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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

On Asking Philosophical Questions

“The unexamined life isn’t worth living.”

Socrates, Plato's Apology (38a5–6).

When things aren’t going quite the way you’d like them to, it’s often the result of not asking yourself the right questions. Some questions are hard to confront because you’re afraid you won’t get the answer you want, others because you really don’t want to know the answer.

But the best things in life don’t come easily, and turning away from life’s biggest questions is a sure path to mediocrity.

Asking philosophical questions can change your life. Let´s look into it.

On a beautiful evening in Greece, for now many years ago, I read the French author Antoine De Saint-Exupery´s small book The Little Prince. At that time I was sad and worried, but the book opened my mind, like the sunset opened the evening sky for the stars.

The general theme in the book is humans´ ability to wonder, and the loss of this ability. The first part is the short introduction dealing with the narrator and his wondering view of the world when he was a child, and how adults could never understand the real meaning of things or perceive truth in the world - only the superficial and the usual, because they had lost the ability to wonder. This is generally one of the main ideas of the book; "blessed are the children...".

In his autobiographical work Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry talks about his wonder over the desert; over the wind, the sand and the stars. His books are filled with wonderful meditations over this, yes, that the nights could be so beautiful, that he, as a pilot over the desert, often felled into thoughts, and was in danger falling down.

Saint-Exupéry, an early pioneering aviator, evokes a series of events in his life, principally his work for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. He does so by recounting several episodes from his years flying treacherous mail routes across the African Sahara and the South American Andes. The book's themes deal with friendship, death, heroism, camaraderie and solidarity among colleagues, humanity and the search for meaning in life. The book illustrates the author's view of the world and his opinions of what makes life worth living.

I consider Saint-Exupéry to be one of my central spiritual teachers, who has awakened my own philosophical wonder. In the beginning of the book he writes about sitting in an old omnibus which to him served as a proper symbol of the apprenticeship other pilots before him also had to serve before they might possess the stern joys of their craft. He writes:

“For how many of us had this old omnibus served as refuge in its day? Sixty? Eighty? I looked about me. Luminous points glowed in the darkness. Cigarettes punctuated the humble meditations of worn old clerks. How many of us had they escorted through the rain on a journey from which there was no coming back?

"I heard them talking to one another in murmurs and whispers. They talked about illness, money, shabby domestic cares. Their talk painted the walls of the dismal prison in which these men had locked themselves up. And suddenly I had a vision of the face of destiny.

"Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.

"The squall has ceased to be a cause of my complaint. The magic of the craft has opened for me a world in which I shall confront, within two hours, the black dragons and the crowned crests of a coma of blue lightnings, and when night has fallen I, delivered, shall read my course in the stars.”

The central incident he wrote of detailed his 1935 plane crash in the Sahara Desert between Benghazi and Cairo, which he barely survived along with his mechanic-navigator, André Prévot. Saint-Exupéry and his navigator were left almost completely without water and food, and as the chances of finding an oasis or help from the air gradually decreased, the two men nearly died of thirst before they were saved by a Bedouin on a camel. He wrote:

“You, Bedouin of Libya who saved our lives, though you will dwell forever in my memory yet I shall never be able to recapture your features. You are Humanity and your face comes into my mind simply as man incarnate. You, our beloved fellowman, did not know who we might be, and yet you recognized us without fail. And I, in my turn, shall recognize you in the faces of all mankind. You came towards me in an aureole of charity and magnanimity bearing the gift of water. All my friends and all my enemies marched towards me in your person. It did not seem to me that you were rescuing me: rather did it seem that you were forgiving me. And I felt I had no enemy left in all the world.” 

Saint-Exupéry´s most famous book, The Little Prince is the story of the little prince, whom the narrator discovers in the Sahara when he is trying to fix his downed airplane and is in fear of his life. The narrator and the reader slowly come to know the prince's story. He has travelled from another planet to Earth, where he, with wonder, was watching and questioning the flowers, animals and humans. Through this story the narrator learns about friendship, love and truth in a touching way. It is in other words the little prince, who is the philosopher and not the adult.

The Little Prince could be an analogy of our own forgotten wonder over life: our inner lost philosopher.

Asking philosophical questions begins with wonder, often generated by a severe existential crisis.

When philosophy asks questions it directs itself towards the form, not the content. The form is the universal, that which we all have in common. The content is the particular, that which we don´t have in common. If you look philosophical at it, there is a difference between the individual person and Man himself. The individual person is a located being, who lives in a particular country, belongs to a particular culture, a particular religion, and who has a particular content of mind. Man on the other hand, is not a located being. Man is everywhere: the form of consciousness is the same for all human beings. If the individual person only acts in a special corner of the extensive area of life, then he acts without any connection with the wholeness: the form. You must therefore remember, that philosophy always talks about the wholeness, the form, not a part of it, not the content. The smaller is in the larger, but the larger is not in the smaller. The individual person is the tiny image-limited, stagnated and despairing being, who is satisfied with his tiny gods and his tiny traditions, whereas the welfare and weal of all, the sum of the world´s necessity, misery and confusion, are lying Man on mind.

The division of human beings, in for instance Westerners and Orientals, is only geographical determined and entirely random. It has no essential importance. Whether we live east or west for a certain border, whether we are brown, dark, white or yellow, then we all still are human beings who are suffering and hoping, fearing and believing: there is unhappiness and happiness here as well as there. There is not a special Western or Eastern way of thinking when it comes to Man, but the individual person creates these divisions on the basis of his background, which is limited by the images of time: the content.

Love is not geographical determined, it is not hold in honour on one continent, while it is denied on the other. When individual persons in this way divide mankind, it is often because of economical reasons or ideological beliefs, and it happens with the purpose of exploitation.

