In ancient times, “philosophy” meant something like “the art of living well.” Philosophers might speculate on the nature of the universe etc., but only in the service of living well in this life here on earth.
A “philosopher,” therefore, wasn’t a guy who came up with original thoughts on everything. Rather, he was a guy who really lived his thoughts. Marcus Aurelius, for example. The Meditations aren’t supposed to be a new Big Explanation of Everything; they’re his own personal aides-memoires for living well. There’s nothing original in the Meditations,* but they’re philosophy for all that, and Marcus was a true philosopher.
It’s too bad, then, that in the West “philosophy” came to mean something close to “mental masturbation” — the kind of goofy, speculation-for-speculation’s-sake noodling that got Hobbes so agitated at the “schoolmen.” You know, angels dancing on pinheads and all that. The endpoint of which is nihilism — if we can’t know anything, then nothing’s all there is, as Nietzsche (so often ironically labelled a nihilist) felt all too keenly….
If that’s too esoteric for a New Year’s Eve, consider “meditation” and “yoga.” Both of them come out of fearsomely complex traditions (Buddhist cosmology, for instance, is awesomely weird), but not one person in ten thousand who meditates or does yoga regularly has any idea of that. Doing it just makes them feel better, so they just stick with what works in the here-and-now — the fate of Western philosophy in reverse.
It’s too bad, too, because all those Dead White Guys in Togas really wrestled with questions like “what is happiness?” Their answer — “living virtuously” — is far more relevant to Postmodern life than you might think.
If we’re taught anything about the Toga Homies these days –a vanishingly rare possibility, I admit, but if — it’s that they seemed to regard virtue as an end in itself. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but not too bad, since even guys like the Stoics — who wanted to live “according to nature” — seemed to regard “nature,” “reason,” and “virtue” as virtually synonymous. The man who truly lived “according to nature” would live according to reason, since Man is the Rational Animal, and reason dictates that we live virtuously…
…all of which makes “virtue” seem like this gassy stuff Out There somewhere — timeless, ineffable, yet somehow accessible to all rational minds. That “allegory of the cave” stuff they glossed over between all the gay sex in Western Civ I, for instance, came from the Republic, a work devoted to the question “What is Justice?” “Virtue,” of which “Justice” seems to be a subset, must be one of those Forms…
… or maybe not. I think it’s quite a bit more practical than that. Justice, big-J, is preferable to Injustice, big-I, on all kinds of grounds, but by far the most important is this: Societies which recognize and value it are more stable, and thus safer and more prosperous, than those which don’t. Plato wasn’t joking when he suggested rule by philosopher-kings. After all, he saw what happened to the Athenians in the Sicilian Expedition, and was himself, as David Stove put it, the ideas-man behind a coup against the tyrant of Syracuse. Virtuous societies (unlike the Athenians), and virtuous philosophers (unlike Plato), don’t get their dicks caught in the wringer nearly as often. In an age where the wrong political decision lead to your city’s earth being salted and your women and children sold into slavery, then, “virtue” was no abstract pursuit.
Same deal with religion. You don’t have to look too hard to find concrete, real-world applications of all Ten of the Commandments. Maybe “keep the Sabbath holy” and “no graven images” aren’t as immediately applicable as “don’t murder” and “don’t covet,” but the “shall nots” pretty much cover the spectrum of socially-useful behavior, and every religion has its version of them. And though Nietzsche was withering in his scorn for modern Christianity — that is to say, the namby-pamby “evangelical” creed of the mid-19th century — he fully acknowledged that Western Civ, for good or ill, would’ve been impossible without it. Let the schoolmen say what they will about angels on pinheads, the fact remains that Christian behavior is the most stable, and therefore most secure and prosperous, social base ever devised.
Why does that matter? Well, as those of us in Our Thing who aren’t just Keyboard Commandos have been arguing for quite some time, it’s not sufficient to be anti-Left if you want to be Right. The degraded, PoMo, Cult-Marx version of “democracy” we’ve been trying out since about 1789 has obviously, comprehensively failed… but what’s the alternative? We sometimes mutter about going back to the Fifties — even sometimes going back to the Twelve-Fifties — but why would that be better? What did they have, that we don’t have, that would keep the whole shitty cycle from starting over again as soon as we arrived (assuming, per impossibile, that we could actually get there)?
The answer — always so vague as to be nearly invisible — seems to be something very much like “because they lived according to virtue.” But that’s the thing: If I’m right, “virtue” means “socially useful behavior,” which means “that which keeps your society from being demolished, your city’s earth salted, and your women and children sold into slavery.” Virtue, in other words, is a pretty tough sell in the world of iCrap and 5G internet, where “poor” people keel over from heart disease in front of 50″ plasma tvs. Is there any other reason to live virtuously? Is there any other argument against, say, the celebration of sexual deviance, other than “it’s socially corrosive?” We’d better find out, because look around — if this is social corrosion, most people will take it every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Is that stupid and shortsighted? Sure, but philosophy has always been a minority pursuit — if the fact that humans (including philosophers) are incorrigibly stupid and shortsighted comes as news to you, then welcome to Earth, spaceman.
I certainly don’t know the answer, but since we brought up Nietzsche earlier let’s end with him, too. The Manly Mustache Man, nearly alone among modern philosophers, actually attempted to answer the question “What is happiness?” He said that
Happiness is the feeling that power increases – that resistance is being overcome.
In context, this means “self-discipline,” because the greatest and most constant source of “resistance” is one’s own social conditioning, one’s own “nature.” That’s a pretty tough sell, too, in our iCrap-and-5G world… but maybe not. Go down to the local college, and watch the young men. Don’t they seem to crave a challenge above all things? And if there are no challenges — because, under penalty of law, nobody’s different from anybody and everyone’s the best at everything — well, what then? You can stop people from competing against everything and everyone else, but nothing can stop a man from trying to overcome himself.
Tap into that, and we’ll be a lot farther along than we are.