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Give Yourself Permission To Practice Philosophy

One of the best TED Talks I’ve ever seen was by the actor Ethan Hawke. It’s called “Give yourself permission to be creative” and it’s all about the importance of expressing yourself and doing what you love.

It doesn’t have the traditional TED feel due to the absence of a stage and live audience, which I think is due to it being filmed in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, wearing a denim shirt, Hawke sits casually in a cozy, wooden-walled room with fairy lights in the background.

Alternating between short personal stories and wider life lessons, Hawke delivers his talk as if chatting with an old friend. You get a real homely kind of feeling: it’s just you and a Hollywood star shooting the breeze.

It’s this style, coupled with some points he makes about “knowing yourself” that make the talk so compelling to me.

To “know yourself” was seen as one of the main points of ancient philosophies like Stoicism as it enabled one to make progress on their journey toward wisdom and a happy life.

Indeed, “know yourself” was taken so seriously as a philosophical maxim that it was inscribed in the great Temple of Apollo in the ancient Greek precinct of Delphi.

Watching Hawke’s talk, it struck me that his encouragement to know yourself wasn’t the only parallel that could be drawn between his theme of being creative and the application of ancient philosophy.

In fact, most of what he says can be applied directly to the search for wisdom and the journey toward a good life.

To illustrate this, I wanted to create this article as an homage to his talk, with my version adjusted to conform to the alternative title of “Give yourself permission to practice philosophy.”

Rather than pulling out every relevant quote about creativity verbatim and then translating and relating it to philosophy, I thought I’d try a less mechanical approach by using the original as inspiration while weaving in some of Hawke’s best lines as jumping-off points.

With that being said, I’ll switch gears now and talk a little bit about philosophy.

Why Start Practicing?

A lot of people really struggle to give themselves permission to practice philosophy.

Aside from those who simply haven’t had enough exposure to philosophy to be able to appreciate the potential benefits of it as a worthwhile pursuit, there are also those who might view it as a luxury or as the domain of the intimidatingly intellectual.

I use those examples because they reflect how I used to think about philosophy. But there’s a story that went some way to changing (and opening) my mind.

I’ve been a fan of the podcaster Tim Ferriss for a long time now, and at a time I would estimate to be around ten years ago I heard him start to talk more and more about Stoic philosophy, particularly the work of Seneca.

Having had little previous experience of it as something that could be practiced, I was kind of turned off by the word philosophy. It wasn’t until Tim spoke of the therapeutic benefits of Stoicism that I decided to explore it more and read one of his recommended books on the subject, William B Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life.

Around the same time, Derek Sivers appeared as a guest in two episodes on Tim’s show and opened my eyes to ways of thinking that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t come up with myself.

I had no prior knowledge of who this guy was but there was just something about how he spoke that kept me listening.

One funny example was his response to a question about who he considers to be successful. Of course, the common conception of success is wealth and fame, but as Derek put it, we can’t know who is successful without knowing what their aims are.

What if Richard Branson set out to live a quiet life, for instance, but like a compulsive gambler, he just can’t stop creating companies? Then that changes everything, and we can’t call him successful anymore!

Other things that struck me about Derek were his resistance to growth-obsessed investors who wanted to put money into his company, his donation of most of the proceeds from the sale of that company to charity, and his “Hell Yeah or No” approach to decision-making.

Being very used to convention, I was surprised and excited to discover that there were other ways of thinking about the world. Like, wow, it’s possible to have a general attitude of looking at the way most people do things, and saying, you know, you don’t have to do it that way!

Importantly for this discussion, however, among Derek’s comments, there was also what felt to me like one of those kind of “meant-to-be” serendipitous moments.

Making a point about how much work it takes to get to the real useful, applicable material in modern books due to how much authors tend to talk around a subject, Derek brought up A Guide to the Good Life, the book I happened to be making my way through at that exact time.

Here’s what he had to say:

In that book, right in the intro, [William B Irvine] says, if you ask a modern person who calls themselves a philosopher, “what should I do with my life?”, [you better] sit down and get comfortable, because they will tell you, well, it depends on what you mean by what, and it depends what you mean by do, and really, it depends what you mean by life. Or really, maybe it depends on what you mean by my life.

So, people are talking around the issue so much these days, but back in 600 BC, if you would’ve asked one of these philosophers, what should I do with my life, they would sit down and tell you exactly what to do with your life. Do this, don’t do that, pursue this, don’t pursue that.

This confirmed the impression I’d been getting from the book myself: that ancient philosophy is a practical thing.

