This post is going to be brief. It’s 1am in the morning and I need to hit the sack. Although I just had a weird dream — I wasn’t sure where exactly I was in my dream, and when my eyes finally opened I had to spend a few second thinking about where I was until I eventually came to realize that I was in my room, here in Shanghai, and not in Bangkok, Boston, Tokyo, or any other places. Tomorrow, although I sort of know that it won’t be a crazy long day like any other days this week, will still be an important day for me — just like any other days.
As always, I want to get up early although I don’t have to. I want to start working (which, these days are mainly) writing as early as I can, although I could cut myself some slack since I have been working quite hard in the past four days, particularly, this long week. I want to get drinks with friends at the end of the day, as always, to relax and let out some steam. Fulfilling my life in my way, I want to make the best out of each and every day of my life, with no exception. Weekends and weekdays are the same to me. I want to feel as though in each and every day of my life I have accomplished something.
Frankie, once a student of my moral philosophy class, also once asked me to tell him about what I thought I’d learned from teaching it. Lingering, still, in my head since I have never got around to answer him, this question was coming from him right after our last meeting, during which I asked the entire class, including Frankie, “which morality ideas that we had discussed in class they think they could use in real life?”
So, what have I learned from teaching moral philosophy? I believe that we should be learning philosophy because it has a true usage in our life. It can make our life better since it can change the way we see things in the world — and most of the time, believe it or not, we are unhappy just because we aren’t looking at things from the right angle. Philosophy can also make your life better by equipping you with the basic tools of making convincing arguments, which can enhance your career, study, relationships, and self-respect as a whole.
Again, this post is going to be brief. I will try to restraint myself from writing a bunch of words.
- There’re so many great people — thinkers, philosophers, idealists — living throughout the history of the world and of human kind. These people have great ideas, and their ideas, in essence, make me realize two thing: First, that nothing I will ever be able to come up with in my lifetime will ever be novel, as all these thinkers have gotten it all covered already; yet, that doesn’t mean I can’t live an authentic and innovative life. In fact, thanks to their great ideas I can, by building on the great ideas they have come up with, my ideas, though will never be as great, will be something that is applicable to my time, to my people, and to my life and myself. Second, these people make me humble. I am not obsessed with coming up with my own ideas to the point that I would appeal to my own ignorance and incredulity by saying something like “I don’t care about those dead philosophers — I live myself by my own rules” (for those who have read my last post on how not to make an argument, you would be able to tell right away that such claim is also a ‘slippery slope’ kind of argument). Last time someone said “I don’t care about those dead philosophers — I live myself by my own rules” to me, I felt sick to my stomach. We can our own rules, and in some way that might make us a little bit more unique and more authentic, at least to ourselves if not to no one else; yet, to dismiss other people’s great thoughts just to be unique just doesn’t sound right (for those who have read my last post on how not to make an argument would be able to say why right away)knowing their thoughts not only make me humble, but also open-minded.
- What makes ideas and thoughts great is their timelessness. I used to take for granted ideas from the past. I used to think that there’s no point learning ideas from thinkers who are long dead. I was dead wrong. Great ideas are timeless, because they are not about the particular forms, surfaces, and facades of a particular situation, but the “deep structure” which, by definition, never changes.
- I exist, therefore I am. This sentence summarizes the basic premise of a modern philosophical school of thought called existentialism. To exist, simply put, is to choose to be (i.e., choose not to commit suicide, and to make it an option when things get bad), and only once one is in the state of being, one can then decide what one wants to do freely, based on the key assumption that one is to be, also, fully responsible for one’s own action. This way of thinking is powerful for two reasons. First, it makes me realize how uneasy it is to determine between to be and not to be — to give up the option of taking one’s own life completely for once and for all no matter how hard my life will ever get. The ancient school of philosophy called Stoicism leaves room for suicide — but only when one comes to realize that one is no longer stronger than one thinks. Then, “to be” is to set up ground rules for my own conduct, so that I can follow them. Second, this way of thinking gives me a better definition of freedom. Many people mistake freedom for being able to do whatever they want, including not doing anything, sabotaging their own health by drinking and smoking excessively, and, in an extreme case, killing other people. That’s not freedom. Existentialist thinkers would argue that those are not acts of freedom, but acts of those who are, to put it plainly, slaves of their own naturalism, animal instinct, and their self-impose immaturity. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant would condemn these people for wasting their potential to develop themselves into fully mature human beings through reason. Kant would go as far as to say that these people aren’t human beings anymore once they have chosen to exist outside the realm of reason. To be free, that is to say, is not to be able to do whatever I want and whenever I want, but to be able to come up with my own system of morality and rigorously follow it. Reading philosophy makes me feel more certain that ever that I want to be, and that I want to be in my own way, and that way is the way that recognizes myself as a being that is not just another slave of my own natural inclination or the society, but of my own rational reasoning.
