Philosophy as an Antidote to the Ills of Modern Society

We live in an age of unprecedented change and exponential growth. It would have been unimaginable to someone a few decades ago to believe that we would have access to all of the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands. As Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Homo Deus, many of the issues we now face in the West come from excesses rather than deficiencies. For instance, in many countries, more  people die from obesity than malnutrition. Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now, does a great job of charting the tremendous progress in humanity in eradicating disease, reducing violent conflicts and expanding human life expectancy. While we still undoubtably face challenges, for the most part, our basic needs of ‘food, shelter and clothing’ have been met. This must be seen as a great feat and accomplishment of human civilization.  

Despite all this progress, it seems increasingly apparent that there is a cloud of worry and existential angst hanging over our society.  Author Jonan Hari attributes this to a culture that has sold us ‘junk values’. That is, we have been conditioned to believe that we must pursue self-gratification, status and constantly feed our egos to be happy. This may provide us with a short-term pleasure, a quick dopamine rush, but it is a far cry from Aristotle’s notion of happiness as human flourishing known as eudaimonia.  UofT Professor and cognitive scientist John Vervaeke accurately reflects on our current situation in his brilliant series YouTube series ‘Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.’

The consequences that stem from this are significant. We are in a mental health crisis. According to data from CAMH, a mental health illness will affect 1 in 2 Canadians by the time they reach 40. Furthermore, our social and political institutions are degrading. Although social media was intended to foster cooperation, it has made our politics, attitudes and opinions more divisive. We are now more polarized, unwilling to make compromises or see eye to eye with those who disagree with us.  We are addicted to online platforms which drive our egos. They pull us towards narcissism as we continually try to glamorize our lives and outdo one another.    

These issues presented cannot be solved strictly though business, science or technology. Likewise, we can’t simply buy our way out of this through material more wealth or new products. The writer Aldous Huxley presents us with this vision in A Brave New World in which he constructs a world where individuals receive instant gratification for their desires and are able to escape all suffering and malaise by taking a drug called Soma. I don’t think this is the way forward. A shallow and empty society where we are merely passive consumers is not one that we should aspire to.

On the contrary, I think we can learn a great deal from philosophy, particularly practical philosophers such as the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were deeply concerned with how humans can live a good life, one of purpose and meaning. They were far more interested in developing noble character and virtue than pursuing external pleasures such as fortune, fame or wealth.

I am starting this blog because I want to reflect on the knowledge and wisdom presented to us from philosophy. This wisdom can help us put life into perspective and address our questions of meaning and purpose. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but philosophy can be the start of a journey of introspection and contemplation. Each person may be drawn towards a different beliefs, ideologies and thinkers. That is ok. However, I think self-reflection is critical, and as Socrates once said “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll come along and enjoy the journey with me!

AA