Philosophy is a fascinating branch of wisdom. However these esoteric ideas are sometimes difficult to translate into practical application. What are all of those thoughts, suppositions and theories actually good for? How can an understanding of philosophy ultimately help you lead a better life?
Today I want to examine with you four philosophical ideas that have influenced my life in a very positive way. With the right twists I’ll be able to show you that they are indeed empowering. Let’s go!
1) Friedrich Nietzsche – Eternal Recurrence
Several times throughout his works, Nietzsche talks about the thought experiment of eternal recurrence. Aphorism 341 of The Gay Science goes like this:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
Does the idea of eternal recurrence – that every moment of your life will repeat itself into eternity – leave you shivering with fear or with joy; whether you are living life fully everyday or just waiting for better times to come.
Let us take a look at the possible consequences of Nietzsche’s idea.
Heaven or hell, you decide
Let’s also assume that the life you are currently living is not simply one of the repetitions but is actually your first time around. This means that every moment that passes will be set in stone and repeat itself eternally. How does that sound to you?
If you are a ‘common man’, Nietzsche predicted that this would be the heaviest possible burden. On the other hand, be believed human greatness is achieved when you don’t want anything to be different, past, present or future. When you accept and love the present moment, you have won.
Practically speaking, Nietzsche is then suggesting that you choose the best action at every moment and always ask yourself whether what you are doing right now really is the best you could be doing. If you follow his advice and always act according to this knowledge, I’ll bet that you will have a life worth reliving.
2) Socrates – No One Does Wrong Willingly
Socrates believed that we always do either what brings pleasure or diminished pain. In a sense, he argued that we always tried to get closer to ‘good’ (pleasure) and steer away from ‘evil’ (pain, and what is ‘wrong’). He was also a firm believer in human rationality. If you combine both ideas you get the Socrates conclusion: Since we are rational, no one would consciously choose pain over pleasure, which means that people only do wrong because they don’t know any better.
Ket’s taking cigarettes as an example. According to Socrates, if people really knew how smoking affected them, they wouldn’t smoke. Now comes the tricky part: if you ask, “Well, my friend does know and he still smokes,” Socrates would answer, “if he really knew, he wouldn’t do it.” This is tricky because you cannot prove him wrong – nor can he prove himself right.
But it doesn’t matter who’s right here. What does matter is that he could be right…
Learn your way to pleasure
What really matters is the knowledge that you’re most likely harming yourself without knowing. Sounds scary at first, but I find it cool. It triggers in me a desire to find out what I’m doing wrong and change it. It makes me want to grow.
For example, it is this idea that has pushed me to inform myself about health so that I know exactly what harms me and what is good for me.
If you care about yourself – and Socrates says that you do! – then let this idea infect you and let the search for pleasure motivate you to learn, change, and grow.
3) Jean-Paul Sartre – You Are Doomed to Be Free
Sartre’s Existentialism as a whole is very interesting. He starts with the assumption that there is no God and then draws conclusions about what it means to be human. One of his conclusions is that we are doomed to be free. Let me explain:
Since there is no God, we are born without an essence. We have no divine purpose or predetermined path. This means that we are absolutely free to do what we choose and build our essence through our actions. Sartre goes as far as to say that we can’t not be free, since we are only able to limit our freedom because we are free and can thus never rid ourselves of our freedom.
And with the freedom comes responsibility: because we are free, we can only blame ourselves for our results since we are the cause of our actions. Thus, everyone is responsible for their own life.
Liberté et responsabilité
Again, we are faced with a concept that can either be burdensome or liberating. Being free is nice and all, but if that also means being 100% responsible for one’s life, then freedom is not to be taken lightly.
Whenever I think of Sartre, I am reminded that, ultimately, it is my job to lead the life I want. Of course there are factors that I can’t control, but I have learned to be grateful for what I am given and that I must earn the rest.
I think a more livable conclusion is that we are not 100% in control of our lives, but that doesn’t rid us of responsibility. While we might not be the direct cause of an unfortunate circumstance, it is always up to us to decide how to respond to them and how to feel about them. (I have written more extensively about responsibility here).
4) Dan Millman’s Socrates – Moderation No More
Besides the eponymous Greek philosopher, “Socrates” – “Soc” for friends – is also the name of a character in Dan Millman’s Way of The Peaceful Warrior. While Dan Millman is not considered a philosopher, Soc has some very empowering life philosophies. About halfway through the novel, Dan — the main character — asks Soc, “What about moderation?” Soc replies:
“There is a saying when you sit, sit. When you stand, stand. What ever you do don’t wobble. Once you make your choice do it with all your spirit. Don’t be like the evangelist that thought about praying while making love to his wife and making love to his wife while praying.
It’s better to make a mistake with the full force of your being than to carefully avoid mistakes with a trembling spirit. Responsibility means recognizing both pleasure and price, making a choice based on that recognition, and then living with that choice without concern.”
You might have doubts about certain decisions, but once you’ve taken them, you should act “with the full force of your being,” since it is the only way to truly live an authentic life. This translates to always focusing on the task at hand, doing everything the best you can, and sticking with your decisions once you’ve made them.
There is no point in doing things half-heartedly.
I have presented you four key philosophical ideas which you can use to create your own empowering philosophy of life. They have been very instrumental in my own path of growth and will certainly continue to exert a positive influence over it for the rest of my life.
It is my hope that you continue to seek inspiring ideas and to reevaluate your life in accordance to them in order to become ever more authentic, strong and happy. But that, of course, is your responsibility and yours alone.
Here’s to philosophy and a higher existence!