enough to have fun at it and do well; being a moral person is in some ways exactly like that. Philosophy is one aspect: how it is that we think about things. I think that even more important is how we relate to other people: the emotional aspects of ourselves, the sense of being connected, empathy. That’s where it begins; philosophy comes along much later as a way of providing some kind of broader understanding, perhaps. We begin by being moral people very early on – from the moment that we begin to relate to other human beings.
JM: Mm-hmm. Is that to say that a person is severely challenged in becoming a moral and well-developed person if they had an upbringing that was less than optimal?
AD: Oh, sure. The environment very much affects us; children who are subjected to instability, starvation, hunger, war, mayhem, oppression, and injustices have a much harder time becoming and flourishing. Ethics is really about human flourishing. There are environments which nurture and there are environments which impede development.
JM: So, you have supported Amnesty International. They are a great organization (I believe) which brings attention to people who are imprisoned improperly and mistreated by regimes around the world (and, unfortunately, the United States). That’s essentially an example of “ethics in action,” right?
“Make your values mean something.” ~ Patrick Lencioni
AD: There are two aspects, basically, to ethics: one is that you do no harm. The other aspect of it is to treat people fairly. So, in places where people are being imprisoned without trial (unjustly) and where they are treated cruelly or tortured, if you have empathy you feel for people like that. And you want to do what you can to reverse those conditions. Under those conditions, it’s very hard for someone to flourish, but not impossible.
I’m thinking of someone like Vaclav Havel, who went on to become the president of the Czech Republic, but prior to that (when it had been a Communist government), he spent quite a lot of time in jail, and while there, he wrote. One of the things that he said in his prison memoirs was that what he did every day was to take some time to develop a ritual that was for himself: making tea. He had a little tea ceremony he engaged in every day as a way of keeping his sanity. So, even under very difficult circumstances, there are things that people can do.
JM: That’s remarkable. Nelson Mandela attempted to keep his values and his honor alive even though he was a political prisoner, and luckily he made it out and went on to do some other incredible things. And I know that Boethius was a pioneer in the idea of applying philosophy to your life with his extraordinary book, written while in prison, The Consolation of Philosophy.
AD: There was an amazing interview Peter Ustinov had with Nelson Mandela in which he noted Mandela was such an inspiration, and Mandela turned it around and said, No, you were really valuable to those of us who were in prison because the movies you made were diverting; it was laughter that kept us sane.
“At the moment that you are most in awe of all there is about life you don’t understand, you are closer to understanding it all than at any other time.” ~ Jane Wagner
JM: Hmmm. There is something about the word moral that causes some people worry and unease.
AD: It does depend on how you use the word; when I say moral, I usually surround it with lots of examples of what I mean by it. Personally, I use the words ethical and moral interchangeably; some people don’t. There are some who would say that morality really has to do with social conventions, and that becomes a problem because there are many social conventions that have nothing to do with human flourishing. In fact, it may be just the opposite— there are conventions which are stultifying, there are traditions that are unjust, and so on.
However, there are other ways in which we can understand morality, and that is to use it as a synonym for ethics, in which case what I am really referring to ultimately is, How is it that people are happy? What are the conditions which encourage human flourishing? And here I’m using it in sort of the “ancient Greek” sense of the word, which is: We live with other people we are dependent upon, so how do we create our lives in such a way that we enhance each other, not tear each other down?
JM: Mmm-hmm. Help me understand the difference between what would be the negative angle on ethics: do no harm; versus the other perspective, which I think would be positive, or: do something good.
“The love for justice that is in us is not only the best part of our being, but it is also the truest to our nature.” ~ César Chávez
AD: I think that both the prescriptive and proscriptive aspects are necessary for an ethical life— that is, harming people gratuitously is just wrong (and every culture recognizes this as wrong). That isn’t to say that you never harm people, but you have to have good reasons to do so.
