Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

27 OCTOBER, 2014

What It Really Means to “Live Our Mission”

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A beautiful meditation on how we learn to stand at the gates of hope in troubled times.

“How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say OK?” Maira Kalman asked in pondering happiness and existence. What is it that propels us to get up after loss, after heartbreak, after failure? What is that immutable rope that pulls us out of our own depths — depths we hardly know until that moment when the light of the surface vanishes completely and unreachably?

That’s precisely what the Reverend Victoria Stafford explores in a gorgeous essay titled “The Small Work in the Great Work” from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times (public library) — a soul-stretching collection of reflections by such luminaries as Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Diane Ackerman, Alice Walker, Bill Moyers, and Nelson Mandela, edited by social activist Paul Loeb and titled after Billie Holiday’s famous song lyric, “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”

Artwork by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Stafford considers what motivated the men and women who marched in the first LGBT pride parades four decades ago — what beyond courage and imagination. In a beautiful sentiment that calls to mind Charles Bukowski’s poem about the irrepressible impulse that drives creative work, Stafford channels what these visionary marchers might tell us:

Once you have glimpsed the world as it might be, as it ought to be, as it’s going to be (however that vision appears to you), it is impossible to live compliant and complacent anymore in the world as it is… And so you come out and walk out and march, the way a flower comes out and blooms, because it has no other calling. It has no other work.

[...]

I am interested in what Seamus Heaney calls the meeting point of hope and history, where what has happened is met by what we make of it. What has happened is met midstream by people who are — among the multitude of things we are — spiritual beings and all that that implies of creativity, imagination, crazy wisdom, ancient wisdom, passionate compassion, selfless courage, and radical reverence for life. And love—for one another absolutely, and that love that rises out of us, for something larger than ourselves, call it what you will. I am interested in the place, the places, where history is met by the hope of the human soul, life’s longing for itself. I am interested in hope on this side of the grave — for me there is no other kind — and in that tidal wave of justice that could rise up if only we would let it.

Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother,' a photograph as iconic as its story is remarkable. Click image for details.

Reflecting on the “particular, precise disaster” of September 11 and how “silence made its holy way” among those bearing witness, Stafford argues that this longing, this hope, is all the more piercing in such moments of unholy din. She illustrates this with a poignant anecdote:

I have a friend who traffics in words. She is not a minister, but a psychiatrist in the health clinic at a prestigious women’s college. We were sitting once not long after a student she had known, and counseled, committed suicide in the dormitory there. My friend, the doctor, the healer, held the loss very closely in those first few days, not unprofessionally, but deeply, fully — as you or I would have, had this been someone in our care.

At one point (with tears streaming down her face), she looked up in defiance (this is the only word for it) and spoke explicitly of her vocation, as if out of the ashes of that day she were renewing a vow or making a new covenant (and I think she was). She spoke explicitly of her vocation, and of yours and mine. She said, “You know I cannot save them. I am not here to save anybody or to save the world. All I can do — what I am called to do — is to plant myself at the gates of Hope. Sometimes they come in; sometimes they walk by. But I stand there every day and I call out till my lungs are sore with calling, and beckon and urge them in toward beautiful life and love…

There’s something for all of us there, I think. Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting, planted at the gates of Hope. This world and our people are beautiful and broken, and we are called to raise that up — to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery, and gladness that befits a human being. That may be what it is to “live our mission.”

That mission, of course, is different for each of us. We can’t — nor need we — all be psychiatrists reigning desperate souls in from the edge. In our age of “troubled times,” per the book’s title, so much of that fear and so little of that despairingly necessary hope is being mongered by the media — which calls to mind E.B. White’s urgently unforgettable assertion that a writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'The Principles of Uncertainty.' Click image for more.

