Philosophy as a Comforter
By Greg Goodrich
Beliefs divide us. At first this may sound like a call to set beliefs aside, but it’s quite the opposite. Beliefs can and should unite us. Our beliefs will either unite our being in the focused pursuit of a meaningful life, or they will divide us until there is nothing left; nothing but ignorance and waste. Division in our shared way of life is the fruit of our choices. Our choices show what we value, and our lesser values aim at what we believe to be the highest value, or the good for us. We are more or less conscious of what we believe to be the good, but by paying attention to our choices we see what we desire above all else. Misconceptions about the good are what divide. It follows then that to turn from division, and seek the highest meaningful unity in life and work together, we must consider what is of highest value.
We’re now experiencing the consequences of beliefs which have been sown for centuries up to now. Beliefs which are not self-evident have been treated as if they are. No argument has been given for them. They’ve been believed as a matter of tradition, intuition or common sense until they’ve not been believed and replaced with a new tradition, intuition, or common sense. Now, we find ourselves at the height of formal unity (in nation, church, family) without any substantial agreement about what we are or at what we should aim. We are philosophically (and so theologically) destitute. We have denied our rational capacity to the degree that we have no reason or hope to ask about what is real or of highest value. There is reason to think that our time is short if we don’t find a means to unite in belief and rebuild together.
By virtue of its name, philosophy is to be motivated by the love of wisdom. This ideal couldn’t be contrasted more greatly with what philosophy has become in current academia. Philosophy should not be known as a slave to science or math, or postmodernity; it does not make room for skepticism or fideism, or make the intellect subservient to the emotions or the will. Philosophy should be known for its essence, and provide opportunity for its students to know the good and grow in their love for it. For the student who would be trained, this requires an attitude of disciplined self-examination. The student cannot place one’s view of self (or intellectual fantasies) above one’s love of wisdom. He must be willing to test his basic beliefs about the good, and distinguish it from those many things with which he might otherwise gladly confuse it. Consequently, it will require a change in his view of self when he realizes the good is, and has always been, clear and knowable. Why did he not know it? This brings us to the root of division, not just in the external sense but in our division against our own rational nature.
In both my personal experience doing philosophy and in my teaching it, I’ve found that those who benefit from philosophy are those who have suffered greatly. It does not need to include outward suffering, and often doesn’t. The suffering is primarily mental. It’s a spiritual wrestling which fears living life outside the laws of thought, a life without meaning. This person holds onto the hope that he can know what is real and that his suffering has meaning.
We are currently suffering. With each passing day, we’re pressed to find the root cause of American division. Is it the media, or Hollywood, or our president, or conservatives, or liberals? What is the alternative? Have we dismissed the possibility that the root lies in each of us, in our failure to affirm our own human dignity as rational beings? If so, there is no excuse for our lack of hope. We’ve made excuses for divisions against our own nature, and with others. Our failure to think critically about these excuses has led us here. Only philosophy asks the questions to expose this root and bring it into the light.
Philosophy comforts those who mourn over division. Yes, it will undo our self-identity, and show we’ve contributed to the root division by opposing the good, but it offers hope for unity. Unity is only possible when the root of the division is identified. In this case, the root is in each of us. Calls to institutional or moral reform by governmental or ecclesiastical voices have not identified the root of division or decay. The call which will bring lasting change must be a call to doctrinal reform. It’s a call to demolish strongholds and every pretension which sets itself up against the good, so that the good can be elevated in the American mind as the highest good.
These are timely and well-chosen words. I especially appreciate the expansive breadth/scope of the diagnosis offered above, which involves philosophical, theological, mental, emotional, personal, and social elements. I hope other readers will ponder Prof. Goodrich’s words and take them to heart.