Learning philosophy at the right time

When I took the required philosophy courses in university, I was too young for it. We all were, I think — inarticulate adolescents with little life experience. Perhaps a brilliant teacher would have been able to teach it anyway, and perhaps for some of my classmates our teachers were brilliant. I struggled with the courses, though. The topics seemed abstract and impractical. We read Plato’s Republic and were quizzed on his ideal society. We read the Nichomachean Ethics and differentiated among types of friendship. We read Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on totalitarianism and discussed terror. But nothing really made an impact on my everyday life, aside from the unexpected oddness of being comfortable with–even finding a sort of joy in–the hopelessness and despair described by Sartre when it seemed, based on how we were taught and how my classmates responded, that I should have had more philosophical discomfort with the concept.

Hence the young man is not a fit student of Moral Philosophy, for he has no experience in the actions of life, while all that is said presupposes and is concerned with these: and in the next place, since he is apt to follow the impulses of his passions, he will hear as though he heard not, and to no profit, the end in view being practice and not mere knowledge.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book 1 – 1095a)

The normal course of events, perhaps, might be that I’d revisit these topics later in life. Much later, the way people conscious of mortality tend to think about life. I think this 5-year experiment of mine nudged me to think about the best use of time, and from there to wonder about Aristotle’s recommendation of the contemplative life. Time and patience

I’m not quite at the point of understanding Heidegger and similar thinkers. I don’t need to get there, I think, in order to get some benefit from applying philosophy to life. I want to train my mind to see clearly, want the right things, not want the wrong things, act on these right judgments, and be able to explain what I’m learning to myself and to others. Starting this early makes sense, because then I can avoid bad habits (or unlearn them before they get ingrained) and enjoy the benefits for longer.

Keep on as you have begun, and make all possible haste, so that you may have longer enjoyment of an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself. Doubtless you will derive enjoyment during the time when you are improving your mind and setting it at peace with itself; but quite different is the pleasure which comes from contemplation when one’s mind is so cleansed from every stain that it shines.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 4

In a later letter, Seneca also tells us that we don’t have to put this kind of thinking off until we are comfortably settled. This reminds me of how people set these constantly moving goalposts for themselves (“I just need to make $XXX,000″ – and then higher, and higher), and why it made sense to me to risk jumping earlier rather than later. We’ll see how this works out.

Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: “I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy.” And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: “I wish to acquire something to live on.” Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 17

Now is a good time, I think. I can train my thinking and inspire my writing with classic, clear texts, and I can work on learning things that are common to more people than my other niche interests are.

  • http://mwfogleman.tumblr.com mwfogleman

    As far as inspiring your writing with classic, clear texts, you might enjoy “Clear and Simple as the Truth” by Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner. There’s even a new edition out, although I haven’t looked at.