So, You Want to Be a Philosopher When You Grow Up?
Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. Philosophers focus on wisdom. The rest of us trade in knowledge. My favorite modern-day philosopher is my friend Alain de Botton who started the School of Life.
He helped me see that the Greek roots of the word philosophy come from “philo” (love or devotion) and “sophia” (wisdom). Meaningful philosophers are devoted to wisdom. And, the goal of wisdom is fulfillment on many levels: personal, spiritual, societal.
Want to be a practical philosopher? Alain offers six central ways of thinking (and being) that define a philosopher, and serve as our guide:
- Philosophers ask big questions. What is the meaning of life? What should I do with my work? Where are we going as a society? What is love? Of course, it’s easy to shy away from big questions—to pocket our curiosity and look for something easier to explore. But a good philosopher will resist this temptation and create a spacious environment to ask questions that will richly illuminate life—no matter how big or challenging. The reward is worth the effort.
- Philosophers realize there’s nothing common about common sense. ‘Common sense’ is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what your friends and family are always espousing—the stuff that’s assumed to be true, the stuff you take in without thinking about it. The media pumps it out by the gallon. But in some cases, common sense is also full of daftness, error, and, regrettably, prejudice. A philosopher unmoors herself from the tyranny of common thinking, wisely aware that it isn’t the same as common sense.
- Philosophers examine their minds. Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge, articulated succinctly by one of the earliest and greatest philosophers, Socrates. He only needed two words: Know yourself. In other words, philosophers don’t see their minds as a foreign ghetto. Just like an ardent traveler loves to discover a delightful neighborhood in a new city, a philosopher loves stumbling into the recesses of their mind and soul with an optimistic perspective of what they might find.
- Philosophers know how to prioritize what’s important. Philosophers don’t have FOMO. They are rarely influenced by societal definitions of what will make one happy. In a consumer society, we often make the wrong choices because we are guided by false glamour. We imagine that a particular kind of holiday, or car, or computer will make a more significant difference than it actually will. At the same time, we can easily underestimate the contribution of all the intangible moments in our lives—going for a walk, tidying a cupboard, deep conversations, or going to bed early—all of which may have little prestige but can contribute deeply to the character of existence. Philosophers know what nourishes their souls.
- Philosophers respond rather than react to their emotions. Philosophers are emotionally fluent. They teach us to think about our emotions, rather than simply have them. By understanding and analyzing our feelings, we learn to see how emotions impact our behavior in unexpected, counterintuitive, and sometimes dangerous ways.
- Philosophers roll with the punches. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions in a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno said, “Fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the word ‘philosophical’ a proxy for calm, long-term thinking, and strength-of-mind (aka: perspective, resilience, and deeper awareness for what is essential).
In the long-ago past, philosophy was a normal and everyday part of life, not something you only did if you were an esoteric trust fund baby. Today, we must become our own philosophers. Fortunately, philosophy, or the devotion to wisdom, is available to all of us, especially in the most difficult of times.
We all can use micro-doses of wisdom every day. I hope you find Wisdom Well useful as a means of nourishing yourself. I also hope it will help you cultivate and harvest wisdom on your own, to foster an appreciation for philosophy as one of the most noble practices we can pursue in a knowledge-obsessed world. Here’s a video of me in my “philosopher’s cave.”