My article on philosophical practice, “Counselling: Putting Lives in Order,” The Philosophers’ Magazine 57, is now available here. It was written in August and, though somewhat dated, still holds its own fairly well. It is also the most comprehensive account of my philosophy practice that I’ve written to date. Enjoy.
I thought it was time to say farewell, at least for now, to one conversation partner. Not wanting to leave her empty-handed, I wrote her a letter whose purpose was to cast light on the steps of the path leading toward philosophical life.
The two photos below are courtesy of two lovely conversation partners. You know who you are. (The Oracle of Delphi pun is intended.)
You initially wrote that you lacked discipline. Being more disciplined (read: “hard on yourself”) may be necessary in the interregnum, but it is not an attribute or disposition that can figure wholeheartedly in a philosophical life. I have learned that most of our concerns and questions in this life are not, in the final analysis, volitional. They rarely have to do with being “weak willed” or “strong willed.” Rather, they are axiological and phenomenological, having to do with what we care most about and how we stand in the world. If we can see how we fit into the order of things, if we can understand where our life is headed, then we can act with a sense of joy. In the present alone, I am overjoyed. Now I write to you not out of a sense of discipline but because I feel called to you, feel I must leave you, for now, in good stead. I do not want to leave you stranded, so I write in order to point the way forward.
You wrote of your lingering desire for ambition and I replied that ambition is a losing policy for living radiantly. To begin with, it presumes that I must accomplish some grand mission with my time on this tiny earth, some scheme without which my life will have amounted to nothing. Second, it implies that there is an infinitely high social ladder that I must climb and keep climbing, end over end, all without end, all, in the end, without satisfaction. Third, it stakes my being an agent on the recognition of strangers, strange peers, abstract colleagues, on their good opinions and here-today-gone-tomorrow allegiances. Given world enough and time, ambition will sour us to life. I have suggested instead that we think in terms of doing good work and that we attend to our way of being in the world. A good life, made up of good work, is not restless but serene and constant.
Nonetheless, there are two truths lying dormant in ambition. The first inchoate truth is that we long to be seen and recognized by others. This truth can only be fully realized, however, once we shift our focus from achieving social status to cultivating good friendships. Good friends see us; distant acquaintances look past us.
The second inchoate truth of ambition is that we long to be authors of our lives. Yet to become authors of our lives, we must focus our attention on the simple and beautiful idea of doing good work. Does my work, does what I create bring joy to others? God I hope so.
We have spoken about financial matters, about having just enough. For a while, you have not had enough. I am sorry for this. Know that, in this neoliberal economic order, a few have too many and most do not have enough. Paul Mason speaks of a “lost generation” of those now in their 20s; the term could be extended to those also living in their late 30s. We, you and I and other kindred spirits, will probably have to let go of the equation that “having just enough” = falling within a standard metric of yearly income as measured by the modern state. Instead, we will have to ask, with the Daodejing, how having just enough will make it possible for us to give to our lovers and friends with a free spirit and light heart, to offer only to our fellows on the order of infinity. We do not, and cannot, want to live with the idea that our generosity is a form of self-sacrifice: that our giving to others is at the same time a taking away from ourselves. But neither do we wish to hoard. What is more, we cannot live well so long as our basic material needs go unmet. So, learning how to “have just enough” will make it possible to love ourselves and our friends up to our utmosts.
I have introduced you to some like-minded people. It is now up to you to keep on with this, to say your good hello’s, to give your warming words. I want to remind you that friends, acting as a palladium, shield us from a hostile world, friends see us for who we are, friends help us to inquire about ourselves, they come to our aid during lean times, they knock on our doors when we need them most. Through them, we learn to do the same. On this score, one good friend of mine wrote with special insight: “Long before I knew how to be a friend, I was befriended.” It is ever so, going back to our births, back even before then.
We are living during a time when the makeup of the family is changing. Let us not fight this; we do so at our own peril. We will have to let go of the idea that our flesh and blood family will likely be our closet kin. Most of us have been nomads roaming endlessly in strange lands, finding our blood families lying far across the cold celadon sea, physically and philosophically speaking. Our closest kin will have to become our friends and lovers. Let us be OK with this, because it is good, because it is OK, because it will have to be.
I never told you something I now believe to be true. I want to share it with you now. It is that all our letters, if they are written well, are always love letters. Truly, I think often of this and hope you will find significance in this thought also.
Remind yourself that you will often be misunderstood. Individuals who ask ‘interesting’ questions and do not follow the ‘normal’ paths of wealth, prestige, or pleasure cannot hope to fit into the reigning social order. Do not bother trying, for it does not follow that you cannot find your place elsewhere. Should you walk in harmony with the Way, you might meet way-farers singing scythes and rolling thatch. Roll your fingers through the volcanic ash and think of making a home among the first sprouts. The soil is good here.
In this brave new world, we are returning, above all, to elementals. To enjoying simple pleasures, to discovering the infinite value in the ordinary, to making things with our hands and eyes, to becoming kinder and gentler with ourselves and our fellows. Live this way and you will be fine. I do not mean fine as compensation for something of equal or greater value that has been lost. I mean fine in the Greek sense of kalon: of what is “excellent,” “noble,” and “beautiful.”