Not harming is inadequate, by itself; there has to be another part of it: to treat people fairly. Justice ranges from the simplest level (people get what they deserve) to a much more sophisticated (if you will) level (note: this is justice on the scale of society and social relations, not interpersonal relations). What we’re talking about is social justice, which is what you were alluding to earlier when you noted regimes around the world (and the United States included, to some extent) create a society that is unjust. There are aspects of our society which are simply unfair to entire categories of people; that’s unethical (immoral if you’d like).
There are some people who only focus on interpersonal relations — “person to person virtue” becomes all there is to morality. Well, that’s inadequate. And the other side of the coin is, there are some people who engage in social causes and unwittingly trample on other people, which is to be blind to much of what morality is about.
JM: I am thinking of a quotation by Epicurus: “Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering.” I think it’s a sharp way to look at the idea that philosophy is only as useful as the use to which it is put (pragmatism). There’s hardly any purpose in understanding some of the arcana of it that philosophers studied if it is not going to better humanity in at least some small way. Applying philosophy to your life is, by definition, practical. If humanity were perfect, perhaps it would be a decent use of time to simply do mental exercises (I am thinking of analytical philosophy dominant in the late 20th century), but Epicurus would counsel against that.
Even now, when do you see a philosopher interviewed for their take on some political issue, economic question, or social problem? I think we need every person who gets that philosophy is the love of wisdom working on important problems such as: How are we to live? What is the good life? And, What can we do as a person, community, country and a species to progress? Socrates, perhaps the father of philosophy, was anything but pedantic and cloistered. In Athens, you didn’t have to ask for Socrates’s opinion – he was asking your opinion! He wanted to dialogue, argue, and philosophize with you.
“Truly successful decision-making relies on a balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell
JM: I’m discussing applying philosophy to your life with professor emeritus, Arthur Dobrin. Later in this segment, I’ll be joined by Tom Morris from the Morris Institute for Human Values. Here’s a quote by Johann Gottlieb Fichte; I’ll just ask you to reflect on, if you would. He wrote: “What sort of philosophy one chooses depends, therefore, on what sort of man one is; for a philosophical system is not a dead piece of furniture that we can reject or accept as we wish; it is rather a thing animated by the soul of the person who holds it.” That is an interesting take on applying philosophy to your life from one of history’s undisputed geniuses.
AD: Well, I think that is certainly true. The way I would put this is that ideas have consequences; that is what it is that you believe matters in very practical ways. I think everybody has a philosophy – even if they may not have articulated it (I mean, it may not be conscious). We all have a sort of “hierarchy of values” —what’s important, what’s less important. Your philosophy towards the world really makes a difference in terms of what it is you can do. For example, you can choose to do this, or not do that; choose to treat people this way – or that way. Different people decide differently re: moral dilemmas.
“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom; one helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.” ~ Sandra Carey
…I also think what Fichte was talking about is: the kind of person you are is really an expression of the values that you hold. To me, what is critical in thinking about ethics is the recognition that we are always related to other people. Basically, human beings are social creatures and we do best in relationship to other people.
So, then the question becomes: “What is the nature of those relationships? What ought they to be? What should we be striving for? What values do we hold that actually enhance those relationships?” When those relationships are ethical relationships, people do best. By that I mean, people are happiest – not in the sense of pleasure or enjoyment moment to moment – happiness in terms of looking at one’s life and saying “This is good. I’m proud of the kind of life that I’ve led.”
JM: Understood and agreed. What is the state of ethics in America today in our communities and our homes, our workplaces and houses of worship, and in our nation? Finally, what can the listener do today that can get them a little closer to living the life that they really want to live?
AD: I’m not sure what the state of ethics is in our country today. When I look at the larger picture in terms of social justice, there are certainly some things that we’re doing that are just absolutely unbelievable. I’m referring specifically to torture; I’m talking about detaining people without charges, making people disappear. There are all kinds of surveys that show that students are more prone to cheat than in the past.
