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016 - On True And False Philosophy - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Remember that philosophy is neither just for show, nor for other people’s benefit.
Arial view of city buildings with ocean in background - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I suspect I don’t need to convince you, Deuteros, that the unexamined life is unlikely to be guided by wisdom. A person may be blessed by Fortune, and to all outward appearances successful. But if they themselves do not contemplate the purpose of their existence, what separates them from well-tended beasts of burden in our fields and pastures? We can pity them as worse off than the impoverished pilgrims taking their very first steps along the path of meaning. For the more you consider the reasons for right actions, the more enlightened you will become. And though your work takes you a lifetime, still you are better for each day’s toil than those living in ignorant luxury. Their supposed happiness relies on luck alone, and can be taken from them without notice.

You do not need to put on a show for me to make me understand your progress is no mere performance. And though I know your intentions are good, remember that philosophy is neither just for show, nor for other people’s benefit. It is personal and for you. Philosophy is not just words, but must drive your thoughts and actions. Although you may think you have learned to walk the path, be careful that in your confidence you do not raise your eyes to the horizon and thus lose your way. Just as your feet must stay grounded, so too should your thoughts. A well-ordered mind is at constant risk of being thrown out of equilibrium. Each day brings countless opportunities to test your foundation. If any test is not met with success, whether through failure of resolve or through simple inattention, you give up ground previously hard won.

Your opponents peddling alternative philosophies are many and will include the physicist, the deist, and the atheist. The physicist tells you that “Everything that is and will be is determined by fixed rules that govern the interaction of all particles. Show me the matter existing a moment after the Big Bang, and I will tell you the action of every atom for eternity.” The deist cries “Nonsense! All we are and will be is in God’s hands, and only God determines the fate of the Universe and all its beings.” And quietly the atheist is heard to mutter, “There is no god, there are no universal rules, there is only now and I am not sure what that means.”

I ask you Deuteros, what meaning exists in a collision of quarks and gluons? Should meaning be found in surrendering intellect to blind faith? Whether the future is foreordained or in the hands of an all-powerful referee, or rather we are careening along in a game of chance, only philosophy provides a framework to give our lives meaning. And though some or all hypotheses may hold portions of the true nature of reality, we are all still bound to the mortal plain. Thus, the more we draw our attention away from the invisible, whether vast or tiny, and focus the locus of control on ourselves and our thoughts, the closer we can come to a meaningful life.

In case your mind has wandered in search of what additional treasure my letter holds, you need stray no further. For I have been to China on your behalf and have brought back this gem from Lao Tzu:

Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.

Consider the differences between true desires (those consistent with nature) and false desires (those going against nature). True desires originate within you, and are satisfied within you. False desires originate externally, and your attempts to satisfy them are external to you. You are hungry, you eat, and your body signals when you are satiated, provided you are listening. You exercise your muscles, you burn energy and your muscles tire, and you will stop when you have had enough. These are true desires.

Contrast now the desire for money or fame or possessions. How many do you know who, upon gaining a million dollars, did not find their appetite whetted for even more? Having lined up an imposing line of zeros, there is always room for one more. And the seeker of fame is never satisfied, for there is always another who has more followers, more likes, and simply more. When you look to external things for your happiness, each purchase offers but a crumb against your insatiable hunger. You can one-click order until your cart is filled to overflowing, but you will hollow yourself out trying to fill a bottomless chasm.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell understood the difference between true and false philosophy. He stated it thusly:

It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.

Be well.

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