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 your you and your mind – in stillness.
It seems awfully naïve, and perhaps a bit idealistic to ponder such a question – but in this article I want to explore if art and beauty save the world. What did the existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky mean by such an ambiguous statement, and how can art make a difference in a world divided by conflict, strife and division?
It was when I was travelling in Europe, and sitting in one of the many breathtaking cathedrals, that I was filled with inner calm – a sense of peace and solitude swept over me. External events and the frivolous pursuits of the everyday world felt insignificant, so trivial. Existential worry and anxiety became drowned out by the beauty and wonder that was revealed to me in that moment. Nothing else mattered.
Great art, that which has been able to stand the test of time, points to the transcendent, the infinite, and the absolute.
Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited – dimly, briefly – by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.
Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see – not yourself – but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groan
Throughout history, religions understood that the communal experience of the arts in practices of worship provided us with a glimpse of the sacred. Rituals of worship including art, music, and dance lured people to cherish the spiritual side of human existence. It drew us towards altered states of consciousness and higher truths, unveiling the illusive nature of material things and earthly pursuits. Connecting to something greater than ourselves, awe and beauty signal to us that there was something beyond the limited constructs of the human mind – a reality which words and language cannot fully describe.
Beauty presents us with an ideal to strive towards. Further, it provides us with meaning, our ‘why’ and purpose to help us conquer the many uncertainties in life. Coming to us through flashes of insight or intuition, beauty acts as a signpost which reveals the path towards the good life.
In the final analysis, it is the gift of aspiration as well as of hope.
It is said that Dostoyevsky’s idea of beauty is characterized by the love of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection is one of the many reminders for humanity that redemption, joy and bliss can be found on the other side of suffering. The cross presents us with a symbol of hope, representing the idea that good will always transcend over evil. Our suffering is not in vain, but is a guide towards a higher purpose.
This experience of awe, reverence and beauty in art and in life is of course is not exclusively limited to the domain of religion. Nietzsche, an atheist, was particularly fond of the idea that life itself can be treated as a work of art. Nietzsche thought of humans as inherently creative beings, who wish to assert their individuality by bringing something original and authentic into existence.
Art presents us with the opportunity us to rise above hardship by using difficult experiences as inspiration and raw materials in working towards a more wholesome meaningful life. We turn chaos into order and the apparent randomness of our existence into wonderful harmony. Think of the many great songs that reflect on the common experiences of sorrow, heartbreak or grief.
Through this catharsis we realize we are connected through a common bond with the rest of humanity as we share those same feelings and emotions with others. We hear the same story over and over again just with different words.
Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.
Within this enduring beauty and truth that is illuminated in great art, we can arrive at a better understanding of citizens from different cultures and traditions. Art offers us portals into the worlds of those who are seemingly different from us. Rather than acting in hesitancy or suspicion, we can come towards greater empathy and compassion.
For we all have the same drives to experience beauty, moments of awe and wonder in which our consciousness transforms from ‘me’ to ‘we’ or from ‘I’ to ‘us’. For a brief period, selfish egotism all but vanishes, and new possibilities arrive. A new door opens for us all.
In beauty, and through beauty we are united as one.
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.