I. Learn and Live

A Child’s search for wisdom and the answer to all our questions

There is a natural order of things in our world. This is perhaps the first philosophical observation of a child after a period of uninterrupted intellectual development. Like the concept of wu wei[1] in Chinese Taoism, the child sees patterns and a certain sequence of events behind the flow of things that happen most naturally in the world around him. These patterns are visible during the changing of the four seasons; when spring turns to summer, summer to autumn, and autumn to winter. He sees that a rainbow appears only after the fall of rain and that water flows downstream through its natural path until it reaches the great oceans. Just as certain as nature abhors a vacuum[2] so must all objects fall to the floor in similar fashion.

In total innocence, he begins to ask his guardians why are there such patterns in the mysterious world around him and they would (in most normal cases) either answer that these occurrences are due to the ‘laws of nature’[3] or casually brush aside such childlike[4] questions. This, of course, would not be sufficient to satisfy the child’s hunger for knowledge and his pursuit of the truth. Before long, he realises the first philosophical truth; ‘there is reason that all things are as they are’[5] even if we know not of them. He begins to question everything and everyone, making himself both an annoyance to the public and a disturber of the peace before stumbling at last upon the three most important questions of them all.

Who are we? Where do we come from? Whither are we bound?

We live under the shadow of a gigantic question mark (Loon, 2000). The first question is easy for any guardian to answer. A simple reminder of what the child’s name is would suffice. It would only be much later before the child realises that there is more to his identity than his simple name. For ‘what’s in a name?’ when ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?’[6] The second question however, is rather tricky. We come from our parents and our parents came from their parents, so on and so forth.

“Then where do our earliest ancestor come from?”

The common answer would be that God created them.

But if so, “where does God come from?”

It follows that surely if every watch has a watchmaker, the creator must have a cause as well[7]!

And it comes to pass when the child realises that his parents can no longer answer all of his ‘childish’ questions (especially the third question). He also realises that the existence of his own consciousness is separate from the consciousness of every other thinking being. The phrase ‘I think, therefore I am’, or Cogito ergo sum (Descartes, 2003) is the written form that expresses how our thoughts are the reason behind our individuality and the consciousness of our own existence. Borrowing Plato’s words, the child feels like an unenlightened prisoner chained from birth in an underground cave, able to see nothing but moving shadows of the real world outside (Honderich, 2005). Just like a frog in a well, the child sees nothing but the sky from a narrow vantage point, occasionally realising that there is something more than what he can see and feel.

Fortunately, the child is saved by his own curiosity. “All men by nature desire to know,” said Aristotle (Fosl, 2010). And like Psyche, the lover of Cupid in Greek Mythology (Bulfinch, 1959), we sometimes choose curiosity even at the peril of our own dear life. We seek answers to our questions. We are at the core of our soul inquisitive creatures. We are not satisfied until we create a worldview[8] for ourselves and find our own place within this universe[9]. Often our ideas are but overgeneralizations in the face of the massive amount of information in our daily lives that we find as abundant as the sands on the shore. The limitations of our cognitive abilities force us to construct a simplified model of reality in order to cope with it. Although the common man is satisfied with his miniature universe, this cannot satisfy the child and does not hinder him from his search of his reason for being[10] and the true nature of his existence.

In the face of such a revelation, the child can hide no longer. He cannot cower forever behind the protective arms of ignorance and orthodox, and continue to be happy. Although the way up and the way down are one and the same[11], coming down is often so much harder to travel than the way up. And like the Good Brahmin[12], our soul can no longer be appeased by simple revelations and intellectual speculations without knowing for certain that these thoughts reflect reality. We yearn to understand reality the way it is without adding our own brand of flavouring and window-dressing. Once having tasted just a drop of the sweet nectar of wisdom and understanding, we can never be satisfied in drinking the common muddy and murky waters found in the common well shared between common men.

We desire ever more with ever less and future insight tells us that our unlimited wants for knowledge can never be satisfied by the scarcity of resources that we have at hand. The bitter truth is that if we do not start now to nurture the seeds of intellect in their youth, we would never be able to climb the steep ivory tower[13] of academia before our candle of life burns out. So the child at age fifteen had his mind bent on learning[14]. He emerges from the valley of ignorance not as a child but as a philosopher in both heart and spirit. Baptised with the flames to acquire wisdom and devoted to the death to the pursuit of truth, he no longer floats down the streams of a changing reality without direction and without purpose but flies like a hawk in sight of it’s prey with a keen vision to seek new knowledge to unearth, study and learn.

“But why philosophy?” you might ask.

