“All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher. – Ambrose Bierce” Reading philosophy isn’t fun. It’s a slow process that requires your full attention. But it is one of the most rewarding things you can do. It fills you with a sense of growth you won’t find anywhere else. It allows you to analyze your delusion and question the world around you. I got interested in philosophy at a time in my life when I didn’t feel a sense of purpose like life was not worth living. I found it difficult to motivate myself and wanted to figure out what all this was for.
Many years later, I’ve read more philosophical texts than I can count; many of them only provided me with fleeting memories, but some taught me lessons I will carry for life. Here are the most important things I’ve learned from reading philosophy.
Title: “All I know is that I know nothing.”
Most of our beliefs lay on a bed of assumptions that, when examined closely, fall apart. Is there a god? What is morally right or wrong? Do we have free will, or are our lives pre-determined? Does everything happen for a reason, or is it just one big game of chance? Does anything exist for sure outside my own mind? Does life have meaning?
These are life’s most essential questions, yet we often assume the answers or don’t bother pursuing them. I know with confidence that the moon revolves around the Earth, but how do I know that the moon and Earth don’t simply exist in my mind alone?
“All I know is that I know nothing” is a famous quote from the grandfather of Western philosophy, Socrates. He was notorious for challenging the ideas put forward by the sophists and questioning the authority of his time in ancient Greece. Socrates used a dialectic to dismantle what others thought to be true. This is where you use questions to expose how a belief commonly held to be true is false. In the first dialogue written by Plato–Socrates never wrote anything down–he engages a man named Euthyphro in a dialectic. Euthyphro is punishing his own father, claiming that his actions were wicked. Socrates questions the nature of wickedness, for which Eythyphro did not have a satisfactory definition. How can Euthyphro charge someone of sin if he doesn’t even know what it is? This dialogue is important because to engage in philosophy is to question pre-existing beliefs, including your own. You want to be at a place where you don’t feel like you know anything for certain and are open to learning new ideas and beliefs. “All I know is that I know nothing.” Ancient academic skeptics insisted that we can’t know anything for certain besides what we perceive with our senses. And even then, only the raw sensations are sure, not any judgments we make about them.
Title: “Memento mori – remember you will die.”
It’s easy to forget about death. Our lives are filled with endless distractions that prevent us from pondering the finite nature of our existence. When someone does die, most of us feel compelled to move on to our daily routine so we can stop thinking about it. Death becomes alien to us like it isn’t natural. More and more, the idea of someone dying of natural causes seems strange, like there must be a reason for death. In ancient philosophy, from the Stoics to Buddhists, reminding yourself of death was important; it has numerous benefits. It helps prevent the inevitability of death from causing you great distress when it finally arrives at your door or takes someone you love. If you are aware of death at all times, would you quarrel with your friends, loved ones or even have time to make enemies?
According to the Buddha in the Dhammapada, death softens the heart, reminding us that we will meet the same fate. Thoughts of death can also inspire us. Feeling lazy? Remember that one day you won’t be here anymore. You’ll be up, seizing the day in no time.
Title: “Life is Suffering.”
This is a translation of the first noble truth in Buddhism. Suffering, or ‘Dukkha’ in sanscript, isn’t just our notion of the word today. It’s much more nuanced than that.
The Buddha described three forms of ‘Dukkha.’ One is physical and mental suffering, such as sore muscles and stress, the one we more commonly associate with the word today. But there was also the second form of suffering, which comes from wanting, not getting, and losing things we cherish. The third form of Dukkha is existential pain. This is a form of angst against the human condition. That pain we have when we realize that our lives are finite. The notion of rebirth can also cause this pain, knowing we will have to start all over again, suffering more.In the second noble truth, the Buddha elaborates on the cause of suffering: grasping, clinging, and avoiding suffering. We reach desperately for temporary forms of happiness, like new smartphones or sexual gratification. Our consumer culture is like a nose dive into despair. We encourage constant gratification from consumer goods. More and more companies embrace practices such as planned obsolescence to foster an ‘out with the old, in with the new attitude’ with products. The iPhone from two years ago is rubbish compared to the new one. Satisfy your desire by throwing the old one away and getting the latest version.
We also encourage attachment to family, friends, and relationships. These, too, could be seen as temporary forms of happiness. People change, grow further apart, and die. A child is today an adorable toddler to loving parents, and the next day a University student who leaves the house and never calls their Mom. Even our most cherished relationships are only temporary forms of happiness. We use them as crutches to escape our thoughts and avoid our existential dreads. But all these desires never give lasting happiness, only temporary relief from the pain.
