We live in a world filled with danger.
At least that what our media tell us. Negative news is what gets our attention, so it might not really be what the world is like. But since we’re pounded with it every day, it would be hard to say that it doesn’t affect us in some way.
And then we have advertisers who prey on our weakness. One model of advertising creates a problem that we had no idea existed, and then present us with the solution to the problem. They press into our minds that we are not good enough or broken in some way and the only way that we will be REALLY happy is when we buy what they are offering. Our brains are already biased toward negativity, and the mass media uses of this bias to make our situation worse.
It seems to be a fact that many of us live in a world of dread. Research is suggesting that depression and anxiety are on the rise, and is starting to become a national crisis. For many of us, we are not having a good life.
We can see the symptoms of this problem. The opiate addiction that is ravaging the country, the rise of mass shootings, and an increasingly divided society that seems to become more hateful each day. The landscape of our lives seems to bombarded with holes, obstacles that keep us from walking a straight path and few have any suggestions on how to fill them.
Some people attempt to fill these holes in unhealthy ways, while others are searching for healthy ways to address this sense of dread.
Some people have attempted to find refuge in religion. But religion itself has its issues, with many being put off with warnings of eternal pain and suffering unless you follow its degrees tooth and nail. This just doesn’t jive for people living in a land that advocates freedom of thought and expression. As a result, there is a growing trend of people who are leaving modern western religion and becoming “unchurched,” and spiritual-but-not-religious.
So some turn to religions from other cultures, or from the past. Most do not adopt these religions in their totality, instead they pick and choose aspects of these faiths and create a personal practice and theology to help them find a sense of meaning in this dark and dreary world.
However, many people do not realize that there is a system of practice that is the foundation of Western Culture and it can provide the solution that they are seeking. It provides a roadmap that is thousands of years old, that has proven itself through the test of time, and it just as valid today as it was when it was first developed.
This system is called philosophy.
Let me explain myself.
Before you hit the back button, let me explain what I mean when I talk about philosophy as a system to help us tackle the difficulties in life.
I realize that many people when they hear the word philosophy, think about stuffy intellectuals hiding away in the ivory towers of the universities talking about things that have no relevance to our common experience. Or maybe weird eccentrics talking about wild theories while drinking coffee, or downing a beer at the local pub. And if these two examples were the total expression of what philosophy is, then I would agree, there wouldn’t be much value.
But there’s more to philosophy than this.
It is interesting to note that the ancient philosophers understood this same issue, and as a result, they recognized that there are two paths in philosophy. One was the path of practical wisdom (Phronesis), while the other path concerned theoretical wisdom (Sophia).
In today’s educational system, the philosophy taught is typically based on Sophia, and although it does have importance because it helps academics to refine their thinking and ensure that the ideas are based in logic and reason, the problems that they are tackling have little immediate value to our daily lives. Although they typically have long-term or strategic value to our society.
However, Phronesis –practical wisdom– does have immense value. Because, Phronesis develops the capability to consider our modes of action in order to deliver change, especially to enhance the quality of life. In other words, Phronesis directly deals with how we can act in the world so that we can live a good life. And living a good life is something that all of us want to do.
Eudaimonia – Western Enlightenment
The intent of this article is not to provide an exhaustive treatment of practical philosophy. Instead, I want to offer my readers an invitation to the practice, to give you something to consider. I will over time flesh out the practices and principles in other articles and hopefully, provide you with the tools you are looking for to enrich your life. If I’m am successful in this pursuit then I should have plenty of followers and I look forward to what we can discover together.
But let’s begin with the end goal. When people are serious about practicing the discipline of Buddhism they hope to achieve a level of awareness that is called Nirvana. And when someone achieves this state of being they are considered enlightened. The Ancient Greeks, who started the system of philosophy had a similar goal in mind and they referred to it as Eudaimonia.
Eudaimonia is a term that is fraught with the difficulties of translating a “technical term” from one language to another. As a result, many people think that Eudaimonia means happiness, however many students of philosophy are not willing to reduce this idea to a simple emotion. To do so, to me, is to rob this idea of its value and obscure the reason why someone would devote their life to achieving this state of being. After all, there are many ways to achieve “happiness,” and many can be bought with little difficulty.
Also, I tend to think that happiness, as an emotion, is transitory and as a result comes and goes. While Eudaimonia once achieved –and like Nirvana– is a constant state of being that greatly affects one’s approach life, and also has a profound effect on the world around us.
Instead of being a state of happiness, Eudaimonia is more properly understood to be a state of contentment with life, and also a state where a person thrives in their life. It is a state where a person has come to an understanding of their individual gifts through the process of self-reflection and have a deep understanding on how to apply those gifts to make themselves and the world a better place. Thus, it is a way of engaging and experiencing the world in a natural and positive matter.
Eudaimonia, like any deep concept, had many different interpretations in the ancient world, and although most classical thinkers had a general agreement on what the end result would be, they had different ideas on the paths to achieving that goal. Overall, there were four main “schools of thought” each with its own spin on how to achieve this state of being. Each school had different worldviews, focused on different aspects of life and as a result, different practices that they thought were needed to reach this exalted state. These four schools were The Epicureans, The Platonists, The Peripatetics (the school of Aristotle), and The Stoics.
