Let us not satisfy ourselves with trivial answers. Philosophy is a huge thing – it talks about life and death, about beauty and meaning and wisdom, about the foundation of everything. It is easy to trivialize it, to turn it into a simple technique, to turn profound ideas into superficial formulas.
How can we do philosophical practice without trivializing it? What kind of vision would be appropriate for practitioners who call themselves “philosophers”?
I believe that we can find the answer in the history of philosophy. Because almost all the great philosophers, East and West, searched for better ways to live life.
Think about Plato, Epictetus, Epicurus, Plotinus, Spinoza, Rousseau, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson, Buber, Jaspers, Sartre, Camus, not to mention many Oriental philosophers. All these thinkers developed practical visions about how to live life.
The problem is that the academic world doesn’t like these visions. University professors prefer abstract discussions. (I myself was a philosophy professor…) University textbooks often ignore those visions, or turn them into academic theories (Nietzsche’s “theory” of the Overman, or Buber’s “theory” of relationships).
I suggest that we open our eyes and hearts, and look again at the vision of those great thinkers. After all, we call ourselves “philosophers.” We studied philosophy for many years. Philosophy is what we bring with us into our practice. The voices of the great philosophers are our intellectual and spiritual root. I believe that we should listen to their voices, in order to make our vision deep and powerful.
But aren’t those philosophers very different from each other? Is there a vision that is common to Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Rousseau, and Nietzsche?
The answer seems to me clear: These thinkers all agree that philosophy can show us ways to transform our life. They all agree that life is normally superficial, automatic, narrow – but that we can transform life and make it deep, full, free, large.
Can we, the philosophical practitioners of the 21 century, rise to the level of these grand aspirations? Or are we going to satisfy ourselves with “small” philosophy, with logical tricks, and with methods for "normalizing" people that we borrowed from psychology?