“As you move up the class ladder, you are more likely to violate the rules of the road: to lie, cheat, to take candy from kids, to shoplift, and to be tightfisted in giving to others. Straightforward economic analyses have trouble making sense of this pattern of results.” ~ Dacher Keltner
…The second question is really to me the heart of the matter: What do you do? What steps can you take? I would say the first is to look at your own life and ask: “What’s really important to me? How do I want to live? How should I live? How do I treat the people who are closest to me? What do I do about the life of those people whom I will never see?”
You mentioned Amnesty International before and that’s a very good example. People involved in Amnesty International will never know those prisoners whose lives they try to make better. It doesn’t matter whether you ever encounter them; they are human beings and they deserve better. This is a great example of being dedicated to one’s values and prioritizing morality. Take a real look at your life and how you live it.
As well, is there a consistency between your stated values and the actions you take? Beyond that, understand that in almost everything you do there is an ethical component – and that is because we affect other people. It’s the way in which you affect other people that becomes the moral question. Does your behavior make people’s lives easier or more difficult? Is it fair or unfair? Who gains, who loses? Who’s hurt and who is benefiting? Those are the kinds of questions to ask that really throw light on what kind of morality you aspire to.
JM: What you said just now is also the heart of the matter for me. When it comes to applying philosophy to your life, I always try to find a way to talk about the concept of a life of value. I envision it as being comprised of two parts – neither of which are particularly original, I must hasten to add. One aspect is about fulfilling yourself and finding meaning by prioritizing, or “living” the values that you authentically possess. When your life is consistent with what you truly value, then your life just “feels right.”
Beyond fulfilling yourself and valuing your life (e.g., the self-oriented aspect), though, is that when you live a life of value you make positive differences to those around you. It could be your family, your community, your country, or our world. It could be a cause, or it could be adopting a shelter animal – the sky’s the limit. It is as though, objectively, your life is valuable to someone or something beyond yourself. To put it poetically: that the Earth breathes easier with you here.
“Most of us live out our lives within a very narrow envelope of concerns. We worry about how to pay the mortgage, whether to buy a new car, what to cook for dinner. When we start to think philosophically, we take a step back and look at the wider picture. We start to examine what we have previously taken for granted.” ~ Stephen Law
…Interestingly, even paradoxically, you derive a subjective sense of value from your life because you are living your values, but further, your life has some objective value beyond how you feel because you are doing good work. It’s a great blend of almost all of the major theories about what makes a life valuable: hedonism, action, and service. And if one is a believer in God, perhaps a fourth element: being called to do God’s work here on Earth.
It’s good for you. Our brains have evolved not only to seek out personal pleasures but to be virtuous. There is something fleeting about the glittering prizes of fame, money, and the conventional view of success: “Success is full of promise till we get it; and then it is last year’s nest from which the birds have flown” (Henry Ward Beecher). Here is what social psychologists David G. Meyers and Jean M. Twenge have to say about authentic engagement of our higher values; the kind of engagement that really moves us:
“Seek work and leisure that engage your skills. Happy people are often in a zone called ‘flow’ – absorbed in a task that challenges them without overwhelming them. The most expensive forms of leisure (for example, sitting on a yacht) often provide less flow experience than gardening, socializing or craft work.”
…That’s a great look at applying philosophy to your life from, interestingly, psychologists. Well, Arthur, this was great. Thank you for your time. I think that the listener and I benefited from your style and also your depth of knowledge.
AD: Well thank you for asking, Jason.
JM: You’re welcome. “May the rains sweep gentle across your fields,” as the Irish blessing goes…
“There must be a sense that what I do is somehow congruent with the overall purpose, design, and flow of the universe as I experience it. I’ve got to feel that my work fits with the big picture.” ~ Larry Dossey
…Well, now I’m excited to turn to former Professor of The University of Notre Dame, Tom Morris. Dr. Morris was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, which once honored him as a Distinguished Young Alumnus. He holds two master’s degrees and a joint Ph.D. in philosophy and religious studies from Yale University.
He served for fifteen years as a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he was a very popular professor. He is now Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values. He seems as though he has hardly sat still a moment in the last thirty years.
