Who cares about philosophy?
Think philosophy, think boring, is most people's attitude.
But philosophy is the sum of mankind's attempts to answer the questions at the heart of being human. What is our basic nature, and that of the world? What is the meaning of life? How can we achieve happiness? What are good and evil? How should society be organised? How can each one of us live our life to its full potential?
These questions have engaged the interest and passions of men and women since the dawn of our race. In them lie the origins of the great religions and systems of thought which have shaped human history. A philosophy – whether stated or implicit, whether an organised system of thought or the accumulated assumptions of centuries – lies at the base of all human action. It not only determines how each of us lives our private life, but the philosophy of our culture determines our form of government, our economic system and how our children are educated.
From the lives of every individual to the march of empires; from the centures of stagnation in the Middle Ages to the explosion of knowledge and progress of the Industrial Revolution; from the US Declaration of Independence to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany: in one form or another, philosophy is the source of all the achievement and joy that has existed on earth, and of all the blood spilled on its soil. For all these things come from the choices made by human beings: and choices are made according to values, and the values people choose derive from their philosophy.
"It's All Too Hard"...
Think philosophy, think too hard to bother with, is most people's attitude.
But philosophy is for every person, not an obscure passtime for the few. Everything we do, we do by choice; and every choice we make, we make for a reason: whether that reason is good, bad or simply by default. And those reasons are our philosophy. As human beings with free will, we have no choice about whether or not we have a philosophy. Our only choice is whether that philosophy is good or bad, true or false, examined or a random mix of floating thoughts picked up from our friends, relatives and culture. But on our philosophy, whatever its origin, rest the achievements and happiness of our lives. From it derive both the aims (or lack of them) we choose for our lives, and how we proceed to reach them. Everything we do, we do in pursuit of values: and what our values are, are by our choice; and why we have chosen them, is our philosophy of life.
It is for those reasons that philosophy is for every man. Whatever your level of intellect and understanding, there is no one capable of independent existence who cannot grasp the essentials of a philosophy at some level or another. And there is no one whose life is not better served by following a true philosophy rather than a false one.
To the extent that the reputation of philosophy is a bunch of out-of-touch intellectuals arguing obscure points of trivia that have nothing to do with life in the real world, is the extent to which philosophers have failed. The purpose of philosophers is to uncover the "eternal verities" which affect us all, in the service of human life. Since philosophy lies at the root of the happiness or pain of all men, the title of "philosopher" should be a title of high honour: that it is not, is a damnation of modern philosophy.
True, philosophy is usually impenetrable, boring, silly or all three. But that is by the default of modern philosophy, not by the fault of philosophy as such. Indeed, if you've ever run into the miserable claptrap made up by Arthur Schopenhauer with no more than a tenuous link to reality, you might appreciate this:
"The problem with academic philosophy is that it gives more respect to Schopenhauer than to Rand."
The role of philosophy is to teach people how to live and enjoy their lives, to guide them in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. It is to discover what the world is, how we can tell truth from falsehood, what we are, and therefore how we should live. To the extent that modern philosophy has failed in this – to the extent that it has tried, not to discover what the world is but to deny its reality – to the extent that it has tried, not to define truth and falsehood, but to deny that there is a difference – to the extent that it has tried, not to show people how to be happy and live, but to teach them that the good is to sacrifice that happiness, and that happiness is not possible on this earth: to that extent it has not merely failed in its task, but has perverted its reason for being.
... But It's Really Very Simple!
For all the volumes of abstruse philosophy littering our libraries, the basics of a true philosophy are childishly simple. Reality exists, and consciousness exists. And because of these – because reality is all there is, and consciousness is the basis of all we are and all we have – because of the tension between these two, because life and happiness are things that must be fought for and won, not free gifts that drop into our laps without effort: our own life is properly our highest value. All other values and virtues derive from this, and from the nature of man as a thinking being.
Despite the centuries of philosophy attempting to deny that reality exists, or admitting it, to deny that we can know anything about it; despite the claims that in reason there is no link between what is, and what ought to be (how we should act): in fact, in reality, no one can consistently deny these truths, and remain alive: reality does exist, we can know what it is, and our own lives are the fundamental value that links what is to what ought to be.
And that's that. Like any specialised field of knowledge, philosophy has many details; it must prove its propositions, and it must distil more detailed applications to our lives. But at the base of it, is the plain fact that we all live in the real world. It is as simple as that, and as simple as this:
"My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists -- and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these." (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)
And It's Not All Bad
As the history of the world has been long stretches of stagnation and violence, with the occasional sunburst of reason and liberty: so has the history of philosophy been centuries of barren irrationalism, with the rare light of reason burning as a beacon across the ages.
For all that human thought has been dominated over the millenia by mysticism, by irrationalism, by the belief that man is fundamentally evil, that the good lies in mindless servitude to a God or a King, and that man is a helpless pawn of unknowable powers, doomed to struggle but not achieve: there have been others who taught that man is good, capable of effective action, achievement and happiness. These few have redeemed the rest, and to the degree that they have been heard, or that individual men, never hearing them, have nonetheless lived by such ideals: to that extent, men have been able to rise from subservience under the rule of nature and men, to the magnificence of modern civilisation and the throwing off of the bonds of slavery.
But the battle is not won. The world today runs on a mixture of mystic faith and unprincipled pragmatism. To the extent that it has principles, those principles hold that the good lies in self-sacrifice: that there is no choice but the evil of sacrificing others to your desires, or the virtue of sacrificing your good to theirs. Your rights are held to derive, not according to what you have earned, but to what you need: so that the man who builds a fortune has only as much right to it as the government permits, but the man who has achieved nothing deserves his share of that fortune unearned.
But whatever good has existed in the world, has existed by virtue of some man's thought and achievement. And what is necessary for human survival and prosperity is for men to be free to think and to achieve, free to set their own goals and means to those goals, with the absolute right to deal with others solely by mutual consent: with physical coercion forever barred from human relationships.
Such a world can be achieved only by the widespread acceptance of the philosophy that makes it possible: a philosophy of reality, reason and individual rights. Then one day, the ideal which moves men and nations will not be faith and sacrifice: but reason, and the knowledge that everyone is an end in themself, with their own happiness as the proper moral goal of their life.
To promote those ideas is the reason this web site exists. To again quote the modern era's greatest philosopher, in whose honour, memory and tribute this web site is dedicated:
The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours. But to win it requires your total dedication and a total break with the world of your past, with the doctrine that man is a sacrificial animal who exists for the pleasure of others. Fight for the value of your person. Fight for the virtue of your pride. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind. Fight with the radiant certainty and the absolute rectitude of knowing that your is the Morality of Life and that yours is the battle for any achievement, any value, any grandeur, any goodness, any joy that has ever existed on this earth." (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)
© 1996 Robin Craig