Stafford, that rare kind of writer who does the heavy lifting with immeasurable grace, considers what is required of us — what we owe ourselves and each other — in planting ourselves gently but unflinchingly in our mission:

We stand where we will stand, on little plots of ground, where we are maybe “called” to stand (though who knows what that means?) — in our congregations, classrooms, offices, factories, in fields of lettuces and apricots, in hospitals, in prisons (on both sides, at various times, of the gates), in streets, in community groups. And it is sacred ground if we would honor it, if we would bring to it a blessing of sacrifice and risk…

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

The remainder of The Impossible Will Take a Little While is just as vitalizing, just as tenderly tenacious at lighting that inner fire that warms us out of our complacency and cynicism, those virulent specters of contemporary culture which we, in a billion daily ways, choose to propagate or choose to eradicate.

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27 OCTOBER, 2014

The Paradox of Active Surrender: Jeanette Winterson on Ignorance vs. Distaste and How Learning to Understand Art Transforms Us

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“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

I recently attended an event at which a celebrated public radio personality attempted to interview a celebrated artist. “Attempted,” because he clearly did not understand her work and the spirit from which it sprang. His attitude of not-getting-it wasn’t a storytelling device — the kind where an interviewer feigns amicable ignorance in order to include the audience in the finding out — but a petulant child’s fit. The fact that he is brilliant at his own work perhaps only confounded his frustration with not being able to understand her art, to connect with it. The event was painful to watch because the first task of a great interviewer is humility — sublimating his ego in the service of letting his subject shine; the second and more arduous task is understanding, which takes a deliberate investment of time, intention, and effort. It was painful to watch, but also shrouded in soft pity — endearing, because he was merely seeking to connect with her work and needed a sherpa in understanding it. His chief fault wasn’t so much doing it in public, without having first made those necessary investments, but in presuming that it was the artist’s duty to be that sherpa herself. (The artist, I should add, handled the situation with remarkable patience and poise.)

The task of the audience in witnessing such tragicomedy is not to judge but to seek to understand — not to add to the effrontery by flagellating the interviewer’s laziness of understanding with the audience’s own in turn, but to see what went awry and glean from that a larger insight about that delicate dance of giving and receiving, of mutual connection and comprehension, that is art.

That is why the incident reminded me of a beautiful essay by Jeanette Winterson titled “Art Objects,” found in her magnificent 1996 collection Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (public library), in which she illuminates with exquisite precision the many layers of misunderstanding that happened here, which also happen so frequently when someone issues a dismissive or critical denunciation of art from a deep place of I just don’t get it.

Chauvet Cave Drawings (c. 30,000 BC) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Winterson begins by recounting her own awakening to art after years of feeling no interest in the visual arts. “My lack of interest was the result of the kind of ignorance I despair of in others,” she confesses with hindsight’s lucidity. As she finds herself in Amsterdam, she also finds herself a stranger in a strange land in another way. Suddenly beholding that dormant power of art, she writes:

I had fallen in love and I had no language. I was dog-dumb. The usual response of “This painting has nothing to say to me” had become “I have nothing to say to this painting.” And I desperately wanted to speak. Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.

We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.

Winterson begins longing for a guide, “someone astute and erudite,” “a person dead or alive” with whom to “think things over,” and is gripped with the way in which understanding art doesn’t obey any of our familiar problem-solving methods. (Art, after all, is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be allowed.) She writes:

Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, either by taming it or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Artwork from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for details.

With that, Winterson considers the heart of that active surrender that art requires of us:

I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls “the ecstasy of the privileged moment.” Art, all art, as insight, as rapture, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it. Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.

She finds her sherpa in the celebrated art critic Roger Fry and his “life-delighting, art-delighting approach, unashamed of emotion, unashamed of beauty” — a mind so singular that he became the subject of Virginia Woolf’s only biography. Fry, Winterson felt, allowed her to approach a work of art “without unfelt reverence or unfit complacency.”

Slowly, subtly, as she educated herself in the language of art, Winterson began to feel her way of seeing evolve. She echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art thrives on “emotional infectiousness” and writes:

What has changed is my capacity of feeling. Art opens the heart.

But art, Winterson observes, also takes time (that unfortunate interview increasingly gave the sense that time was the missing ingredient of understanding) and commitment. Among the essential obstacles that must be overcome before we can begin to appreciate art, she argues, is the experience of increasing discomfort. Noting that “ordinary life passes in a near blur” — which cognitive science has demonstrated convincingly — she asks:

When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake? … We find we are not very good at looking.