Ancient philosophers wanted to learn how to live. And when they absorbed a promising lesson, they applied it—they tried to live that way.

Philosophy purists may not think this is an acceptable route into the study and practice of philosophy, but I think that’s really the point here. It’s open to everyone. It can benefit everyone.

So you have to ask yourself: Do you think philosophy matters? Well, most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about philosophy. Right? They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with Marcus Aurelius’s journal or Seneca’s letters or Epictetus’s discourses. Until their father dies, or they go to a funeral, or they lose a child.

You’re meandering along relatively content with the everydayness of every day and then something awful happens that completely disrupts that and all of a sudden, you’re desperate to make sense of this life, and you wonder, “Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?”

Or the opposite, something great happens. You meet somebody and your heart explodes. You love them so much, you can’t even see straight. You’re dizzy and confused and excited and you’re asking, “Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?”

And that’s when philosophy’s not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance. We need it.

OK. Well, what is it?

The word philosophy literally means the love of wisdom, and the ancient philosophers would tell us that the way toward that wisdom is to live according to our Nature. And what does that mean?

What Is Philosophy?

In one sense, it means improving our ability to reason through lifelong learning. In other words, getting better and better at knowing the logic of what is good, what is bad, and what is indifferent in life. When we do this, we get better at prioritizing the things that will truly benefit ourselves and others.

In another sense, living in accordance with our nature means accepting all the worldly events that occur and, in a way, cultivating a kind of gratitude for everything that happens fueled by the belief that it couldn’t have happened any other way. When we do this, we prevent ourselves from getting endlessly stuck trying to change things that can’t be changed.

Now, most people probably don’t think like this. If you think about your own experiences and those of people around you, how often does a philosophy of life come into play? Do most people accept what they can’t change, or do they get angry and frustrated and stuck and wonder where to turn? Do most people routinely see a bigger picture, or are they restricted to their own narrow perspective? Who do you know that adheres to some kind of code that displays their true character, and who, by contrast, seems to be merely letting themselves drift with every breeze?

In a way, philosophy can be what you want it to be. It doesn’t need to be abstract to the point of nonsense as some might suspect. It can be a practical pursuit that you get better at a little at a time.

It’s both a short-term and long-term project that builds self-esteem and broadens your view of the world.

And, chances are, it’ll give you a heightened appreciation for what’s around you.

An Appreciation Of The World

Here’s something the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote to a friend who was struggling with grief. It’s kind of a nice feeling to just get lost in these words but it’s even nicer to really go and do what they’re suggesting, and that’s what practical philosophy is all about:

You will marvel at gathered clouds and falling waters, at slanting strokes of lightning and the crashing din of heaven. When you have gazed your fill on things above and lower your eyes to the earth, a different form of things will greet you, wonderful in a different way: on the one side you will see flat plains stretching out boundlessly, on the other, mountains soaring in great, snow-capped ridges, their peaks rising to heaven; cascading streams and rivers that flow both east and west, though deriving from a single source, and groves of trees swaying on the tops of mountains, and mighty forests with the creatures that inhabit them…

Seneca says a lot more in that particular passage but I’m sure you get the picture. Ancient philosophers like him thought of philosophy as medicine for the soul. But it’s not a cure that one can only enjoy after a long course of treatment, he said—every draught of philosophy is at the same time wholesome and pleasant.

Elsewhere he’s saying things like, “I place it to the credit of philosophy that I recovered and regained my strength. I owe my life to philosophy, and that is the least of my obligations!” (Letters 78.3)

So again we get the sense that this thing might actually be essential.

Philosophy Connects Us All

I love to read Kurt Vonnegut’s books. They’re sharp and funny and poignant and philosophical, and despite describing some of the most desperate circumstances humans can face, they usually retain some kind of optimism in shared humanity.

In The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut has a character called Malachi Constant who is subjected to all sorts of crazy struggles like being sent to Mars, getting his memory wiped, and having an antenna implanted into his head to control his behavior as part of the Martian army.

After a series of trials that he can’t prevent despite knowing about them in advance, in a broken and dazed state, Constant is still able to come to the conclusion that “a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

And I feel like that’s true. We’re here to help each other, it’s one of our purposes. Think about how many examples there are of people who endure the worst of hardships and then use their experience to help others who might be going through the same thing. That’s philosophy. That’s wisdom applied to life and directed toward good.

“All of us were stuck to the surface of a ball,” wrote Vonnegut in another novel, Breakfast of Champions. “The planet was ball-shaped. Nobody knew why we didn’t fall off, even though everybody pretended to kind of understand it.”

