089 - On How To Study Philosophy - Moral Letters for Modern Times
So having urged you to be about your own studies, can I be surprised when you ask me for guidance about how and in in what direction? No, although I urged you not to put your mind in the care of those who would weaponize you for their own purposes, I would have you weaponize your mind in defense of yourself. And I suppose you will not be surprised when I tell you that the lessons you need to learn most ardently are those of philosophy.
I have previously urged you to read broadly and widely. This is because you do not know where and how inspiration will strike. It comes to people unevenly and at different times, and what works for one may be useless for another. The best way to increase your chances of success, at least initially, is to take many tries at the prize. If one lottery ticket gives you but tiny chances, then a hundred or a thousand tickets will multiply your odds. But your odds will remain forever slight if you do not lay a certain groundwork; otherwise your reading will be aimless and fruitless, like buying lottery tickets for last week’s drawing.
Wisdom is what you are seeking, my dear Deuteros, the highest attainment of the well-ordered mind in pursuit of reason. Philosophy means the love of wisdom, and consequently is made up of the efforts you put into attaining wisdom. I have talked with you many times about virtues and vices, about first and second order goods or pursuits, and about the many things that lead people astray from the path of reason. Although these distinctions give rise to much confusion, what is clear is that philosophers are on a path seeking wisdom through philosophy.
Philosophy does not follow a single path, but offers multiple branches. We talk of moral philosophy, which is concerned with the thinking, motivation, and actions of people. Natural philosophy takes up our observations of the universe we find ourselves in and everything in it. In the meantime, this branch has diverged into the many roads that lead to the hard sciences. Finally, we have logical philosophy, which addresses how humans make sense of the universe through words and expressions, and how to build logical arguments from unbroken chains of reasoning. We most often turn to logical philosophy to identify falsehoods, for these are more abundant and easier to identify than eternal truths.
I urge you to build your foundation in moral philosophy, and within it to focus on the most critical question of how to discern what is truly valuable and all the things that are not. Your motives are only partly under your control and will steer you to wrong action if left unchecked, but can be brought under the domain of reason. For you to apply right reason at all you need to know what is worth pursuing. I repeat myself to you often, Deuteros, because these basic lessons bear repeating. Without this clear understanding of the relative value of things, all else you pursue will be to false purposes and likely wasted effort.
You should understand that bravery is one of the ways to overcome fear, but that fear itself is a construct of the mind. You should know the value and correct application of loyalty, temperance, and kindness. You will never waste your time if you are spending it studying how to live your life simply, modestly, and with self-restraint.
Although knowledge of the things that are valuable is the cornerstone on which your good life will be built, your tower will not raise itself towards the sky unaided. You create the structure of your life by taking actions consistent with your values. Each time you act unthinkingly, you have missed an opportunity to lift a stone and cement it into place. Each time you act inconsistently, you are a sloppy builder, sometimes creating a smooth surface by accident but more often leaving sharp edges that you will need to return to later for repair. And if you act against your values, you are tearing down your substance and creating destruction around you, though at first you may be the only one to sense it.
Do you feel that I am preaching to you again, Deuteros? I know the only one whose words will have lasting effect are your own, so I call upon you to be your own constant cheerleader if not stern policeman. Until you bring your thinking into order and direct your actions consistently with your thinking, you will have to resign yourself to my lessons. I will not stop talking until you have put a stop to your desires, for it is your desires that lead you from the path every time. Once you can test your wishes and reliably return the answer that you have enough, why so will my words cease because you will have had enough of them as they are ingrained on your being.
In sum, you study not to learn more things but to learn what things are valuable. You think on what you have studied to prepare yourself to apply the learnings to your particular situation. And though no exam is administered in this course, still you test yourself in every situation where you are called upon to make a choice about how to act and how to feel about your actions. You will know you are making progress in your studies if the wise decision is clear to you, even though it still costs you constant vigilance to control your motivation and constant effort to control your actions. This is enough to be on the path to wisdom and headed in the right direction.