Title: “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
This is such a common quote that most of us don’t know who it came from or what it truly means. It originates from the German existentialist Frederic Nietzche. It’s used a lot today to justify the “school of hard knocks” approach to life. People who grow up privileged tell these to disadvantaged people to give them a false sense of hope and to preach that social safety nets will weaken society. This is not what Nietzsche intended. For Nietzsche, this quote reflects one of his values: that pain contributes to growth. He believed we avoided suffering too much by seeking more comfortable ways of existing. He focused his philosophy or existentialism on radical self-growth, which was embodied in his concept of the ubermensch or superhuman. Nietzsche intended his philosophy to help humanity avoid the trap of nihilism after the death of our belief in god. He wanted us to overcome ourselves with a radical affirmation of life: the good, the painful, and everything in between. This would allow us to determine our values, free from previous conceptions of morality that shamed our drives and instincts.
Suffering is an integral part of self-actualization. It’s how you become more familiar with what you’re capable of. Without being tested, how will you know of your capability to persevere? Is it true, then, that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger? Not really. Obviously, physical maladies will make you weaker. Horrible experiences that induce trauma aren’t likely to make you stronger, either. Trauma often makes people more sensitive and less resilient. Yet, the same is true for people without traumatic experiences. They, too, struggle with resiliency and high levels of distress. Exposing ourselves to some painful experiences can help to an extent. In exposure therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, patients are exposed to their phobias enough to feel anxiety but not enough to overwhelm them. The exposure time is steadily increased throughout the treatment. This practice is effective in helping people overcome their phobias or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
These painful experiences can open up more possibilities for you, but too much pain may narrow those possibilities down. And this will, of course, vary wildly from person to person. Some people become stronger after experiencing significant trauma, while others have become tormented. It’s important not to hold all individuals to one precedent.
So while literally, it’s not everything that doesn’t kill you that will make you stronger, Nietzche’s core message that pain does play a role in growth remains true.
Title “Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning.”
That’s a quote from the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. It’s the belief that meaning in life is not given by an external entity, such as god, but is ultimately our responsibility. This belief is what scholars use to define a philosopher as an existentialist. That doesn’t mean you can’t believe in god and be an existentialist. The Christian philosopher, Søren Kirkegaard, was considered an existentialist despite a belief in god being central to his philosophy. What makes Kierkegaard an existentialist is his belief that no one is born a Christian, even if they are raised in a Christian family. They have to choose to become one. They have to make a leap of faith. Meaning is still your responsibility in Kirkegaard’s existentialism, even if the meaning is god. For atheists and agnostics, human life can seem absurd. You’re trying to find meaning in life without inherent meaning. In Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sysiphus, he described this pursuit of purpose as likened to Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity.
Just as Sysiphus will never reach the top of the mountain with the bolder, we will never find meaning amidst the chaotic nature of the universe. He described this contradiction as absurd. But rather than despair, Camus thought we should embrace this absurd. He criticized other existentialists for trying to address this contradiction by escaping it, either taking a leap of faith or trying to find meaning in the meaninglessness. What are the ethical implications if there is no inherent meaning in life? How do we treat others when there is no essential meaning? French existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir, insisted we treat others as ambiguous. We habitually objectify the people in our lives as a set of limited possibilities. We objectify them rather than treat them as ambiguous, free beings. When we do, we open up ourselves to more fulfilling experiences. We embrace the absurd.
Title: “Don’t put up with bullshit.”
This lesson may seem odd compared to other more profound lessons like life is suffering, but it is as philosophically relevant. In a short text by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, he defines bullshit as speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s plenty of bullshit to go around. From politicians with an agenda over an interest in truth to culture war influencers exploiting attention for profit, we’re surrounded by it. We may have the instincts to recognize bullshit, but philosophy can give you important tools to navigate it. Systematic logic is a branch of philosophy first undertaken by Aristotle. Its purpose is to evaluate reasoning. Logic can be a valuable tool for navigating arguments and reason in the real world. Consider these two reasonings:
We should use dogs to find bones if they have a strong sense of smell.
Dogs do have a strong sense of smell.
Therefore, we should use dogs to find bones.
And now the second assertion:
We should use dogs to find bones if they have a strong sense of smell.
Dogs don’t smell very well.
Therefore, we should use cats instead.
One of these two examples seems more accurate than the other, but why? In philosophy, logic is used formally and informally to determine sound reasoning from bad.
You may have recently read an internet user, often trolls, say something like, “That’s just logic,” after making a point. Sadly, they’re not using the term correctly in their presumed moment of triumph. The fact that something is logical doesn’t make it true because logic can be strong or weak. More specifically, it can be broken down into two binaries: valid and invalid, sound and unsound. The validity of an argument refers to whether the conclusion follows from the premises. In my first example, the premises justified the conclusion that we should use dogs to find bones. In the second example, the premises did not justify the conclusion that cats should be used instead. It belonged to a separate argument.
The soundness of an argument is evaluating the truth value of each premise. In the first example, the assumption that dogs are good at smelling is true according to empirical observation. In the second example, I suggest that dogs are not good at smelling, which is empirically untrue. Once I learned this, I’ve been able to consider every argument based on “logic” to find out if it’s valid and sound before running with it, and my life has been much better as a result.