Years ago after I had made a presentation at a Baylor University event, a student said to me that “philosophy sounds interesting and I would like to take a course, but my parents told me when I left for college that I should never take a course in philosophy because it would mess my mind up.”
I immediately thought of Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy, who was condemned to death by the citizens of Athens for corrupting young people. He was forced to drink the hemlock in 399 BCE for allegedly messing up the minds of young followers. There are a lot of parallels, by the way, between Socrates and Jesus. Two of the most revered individuals in history, in their own time they were condemned to death for subversive activities — for messing with people’s minds.
This, by the way, is why society frequently has a somewhat uneasy relationship with colleges and universities (and now even high schools). Society knows the importance of education, but education (if it’s doing its job) does change minds, and sometimes minds are changed in such a way that the status quo gets seriously challenged. And the powers-that-be often have a great deal at stake in maintaining the status quo. So the ground is laid, for example, for high school kids protesting gun laws. The ground is laid for college students protesting a war that the powers- that-be have interest in pursuing. Remember the 1960s and ’70s.
Indeed, particular individuals sometimes have an uneasy relationship with particular teachers. When I was an undergraduate, a friend of mine became enamored of the stimulating teaching of a history professor who taught philosophically, as many historians are wont to do. Under his tutelage she began to ask fundamental questions. At home over Christmas, she shared these questions with a family member who replied: “You know, you would be so much happier if you would not raise these questions, if you just wouldn’t think about such things.”
But back to the particular parents’ concern that philosophy itself might mess their son’s mind up. In fact, the parents actually had some insight. Philosophy is intended to mess with the mind. That is what Socrates meant by his most memorable claim: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Among the many things Socrates knew (though he repeatedly exaggerated his claim to know nothing) were two: First, most of us carry around, like luggage in the brain, ideas and values that we have inherited but never critically inspected. Second, we are surrounded by arrogant people who are absolutely sure that they have the truth.
The antidote to both is the examined life, the critical assessment of the luggage in one’s own brain and the thoughtful and respectful inquiry into the ideas of others. Indeed, Socrates first got into trouble by publicly asking questions of arrogant individuals and, in the process, making it clear to observers that the arrogant were often ignorant. And the arrogant who also happened to be the politically powerful (there is often a connection between the two) put him to death.
At any rate, the whole point of philosophy is to think hard about matters that matter. And what matters most is how to live one’s life. Philosophy is, then, thinking hard about how to live life. This is why I am often puzzled when I hear it said that philosophy is not practical. What is more practical than thinking hard about how to live one’s life?
Almost every semester as I stood before a new group of students I would think to myself (and then say aloud to them): “At your age, 18, 19, 20, you are on the verge of making the most momentous decisions of your life. You will be deciding what profession to pursue, whether to get married, whom to marry, whether to have children and, if so, how to raise those children. Within the next five to 10 years you will be making the most momentous decisions of your lives. You need to think hard about those matters, for if you think hard you are less likely to regret the decisions you make. No guarantees of course. Even if you think carefully, you will regret some of your decisions. But thinking hard about them makes regrets less likely.”
So philosophy is thinking critically about your own beliefs and the ideas of others and, as we have seen, that makes some people uneasy because you can’t think critically without messing with what’s in your own mind and in the minds of others.
Of course, you could get so caught up in the critical life that you refuse to be a decision-maker. You could become a detached cynic who says that since I cannot be sure about this or certain about that, I cannot make any decision at all. As a wag once said, “while the unexamined life is not worth living, the over-examined life is not so hot either.”
That’s why a second task of philosophy is equally important: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle not only encouraged thinking hard about matters that matter but they intended for that hard thinking to give birth to lives lived well, and by living well, they meant living morally good and just lives — and that requires courageous decision-making.
So then, to paraphrase the great 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell: To think hard and to live without certainty, but without being paralyzed by a crippling doubt that keeps you from making tough, courageous decisions, is perhaps the greatest gift thinking philosophically can provide.