Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Art Which Teaches Us How to Live

Montaigne asked an interesting question:  "Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?"

Whether philosophy is any longer the art Montaigne thought it to be is debatable.  It appears that for many it is not, though I don't delight in making that statement.  I'm not entirely certain what it is, but whatever it may now be the thought of it being taught to children is absurd.  It is not so much that it would be beyond their comprehension; it is that even if they could comprehend it, they would find it useless in teaching them how to live, and education would seem to have a good deal with teaching how to live.  I would maintain that how to live remains for children and adults a question of vital (ignoring for the moment that word's derivation) importance. 

I think it's fair to say that philosophy was thought to teach us how to live for a very long time, from the time of Socrates to the time of Montaigne and perhaps even beyond that.  How to live seems no longer to be its concern, though.  It seems to have detached itself from considerations of conduct.  It is concerned with other things, things which because they are unrelated to how to live render it less vital almost by definition.

Now this line of thought presumes that "live" has a certain meaning to which the adverb "how" properly applies. When we ask "How?" in relation to "live" (which is not merely a state) we are asking in what manner, in what way?  If we inquire into in what manner or in what way we are to live, we are inquiring in to how to conduct ourselves, i.e. how to act of not act.  How to act or whether not to act is a consideration which relates to certain circumstances.  It would not be a consideration where there are no circumstances.  How to act or whether to act is a consideration we encounter all the time, while alive, because by living we interact necessarily with others and the rest of the world and that interaction requires judgment and action. 

But if how to act or whether to act are not the concern of philosophy, what is its concern?  If it asks "how?" of anything it would seem to be addressing something which has occurred or is occurring, even if what is being inquired relates to a condition (e.g. "how do you feel?").  Why would it ask "how", though, in a manner which does not relate to what transpires while we are living?  I don't think it can.  So, if it does not address "how" just what does it address?  Not "when", it seems.

"What", perhaps?  What is thought, what is reality, what is the mind, what is a person, what are words, what do we mean by "what"?  If that's the case, though, why does it ask "what"?  What is the purpose of "What?"  Is there no purpose, is this idle curiosity in the purest sense, the pursuit of knowledge with no end in view?

I don't think so.  No matter how one may try to detach philosophy from what we do by living, it can't be done.  This is because any question or issue we address is, obviously, one we raise due to the fact that we are living; it issues from that fact that we live, from what we do as living organisms.  It is indeed one of the things we do as living organisms.

If philosophy cannot be detached from our lives as living organisms, though, may it not be applied in our lives, as it was in the past?  In fact, must it not be so applied?  If it must be so applied, do not considerations regarding what it would be most beneficial to apply it to necessarily arise?  And should we not debate those considerations, and act upon the outcome of the debate?

Perhaps it is possible philosophy may, once more, become the art which teaches us how to live.

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