My friends, to whom I have entrusted this manuscript for advice and counsel, have been unanimous in asking me, “Why? Why a book of philosophy?” It seems as if they see something inimical in a pastor and theologian writing a book on philosophy—and practical philosophy at that.
The concern is expressed more profoundly by those who labored with me through graduate school, where I had no kind words for philosophy. There I said that I was not a philosopher; I saw no utility to the enterprise.
Then, as now, I am convinced that philosophy has lost its way. As Macbeth lamented about life, he said philosophy has become an academic endeavor that is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Philosophy has become the fodder for flights of fancy by academicians who—unable to respond coherently and constructively to the problems of this world—imagine another world where such issues do not arise. Such practitioners have reduced the language of philosophy to mathematical formulas, hypotheticals, and illogical syllogisms.
Oh, there have been a few bright lights—the late D.Z. Phillips among them—but those are more the exception than the rule. For most people in North America, if not most parts of the world where television is readily available, philosophy is reduced to the wisdom of Oprah and the pop musings of Dr. Phil. Hardly anyone reads the ancient masters except for students who appropriate those words without understanding them, or cannot translate this ancient wisdom into a wholesome and beneficial life.
The “cool place,” of which philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, has become a cold and lifeless place. People cry out for an escape from their darkness and agony; yet, philosophy’s only response is inaudible and unintelligible. That is because philosophers talk to each other and not to the people. Lost in translation between the ideal of philosophy—and philosophy as it lies stillborn in the academy’s womb—is the transformative power of philosophy.
Philosophy became the enlightened enterprise not because it was “cool,” but because it could transform one’s life from the mundane to the enriched. Philosophy was not some pie in the sky; it was the prescription for a good life right here on earth. To that extent, it was, as sociologist Max Weber has said of nascent religion, “economic.”
Philosophy did not—as theology was to do much later and continues to do today--call people to live a life that would ensure their good fortune in the life to come. (An exception was Plato, who postulated in The Republic, that such a life could result in one’s eventual return to the Monad, a soul-filled entity in the universe.)
Philosophy called people to live a life worthy of enlightened creatures that afford them the best possible life in this world without any “carrot” being dangled before them. Philosophy sought to transform people—not to bribe them or threaten them.
Consider the following account, which has been preserved for our edification by Prophry and reported to us by Robert Louis Wilken:
There was also Rogatianus, a senator, who advanced so far in renunciation of public life that he gave up all his property, dismissed all his servants, and resigned his rank. When he was on the point of appearing in public as praetor and the lectors were already there, he refused to appear to have anything to do with the office. He would not even keep his own house to live in but went around his friends and acquaintances, dining at one house and sleeping at another (but he only ate every other day). As a result of this renunciation and indifference to the needs of life, though he had been so gouty that he had not been able to stretch out his hands, he became able to use them much more easily than professional handicraftsmen. Plotinus regarded him with great favor, praised him highly, and frequently held him up as an example to all who practiced philosophy.2
Notice that the senator’s transformation occurs not because he fears damnation or because he seeks eternal life beyond the present state of affairs. The senator’s change is brought about merely when he needs to seize a more quality life than the one he is living. And more importantly, the difference comes about due to the senator’s efforts and his submission to his teacher’s wisdom. Rogatianus’ transformation is the result of his willingness to practice philosophy and not just meditate upon it. This is the power of philosophy. This is the epitome of practical philosophy.
Philosophy’s power of transformation is not limited to individuals. It can alter the course of institutions and movements as well. Christianity was but a local religion before the Apostle Paul infused it with Greek philosophical ideas and projected this nascent faith into the forefront of religions that would lead to its being adopted as the Roman Empire’s official religion. The same entity that once persecuted it.
Likewise, Islam had taken its place at the table of the West and was quite content to be just one of the many until Sayyid Qutb’s philosophy enflamed it and caused it to exert itself on the world’s stage and to transform nations and institutions into the image of what he perceived Islam demanded.3
I contend that in losing its way, philosophy has lost this transformative element and, with it, the light it once offered to those stranded in the dark woods. If these things are true, then why should rely on philosophy instead of theology or religion? Again, I hear the pleas of my friends. Why have I chosen to write philosophy and not theology or religion? I did not choose philosophy. Instead, it has chosen me because, despite its present morass, philosophy stands a much better chance of being revived and reaching the mass of people than the exclusiveness of theology or the divisiveness of religion.
With due honor and respect to thinkers such as Hick, Cobb, Wilfred Cantrell Smith, and others who have written valiantly about global theology and world religion, I am convinced that such ideas are but noble fancies. It may be that Panikkar is quite right when he says that religious diversity is God’s work, as exemplified by the Tower of Babel’s myth. Any attempt by humans to undo what God has done is idolatrous and blasphemous and doomed to failure. In recognition of Panikkar’s wisdom, I have set forth here a path that opens up to people of all religious traditions.
Suppose there is to be a way of life accessible to all peoples. In that case, philosophy offers the best hope for the construction of such a road, and that is why I have turned to philosophy for the presentation of a way of life that is universal in its application. No matter what a person’s ultimate destiny might be, the road presented here will make the journey a great deal easier and significantly more fulfilling.
Though I have not taken a survey of people everywhere, I think it is safe to say that all people seek to live life to its fullest and with the least amount of pain. Even the sadist and the masochist seek moments of repose when they can be silent and at peace. This universally shared quest for a fulfilling life offers a foundation on which a philosophy of life can be constructed. That is the task of this book. Whether I have succeeded or failed, others will have to decide. As for me, I take comfort in knowing that I have tried.