I love that line. And how absurdly true is it when you think about it? Here we all are, stuck on the ball together. What each of us is going through each day isn’t as unique as we might think. We’re all connected. We all have the capacity to help others and tolerate them because we share in same ups and downs, we make the same mistakes, we want to love and be loved, we want to squeeze as much from this life as we can.

The Work Of Philosophy

Socrates—who is perhaps the best-known of any ancient philosopher—in Plato’s Apology he says, “God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and others.”

It’s kind of that simple: we just have to keep getting to know ourselves and helping others do the same.

Are we usually doing that though? Are we taking the time to figure out what’s important to us? Are we dedicating enough time in our short lives to what’s meaningful to us? Most of us probably not.

It’s difficult, of course it is. We get into habits and thought patterns that are hard to break out of. Not to sound all conspiratorial, but we get conditioned by societal norms without realizing it.

As Ward Farnsworth puts it in his book, The Practicing Stoic: “The work of philosophy is to take responsibility for our own thinking, and in so doing to liberate ourselves from the attachments and misjudgments that otherwise dictate our experience.”

We’ve all had the experience of an impudent young relative incessantly asking us questions. My 3-year-old nephew is constantly asking me, “What’s that called?”, “What does this do?”, and “Can I try?”

From one perspective this can be a bit annoying. From a better perspective, we can see that kids are often practicing philosophy more intently than adults: they’re learning how to live. They’re not worried about appearing unwise or about the embarrassing gaps in their knowledge; they unselfconsciously ask how things are done and then when they find out, they want to go ahead and do those things.

And that’s what it’s about: philosophy doesn’t necessarily have all the answers but it helps us ask better questions.

Philosophy Escorts Us On Our Way

Socrates himself was known as the gadfly of Athens because he would buzz about the place every day questioning people’s beliefs.

If we’re patient with the buzzing child asking questions, we can nurture their enthusiasm for learning. We can show it’s worth finding out about the world, worth discovering yourself, worth examining life. And we can reclaim that innocence in ourselves simply by being aware of it.

It’s worrying that this can get stamped out of us early in life. We become less capable of saying “I don’t know” because we want to appear smart and knowledgeable. And yet without that admission of uncertainty, the journey toward wisdom ends. No one can be taught what they think they already know.

Our “formative years” are usually considered to cover our early childhood development but as many who discover philosophy much later in life would testify, practicing it triggers the most personal growth they have experienced since those early years.

When we want to live the good life that philosophy can facilitate, every year is a formative year. “As long as you live, keep learning how to live,” was how Seneca put it. To get the most out of life, we have to be a student of life for life.

In this regard, again, philosophy isn’t a trivial pursuit. It’s vital.

“What can escort us safely on our way?” was the question Marcus Aurelius posed to himself in his Meditations. “Only one thing,” was his answer. “Philosophy.”

Philosophy is also one of the ways we heal ourselves and others. It’s the way we ask questions of ourselves and others. It’s the way we find out, from the answers to those questions, things about ourselves and others that can aid us all on our forward journey.

Philosophy is comforting but it’ll still call you out if you’re acting unwisely. It encourages, even urges, you to demand more of and for yourself. But, practiced correctly, it never does these things in a way that is self-abusive or makes you feel worthless.

Give Yourself Permission To Practice

So, if you want to help your community, if you want to help your family, if you want to help your friends, you have to first help yourself. And to help yourself, you have to know yourself. It’s actually super easy. You just have to follow your Nature.

As we talked about earlier, that means improving your ability to reason by questioning your initial impressions and improving your ability to accept the things that can’t be changed so that you can focus on the things that can.

As Plutarch put it, when you do this you can be content in any scenario:

By the aid of philosophy you will live not unpleasantly, for you will learn to extract pleasure from all places and things. Wealth will make you happy, because it will enable you to benefit many; and poverty, as you will then have few things to worry about; and glory, as it will make you honored; and obscurity, for you will then be safe from envy.

On Virtue and Vice 4 (101d–e)

The most-walked paths are often the most deceptive. But really, there is no path. At least not until you walk it. You have to give yourself permission to take responsibility for your own thinking.

So examine your impressions, separate what is within your control from what isn’t, be kind, teach others and tolerate them, develop courage by facing your fears, find joy in the simple things, be intentional about showing gratitude, work on your discipline and self-control, ask questions, seek wisdom, get to the heart of things so you can see reality for what it is. Realize the joy of living fully and immediately.

Read, observe, learn. Try, apply, do. Live.

Give yourself permission to practice philosophy.