In our day to day lives, many of us are preoccupied with completing the tasks on our never-ending to-do lists. Life quickly passed us by but we rarely take the time to reflect and contemplate on the deeper questions of our existence. When asked what do we want to get out of our lives, many will respond with the vague answer “I just want to be happy.”
However, when pressed on what this exactly means, we give generic answers that lack any real substance. Happiness is often conflated with pleasure and feelings of contentment. What comes to mind is the smiling couple we see in Hollywood romances or the slick well dressed business man racing down the street in a flashy sports car.
We soon realize that the excitement and rush that we get from pleasure quickly fades.
Trying to pursue a life dedicated to pleasure is like running on a treadmill. It always leaves us dissatisfied and desiring for more.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had a different conception of the good life which he called eudaimonia. Although loosely translated as ‘happiness’, the term points to something akin to human flourishing. Eudaimonia, is not a temporary fleeting experience, rather it is a lifelong project. It is the result of working towards self-actualization and realizing your full potential.
Human wellbeing requires us to strive for excellence as well as pursue and cultivate virtue. Just as an athlete who wants to improve their performance needs to train, a person who wants to become virtuous must to perform virtuous acts. For instance, someone who is courageous is an individual who acts courageously whereas an individual who is humble is one who exercises restraint and avoids egotism.
As ‘social animals’, Aristotle argued that we ought to utilize our distinctive talents and gifts to benefit our broader community – to enhance the common good. One’s role as a human is not only to act upon your gifts but to contribute to the flourishing as society as a whole. This view differs from individualistic versions of the good life which can often focus on satisfying a narrow set of materialist desires.
In the final analysis, Aristotle’s view of a life well lived requires active participation and the development of habits to be the best version of ourselves.
Many of us will do just about anything to avoid a state of boredom. Alone in an empty room staring into the ceiling and doing nothing but examining our thoughts seems dreadful. Faced with this situation we quickly turn to our mobile phones scrolling aimlessly, browse the internet or watch television.
Any distraction will suffice to avoid boredom.
We pride ourselves on outward achievement, on constantly having something to do. Consequently, being busy has become a status symbol in our culture. It demonstrates to others that you are important and have achieved some level of success.
However, not all cultures think of this matter with the same perspective. Eastern philosophies emphasize the importance of introspection and stillness. The practice of meditation asks us to sit alone with the contents of our mind and thoroughly examine them. In doing so, we can watch what emerges.
Are we acting on our impulses?
Are we processing our emotions?
Are we thinking through our actions and goals?
The answer is not retreating from society in a Buddhist monastery, but rather incorporating the practice of stillness in our day to day lives. To be frank, not everything is as urgent as we think. We don’t have to respond to many of our text messages or social media notifications immediately. Things can wait.
Modern day society constantly fills our minds with information 24/7, and it is unsustainable to think we can consume it all.
So today, spend some time with nothing but you and your mind – in stillness.
A deep yearning calls upon me
I turn away but its call becomes louder
It pulls me forward, and shows me the path
Like a lighthouse guiding lost sailors on a hazy night, or
A fire illuminating the exit in a dark cave
This call, this feeling within, grants me the courage to plunge myself into the unknown and be transformed
I shine brightly radiating amidst the mundane everydayness of day-to-day life
This symphony of colors paints the canvas of my true being
For the first time in my life
I am truly alive
For the first time in my life
I am free
It is exciting to see communities emerging like The Stoa who facilitate dialogues with a wide range of unique thinkers and practitioners trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world.
A World in Peril
We live in strange times.
Very strange times.
There is a general skepticism, made particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, that our social, economic and political institutions are not well suited to deal with many of the issues that we face in the 21st century.
Some have questioned if the current path we are on as a society is desirable or even sustainable.
Do we have the right ‘tool kit’ and systems in place to deal with the many global problems and existential threats we face?
As a society it seems like we are running faster and faster into the future without a clear direction of where we are going.
In a highly competitive globalized environment that prioritizes status and consumption, short-term thinking takes precedence. We lose sight of the consequences of our actions that extend past our limited horizon.
These issues are compounded by our broken information ecosystem in which it is getting more and more difficult to have consensus on basic facts. Reality thus becomes filtered down to us through politicized news media or our personalized social media feeds.
We are forced to ask, who is truly looking out for our best interests?
The Need for Philosophy in the Modern Age
In times of deep uncertainty, philosophical inquiry can be used to help us understand some of the problems we face as a society more deeply.
It may not provide concrete solutions or answers, but it does force us to slow down and think.
Ideas matter. They are like the glasses we wear to interpret the world around us.
This is why critical thinking is so important. In an age of information overload and false information, we can turn to the ancient wisdom of Socrates.
Socrates famously said “I know one thing – that I know nothing.” This idea, coined as Socratic ignorance, helps us resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or conform to the popular beliefs of the time. Socrates asks us to rigorously question and examine our beliefs, compare and contrast different viewpoints and engage in honest good faith dialogue with others.
This is how we find truth and cultivate wisdom.
The American sociologist and education scholar Peter W. Cookson Jr. argues that this type of multidimensional and critical thinking is needed to address many of the interconnected crises we face in the 21st century. He notes that our education systems should be transformed to promote interdisciplinary learning rather than teaching subjects in rigid silos or compartments. The industrial education model of memorization, conformity and standardized testing in no longer sufficient for the modern era.
Rather flexibility, creativity and the ability to look at problems from multiple different angles should be prioritized. In sum, we need to learn how to navigate through complexity.
As the challenges facing the globe become increasingly complex, our frames of reference must be flexible, expansive, and adaptive …
By looking at a challenge from multiple points of view, we are more likely to arrive at a realistic, effective solution.
What Would Socrates Say? Peter W. Cookson Jr. , Educational Leadership
The Role of the Individual and the Need to Look Inward
The future ahead may seem daunting.
We may be inclined to cling our existing beliefs, support a certain political ideology or be attached to our personal grand narrative of how society must change.
Technical or political solutions may be necessary, but we should first do our own homework. Look inwards and take ownership and responsibility of our lives first. Examine your own beliefs and biases, and prioritize the truth rather than the desire to be ‘right’.
As the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire noted, we must first “cultivate one’s own garden.”
Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig
Going forward in this next year in the blog, I hope to continue to explore how philosophy can be a useful tool in fostering critical self-reflection and helping us make sense of a seemingly chaotic world.
I aspire to work towards the virtue of humility, to be open to new ideas and perspectives. To be able to examine my own belief systems and change my mind on an issue if the evidence requires me to do so.
Thank all for following the blog, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the content.
Here’s to another year of writing and philosophical inquiry.