Tom is the author of twenty books. Titles most relevant to the present dialogue include If Aristotle Ran General Motors, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric, and Philosophy for Dummies. His twelfth book, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence, has been well-received in the corporate world. His work as a business consultant has taken him to many Fortune 500 companies.
TM: Hi there, Jason.
JM: Thank you for your time today. I was just speaking with Arthur Dobrin about applying philosophy to your life, and since you wrote the books Philosophy for Dummies and True Success, I think you are a great guest to speak on this topic. My first question would be: Does a person have to read about philosophy in order to have a philosophy, be relatively self-aware, and live well?
“Think freely and independently or you are a follower bound by imaginary shackles. Tradition, emotion, neediness, regret, dogma, or fear are no friend of the individual. Learning to integrate the spirit of individuality with the social needs inherent in each of us is a high challenge. It must be met in order to live well.” ~ Jason Merchey
TM: Jason, I think we are all “natural-born philosophers.” I mean, you talk to kids enough and you see this happening already in their lives; they ask questions about everything and take nothing for granted. I saw in my children when they were three, four, five years old – they would ask about ethics, they would ask about cosmic issues, and so on. Somewhere during the early educational years, that sort of leaves us for some reason; I guess it’s because it’s not really cultivated in our schools right now.
Aristotle said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” So, no, you don’t have to read to be a philosopher; you don’t have to write to be a philosopher. But sometimes reading the right thing can spark those thoughts that maybe have laid dormant in our minds. That’s what I really hope to make happen with the books that I write – I want to stimulate people to think their own thoughts and help them to be more philosophical about their lives.
JM: That is very heartening since I love wisdom but do not have a Ph.D. in the subject! As we are speaking, I am looking at your website and there is a rotating quotation feature, and the quote that happens to be up right now is by Epictetus: “Only the educated are free.” Can you share what you think that means?
“Pythagoras, not arrogantly, and I think quite aptly, called himself a philosopher because he had devoted himself to an inquiry serving the purposes of wisdom itself. He wanted to know the truth of things – not “so that…,” but because he had befriended wisdom itself. He saw the realization of his own humanity as inextricably bound up with a form of life that was a critical and inquiring [one].” ~ Daniel N. Robinson
TM: Epictetus is a man I call “the Great Philosopher of Liberation.” He was a slave in ancient times, and was freed. He believed that most of us are slaves to something; illusions, lifestyles we don’t have to be living, dependence on various things, our attitudes. He believed that education was liberating — if we learn enough about ourselves and we learn enough about our lives, we often reorient our values. We discover: “You know what? I don’t have to continue to live the way that I’ve been living; I don’t have to do what I’ve been doing.” That’s why I believe he thought that only the educated are free – because if you’re not educated, you are more prone to suffer under false beliefs, under illusions.
He didn’t necessarily mean to comment on a formal education. I’ve come to believe that education is ultimately a “do-it-yourself enterprise” – and I went through four years of undergraduate and six years of graduate school, and I taught at a big university for 15 years. My dad was a high school graduate who was one of the most educated people I knew; he had books all over the house by philosophers and psychologists; he was always reading. He gave me a model of life that education is a process. Epictetus wanted us all to continue to learn in every stage of our lives, and to free ourselves from the things that hold us back.
JM: Roger that. So, I refreshed the page and the next quotation that popped up is: “The true medicine of the mind is philosophy.” That’s only seven words, but it’s such a deep thought. That’s really what philosophy is at its best, right – a practical and applicable way of trying to understand oneself, know how to relate to other people, learn to be a good person, and attempt to grasp the nature of reality?
“When you are a leader, your job is to have all the questions. You have to be incredibly comfortable looking like the dumbest person in the room. Every conversation you have about a decision, a proposal, or a piece of market information has to be filled with you saying, ‘What if?’ and ‘Why not?’ and ‘How come?’” ~ Jack Welch
TM: Absolutely. It’s a false view of philosophy to think of it as some abstruse, esoteric, academic discipline. You know, in the ancient world most of the great philosophers thought of philosophy as a form of therapy, a type of healing— getting their minds as healthy and strong as they hoped to get their bodies. You know, the word philosophy itself comes from two Greek roots: philos and sophia – “the love of wisdom.” Philosophy is a kind of love, and if you do love wisdom, you will end up living a healthier life. That’s what the ancients had in mind.