I hope to provide detailed articles in the near future about each of these schools because I think that it is important to have a general understanding of each line of thought. Each school has had an important contribution to the development of Western Civilization, and as a result, we can still see traces of their influence in our culture.
Personally, I have a preference for one of these schools. As a result, you will find me referencing ideas from this path of wisdom in many of the articles I write. Either explicitly, or gleaned from my thought processes. And, this is the school of the Stoics.
A takeaway to make your life better
I will end this article with an idea or two that I think we all can use to help make our lives better and maybe start us on the path of Eudaimonia.
The ideas are centered on how we think. Generally, there are two modes of thinking, and the Ancient Philosophers thought that the first step is to recognize when each mode is influencing our thinking so that we become aware of the influence and then decide if that particular mode is the best mode for the situation that we are facing.
One mode is based on emotions, and the other mode is based on reason.
We are emotional creatures, and modern behavioral science has demonstrated that we tend to think emotionally most of the time. For some, coming to this understanding is difficult. We all would like to think that we are being rational and logical in the decisions that we make, but the research shows otherwise.
I have a background in sales and marketing, and one of the things “influence professionals” learn if they want to be successful, is that the way to close someone (buy what I am offering) is based on emotions. The emotion might be a simple as trusting me and feeling comfortable with what I’m presenting, but sometimes people will use your emotions to get you to buy something that you really don’t need, and even want.
This is one of the reasons, I think, why people have a general fear of salespeople and a dislike for advertising. They know that when faced with these people, they will use your emotions to manipulate.
But professional influencers are not the only ones who use these methods to get you to do what they want. Narcissist, psychopaths and little children are also masters in pulling our emotional strings so that they can get their way.
Practical wisdom suggests that we take the time to reflect on our thinking processes and to learn when we are thinking emotionally, and then decide if thinking emotionally is the best way to handle the situation that we are dealing with. I think that learning this is why Plato made the statement that “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
I have been amazed many times when speaking with someone and they are making choices and decisions based on emotional thinking, but they are convinced that they are being logical. What happens in these situations is that a person has the same emotion when concept A and concept B occur, and they confuse similar emotions as being a logical connection.
And that is the pitfall of emotional thinking that the ancient philosophers understood. Many times emotional thinking leads to confusion. And you can not achieve Eudaimonia if you are confused. As a counterweight to emotional thinking, philosophers recommend that we take the time to develop thinking based on reason.
Reason is the power of the mind to think, understand, and make plans. Rational thinking uses reason that is based on the process of logic. But what is logic? Because if we don’t understand what logic is, then how are we expected to think rationally.
Logic comes from the Greek word Logos, and while it is fair to say that Logos means word, it also means pattern, structure, and plan.
One of the keys is understanding that logic is based on relationships between different concepts, or objects, and the relationship is something that all people can agree on. We can say that concept A is related to concept B because if concept A changes, it causes concept B to change also. In other words, there is a pattern (or a link) between the two concepts that exist outside of our personal experience. Rational thinking is based on cause and effect that other people can agree on, while emotional thinking is based on correlations that are dependent on the personal expereince.
For example, concept A is “I have money,” concept B is “I need to pay my bills.” There is a causal relationship between the two. If I spend all my money on buying the newest and neatest thing I found on Amazon, then I will not be able to pay my bills. If I make the mistake of spending my money on Amazon, then I not being rational. Instead, I was thinking emotionally. Not only will I know that this is the case, but other people knowing my behavior will also know that this is the case.
Here’s another example. Concept A “I want to have a happy relationship,” Concept B “I need to consider the needs of my partner.” If I find myself thinking emotionally and decide to stay out all night, and not let my partner know what I’m doing and where I’m at, then I’m not being rational. When I do finally do show up, my partner is not going to be happy and as a result, I’m probably not going to be happy either. My partner will know that I wasn’t considering her needs and much as I know that I wasn’t considering her needs. Further, I will know why she is not happy with my decision.
The ancient philosophers put a lot of time into detailing what is logical and what is not, and it is a tradition that we carry on today with the practice we call critical thinking. One of the key areas of critical thinking is learning about logical fallacies and to understand when these fallacies are being used. Logical fallacies typically occur when we are using emotional thinking instead of thinking rationally.
Developing rational thinking gives us the tools to effectively deal with the world and to see things for what they really are. Emotions tend to blind us, they make us focus on how we are being affected by what is happening, instead of focusing on the actual causes of what is happening. Rational thinking allows is to develop a plan of action that allows us to make effective change in the world. When we are thinking emtionally, we become focused on drowning, instead of focusing on how to swim to safety.
If we want to be effective in the world and have any hope of developing Eudaimonia, then we need the wisdom and courage to deal with reality as it really is. The ancient thinkers realized that we have little control over what happens outside of us. And that our true power comes with how we respond to what is actually happening in the world. We become active participants in life, instead of slaves to life.
The wise person learns to deal with reality as it presents itself, instead of wasting time on wishing that things are different. Learning to accept the world as it really is, and learning to train our minds to navigate the world in a productive manner, while using our gifts, so that when we leave this world it is a better place, this is a noble goal.
This is Enlightenment The Western Way.