WRITTEN BY R. NANJAPPA                        

Post No. 8645

Date uploaded in London – – – –8 SEPTEMBER 2020   

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                                        BY  R.Nanjappa

Philosophy in action

In Plato’s time, “philosopher” meant a lover of  “wisdom”. This wisdom meant more than book knowledge, or mere knowledge of the world, and love meant more than mere belief. In those far off days, philosophy meant a way of living: philosophers did not merely believe in or preach something, but lived that belief. No one exemplifies this better than Plato’s own master Socrates. Convicted on trumped-up charges, he was condemned to die by drinking hemlock. His friends urged him to escape and leave the city, and they could bribe the prison guards to arrange that. But Socrates would not agree. He believed that the soul was immortal, and bodily death did not matter. Secondly he loved his city Athens, and was its true son and citizen: he would obey the city’s laws, even if there was a miscarriage of justice in his case. So he drank the hemlock. And thereby showed that he was a true philosopher! Socrates died poor! He did not charge a fee for his teaching!

Philosophy is not fun!

Centuries later, Roman Seneca summed up the situation:

“Philosophy isn’t a parlour trick or made for show. It is not concerned with words, but with facts. It is not employed for some pleasure before the day is spent,or to relieve the uneasiness of our leisure. It shapes and builds up the soul, it gives order to life, guides action, shows what should and shouldn’t be done….Without it no one can live without fear or  free from care.” [Moral Letters ]

Seneca too met a tragic end. He fell out of favour with his emperor Nero who ordered him to commit suicide!

Seneca calmly did. He was a true Stoic.

Today the word philosopher has lost its original meaning. Philosophy has become a mere academic discipline, and anyone who studies or teaches, or merely professes, is a philosopher!

Philosophy in modern states

We do not have philosophers or real statesmen steering the affairs of the State. We do not have politicians with any aim loftier than attainment of power. Leaders, in the real sense, like Vaclav Havel are rare for the modern age. Even in so called developed countries the popular vote does not necessarily favour the learned person.

 Havel stood for anti-consumerism, environmentalism, humanitarianism, direct democracy. However he did not always enjoy the support of all sections, and could not prevent the split of Czechoslovakia on ethnic lines. It is not easy to practise philosophy in the modern State. 

Philosophies do reign – in name!

Even so, modern governments cannot be said to be lacking in ‘philosophy’ of some sort, entirely. Most politicians declare their allegiance to some aims or ideals like communism, socialism, market economy, welfare state, democracy, liberalism, secularism, humanism, etc.  

People conscious of environmental concerns even promote the Green Party, which is an anti-consumerist philosophy. These are all philosophies in their own right. Incidentally, almost all of them focus on the economy! They are really not ‘philosophy’ in the sense meant by Plato.

In practice, most politicians professing them merely reduce them to convenient labels or slogans to cover their quest for power and office, and hide their sins there. Almost no one practices what he says his philosophy is. No leader professing socialism has so far distributed his wealth among the poor!  History tells us what crimes were committed in the name of communism in the former USSR and China, under Lenin, Stalin, Mao. Every modern dictator rode to power on some philosophy. Here in India every politician praises Gandhi or take his name when it suits him.  It will be interesting to compile the list of ideals or philosophies professed by politicians and what exactly was done in their name when they came to power!

Even in truly democratic societies, it is not possible to govern without compromise. It is difficult to reduce philosophy to a program of action. It is easy to talk of welfare, but what would be your priority ? Would prohibition qualify as a welfare measure? Educated societies are divided on every issue. Scientists can be hired to support any side of an issue.

Philosophy for the public

Philosophy is really going into the nature and origin of things. We use the word in an entirely different sense in popular discourse today. Any strong or habitual belief in anything which influences our conduct  is called a philosophy. We not only have a philosophy of life, but a philosophy of anything, practically!

How do we come by our philosophy? Not by learning, for sure. It is our life’s experiences, bit and small, that induce in us a doubt or uncertainty or sow the seed of some belief. We have happy childhood, good schooling and education, and a job- we believe life is good. Any problem anywhere, we come to believe life is uncertain, unpredictable. Those who are poor, struggle in life will surely believe that life is unjust, a punishment. There are those who believe that improvement is possible by human effort. All these are philosophies, though we don’t stick that label: optimism, pessimism, meliorism.

                                     *                    to be continued

tags — philosophy-1, Plato, Seneca,

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