JM: That’s pretty interesting. Tell me how this idea works for you: I think that some people have fear when it comes to thinking, the consideration of their philosophy, understanding the self, analyzing their values, and determining an ethical framework. These processes might be intimidating because it seems to most people that in order to do so you need some special qualification or must be involved in some unique thing; but being a lover of wisdom is the main prerequisite. Actress Jodie Foster was applying philosophy to your life (hers, I guess!) when she advised to: “Continue searching harder, deeper, faster, stronger and louder, knowing one day you’ll be called upon to use all that you’ve amassed in the process.”
On the other hand, ironically, when it comes to philosophy, and ethics, a lot of people feel they have it all figured out, that it is not esoteric in any way. Oftentimes, one’s righteous indignation is merely being irascible or masking pain or self-protectiveness. Obviously, education and enlightenment help.
TM: Right, Jason, that’s what I believe. Philosophy is a personal quest for more wisdom about life and more insight about living. Who doesn’t want that— I mean, do we want to live foolishly or do we want to live wisely? Philosophy is the path of examining ourselves and our lives so that we can live a better life.
JM: Before we go on a brief break, let me just say that I do have a lot of respect for one who is a professional philosopher and a holder of a degree in that or a related subject. I take my hat off to diligent students, as well. But much of what we’re doing here today is attempting to entice people into believing that philosophy is something that they can use simply because they make a decision to live more ‘deliberately,’ as Thoreau put it.
Stay tuned, and in a few moments, I’ll be returning with another segment featuring the successful and amiable “public philosopher,” Tom Morris. We’re discussing applying philosophy to your life here on World Talk Radio.
“Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt – particularly one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas, one’s axioms.” ~ Will Durant
I’m back with Tom Morris, Ph.D., Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values – one of his many accolades. We are discussing insights and tips when it comes to applying philosophy to your life. Let me ask you, Tom, about a quote by Henri Frédéric Amiel: “Philosophy means the complete liberty of the mind, and therefore independence of all social, political or religious prejudice; it loves one thing only: Truth.”
TM: Yeah, that’s a great quote summing up the philosophical attitude and approach. Philosophers really are on a search for truth. And every one of us is too – insofar as we are being philosophical. A lot of people really “nurse their prejudices;” they would rather stay with the comfortable feelings they’ve always had rather than analyze and evaluate those: Am I dealing with people fairly?; Am I dealing with the world with eyes wide open? Philosophers encourage us to approach every situation as freshly as we can and to try to shed any illusions we have and grasp onto realities.
You know, it’s funny, Jason – there are two streams of philosophy in all of human history: the theoretical and the practical. In most university philosophy courses these days, you’ll be learning about the theoretical side of philosophy. What I’ve become most interested in over the last 5 or 10 years is the practical side: that side of philosophy that seeks to discover great advice for living. How should we approach today and tomorrow? How should we deal with the people around us? How do we make those tough choices, those decisions that we all face at various points in life? And, where can we find materials for doing this?
“Socrates, in a classic example of Socratic irony, admitted that he did not know what wisdom was – which was precisely why the Oracle at Delphi pronounced him the wisest person in Athens. Unlike others, who strutted around the city-state proclaiming their wisdom, he was wise because he knew he was not wise. This acknowledgement of fallibility is a key element in the pursuit of wisdom.” ~ Gary E. Kessler
…Indeed, you can read the ancient philosophers and get great insights, but you can also find raw materials for your philosophizing all around you. I mean, my son and I did a book together called Superheroes in Philosophy, where we examined all the great “superhero stories” from Superman to Batman, Daredevil, and Spider-Man, and the philosophical issues that come up in the stories. It’s just utterly fascinating.
