"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Philosophic Life: Ancient and Modern Views

Philosophy, like salt strewn on the floor of the temple, may have lost its savour. In modern times, philosophy (linguistically speaking, 'the love of knowledge') seems to be the purview of long-winded arguments and arcane proofs of the highest order questions, while in more ancient times, and in other cultures, one either lived as a philosopher, or one did not. It was, and in some rare instances still is, a way of life rather than an academic discipline.

One such modern 'philosopher,' in the truest sense of the word, was the late Paul Brunton. Having adopted philosophy as his station in life rather than as a mere vocation, Brunton was a spiritual seeker of profound breadth and depth. On philosophy and the life-long pursuit of spiritual knowledge as a way of life, he wrote the following:
"Everyone wants to live. Few want to know how to live. If people permit work to take up so much of their time that they have none left for their devotional prayer or mystical meditation or metaphysical study, they will be as culpable for this wastage of life as they will be if they permit transient pleasures to do so."

"Those," Brunton observes, "who have no higher ideal than to chase after amusement and to seek after pleasure may look upon religious devotion as senseless, metaphysical studies as boring, mystical meditation as time-wasting, moral disciplines as repulsive. Those who have no such inner life of prayer and meditation, study and reflection will necessarily pay, in emergencies or crises, the high price of their hopeless extroversion."

"The needs of external life are entitled to be satisfied in their place," Brunton notes, "but they are not entitled to dominate a man's whole attention. The neglected and unnoticed needs of internal life must also receive their due."
[Brunton, "Notebooks of Paul Brunton," Vol. 1, pp. 28-29.]
For his part, Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, a man who came as close to living Plato's ideal of a philosopher-king as any other Western leader, ancient or modern, had the following self-effacing comments on his attempts to live the philosophic life:
"It will tend to avert complacency if you remember that any claim to have lived as a philosopher all your life, or even since reaching manhood, is now out of the question; indeed, it is as evident to many others as it is to yourself that even today philosophy is still far beyond you. Consequently your mind remains in a state of confusion, and it grows no easier to earn the title of philosopher; also, your station in life militates constantly against it."

"Once all this is seen in its true light," he observes, "you should banish all thoughts of how you appear to others, and rest content if you can make the remainder of your life what nature would have it to be. Learn to understand her will, and let nothing else distract you."
[Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations," Book VIII, para. 1.]
Paul Brunton
On reconciling the material life with a life of philosophy, Brunton observed: "It is quite true that if a fortunate fate has not relieved him of the necessity, he must work, trade, scheme, or gamble to get the money for (material) things. But all this is insufficient grounds for him to pass through life with no other thoughts in his head than those of bodily needs or strivings. There is still room there for another kind of thought, for those concerning the mysterious elusive and subtle thing that is the divine soul. The years are passing and he cannot afford such a wastage of time, cannot afford the luxury of being so extroverted at the cost of having lost touch with the inner life."

For his part, Aurelius was well aware that the pressing concerns for the 'needs' of everyday living were every bit as much an obstacle in ancient Rome as they remain in our own modern, consumer society. His quest, like Brunton's was how to live a philosophic life in the midst of the pressures and demands of the mundane life.
"Up to now," he reflects in his Meditations, "all your wanderings in search of the good life have been unsuccessful; it was not to be found in the casuistries of logic, nor in wealth, celebrity, worldly pleasures, or anything else."

"Where, then," Aurelius asks, "lies the secret? In doing what man's nature seeks. How so? by adopting strict principles for the regulation of impulse and action. Such as? Principles regarding what is good or bad for us: thus for example, that nothing can be good for a man unless it helps to make him just, self-disciplined, courageous, and independent; and nothing bad unless it has the contrary effect."

1 comment:

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