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Philosophy and unceasing quest for the good life

By Douglas Anele

Philosophy, since its academic canonisation in ancient Greece more than two thousand five hundred years ago, has had a chequered history. Aside from being a relentless quest for wisdom and for the ideal life, philosophy provides the intellectual backbone for momentous events in history.

One needs only recall the influential role the philosophies of Francis Bacon and René Descartes during the renaissance period and John Locke’s philosophy in the emergence of the constitution of the United States. In addition, the communist revolutions that swept through the defunct Soviet Union and other parts of the world would not have taken place without the theoretical foundation provided by Marxist philosophy.

Therefore, a society that desires positive social transformation must embrace philosophy, especially at the leadership level, since the philosophical enterprise, by it’s peculiar nature as the fountain and foundation of knowledge, is equipped to illuminate the complex interstices of human existence. That is why the ancient Greek sage, Plato, proclaimed rather too optimistically I am afraid, that the world would not be peaceful until philosophers become kings, or, kings, through providential intervention, become philosophers.

Our discourse today will not focus on the importance of philosophy in nation building or social transformation, although the topic is interesting and crucial in its own right. Our primary focus is on the individual, that is, on how philosophy could help an individual who takes it up seriously to lead a reasonably good and fulfilling life.

At the outset, we must clear up a misunderstanding. When we say an individual who takes up philosophy seriously, we are not talking about studying it in a formal educational institution like a university. Instead, we mean getting thoroughly acquainted with the writings of iconic philosophers like Buddha, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, St. Augustine, Spinoza, John Locke, David Hume, J.S. Mill, Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, M.A. Makinde, S.B. Oluwole, C.S. Momoh, Olusegun Oladipo, Jim Unah and so many others – and applying some of the ideas in daily life.

Certainly, the theories and doctrines formulated by these thinkers contain serviceable roadmaps that one can use to navigate the treacherous waters of daily existence. Consider, for example, the stoic philosophy of indifference and Buddha’s advice on how to end suffering. There is a connection between the stoic doctrine of indifference and its metaphysics of predestination, the view that God has ordained all happenings in the world according to a preconceived plan.

Of course, one can accept a moderate version of indifference without subscribing to predestination. Similarly, it is possible to adapt Buddha’s recommendation that one should suppress desires without accepting his doctrine of karma. In Nigeria, the human condition is becoming increasingly worse, particularly for the masses. Ordinary people are suffering unspeakable deprivations because members of the ruling elite are wicked and stupid. The level of corruption among the leadership is heart-rending.

While millions of Nigerians are steadily dehumanised by poverty, disease, and premature death, members of the ruling and business elite are swimming in oceans of excessive luxury. Thus, the stoic doctrine of indifference to external influences, if wisely applied, is a plausible advice to anyone living in trying conditions such as we have in Nigeria now. Like everything else in the world, indifference can be taken too far – for instance, when someone who can render assistance is indifferent to the sufferings of others.

However, by practicing a certain degree of indifference to some of the distractions which people experience every day, especially those events that are not basic to survival and productive living, one can maintain some degree of equanimity. If someone brushes your car or you are held up in traffic which caused you to miss your flight, stoic teaching recommends that you should not fret and worry – you should be calm and take it as one of those things.

Experience shows that it is stultifying and self-defeating to bother ourselves over some of the situations and circumstances that cause us mental stress, especially those beyond our control. It is not easy to cultivate the attitude of indifference advocated by stoic philosophers. The benefits from trying to do so, however, are definitely worth the effort. With respect to Buddhist philosophy, its emphasis on suppression of desire as the key to cessation of suffering is unrealistic.

There is no way a human being can eliminate desire completely since it is an essential part of human nature for a person to desire something or other. In addition, we can dispense with the mystical idea of nirvana, which marks the end of suffering. Nevertheless, Buddha’s assertion that the cause of suffering is the propensity of humans to seek permanence in an impermanent world contains some elements of truth. Human desires are insatiable, and when we get the objects of our desires, we tend to cling to them unnecessarily. People and the things they cling to change with time. As a result, what we think is important today we might lose tomorrow. To illustrate; imagine a man who desperately desires a luxury car. He gets the car he wanted and eventually becomes seriously attached to it.

One day, on his way to the office, armed robbers snatched the vehicle from him at gunpoint. Certainly, his attachment to the vehicle, borne out of desire, will cause him considerable stress and suffering. The same thing, mutatis mutandis, applies to a woman who desperately desired a husband, only to face the emotional turbulence of divorce less than a year after a lavish wedding.

Therefore, in order to lead a good life, Buddhism teaches that we should moderate our desires. Even if we cannot suppress all our desires and cravings as Buddha prescribed, we can at least control them and learn not to cling too much to material things. In a materialistic environment which dominates the world, some dose of Buddhist philosophy is an antidote to the profound disappointment of illusory happiness associated with material possessions. Too much money and possessions create problems.

The best way to avoid the futile vanity of avaricious materialism is to avoid deep attachment to the changing realities of human existence. Bertrand Russell, one of the supreme intellects of all time, defined the good life as one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

But how can philosophy help in the attainment of the good life as defined by Russell? Before we can answer that question satisfactorily, we should first clarify what love and knowledge mean and identify a connection between them, which constitutes the essence of the good life. The concept of love, or more precisely the feeling designated by that word, is so subtle, so elusive that psychologists are yet to reach a consensus on it. H. Gleitman, A.J. Fridlund and D. Reisberg, in their book Psychology, assert that love involves many elements: a feeling, a physiological upheaval, a desire for sexual union, etc.

So complex is love among humans that, according to some authorities, psychologists might have been wise to have abdicated responsibility for analysis of ‘love’ and left it to poets. That said, psychologists have said many insightful things about this strange state of mind that has perplexed sages and poets from time immemorial. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, approached love from a sexual perspective which is unsuitable for our purpose. Erich Fromm’s work, The Art of Loving, as informative as it is, takes us too far afield in the domain of love. Nevertheless, we can extract from Fromm the idea that love requires discipline, concentration and patience. TO BE CONCLUDED.


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