- A good argument is power. Learning about philosophy may not have benefited me metaphysically (i.e., I still don’t know whether there is God) although some of the great ideas have provided me with some ideas on how I may want the form of my moral compass to be shaped (and when I won’t be able to do it regardless of how hard I try). But what learning about philosophy has provided me with that is lifelong and fruitful are lessons on “how to come up with convincing arguments,” as well as how to stop myself before I commit myself to fallacies. At the end of the day, preaching philosophy is about using reason to convince yourself, and then others, through language. So, learning about philosophy has given me numerous opportunities to explore, analyze, and comprehend how great thinkers (and not very great thinkers) of the past and of the present construct their arguments, come up with their persuasion, as well as how they deliberately counter-argue themselves at the right time (namely before their readers do it) in order to make the point that they have thought about the possible drawbacks of their arguments, and therefore, by saying so before someone else does, bring the point home about how and why they think their arguments are still better than any other arguments. This way of thinking resonates with me, and I am “practically” (because it’s practical) using the philosophical methods in construction arguments in every second of my waking life.
- Moral philosophy is the only branch of philosophy that resonates with me. The reason we need morality? Simple. Because we’re not alone. I do care about metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, and so on, but insofar as they could help me explain my role in the society. We are dealing with the state of being a member of a larger whole; hence, a set of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad behavior, is the most important to me in the study of philosophical thoughts. I don’t let the society make me who I don’t want to be, but I want to be useful to the society whenever I can. As the French sociologist Durkheim famously describes human nature as being “in the middle of the dualism between the expectation of the society and each and every individual’s own desire.” I hate it when some people who think they are so cool when they go around saying something like “I don’t care about the society at all” really say it. Why? Because it’s a false statement by definition. If that person doesn’t care about the society, what makes that person want to use the language of this society to construct an expression of his or her discontent in such a way that is expected to be communicatively understood by the entire society? Shouldn’t that person be inventing his or her own language to speak to himself or herself only? Shouldn’t that person go live in the woods? With the wild trees and wild animals? What this person says, basically, is not that he or she doesn’t care, but that he or she “only care about the society as long as it benefits him or her,” which, to me, is the most irresponsible, shameless, and selfish attitude one could have. That said, as we all know, people like this are everywhere, which is annoying (sadly). I do care about the society, and because I care about it, I want to make it better. I don’t want the direction of the society to benefit me, but I do not mind receiving some fruits of my contribution to the society in return from time to time.
- We should spend more “alone time” with ourselves. I once thought that to be happy was to be surrounded by friends, to be accepted and admired by a large number of folks, and to receive a lot of attention both from those you know and those you don’t. Reading great ideas from great thinkers have changed this way of thinking that I once shamelessly called mine completely. It was through reading ancient philosophy (especially those of the ancient Chinese Laozi and ancient Athenian Epicurus) that I eventually came to senses that I had been misled by my own misunderstanding about what it meant to be respected. I also realized that I was lonely even when I was surrounded by many people. I didn’t know what I wanted, so no matter how many people were there to help me I still couldn’t possibly tell them what was in my mind. It was because I never felt the need of making any efforts (light or serious) to spend time with myself — to talk to myself about what’s been going on (i.e., reflecting on each and every of my life) and to ask myself what it/I needed. Simply put, I thought that I needed a lot of people because those people told me so. They somehow made me feel that they “represented the society,” under whose authority I lived myself, and therefore whose attention and approval I must attain as a prerequisite even to respect myself. Reading philosophy makes me realize this way of thinking is not just wrong — it’s ridiculously wrong, logically fraud, and argumentatively nonsensical. How could the thinking of other people possibly make you respect yourself? It’s the other way around. Reading philosophy allows me to come to sense with who I want to exist to be, what I want to exist to want, and the goals in the life that I want to achieve. Then, the society will have to decide whether they like whom I am, what I want, and my goals in life. If they don’t like it, I will not bother them, and will stay in solidarity and continue to introspecting. If they like it, I will do my best to contribute to it in the way that works with own my moral sensibility. You can’t have a clear thinking when you are surrounded by a lot of people. Find time to be with yourself, and you will learn about yourself, which, needless to say, is the most important subject to learn in your life.
All for now, Frankie. I need to sleep!