Artwork by John Vernon Lord from 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for details.

We are also bedeviled by increasing irritation, which Winterson captures with wonderful humor: “Why doesn’t the picture do something? Why is it hanging there staring at me? What is this picture for? Pictures should give pleasure but this picture is making me very cross. Why should I admire it? Quite clearly it doesn’t admire me.” This notion of admiration reflected back, in fact, is entwined with the way in which our ego — like, perhaps, the anecdotal interviewer’s ego — is often what stands between us and the active surrender to art. Winterson writes:

Admire me is the sub-text of so much of our looking; the demand put on art that it should reflect the reality of the viewer. The true painting, in its stubborn independence, cannot do this, except coincidentally. Its reality is imaginative not mundane.

When the thick curtain of protection is taken away; protection of prejudice, protection of authority, protection of trivia, even the most familiar of paintings can begin to work its power. There are very few people who could manage an hour alone with the Mona Lisa.

But our poor art-lover in his aesthetic laboratory has not succeeded in freeing himself from the protection of assumption. What he has found is that the painting objects to his lack of concentration; his failure to meet intensity with intensity. He still has not discovered anything about the painting but the painting has discovered a lot about him. He is inadequate and the painting has told him so.

It is often said that art — some art, or much of art, or much of some of art — is an “acquired taste.” But Winterson’s central point is that art — all of art — is an acquired ability:

If I can be persuaded to make the experiment again (and again and again), something very different might occur after the first shock of finding out that I do not know how to look at pictures, let alone how to like them.

[...]

Art has deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent. Better to pretend that art is dumb, or at least has nothing to say that makes sense to us. If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it… We avoid painful encounters with art by trivializing it, or by familiarizing it.

In one of her most potent asides, Winterson laments our cultural mythology of art and money — that toxic notion that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” that making money and making art are mutually exclusive — and returns to the wildness of art:

We are an odd people: We make it as difficult as possible for our artists to work honestly while they are alive; either we refuse them money or we ruin them with money; either we flatter them with unhelpful praise or wound them with unhelpful blame, and when they are too old, or too dead, or too beyond dispute to hinder any more, we canonize them, so that what was wild is tamed, what was objecting, becomes Authority. Canonizing pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out. Not only pictures suffer like this, all the arts suffer like this.

Artwork by David Hockney from his illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for details.

Echoing Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Winterson considers the ongoing dialogue between past and present, those infinite circles of influence of which all art is woven:

The calling of the artist, in any medium, is to make it new. I do not mean that in new work the past is repudiated; quite the opposite, the past is reclaimed. It is not lost to authority, it is not absorbed at a level of familiarity. It is re-stated and re-instated in its original vigor. Leonardo is present in Cézanne, Michelangelo flows through Picasso and on into Hockney. This is not ancestor worship, it is the lineage of art. It is not so much influence as it is connection…

The true artist is connected. The true artist studies the past, not as a copyist or a pasticheur will study the past, those people are interested only in the final product, the art object, signed sealed and delivered to a public drugged on reproduction. The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, that have found expression in a particular way. The true artist is after the problem. The false artist wants it solved (by somebody else). If the true artist is connected, then he or she has much to give us because it is connection that we seek. Connection to the past, to one another, to the physical world… A picture, a book, a piece of music, can remind me of feelings, thinkings, I did not even know I had forgot.

Echoing Oscar Wilde’s memorable notion that art requires of us a “temperament of receptivity,” Winterson writes:

Whether art tunnels deep under consciousness or whether it causes out of its own invention, reciprocal inventions that we then call memory, I do not know. I do know that the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.

With this, Winterson arrives at the crux of our difficulty with understanding art and our tendency to mistake our misunderstanding for a failure of the art, to presume that our problem with understanding it is the artist’s problem — the heart of what went awry in that unfortunate interview. Winterson writes:

There are no Commandments in art and no easy axioms for art appreciation. “Do I like this?” is the question anyone should ask themselves at the moment of confrontation with the picture. But if “yes,” why “yes”? and if “no,” why “no”? The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the “yes” or “no” has nothing at all to do with the picture in its own right.

