How can I fill this void in my life?
For Aristotle, philosophy was "science that considers the truth". For 19th century American horror writer Ambrose Bierce it was "a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing". But whatever the opinions of the ancient Greek and the Victorian man of letters, it seems that for increasing numbers of people today, philosophy is, quite simply, the answer.
As Easter Sunday approaches, Christians across the world are preparing to celebrate the most significant festival of their religious calendar. The Jewish community is currently marking Passover. Those who follow other major faiths, or fulfil spiritual needs through less mainstream outlets, will be looking forward to their own key festivities as the year moves on. But for those who do not believe in the spiritual life, where is the answer to the meaning of life? For those who don’t believe in God, where may a code of personal ethics be found?
Despite years of being dismissed, misunderstood and made the butt of jokes, it seems that in the 21st century philosophy is fulfilling this need. Church attendance across the UK has plummeted in recent decades, and for most of the population Easter will mean little more than an excuse to indulge their passion for chocolate. But all of a sudden the fortunes of philosophy are on the up. The University of Edinburgh experienced a 30 per cent increase on applications to study philosophy this year, compared to the level of interest in 2003. Bookstores and bestseller lists abound with Socrates-made-simple guides, serving up the ancient masters in cheap, bite-sized chunks on sale at the check-out till.
Alain de Botton achieved the ultimate badge of 21st century popular respect earlier this year when his latest musings on the human condition, Status Anxiety, formed the basis of a TV documentary. So after years of gathering dust on society’s shelves, how has philosophy risen to win our time and our imaginations? And what can it offer us? According to Dr Colin Gill, psychologist and founder of Psychological Solutions, which aims to maximise employees’ potential via psychology-based training, philosophy is filling the emptiness felt by many.
Gill says that a key problem facing people in the West today is the lack of a common moral code. With the separation of religion from the state and an increased promotion of multiculturalism, our ethical boundaries have been blurred. "We are now in a more confused state than we have ever been," says Gill, a psychologist who specialises in ethics, morality and personality. "We don’t have one agreed set of ethics, and aside from believing that paedophilia is wrong, everything is negotiable."
Gill adds that the central problem is one of absolutes. Society may have slipped into a spiritual slumber, but human beings remain innately curious creatures. As small children we need boundaries. Even as adults, if we do not know what is acceptable behaviour, we begin to lose our grip. But our instinct is to find a firm footing again. "This is evidenced by the success of one branch of the church which has returned to strict, traditional morals," says Gill.
"Some evangelical Christians are reverting to the morality of Victorian times, and within that defined framework, they are enjoying stable marriages and successful careers.They now know what is right and wrong. The price they pay for that is to be cut off from a surrounding culture which does not adopt the same principles."
Nevertheless, what Gill describes as the "surrounding culture" is searching for a moral substitute which in earlier, more God-fearing, times was readily defined by the teachings of the Church.
Gill believes Western society’s uncertainty in the post-9/11 era may have added more than a little rocket fuel to this quest. As the West faces its first coherent external threat for many years, our secular community is evaluating the foundations on which its society is built, and considering what sort of world we would like to inhabit. "For the first time in centuries we are not fighting each other," says Gill.
"We are faced with a group of people who have in themselves a very clear, defined moral code, one that is so robust they are willing to die for it. If we are to face that threat we need to be united in our own set of standards. If we are to live in a secular society, we need a secular moral code."
In the age of science and religious scepticism, this quest appears to have led to philosophy. Still in his thirties, de Botton has become a household name with his works, How Proust Can Change Your Life; The Consolations of Philosophy; and The Art of Travel. But whether he is responding to demand, or creating one, is unclear. Whichever came first, there is little doubt that his user-friendly gateways to some of civilisation’s greatest thinkers are making a subject once deemed obscure accessible to more and more people.
Despite the revamp philosophy has enjoyed on the shelf, De Botton says it has a long way to go before it will be embraced by all as a possible solace for everyday life. "In our society there is no arena in which people can ask the big questions of life and come up with relevant answers," he says.
"What we are trying to do is to bring out the issues which are most pertinent. Philosophy is just a commitment to thinking logically and carefully, and it is an accident of academia that we have a narrow view of what it can be applied to. Philosophy, well done, should be as persuasive as a religious service, as glamorous as a newspaper article and as well presented as a television show. In its current form it will never be widely popular, but there is certainly a desire that it should become so."
Nevertheless, it is plain that philosophy is winning an ever-wider reception, amid attempts to make it more accessible. Schools are including "ethical studies" into religious education so that questions like ‘Is lying always bad?’ can be covered outwith the sensitivities of a multifaith class. Evening classes on philosophy which have previously concentrated on the technical, examinable aspect of the subject, are now using popular culture to open the door on this branch of study.