The answer is because philosophy is inescapable for the man in search of intellectual understanding, enlightenment and achievement. Look around you and you will find some kind of philosophy in every form of expression of man’s intellectual individuality.

We find philosophy in art[15] when we seek the ideal form and beauty.

We find philosophy in human actions when we seek the ideal moral conduct[16].

We find philosophy when we live in a community that strives for the ideal form of government and social organisation[17].

We find philosophy in science when we attempt to arrive at real knowledge[18] and study the ‘ultimate reality’ of all things[19].

We find philosophy even in mathematics with its cold, austere and calm precision[20]. Even when we disprove a philosophy, we are merely offering another one (Durant, 2005). So the child who is no longer a child must choose to dedicate himself to philosophy or perish without enlightenment and salvation.

So he asks himself the next question, “what is philosophy?”

Often the most obvious question is more often than not the most irrelevant and inconsequential one. Russell was right when he said, “the definition of ‘philosophy’ will vary according to the philosophy we adopt (Russell, An Outline of Philosophy, 2009). For our philosophy is our perspective of life itself! And all of us are different when it comes to our thoughts and opinions although the object of contemplation is one and the same. If there is one thing that I am certain, it is that nothing escapes human criticism.[21] Coming from different backgrounds, upbringings, environmental circumstances and cultures, a person’s philosophy is the final conscious answer to the question, ‘who am I?’

Like the concept of Tao[22], the paths which all of us travel are different and therefore ‘nameless’, without definition. Although all roads lead to the truth[23], the road taken by all men can never be the same. In search for right path, one searches for wisdom to recognize the truth from lies. Being a philosopher does not make one spontaneously wise but to search for wisdom one must first become a philosopher. In the same way, a man does not become a better philosopher through knowing more scientific facts (Russell, An Outline of Philosophy, 2009). It is only by being wiser in thought and in practice that one becomes a better philosopher. For the word philosophy comes from the Greek word philosophia (φιλοσοφία) that literally means ‘lover of wisdom’. And philosophia is a strict mistress indeed. Like Minerva[24] she fends off, with her aegis, ideas that are self-contradictory and with her spear, she pierces through ideas that are vague and obscure to reveal the truth.

Even armed with the spear and shield of the goddess of wisdom it is hard to tell the truth from tale. According to Aristotle(Honderich, 2005), ‘to say what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true’. Although we may broaden our knowledge to the widest scope imaginable, the ‘world remains our idea’[25] for we can see it only through our own eyes and analyse it only with our own mind. While studying the universe-watch with its cause and effects, and its actions and reactions, the philosopher’s task is not to discover the truth of ‘all things’ but to unmask falsehoods and blow away the mist of distortion through incorrect thinking. Philosophy should be provisional and piecemeal like science; the final truth belongs to heaven, not to this world (Russell, An Outline of Philosophy, 2009).

Even having said so, the tasks of the philosopher do not end by the simple telling of the truth. Our philosophy must not only be an analysis but a synthesis of things to achieve a certain harmony within the whole body of knowledge. The tapestry woven by wisdom must not be one of loose ends and broken fragments. Like music, it takes more than a single musical note to produce a melody and more than a single musical instrument to perform a symphony. Although the perfect truth may be out of arms reach, we can still hope to accomplish a philosophy that is in harmony, free from contradictions and obscurity.

The child who is now a philosopher has found his way. If the attainment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain were the chief motivator behind human actions[26], the child would still be a philosopher. ‘There is a pleasure in philosophy’ (Durant, 2005) when one finds the constant within the changing, when we discover the degree of freedom within our ‘free-will’ and when we begin to love the little inconsequential things around us. Plato was right to call philosophy that ‘dear delight’[27]. Even if we were obsessed with might and money instead of wisdom, philosophy would still wear the crown within the child’s heart. ‘Seek ye first the good things of the mind and the rest will either be supplied or its loss will not be felt’[28]. Philosophy may not give us our own personal Midas touch but it can help us achieve ‘ataraxia’ (Honderich, 2005)[29].

Socrates was right when he stated that virtue is knowledge (or wisdom) (Honderich, 2005). No one does wrong voluntarily[30] and ignorance (and idleness) is the source of our mischief, misconduct and misfortune. The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being[31]. ‘We are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell’[32] and only philosophy can unchain us from the cave that our mind in within dwells. Just as surely the philosopher’s duty is to live and learn, equally important is his charge to learn to live.

~

The Socratic method teaches us that to come to the right conclusion of things, one must first learn how to ask the right questions. Below are some questions (Honderich, 2005)for the philosopher to ease his journey.