In fact, one of my other books is called If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Wisdom from the World of the Wizards. I found in the Harry Potter stories all sorts of ideas that helped me think through issues like success, happiness, leadership, etc. We can find tools for philosophy all around us, and one of the things that I try to do is to help people discover those tools and find ways to examine their lives more deeply.
“Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.” ~ Lorraine Hansberry
JM: Mm-hmm. “Philosophical problems are not always solvable,” according to Irving Singer; he wrote a book called Meaning. Insightful thinker; deep book. Do you disagree with him? And what does one do when they get to the end of a mental rope and there’s no firm ground beneath it? This is like “advanced applying philosophy to your life”!
TM: Well, there are many perspectives here. There could be some philosophical problems that we will just never, ever get to the bottom of. There are others that maybe you’ll solve to your satisfaction, but it could be that your solution wouldn’t satisfy your neighbor. Why? Perhaps you bring to bear not just pure reason on the problem; it could be that there are some things about your personal reflections that your neighbor doesn’t really appreciate. I’m talking about arguing your way through issues such as the meaning of life, or whether we are free versus our behavior being determined, or whether there a God or not, or “the nature of the good.”
So, there are some problems that aren’t solvable to everyone’s satisfaction. Usually, when you deal with a problem you’re looking for a solution – that’s the whole point of messing with a problem in the first place. If philosophy is sometimes just thinking through a philosophical problem, and if the process itself deepens your own thinking, or if it ennobles and enhances your life, then whether you can ultimately solve a problem (such as, Why is there evil in the world?), you will come to new sensitivities in your life. You’ll live a little more deeply and fully.
We actually have no choice of whether to have a philosophy or not, of whether to be philosophers or not. We inevitably operate out of some philosophical worldview, however well-formed or incomplete it might be. Our choice is between bad philosophy – unreflectively absorbed from the culture around us and the prejudices of our time – or good philosophy, built on critical questioning and sustained thought.
“Very few beings really seek knowledge in this world. …On the contrary, they try to wring from the unknown the answers they have already shaped in their own minds – justifications, confirmations, and forms of consolation without which they can’t go on.” ~ Ayn Rand
JM: Let’s go all the way back – to Socrates. There’s a quote by John Spayde: “Socrates, the Athenian gadfly, transformed casual conversations into full-blown quests for philosophical truth.” Is he sort of the “grandfather of philosophy” in that he set us on this path of examination, questioning, and cherishing the importance of not taking things for granted? He was pretty much the impetus for Athenians and other “Western” civilizations when it comes to applying philosophy to your life, no?
TM: Yeah, Socrates is the great role model for philosophers. I think Cicero said about Socrates that he was the first to bring philosophy into the marketplace. He brought philosophy into the flow of everyday life. You’re right – he would stop somebody and launch into a conversation. I’ve had a little bit of that in my own life, and it works amazingly well.
On occasion, I’ve actually struck up conversations with people in airports, on the beach, and other public places, and it’s amazing how people are ready to come to life intellectually when given the chance! People don’t want to live boring existences; people are fascinated by interesting things. Thus, Socrates found that he could stimulate amazing insights if he just goaded his partners in dialogue to go that extra level— dig a little deeper, scratch beneath the surface. So, Socrates has served as a model for ideas such as: Don’t take anything for granted; question things we think are obviously true; and ask: What do values – such as justice, truth, and goodness – really mean? If we do so, maybe we’re going to learn more about the world than we ever imagined.
“The consensus has to come after questioning. Dylan was right; Ali was right: America is not made better by accepting the status quo. We cannot accept arguments in a prima facie sort of way.” ~ Tavis Smiley
JM: That sounds very compelling. Do people ever accuse you of sugar-coating what philosophy has to offer?
