Clockwise from top left – Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Averroes, Confucius, the Buddha
In my last post, I applauded a reader’s search for truth. I concluded that post as follows:
it’s easy to accept the first ideas you’re taught and be done with it. What’s hard is to keep searching and growing and changing, never anchoring as Kazantzakis put it. The search for truth is just so much nobler and humbler than simply affirming the first ideas you encountered.
I still agree with my conclusion but feel compelled to add a few caveats.
First, it’s natural for a professional philosopher to want others to follow in their footsteps or at least take an interest in what they are passionate about. It’s easy to recommend something that has provided you with so much intellectual stimulation, led to many rewarding friendships, and given your life, as far as is possible, a large part of its meaning.
But this supplies a reason to be (somewhat) skeptical of a philosopher’s advice. Perhaps they just want followers or are simply flattered that others share their passion. Or, more cynically, maybe they want your employment prospects to be as bleak as their own. Regardless of the philosopher’s motives, remember that philosophy isn’t for everyone. You may lack the interest or enthusiasm for it. Or it might not be where a field conducive to your particular talents. Regardless of your desires and aptitude, there is another reason not to embark on a philosophical quest—philosophy is dangerous.
Here’s what I mean. Serious students of philosophy must ask potentially disturbing questions. Does morality matter? Is love important? Is life progressing? Is it better that humanity exists rather than goes extinct? Is it better that I live rather than die? Does anything really matter at all? These questions aren’t merely academic; they pierce deep into the heart.
Honestly confronting these and other existential questions changes you—philosophizing has consequences. As Camus put it “beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.” After all, you may decide that life isn’t worth living.
Once the dam that holds back a world of ideas begins to crack, there is a good chance it will break altogether. And what then? Do you want to spend a lifetime trying to replace those first ideas you heard with (supposedly) truer ones? And even if they are truer, are they worth believing? Maybe it’s better to believe one of Plato’s noble lies?
So that’s my caveat. I have found philosophizing to be one of the great passions of my life. I literally have a truth fetish. I remember thinking when I was a teenager that if the answer to life, the universe, and everything was written on a piece of paper I would read it even if I knew that it might say life was pointless (or that the answer was 42!)
Still, philosophy is a dangerous pursuit which potentially will undermine your foundations and have nothing to replace them. You may end up with only a tragic optimism or hopeful nihilism to sustain you in the face of the tragic sense of life. That’s not much to hang your hat on.
You may even wish that you had never started to think at all. Every now and then I wonder if it would have been better to have remained relatively unconscious, comforted by those noble lies.
I’m not trying to dissuade you. Ultimately, I’m glad I outgrew my childhood beliefs and could never and would never go back to them. But philosophy is dangerous.
Addendum – Philosophical ideas are also dangerous because they affect other people. That’s why we have an obligation to believe only those things for which there’s good evidence. You don’t want to spread untruths.
Rember too that ideas are powerful. Ideas change the world. They incite people to political and religious revolution, they form the basis of science and technology, they, in large part, rule our lives.