Philosophy in life

Fence Sitter
A. R. Samson

Posted on February 16, 2016

It is perhaps considered sophomoric, from the word referring to one’s second year in college with overtones of pretentiousness and shallow emotions, to talk about philosophy in one’s life. The etymology of the word “sophomore” derives from Greek “sophos” (wise) and “moros” foolish. So to be wise and foolish at the same time is a good way to approach this subject.

When I am asked what subject from school helped me most in life, including my career, I always answer without much hesitation (and no sophomoric pretentions) that it is philosophy. (Well, economics learned in school needed to be honed by further reading and this is a continuing education even now as the world of money gets more interconnected.)

Maybe the Jesuits put so much emphasis on this otherwise “useless” pursuit that I had to do my best to plunge “into it” with both feet if I wanted to graduate. There were just too many units devoted to this topic that delved into basic questions like who one is and why he bothers to wake up in the morning. Of course, this was not how the philosophy professors framed the subject as we traipsed through existentialism and phenomenology. Reader alert: I will not attempt to go into those subjects as they are only meant to impress the reader. This does not always work.

One need not go too far afield in examining life and how to live it.

Reading the slim volume of Alain de Botton’s surprise 2000 best-seller, Consolations of Philosophy which at 244 pages with plenty of pictures is a doable read, certainly less daunting than the much thicker Soren Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” in the same philosophy section of a well-stocked bookstore (the physical type).

De Botton’s slim book is well-written and accessible.

It essays a quick survey of the consolations of philosophy on unpopularity, lack of wealth, frustration, injustice, broken hearts, and life’s other troubles. Before there were self-help, feel-good (love yourself) new age books, there was philosophy with the likes of the hemlock-sipping Socrates and a similarly fated Seneca (two of the six philosophers tackled by de Botton).

Philosophers do not go out and find prescriptions for life’s ills. They ask about the meaning of life and how it should be lived. It is Epicurus and his philosophy of pleasure that fascinate me. Contrary to common assumptions, including among erudite readers of this corner I’m sure, Epicurus does not promote wicked all-night parties. (Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.) No, his route to pleasure is a bit more modest. Epicurus breaks down goals into three categories -- natural and necessary (friendship, independence, freedom of thought); natural and unnecessary (big villa, banquets, flashy chariots, Jacuzzi bathtubs -- I just added this last one); and finally, unnatural and unnecessary (fame, power, too much wealth).

Epicurus limits himself to the first category and shuns the last two. Even the pursuit of career to generate money is abandoned, as such effort compromises independence with importunate demands from bosses and customers. He puts up a commune of sorts (the Garden) where vegetables are grown for food and friends live together in harmony. It is unfortunate that the word coined after this philosopher, “epicurean” stands for someone devoted to sensual pleasure with synonyms like hedonistic, sybaritic, over-the-top pleasure-seeking.

In fact, Epicurus posits that additional wealth and luxury seldom bring additional pleasure. How can this fellow have been so misunderstood?

De Botton’s nice romp through six thinkers resonates with the modern reader.

Using uncomplicated language and illustrations, mixing short biographies and main themes for each of the thinkers, the book provides an appetizer to pique the interested intellect.

In ancient Greece, philosophy is taken seriously, even seen as subversive. Socrates’ condemnation to the death penalty is meted out by a jury of 500 for charges of not praying to the gods and subtly undermining civil authority with his teachings. As a nice touch, after Socrates’ death, Athens turned against his persecutors who ended up in horrible deaths themselves. Understanding philosophy somehow makes sense of issues we now face (except the nature of citizenship and residency) including the lust for power in the name of helping the masses. Philosophy (etymologically -- love of wisdom) raises appropriate questions on life... and seeks to find possible answers... even when there seem to be no correct ones.

A.R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.