  1. Am I the same person as the child who grew into me?
  2. Do we have free will?
  3. What are the foundations of knowledge?
  4. What makes a sentence true?
  5. Are there laws of nature?
  6. How does one thing cause another?
  7. Does life have meaning?
  8. Is there reason to believe in God?
  9. Is equality something we should aim for in a society?
  10. Is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so?

Bibliography

Bulfinch, T. (1959). Bulfinch Mythology. (E. Fuller, Ed.) Dell Publishing.

Descartes, R. (2003). Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings. (D. M. Clarke, Trans.) London , England: Penguin Books Ltd.

Durant, W. (2005). The Story of Philosophy. New York, United States: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Fosl, D. E. (Ed.). (2010). Philosophy: The Classical Readings. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Honderich, T. (Ed.). (2005). The Oxford Guide To Philosophy. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean. (1971). (J. Legge, Trans.) Oxford: Dover Publication Inc.

Loon, H. W. (2000). The Story of Mankind (Updated Edition ed.). New York, United States: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Rathus, S. A. (2007). Psychology: Concepts & Connections. Belmont, United States: Thomson Learning Inc.

Russell, B. (2009). An Outline of Philosophy. New York, United States: Routledge Classics.

Russell, B. (1972). The History of Western Philosophy. New York, United States of America: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Schopenhauer, A. (2004). The World as Will and Idea. (D. Berman, Ed., & J. Berman, Trans.) London, England: Orion Publishing Group.

Stoker, B. (1897). Dracula. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd.

Voltaire. (1977). The Portable Voltaire. (B. R. Redman, Ed., & H. I. Woolt, Trans.) New York , United States: Penguin Group Inc.



[1] Wu wei can be translated as ‘actionless action’ or the saying, ‘let nature take its course’.

[2] The saying can be traced back to Plutarch (1st – 2nd centuries AD) although the idea is older, being a commonplace of Aristotelian physics.

[3] ‘Nature is the true law’.

[4] Hegel dismissed the thinking of India as ‘childlike’ and merely ‘dreamy’.

[5] Stoker, B. (1897). Dracula. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd.

[6] Quotations from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

[7] Theologians maintain that God is self-caused, the Latin phrase causa sui means ‘cause of itself’.

[8] From the German word, Weltanschauung

[9] ‘The world is a stage and every man plays his part,’ adapted from Shakespeare’s All the world’s a stage (As You Like It, 1599)

[10] From the French word, Raison d’être

[11] A saying attributed to Heraclitus, Russell, B. (1972). The History of Western Philosophy. New York, United States of America: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

[12] The Story of the Good Brahmin, Voltaire. (1977). The Portable Voltaire. (B. R. Redman, Ed., & H. I. Woolt, Trans.) New York , United States: Penguin Group Inc.

[13] The term ivory tower comes from Solomon’s Song of Songs (7,4) NIV.

[14] ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bend on learning’ is a saying attributed to Confucius, (Analects IV, 1.), Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean. (1971). (J. Legge, Trans.) Oxford: Dover Publication Inc.

[15] Esthetics is the philosophy of art

[16] Ethics is the branch of philosophy that studies ideal conduct

[17] Politics

[18] Epistemology

[19] Metaphysics.

[20] Logic

[21] Saying attributed to Sigmund Freud

[22] The Chinese term tao can be translated into as ‘the way.’ The Tao Te Ching (Chapter 1) states that The Tao (way) that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

[23] Adapted from the famous saying, ‘All roads lead to Rome’.

[24] Minerva is the Goddess of Wisdom. Bulfinch, T. (1959). Bulfinch Mythology. (E. Fuller, Ed.) Dell Publishing.

[25] The ‘World is my idea,’ can be found in Arthur Schopenhauer’s book the World As Will and Idea. Schopenhauer, A. (2004). The World as Will and Idea. (D. Berman, Ed., & J. Berman, Trans.) London, England: Orion Publishing Group.

[26] Aristotle declared that people are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Rathus, S. A. (2007). Psychology: Concepts & Connections. Belmont, United States: Thomson Learning Inc.

[27] Durant, W. (2005). The Story of Philosophy. New York, United States: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

[28] Quote attributed to Francis Bacon.

[29] Ataraxia is freedom from trouble or anxiety.

[30] ‘No one misses the mark voluntarily’. One of the Socratic paradoxes that suggest that akrasia is impossible.

[31] Quoted by Socrates in Plato’s Apology.

[32] Quoted b Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus.

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