The Office for Lifelong Learning at Edinburgh University uses cinema to help students explore theories that have often proved the most difficult to access. By examining films such as the Matrix, course tutor Jim Mooney hopes to attract a wider and younger range of students. "For so long people have thought of philosophers as scholars in dusty offices," he says.
"But as a department we have been very keen to shake off that idea, and bring it into the 21st century. By taking a Hollywood blockbuster and analysing what it says about our condition, you can use interesting techniques to learn about our place in the universe."
Such methods are helping to promote philosophy as a practical, rather than abstract, area of study. In fact, so applicable are philosophy’s lessons that it is being touted as an alternative to medication for the easing of troubled minds.
Lou Marinoff, a professor of philosophy at the City College of New York and author of Plato, Not Prozac!, believes that philosophy can offer a path to recovery for those who look at the bigger picture.
Marinoff has caused controversy with his new therapy, which he calls philosophical counselling. He believes that philosophy should be placed firmly at the top of our self-help list, as a means of dealing with the cause, rather than the symptoms of 21st century malaise. "For so long we have relied on science," he says. "Psychologists have tried to discover the secret of human nature through scientific investigation, but still we have no clear or concise picture of the human being. Technology has given us the capacity to enhance moods and to rely on prescription drugs. But it’s clear that if you have problems centred in value, meaning and purpose, you are not going to solve them by taking a pill. Dialogue is the key to many problems, not diagnosis."
The revolutionary nature of Marinoff’s thinking is that philosophy should be opened up to all. What was once the preserve of men in ivory towers should be used on a daily basis to guide ordinary people to emotional health. He argues that you do not have to be clinically depressed or burdened by childhood guilt to want help with the timeless questions of the human condition.
"It is one thing to talk in general terms about euthanasia. It is quite another to make the decision to pull the plug on your grandma. These are very personal decisions, they come to rest in people, and sometimes we need help from philosophers to make that choice."
Although many traditionalists - even from within his own university - condemn his efforts as a worldwide embarrassment for the profession, Marinoff is winning fans. As is philosophy itself.
Whether through the film biography of Keanu Reeves or through introductory guides to the musings of Descartes, more and more people are thinking about their inner philosopher.
In an age where the spiritual path is not always clear, philosophy may offer a workable alternative to faith - or be the gateway to faith itself. Thousands of years after the first known philosophers set down their thoughts, it seems that philosophy is coming of age.
Greek philosopher (469-399 BC)
TEACHER who strove to morally and intellectually improve the people of Athens, using a method known as the Socratic dialogue. Believed the soul to be the seat of moral character and waking consciousness. He was tried for religious heresies and corrupting the morals of young Athenians, and died from willingly drinking poison hemlock given to him by his accusers.
Greek teacher (427?- 347 BC)
FOUNDED and taught at the Academy, the most influential school in the Ancient world, near Athens. Aristotle was his most famous pupil. In his lifetime he wrote treatises on the rational relationship between the soul, the state and the cosmos, law, natural science, and mathematics, and believed that the soul was immortal.
Greek thinker (384-322 BC)
ARISTOTLE became a student at Plato’s Athens Academy aged 17, and is thought to have written more than 150 philosophical treatises. He lectured and wrote on a vast range of subjects including physics, astronomy, politics, ethics and logic. Aristotle believed reality was knowable through experience, whereas Plato relied on reflection and reason. He also believed, unlike other ancient philosophers, that the universe never had a beginning, and so would never come to an end.
French philosopher and mathematician (1596-1650)
BELIEVED that all science was mathematically based, and made major contributions to the study of optics, philosophy, anatomy and cognitive science, as well as mathematics. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes explored the concepts of self, God and mind. From him came Cartesian Dualism and the famous expression "cognito ergo sum" - "I think therefore I am."
French writer (1694-1778)
BORN Francois Marie Arouet, Voltaire was a man of letters and science, whose motto was "Ecrasez l’infame" ("Wipe out infamy"). He strongly believed in freedom of thought and fought against the religious intolerance and political persecution of the time, his philosophical ideas leading the way for the French Revolution.
Scots thinker (1711-76)
HUME was an empiricist philosopher whose family came from Berwickshire near Edinburgh, and raised him in a strict Calvinistic atmosphere. He studied at Edinburgh University from the age of 11 until 15, taking a sceptical approach to all philosophical subjects, believing that knowledge was gained from sense impressions.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
German philosopher (1844- 1900)
REMEMBERED as an individualist moralist rather than a systematic philosopher, who rejected the "slave morality" of Christianity. Nietzsche believed that a new, heroic morality would replace Christianity, led by supermen who would separate themselves from inferior humanity. His works were used by the Nazis as justifications for their doctrines of racial superiority, but scholars think these were perversions of his work.
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