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Friday, August 26, 2016

Philosophy as Spiritual Exercise

Time for a recap. Spiritual growth is integrity and transcendence. Integrity means getting it all together, being whole. Transcendence is the fullness of humanity, the actualization of potential. Spiritual teachers have called this happiness, beatitude, enlightenment, and holiness. The way to spiritual growth is spiritual exercises in  integrating and transcending.

We considered many of those exercises: meditation and prayer, walking in the footsteps of the great-souled, spiritual reading, remembering death, examination of conscience, cognitive therapy, and religion. My favorite, which I contend contains or surpasses most of the others, is philosophy. But this is philosophy not just as an intellectual or academic pursuit. It is philosophy as a way of life and action.

There are as many definitions of philosophy as there are practitioners of it: including the examined life, wonder and the inquiry into the nature of reality, secondary reflection, the unrestricted desire to know,  and critical thinking. Philosophy is the adventure of discovery of both the material universe and of the human mind. It is a stimulus for, composition of, and inquiry into all human endeavors: language, art, religion, science, economics, politics.

It culminates in ethics and politics: the understanding and pursuit of virtues, the habits of personal behavior, and of institutions, the habits of collective behavior. Philosophy is an inquiry and judgment on these behaviors. As judgment it articulates norms and rules of personal and social behavior. As inquiry it challenges those norms and rules in pursuit of greater understanding, growth of mind, and right behavior.

The mission of philosophy is to critique, to reflect, to enlighten, and to dispel illusions. There are four illusions in particular which relate to the structure and method of human existence in the world. These illusions consist in resolving the tensions of existence by a preoccupation with one or more of the poles of the tensions of human being--rather than holding both in tension. So the libertarian reduces community to a sum of individual selves. The reactionary reduces transient temporality to a past or future utopia. The dogmatist forgets the subjective in the objective. The realist reduces becoming to being by denying existence in its ambiguity, contingency, and transcendence. All these are forms of the illusion of the absolute sometimes call the objectivistic fallacy (Dewey).

In dispelling these illusions, we center ourselves in the tension of adapting with our environment or being in the world. It is a center that does resolve the tensions of existence but is nevertheless a quiet space of balance in which we hold all the poles of our tensions. In this way another mission of philosophy is achieved: to please and console. To console and be consoled is to con-soul, that is, to bring our souls in union with all other souls and with the Soul of the Universe.

Philosophy as a spiritual exercise is a ceaselessly active process of transcending previous and conventional answers, approaches, and boundaries. It is also an integration of body and mind, of knowledge and action, of human activities in the world and their subject matters, of souls with souls.

How does the adventure of philosophy proceed?

It starts with wonder--a curiosity that when nourished grows infinitely.

It continues by dialogue, the interacting with philosophers and other seekers present and past.

It attempts to draw connections towards a model in which all things might be related.

It hears and reads the stories of tradition and those now in vogue to understand their lessons.

It dares to present its understandings in words and other metaphors so that others might criticize.

It listens to its own expressions and those of others and tries to reconcile them.

It meditates by returning to that primary experience of existence in the world.


For further reading see Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 1995.

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