To be free of mad love: philosophy as a way of life

In the darkness of night madness has seized 
Our glorious Ajax: he is ruined and lost.

–Tecmessa from Sophocles’s Ajax

“I want to get rid of my feelings, to be free of this mad love.”

In its essence, philosophy is not a tool but a practice. It is a practice in right thinking and in right living–in right thinking as much as right living, where right living meets right thinking. There is in the end no separation. Where you are in your struggles, the practice must be one of letting go of desire: not letting go of this or that desire but of desire altogether. One cannot let go of desire simply by longing for it to be gone.  Like the mad Ajax who slaughtered the sheep, one can only ring one’s hands in despair, can only do this, is resigned to this until one lets go. For one cannot wish it or will it away. Nor can one fill up one’s time with distractions or other perturbations in hopes that mad love will subside. One must remove oneself from the scene of the desire and head to the cloister, to the place of great silence, to the monastic life.

Philosophy, truly, is a practice or it is nothing. “In the premodern period,” writes Karen Armstrong, “in all the major faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but on behavior. First, you changed your lifestyle [let us say instead: your way of life] and only then could you experience God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Dao as a living reality.” In the modern period, philosophy became a set of propositions, demonstrations, and rational proofs: and thus it failed, and thus it fell into tool bags and tool kits, posts and ripostes, positions and counterpositions. Thus did it fall away–from life.

A philosophical practice is a form of discipline, of ongoing exercise on that which is low–one’s everyday habits–and on that which is high–the objects of contemplation. Armstrong:

The athlete and the dancer reveal the potential of the human body; they willingly subject themselves to a painful, rigorous, and exhausting discipline, giving up many comforts and pleasures in order to learn their craft. Because of this dedication, they are able to perform physical feats that are beyond the reach of an untrained person. In the same way, the contemplative gladly submits to an equally demanding regimen and, once he or she has become adept, manifests the full potential of the human spirit.

Letting go of desire is not the end of the story, not for those who must yet live in the world; it is a period of rest that cannot take place at home, only elsewhere amid the hallowed silence. Letting go of desire, not the work of a day but the result of continuous, strenuous practice, is the force behind learning how to desire again: this time the right things, this time in the right way, this way not the mad way of Aphrodite and Athena.

Vacillation is the way of exhaustion; waiting the way of despair; philosophy a way of life. There is no other way.