What's Philosophy

Philosophy is the love of wisdom, but more than this, it is rather the deep yearning for understanding the reality of things, the vital need to know the actually truth about ourselves and the universe in which we live, an absolute drive to study and seek. This is the heart of philosophy.

To be a philosopher is both natural and unnatural. It is natural to want to understand the world, but the calling of a philosopher is something more. Some of us are naturally philosophic. But some of us often come to philosophy after we have faced some thing in the world or in ourselves which deeply troubles us. The world that once made sense, no longer does so. It has become a world of chaos or sadness or loss or meaninglessness. Or we discover something about ourselves. We find that we are capable of such great acts of goodness, and also horrible moments of evil and self-delusion, which ruin our attempts at happiness.

The philosopher, once engaged, seeks to answer that deep calling within ourselves which stems from our need to live in a state of wholeness and well-being. It is often born from a shameful recognition that we as individuals or as communities really do not know what is good for us, and thus we fail at living well and fail at finding deep satisfaction in light of our potential. And further, our suffering add to the suffering of others.

We are often not born philosophers. Rather philosophy is born within us, sometimes late in life, when we discover that how we live and what we believe are not honestly not working for us.

Our turn towards philosophy is a reaction to our impoverished state of affairs, manifesting as a number of negative symptoms in our personal psychology and in our relationships with others, as well as manifesting as civil distress and the political corruption in our society and government.

When one looks at all the greatest spiritual and philosophical individuals in the past, Western or Eastern, more often than not, they were born in a time of great war or famine, or they personally suffered tragedy or a radical change of events.

Among the first of these was Plato of Athens (428-348 BCE) for the first time drew on the insights of the ancient sages of Greece to describe a comprehensive worldview, a total perception of everything, containing such insights and brilliant subtlety which all later philosophers to this day have had to address ever since. The famous statement of the twentieth century philosopher Alfred Whitehead is hardly an exaggeration, when he described the efforts and writings of all the greatest thinkers throughout history as essentially "footnotes" to the vision of Plato.

What makes Plato and Platonism so important is that Platonism developed in a reaction to the intellectual, psychological, and moral corruption to human society and human nature in a novel time in our history. Athens was the cradle of democracy. New ways of understanding humanity, society, politics, war, religion, theology, cosmology, aesthetics, etc, were all happening in Athens. Plato saw played out during his lifetime a war which destroyed not only cities but ancient traditions, followed by radical changes to the personal and social thoughts and beliefs which had never occurred in the history of the world.

He was fortunate enough to have studied with a man of the deepest honesty and nobility, Socrates, who later was executed for his conviction that it is better to die as a true and good man than to live appearing just to be so. This conviction for what is true and good so impressed Plato, that throughout his life he sought to understand real truth and discover real human excellence, even if it meant losing honour and esteem among his fellow Athenians and Greeks.

The Impetus towards Philosophy

What is it that Plato reacted against? What diseases of the soul and corruptions of society does the Platonist hope to address?

The principle target in Plato's writings involved the Sophists, a group of self-proclaimed experts in the area of rhetoric, the art of persuading others to side with your argument at any cost. To do this, the Sophist employed a number of tactics, the most sinister, to Plato, was undermining any idea of objectivity and standards of truth. For the Sophist, anything goes when it comes to winning an argument. There is not such things as fact or rightness, just what people make them out to be for the sake of convenience or self-promotion. Sheer relativism towards facts and complete disregard for logical reasoning were perfectly fine. What matters is not what is real or what is even reasonable, but winning for winning's sake.

Lloyd Gerson (From Plato to Platonism, 10-14) identifies five doctrines of the Sophists which Plato and later Platonists particularly sought to challenge:

  1. Materialism, all there is is just material bodies and their physical properties
  2. Mechanism, all events happen because of physical cause-and-effect
  3. Nominalism, only individual objects exist, and any properties which they share have no reality beyond the names we may give them
  4. Relativism, what is "true" or "good" is simply what is true or good as it appears to me
  5. Skepticism, gaining knowledge of truth or of what is really real is impossible

Given that there are no truths or facts to be found beyond the meaningless world of material individual things, and that the only "truth" can come from whatever we choose for it, we can only fall into subjectivism and nihilism. There is no real or unreal, no good nor bad, no right answer or wrong one. Things are just how they appear to each individual, and no individual can be right or wrong about how he feels about them.

This subjectivism, which characterised trends of thought in Plato's Athens also has much in common with today's world. "Modernity", as Mark Anderson calls the manifestation and result of Sophistic subjectivism, "is not primarily a historical era. It is an assortment of intellectual assumptions, biases, and tendencies to which humans have been susceptible from time immemorial" (Anderson,

Pure, 1). This "modernity" becomes a disease which affects individuals, society, institutions, markets. It comes with it a host of symptoms: "melancholy; lethargy; malaise accompanied by a haunting vague disorientation; a sense of meaninglessness. In short, nihilism. Many try to escape their dis-ease by diverting attention away from their troubled minds through various bodily indulgences. The most popular of these diversions are of course alcohol and drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, obsessive attachment to popular culture, extreme athletic exertions. Anything that inhibits thought" (ibid, 2). By numbing our attention to our inner crisis, we try to avoid the pain it causes us.