This does not mean, that human beings not are different in temperament etc. There are similarities, and nevertheless there are differences. It means that the understanding of the individual person not is philosophy. The understanding of the individual person belongs to science. In philosophical respect we are the same.

Philosophy asks after that, which makes a human being into a human being, the common or universal, which all of us are part of, in spite of the fact, that we can behave so differently and be studied in so many different ways. Here it is about what we can term the human nature, and the question is not solved by seeking concluded answers in religion, ideology or New Age spirituality, and nor is it solved scientific by experimenting, collecting systematic observations, and from them create theories. It is solved by thinking and meditating over everything, we already know about Man, and by seeking unity and coherency in it. The wholeness is the reason for that philosophy are seeking unity and coherence, and therefore are using logic as a tool.

The truth in philosophy is something a philosopher strive after experiencing, whereafter this experience can be written down. But the answers philosophers write down in books are not the truth. They aren´t conclusion to anything. They are open for discussion. Philosophy throws out answers to the questions, argues for the answers in a rational and logical way, and investigates their consequences. Written down answers are in constant change. That´s how the history of philosophy moves. The answers are fingers pointing at the moon. The fingers shouldn´t be confused with the moon. But it is clear that some answers are better rationally reasoned than others; they are longer lasting, they are more whole.

So, in philosophy Man isn´t only a result of a single influence. Man is much more complex, and to emphasize one influence, and at the same time understating others, is to cause a lack of balance, which will lead to even bigger lack of meaning and coherency, and therefore to even bigger chaos, much more confusion. Man is a complete process. There must be an understanding of the wholeness, and not only a part of it, regardless how important this sometimes may be.

Only the specialized is fixated in a determined cause, and in this way also in a determined effect. Where there is specialization there is stagnation. Man is not a specialized being. He can break through his limitation, which is created by the images of time – and this he will have to do if he wants to experience reality.

Human nature is the whole of mankind, and do not belong to a certain category. But with the individual person´s mind follows the complicated problems of split, contradiction and war.

So in order to understand yourself you must understand that Man is an inviolable whole, not only a determined being, as for instance a society being with his particular assigned job: a worker, a citizen, a consumer, or a political being, right wing or leftist, or a religious being, Christian, Moslem, Jew, - but a complete whole in which an interaction and a reciprocity takes place.

You must realize, that suffering and split origin from ignorance about your own human nature. As long as you don´t understand yourself, your perspective on yourself and on the world, your personal history, you must, whatever you do, and in whatever area, unavoidably create separation, despair and suffering.

In order to understand yourself you must go out on a voyage of discovery. A voyage of discovery, that goes into your ego and your personal history, and therefore into time as a whole. You must travel up The River of Heraclitus, you must travel up the river of time, which not only is your own personal history, but also the collective and universal history. You must become a life artist.

Therefore, as I point out in my first book Meditation as an Art of Life, asking philosophical questions is a meditative state of mind. I used the expression:

“Asking philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way is the wordless silence within a strong existential wonder.”

In that way philosophical questions function as a kind of Koans. A Koan is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and test a student's progress in Zen practice.

The ability to wonder (or to be skeptical, critical) is the philosopher´s basic virtue. If you as a life artist want to start philosophizing, you must therefore become like a child again. Children seems to come from eternity, or the wholeness. It seems like you automatically begin to philosophize when you somehow get a sense of looking at things from the perspective of the wholeness. Therefore enlightened masters also always are philosophers, no matter whether they have any formal education in philosophy or not. Krishnamurti was an exceptional example of a philosopher thinking for himself all the time, but he hadn´t got any education in philosophy.

Sub specie aeternitatis (Latin for "under the aspect of eternity") is, from Baruch Spinoza onwards, an honorific expression describing what is universally and eternally true, without any reference to or dependence upon the temporal portions of reality. In clearer English, sub specie aeternitatis roughly means "from the perspective of the eternal". Even more loosely, the phrase is used to describe an alternative or objective point of view.

In the longing after returning to the source of wisdom, from where all the philosophical questions stream, philosophy becomes an art of life, an exercise, namely meditation. In this movement in towards the source (the form, the universal, the wholeness) you begin to ask philosophical questions in a meditative-existential way: Who am I? Where do the thoughts come from? What is consciousness and where does it come from? Is there a meaning of life? How does man preserve peace of mind and balance in all the relationships of life? How do we learn to appreciate the true goods and flout all transient and vain goals? Is the destiny of Man part of a larger plan?

Finally, in philosophical pedagogic, there isn´t given answers. Philosophical pedagogic is an invitation to wonder, to think for yourself, to become a light for yourself, to develop your own teaching. Krishnamurti said: “I invite you to become aware of your unawareness.” Kierkegaard said basically seen the same: “The only thing I do is to invite to awareness of your paradoxical nature.” Philosophy is about awakening our innate awareness.

Related blog post: 

The Philosophy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (this is a longer version of the above post)

Related books:

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (free download)

Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exépury (free download) 

Other related books and articles:

I have explained the way philosophy asks questions many places, see for example the introduction to my first book: Meditation as an Art of Life – a basic reader. Also see my articles What is Philosophy?, Philosophical Counseling as an Alternative to Psychotherapy.

In my book A Portrait of a Lifeartist you can read several texts on philosophical practice, for example in chapter III; The Lifeartist as a Desirous being (2.A: The Difference Between Psychological Counseling and Philosophical Counseling; and 3.E: The Need of Philosophical Counseling; and chapter V: The Lifeartist as a Communicative Being (2: The Dialogue in Philosophical Counseling). Also see Chapter I; Philosophy as an Art of Life (2.C: To ask Questions).

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