“I don’t understand this poem”
“I never listen to classical music”
“I don’t like this picture”
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience. The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant.

Artwork by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' Click image for details.

Winterson adds a reflection on the elements of subjectivity and our duty in factoring it in:

An examination of our own feelings will have to give way to an examination of the piece of work. This is fair to the work and it will help to clarify the nature of our own feelings; to reveal prejudice, opinion, anxiety, even the mood of the day. It is right to trust our feelings but right to test them too. If they are what we say they are, they will stand the test, if not, we will at least be less insincere.

What art does, Winterson suggests, is pierce our deepest sense of identity, that illusory solid self that keeps us separate from the universe:

When you say “This work has nothing to do with me.” When you say “This work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/élitist etc.,” you might be right, because you are looking at a fad, or you might be wrong because the work falls so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact, you must deny the other world of the painting. This denial of imaginative experience happens at a deeper level than our affirmation of our daily world. Every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the “I” that we are.

A love-parallel would be just; falling in love challenges the reality to which we lay claim, part of the pleasure of love and part of its terror, is the world turned upside down. We want and we don’t want, the cutting edge, the upset, the new views. Mostly we work hard at taming our emotional environment just as we work hard at taming our aesthetic environment. We already have tamed our physical environment. And are we happy with all this tameness? Are you?

[...]

The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art.

And this, I suppose was the effrontery of the interviewer: his public admission of not having made the effort — of not having cared to make it. Winterson touches on what the deeper reason might be:

I worry that to ask for effort is to imply élitism, and the charge against art, that it is élitist, is too often the accuser’s defense against his or her own bafflement.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'My Favorite Things.' Click image for details.

In a remark particularly ironic in this context, she adds:

The only way to develop a palate is to develop a palate.

[...]

The fashion for dismissing a thing out of ignorance is vicious. In fact, it is not essential to like a thing in order to recognize its worth, but to reach that point of self-awareness and sophistication takes years of perseverance.

The problem, she points out, isn’t one of personal failure but of cultural bias:

I am sure that if as a society we took art seriously, not as mere decoration or entertainment, but as a living spirit, we should very soon learn what is art and what is not art.

[...]

If we sharpened our sensibilities, it is not that we would all agree on everything, or that we would suddenly feel the same things in front of the same pictures (or when reading the same book), but rather that our debates and deliberations would come out of genuine aesthetic considerations and not politics, prejudice and fashion… And our hearts? Art is aerobic.

Winterson turns to what happens in that magical moment when a work of art is beheld with understanding, with active surrender, and enveloped by receptivity:

There is a constant exchange of emotion between us, between the three of us; the artist I need never meet, the painting in its own right, and me, the one who loves it and can no longer live independent of it. The triangle of exchange alters, is fluid, is subtle, is profound and is one of those unverifiable facts that anyone who cares for painting soon discovers… The totality of the picture comments on the totality of what I am.

As she considers how art makes visible “those necessary invisibles of faith and optimism, humor and generosity,” “the sublimity of mankind,” she peers into the depths of its essence:

We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector’s item. Art objects.

The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that it is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die.

[...]

Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art. If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question “What has happened to our lives?” The usual question, “What has happened to art?” is too easy an escape route.

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery is a transcendent read in its totality — Winterson goes on to examine such subjects as imagination and reality, the ecstasy of words, and the semiotics of sex. Complement it with her provocative reflections on adoption and belonging and time, language, and how art sanctifies the human spirit.

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24 OCTOBER, 2014

What Is Philosophy For? A Beautiful Animated Manifesto for Undoing Our Unwisdom, Cultivating Our Character, and Gaining Perspective

By:

“The points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.”

“Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry,” Sharon Lebell wrote in her classical manual for the art of living. But what types of consolation does philosophy offer the soul, in more practical terms? Like science, it offers an essential tool of critical thinking, or what Carl Sagan memorably termed “baloney detection”; like art, it challenges us to challenge the status quo and it says to us, in the elegant words of Jeanette Winterson, “don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” It gives us a potent antidote to our spectacular shortcomings in predicting and ensuring our own happiness and invites the self-knowledge essential for creativity. Above all, as one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived perceptively put it, philosophy allows us to “ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

This, and so much more, is what writer and philosopher Alain de Botton, author of The Consolations of Philosophy (public library), explores in this wonderful animated essay — a beautiful and urgent case for what we lose, as a culture and as individuals, when we banish philosophy to the academy rather than seeing it as a powerful and necessary tool of government, leadership, and personal growth in everyday life:

From a distance, philosophy seems weird, irrelevant, boring — and yet, also, a just a little intriguing. But what are philosophers really for?

The answer is, handily, already contained in the word philosophy itself.

In Ancient Greek, philo means “love” and sophia means “wisdom” — philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Being wise means attempting to live and die well.

In their pursuit of wisdom, philosophers have developed a very specific skill set — they have, over the centuries, become experts at many of the things that made people not very wise. Five stand out.

  1. WE DON’T ASK BIG QUESTIONS
  2. There are lots of big questions: What’s the meaning of life? What’s a job for? How should society be arranged? Most of us entertain them every now and then, but we despair at trying to answer them. They are the status of almost a joke — we call them “pretentious” — but they matter deeply, because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully.

    They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks, and that the only really “pretentious” thing is to think one’s above raising naive-sounding inquiries.

  3. WE ARE VULNERABLE TO ERRORS OF COMMON SENSE
  4. Public opinion, or what gets called “common sense,” is sensible and reasonable in countless areas. It’s what you hear about from friends and neighbors — the stuff you take in without even thinking about it. But common sense is often also full of daftness and error. Philosophy gets us to admit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work?

    Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical, rather than assuming it must be right because it’s popular and long established.

  5. WE ARE MENTALLY CONFUSED
  6. We are not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds. Someone we meet is very annoying but we can’t pin down what the issue is; we lose our temper but we can’t readily tell what we’re so cross about — we lack insights into our own satisfactions and dislikes. That’s why we need to examine our own minds.

    Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge and its central precept, articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher Socrates, is just two words long: “Know yourself.”

  7. WE HAVE MUDDLED IDEAS ABOUT WHAT MAKES US HAPPY
  8. We’re not very good at making ourselves happy. We overrate the power of some things to improve our lives and underrate others — we make the wrong choices because, guided by advertising and false glamor, we keep on imagining that a particular kind of holiday or car or computer will make a bigger difference than it can. At the same time, we underestimate the contribution of other things, like going for a walk, which may have little prestige but which can contribute deeply to the character of existence.

    Philosophers seek to be wise by getting more precise about the activities and attitudes that really can help our lives to go better.

  9. WE PANIC AND LOSE PERSPECTIVE
  10. Philosophers are good at keeping a sense of what really matters and what doesn’t. On hearing the news that he’d lost all his possessions to a shipwreck, the Stoic philosopher Zeno simple said, “fortune commands me to be a less encumbered philosopher.” It’s responses like these that have made the very term “philosophical” a byword for calm, long-term thinking and strength of mind. In short, for perspective.

The wisdom of philosophy is in modern times mostly delivered in the form of books. But, in the past, philosophers sat in market squares and discussed their ideas with shopkeepers or went into government offices and palaces to give advice. It wasn’t abnormal to have a philosopher on your payroll. Philosophy was thought of as a normal, basic activity, rather than as an esoteric, optional extra. Nowadays, it’s not so much that we overtly deny this thought, but we just don’t have the right institutions set up to promulgate wisdom coherently in the world.

In the future, though, when the value of philosophy is a little clearer, we can expect to meet more philosophers in daily life. They won’t be locked up, living mainly in university departments — because the points at which our unwisdom bites and messes up our lives are multiple and urgently need attention, right now.

This short film comes from The School of Life — makers of intelligent how-to guides to modern living, spanning everything from the art of being alone to the psychology of staying sane to cultivating a healthier relationship with sex to finding fulfilling work — and comes on the heels of another wonderful animated essay about what literature does for the soul.

Also see De Botton on the seven psychological functions of art and what Nietzsche teaches us about the value of suffering.

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