But how is it really possible that most of us never make our way out of this tragic state we find ourselves in? Like we've said above, for most of us, unless some horrible state of affairs jolts us into thought, into contemplating our wretched condition, it is simply easier to live a life dumbed down in pleasure-seeking pursuits, rather than take the difficult road of philosophy.

The Call to Philosophy

Plato fully understood that this drive for total truth and betterment comes often after things go wrong. In his great work, the Republic, Plato sets up a teaching tale, a story to describe the internal organisation and evolution of individuals and societies. In this tale, he speaks of the creation of two communities. The first was a simple one, where people only produced what they needed for natural health and comfort. In it there was no need for philosophy, because there was no need for soul-searching as people never overstepped the boundaries of others and cause each other suffering. But then Plato has this community grow, and this new community became larger and its inhabitants must start to customise their roles and occupations to serve its continued expansion. It becomes a world where everyone has a part to play, and must perform that part for the whole to benefit. He calls this city "febrile", but perhaps today we would call it cancerous, and its sickness, the ever-present risk of its parts fragmenting the whole, is what leads to the need for philosophically trained guardians to keep it from falling into decadence and turmoil. When things are fine, like in the first community, intuitive living may be fine, but when things become troubled, people turn to philosophy for their salvation.

Plato reinforces this later in the Republic, as he shows how easy it is for individuals to slip from their natural aspiration for goodness and truth, from a state of meritocracy, into states where other drives motivate them, some noble, like honour, to more base, like power and hedonism, until people devolve into destructive self-tyranny.

The need for philosophy is natural, but it calls us in a real sense to rise above our nature, calling us to be become more than merely human. The calling touches on the deepest reality of ourselves in a most intimate and divine way.

Plato in his Phaedrus describes our state as a fall of the soul from heaven, and her only means of regaining what she's lost is by rekindling a longing for that lost state. That deep longing, eros is that half-divine element in the soul that drives us to seek higher, more divine, things like truth and beauty and goodness which she knew intuitively before, that we may regain the truth and beauty and goodness of our own souls, that we may find our way back home.

Philosophy as Therapy

Whatever its etymology and symptoms, the spiritual disease that Plato fought and that we still suffer today, is an inversion of our nature. Robert Cushman tries to get at the motivational foundations behind Plato's thought as he began to understand philosophy as a method of education, which "represents the supreme and most influential attainment of classical Greek thought respecting the way of human salvation." It represents "a diagnosis of man's plight as well as his therapeia, his provision for its remedy," based on re-establishing man's relationship to his metaphysical reality (Therapeia, xv).

Platonism is, Cushman continues, "essentially, a way of life, a way out of chaos in human existence. Its root impulse is man in trouble with unresolved contradiction in his spirit, a contradiction which manifests itself in calamitous social derangements. As called forth by a destructive distortion in human life and experience, philosophy offers itself as a therapy. But it begins with diagnosis, and only thereafter supplies its distinctive method of release and transformation" (Therapeia, xv).

We discussed some of the Sophistic doctrines above. As for the therapy, which will be discussed in these pages, it comes by discovering man's true nature and his place in the universe. But the universe itself is anchored in a metaphysical reality that can be described as infinitely divine. Essentially, only by discovering the transcendent divine principles of the outer world around us and the immanent divine principles of the world within us can we hope for true well-being and wholeness.

∼ Ancient Definitions of Platonic Philosophy ∼

Unlike those dictionaries today which define philosophy as the academic study of the fundamental nature and principles of reality, existence, knowledge, or values, for the ancient philosophers themselves, however, philosophy was more than just a study: it was a way of life. And for Platonists, philosophy is a spiritual way of life.

From the traditional definitions of Platonic philosophy gathered from antiquity (from the Old Academy list of Definitions learned from Plato himself (414b); from the "Middle Platonic" textbook of Alkinous (Didaskalikos 1.1) and from the commentary of David "the Invisible" on Porphyry's Isagoge) we get philosophy defined as:

Much of this is summed up in the definition offered by Hierocles, one of the last great philosophers of ancient Alexandria, who wrote, "Philosophy is a purification and perfection of human life: a purification from our irrational, material nature and the mortal form of the body, a perfection of the recovery of our proper happiness, leading to divine likeness" (Commentary, Proem.1). He goes on to clarify that "virtue" and "truth" are the two cardinal means for our purification and perfection, and thus are the key components for a truly good way of life.

The above should demonstrate that for Platonists, philosophy was more than just exercises for the classroom. It goes beyond the mere discussion of ideas, but contains at least three aspects which govern not just our thoughts but our lives: (1) a desire (orexis, eros) for truth and beauty and goodness, (2) the sustained habit of seeking and opening up ourselves to the divine reality of that truth and beauty and goodness, and (3) practising a way of life focused on purifying and caring for one’s soul in the light of that truth and beauty and goodness.

Further, our scholars, both ancient and modern, see that philosophy is a deeply human endeavour. There are no clear and definitive answers, and Plato would challenge us if we ever attempted to pronounced any as such. Our Plato offers us a challenge, a quest that is both deeply human and also brilliantly divine: a quest that asks of us to question our ideas and beliefs, to know that we have many strengths as well as so many more weaknesses, to realise that we may fail to find or even understand the calling of reason and virtuous excellence, and to, is spite of this, it is a quest for us to try, to discover the deepest truth of our cosmos and the eternal well-being of our souls and our society.