Why we should all read philosophy — just not the listicle kind
I studied philosophy (yes, I’m aware this is why I’m still broke) as my second major in undergrad. I stuck with it even though I knew all you could do with it was teach and that I would never survive the weird insularity of getting a PhD in the subject.
I stuck with it because philosophy, at its core, is something we should all be doing and reading at every age. It’s the only subject where the whole goal is to advance our understanding of what it means to be human in the world. What’s more important or interesting than that?
You know what philosophy isn’t, though? Guidance for how to be a better worker.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it was, though, with all the people twisting philosophy giants to suit the desperate hunger of the algorithms and people’s deep depression over the way their lives are built.
On Medium, and elsewhere, philosophy has become something whitewashed and curated, something churned into upselling people on how to be more productive, as if productivity is the point of philosophy.
The Stoics didn’t write their treatises so you could have some twenty-something white guy tell you what it means for your morning routine. Epictetus was a slave, for fuck’s sake. He wasn’t writing the Discourses so you could turn it into a cheap listicle about powering through at 5 a.m. with cold showers.
Epictetus was writing about self-management, self-discovery and discipline, yes; but he wasn’t doing it with the aim of making you a better worker, a better capitalist, or a better producer of things.
He was writing about it because it meant something to both the individual and to the society. He was arguing that knowing yourself, supporting yourself to grow, and controlling your reaction to inputs was good for you…not because it made you a better worker, or a more productive human, but beacause it made you a better human, and better humans build better societies.
The philosophy I studied asked us to do things like put God on trial for the Holocaust and decide whether humans are evil or just misguided.
It asked us to examine questions like how much responsibility an order-following flunky has for the actions of his or her regime.
I took classes like The Philosophy of Suffering and Justice and Human Rights that changed my life forever — not by making me a more productive human, but by increasing my empathy and forcing me to reckon with humanity’s brilliant, destructive, evil, inexpressibly good history of how we treat each other and our planet.
Philosophy taught me how to critically think about the world and what people tell me is true. It taught me how to build a reasonable argument and use it. Philosophy taught me how to read to learn, debate different viewpoints, and, most importantly, how to change my mind.
That seems a lot more useful for the biggest problems we face today — poverty, hunger, climate change, economic instability, divided populations, war — than trying to convince me that if I just act Stoic enough my life will get better.
It won’t (spoiler alert). Stoicism in its original form wasn’t about helping you survive shit, although that’s part of it; it was about surviving shit, and then working on yourself to handle how you respond to shit, so that if everyone did that we’d have less shit to respond to.
If we’re going to learn from history, and study philosophy, then let’s do it in a serious way. Let’s learn about ourselves, the world, and what it means to be moral.
Let’s develop individual, considered, rational approaches to morality — and then live them.
Let’s study the words of those who came before and figure out how we want to apply them in a world that’s very different than it was when they were written.
The world, after all, is not so different that we need to turn the great minds of the past into two-dimensional caricatures of themselves suitable for shallow social media.
The world is a complex place, full of complex problems, and the shit will just keep coming unless each of us does the work to be better humans, and then build better societies.