TM: (laughs) Probably! You know, it’s a funny thing though – some of my favorite authors are Kierkegaard, “the gloomy Dane,” and Camus (a guy I fundamentally disagree with, and who could never be accused of being an optimist!). As a philosopher, I like to take it all in. However, I do tend to operate in a very optimistic way, myself…. I’ve learned that we can make more progress in these ultimate questions than we ever could have guessed. But like the athlete, we have to exercise ourselves; we have to try; we have to work at it. When we do, it’s amazing the perspectives we can come to that will enhance our daily lives. So, I’ve come to think of philosophy like Epictetus did— at its best a very liberating force and a wonderfully meaningful activity.
JM: Well, it has been a pleasure to speak with you again. I appreciate the time that you spent; you’ve shaped or nurtured a couple of my opinions about philosophy and about what type of life to lead.
TM: Well thank you, Jason – you’re a great guy, and thank you for the opportunity you’re giving people to bring more wisdom into their lives!
JM: Thank you! I appreciate that. Be well.
“Philosophy is a necessary activity because we all take a great number of things for granted, and many of these assumptions are of a philosophical character; we act on them in private life, in politics, in our work, and in every other sphere of our lives. But while some of these assumptions are no doubt true, it is likely that more are false and some are harmful. So, the critical examination of our presuppositions – which is a philosophical activity – is morally as well as intellectually important.” ~ Karl Popper
My short list of tips for applying philosophy to your life is the following:
(1) Doubt. Start now. Don’t stop. The more you doubt, the closer you get to truth;
(2) Appreciate existentialism. It’s a fascinating and rich source of wisdom which holds that truth may be elusive, it may be frightening, but it is better and more fulfilling than error. It needn’t be depressing or cause anxiety, but it is bracing;
(3) Understand the concept of a parallax. It’s a little-known but significant step forward in insight if you retain the concept. Error lies in both total relativism and unflinching absolutism;
(4) No simple advice can tease apart whether it is better to seek and to think and to doubt – versus the opposite polarity of relaxing, ceasing, and being. It takes wisdom to determine when, how, and to what extent to do one or the other. I would imagine that some combination, titrated to fit various circumstances, is optimal;
(5) Remain humble. You are human, you will make mistakes – both in life and in thinking and in your beliefs. It happens. Try to minimize it by holding on firmly, not tightly. It’s easier to change if you don’t have as much ego wrapped up in beliefs, positions, dogmas, and biases;
(6) Try using the simple and effective tool of asking “What does that tell me?” Think like Columbo; when you find a premise you like, when you believe you discovered a fact, ask what that implies, what it indicates, what it must mean. Rinse and repeat. It’s a variation on the exercise of serially asking Why?. It excavates beneath one’s terra firma only to find a new level of insight. Follow this chain wherever it leads;
(7) If Socrates couldn’t arrive at truth per se, and subsequent philosophers and mystics and leaders and plumbers and farmers and preachers since him were even more fallible, we will not achieve complete insight either. But that doesn’t mean truth doesn’t exist. The journey has value and affords meaning. Wisdom is worth pursuing.
“Many see doubt as a negative state, a continual restlessness or frowning skepticism. But just on the other side of doubt lies wonder – the feeling that comes from having an empty head and an open heart.” ~ Wes Nisker
A few additional quotes on applying philosophy to your life:
“The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality or whatever you like to call it, can never be answered by books, priests, philosophers, or saviors. Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself – and that is why you must know yourself.” ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti
“To become a man of knowledge was the end result of a process – as opposed to an immediate acquisition through an act of grace or through bestowal by supernatural powers.” ~ Carlos Castaneda
“To philosophize is to explore one’s own temperament, yet at the same time to attempt to discover the truth.” ~ Iris Murdoch
“The right to search for the truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be the truth.” ~ Albert Einstein
“The skeptic thinks that there is nothing true or false, or that everything is equally true and false, or that we are unable to know what is true or what is false, or that we simply don’t have knowledge or possess the truth. The opposite position here is taken by those who think that men can inquire and can succeed in inquiry and can come to have some grasp of the truth about things.” ~ Mortimer J. Adler
keywords: applied philosophy, applying philosophy to your life, Tom Morris, Arthur Dobrin, Socratic wisdom, dialogue