Letter to a student: Philosophy for fun and self-deprogramming
Yesterday I received an email from one of my former high school students. He asked me a few questions that indicated he has really entered into a reflective state of mind: Am I familiar with C.S. Lewis and Mere Christianity? What do people mean when they refer to other people, situations, or anything else as “perfect”? Is there a one-size-fits-all definition of perfection? Why do most people never question the near universal assumption that life is a good and valuable thing?
I began typing my response and, as sometimes happens, saw it blossom into more than the brief note I had intended. After clicking “send,” I thought I might as well go ahead and share the letter with my Teeming Brain readers since I know they’re a reflective and philosophical lot themselves.
Note that names — or actually, just one name — have been omitted to protect the innocent.
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Good to hear from you. Sounds like you’re in a really thoughtful state of mind lately.
Yes, I’ve read Mere Christianity three times in its entirety and then gone back to reread selected passages many more times. For a few years Lewis was one of my favorite writers. I still have great affection for him even though I’ve don’t hold his actual ideas in as high a regard as I once did. As he aged his writings grew more and more entrenched in a kind of puritanical Protestant morality. That’s why I like his early work better than his later work, since the early stuff is more filled with a general sense of exhilaration about ideas, philosophy, spirituality, and religion in general. Mere Christianity stands at about the halfway point in this evolution of his work. The three sections of it were originally published as three separate pamphlets before being stitched together to form of a single book. I personally find the final section, “Beyond Personality,” to be far and away the most brilliant, valuable, and exciting one. It also happens to be the most purely philosophical. Lewis’s superstar status among contemporary American Protestant Christians seems to be based largely on a love of the first half of that book, since it’s material from that part of Mere Christianity that you almost always hear quoted in churches or on the radio when somebody brings up the man’s name.
As for questions about the nature and meaning of perfection, the value or nonvalue of life, etc., it sounds like you’ve awakened to the basic philosophical cast of mind. As you may know, the word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” The subject itself, which nowadays the majority of people study only for a single semester in college so they can earn a required credit to graduate, is the king or crown of all the intellectual disciplines. It’s not “about” anything in the way that history, science, mathematics, literature, economics, and other classes are “about” something. All of those other fields deal with specific subjects and content, e.g., what happened in the past and how it affects us today (history), the way the physical world works (science), and so on. But philosophy is about all of them. It asks, “What does all of this mean?” Philosophy raises the question “Why?” and applies it to everything. It tries to figure out, or at least it calls into question, most of the things that almost everybody takes for granted every day, in just the same way that you’re now asking some pretty radical questions that you felt it necessary to soften with a p.s. assuring me that you’re not contemplating suicide.
So this is all to say that I encourage you to continue your questioning. You’ll find over time that you’re experiencing a shift in your perception of absolutely everything. It begins to feel a lot like waking up from the Matrix. You start having a “Holy crap!” reaction as you realize that all of the ideas and points of view that you’ve always taken for granted are entirely up for grabs. Your whole outlook, the mental and emotional basis for the way you’ve lived your entire life and made important choices and wanted some things while rejecting others, is revealed as arbitrary. You come to recognize that you’ve believed things and held values not because you know they’re true but because you were programmed to do so by the environment in which you grew up.
This awakening is a very good thing.
You asked for advice about books. I suggest that you find a good introductory book on philosophy. One that comes to mind because it’s very accessible, and also amusing, is Does the Center Hold?: An Introduction to Philosophy. You can buy a fairly cheap used copy through Amazon. I’ve never read the whole thing myself but I’ve browsed it in college bookstores and found it highly engaging and informative.
I can’t think of any books at the moment to suggest for your specific questions about the meaning of “perfection” and the question of life’s value, but I can suggest some books that were valuable to me vry early on in my own awakening to a general philosophical cast of mind:
– The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts
– Walden by Henry David Thoreau
– Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy
– Irrational Man by William Barrett
The Watts book is particularly accessible and readable. The Percy book may be a bit more difficult, especially in the middle section about the philosophy of language, but early sections are especially valuable as Percy paints all sorts of hypothetical life circumstances and situations and then considers different points of view from which they can be interpreted and understood.
Since you asked me specifically about Lewis, I can recommend another of his books for you: The Abolition of Man. You might find it difficult reading. But then again, maybe not. It’s a bit different (that’s an understatement) from Mere Christianity. In it, Lewis sets out to disprove the modern idea that human ideas of morality, value, etc., are just that: human ideas. He tries to prove that there really are objective moral truths. Following him in his exploration of the issues is a very educational and mind-expanding experience, regardless of whether you agree with his arguments and conclusions. You can find used copies of the book online and in bookstores at bargain-basement prices.
Finally, I strongly urge you to read a little bit about Socrates, the ancient Athenian Greek who, for us members of Western civilization, pretty much started the whole philosophy thing. There are some good, brief online biographies. The one at History for Kids makes for extremely easy reading. Some others are more lengthy and dense.
Oh — and really finally, since I mentioned The Matrix I may as well direct you to the Sparknotes page about some of the movie’s philosophical influences. It may give you some ideas for further reading.
Good luck! I hope I haven’t blown your mind (or bored you to tears) with my reply-on-steroids to your short questions.