Lazy Enlightenment vs Philosophical Practice

Lazy Enlightenment vs Philosophical Practice

Just as Marcellius was aware of something rotten in the state of Denmark when Hamlet exited the stage to confer with the ghost of his murdered father haunting Elsinore castle, so too are we aware of a rot growing at the core of the neo-liberal order. As the body politic decays, and the social fabric speeds its unraveling, we have seen our world orienting stories unwind and expire with them. 

This narrative collapse can be seen in the stories of incoming freshmen.  They arrive at university having already fought for good grades, letters of recommendation, and even interesting internships. But when asked why they have labored and what they hope to accomplish, they surprisingly do not mention their desire to learn, grow, or master a discipline, but instead declare that their sole objective is to get a degree. And when asked why they want a degree, they say they hope this will secure them a lucrative career. And when asked why they want that, they say this will give them social prestige. And social prestige, a mate. And a mate, marriage and children, so that the process can continue without them and they can finally retire and enjoy life. 

Yet, after earning their degree, they find that their lives do not unfold as expected. Not only do they fail to get what was promised, but they receive its opposite. Instead of a good job, they struggle for a precarious minimum wage position. Instead of prestige, derision. And, instead of a happily ever after marriage, ennui, abuse, and divorce. 

Furthermore, even if the promises did hold true at an individual level, we are confronted with the disastrous communal costs exacted by late capitalist society. We live in a world of environmental degradation and mass extinction. We work ourselves sick, only to find that we have been priced out of healthcare. And, in our mad struggle for success in a business world red in tooth and claw, we find we no longer have a community, but only narrow self-interested tribes united by hate. 

We have lost what Confucius said was most important for a society, trust. Confucius explains as follows in the Analects.  

“Zigong asked about government. The Master said: ‘If there is enough food and if there are enough weapons, the people will put their trust in it.’ Zigong said: ‘Suppose you definitely had no alternative but to give up one of these three, which would you relinquish first?’  The Master said: ‘I would give up weapons.’ Zigong said: ‘Suppose you definitely had no alternative but to give up one of the remaining two, which would you relinquish first?’ The Master said: ‘I would give up food. From of old death has come to all men, but a people will not stand if it lacks trust’ “(12.7).[1]

Our society has inverted the order of these goods. Not only have we abandoned trust for food, but we have relinquished food for weapons. And, even worse yet, we pursue weapons not for the sake of protecting the people, but for maximizing corporate profit. As our last remaining social bonds fracture, we face the consequences of treating trust as yet one more resource to be exploited in a confidence game. 

Coming to see the extent of this betrayal can be deeply traumatic. The narratives that made sense of our world not only seem to be false, but appear to be deliberately designed to mislead and exploit us. We no longer know where we should go or how we should get there, and the only thing that seems certain is that those we trusted have deceived us for their own gain. 

Lazy Enlightenment

One popular response to this disorientation, has been to adopt what I call “Lazy Enlightenment.” As we begin to notice and speak out about our feelings of betrayal, we meet with others who see the same things and promise to explain it all by providing a new narrative. The core of this new narrative is essentially the same, but is spelled out along two antagonistic lines–lines that define two seemingly rival tribes. 

The core explanation offered by his new narrative goes as follows: simply by seeing your betrayal, you are now special and one of the enlightened. Furthermore, the reason for your betrayal is that society is controlled by a hostile group conspiring to deceive and persecute you. Your victimhood makes you virtuous, and your life can have meaning when you join with others in our tribe to fight the enemies of humanity and ultimately purge the world of their evil. 

We see this same storyline fleshed out in two apparently conflicting ways. On the one hand, we can join the ranks of the so-called red pilled. Just as Neo, in the film the Matrix, rejected the illusions cast by a race of robotic monsters and took the red pill to see a sober reality, so too can we see through the illusions of the liberal elites in government, education, Hollywood, and the media. On the other hand, we can join the ranks of the so-called woke. Just as one awakens from a dream, so too can we be woke from and transcend the illusions of a history of intersecting systems of oppression. 

While I don’t doubt the legitimacy of the suffering experienced by members of either tribe, I do want to stress how both are instances of Lazy Enlightenment. For both, you become one of the faithful simply by being aware of your victimhood, and your new community and purpose in life is derived by warring with an evil and inhuman enemy. The only difference lies in who that enemy is said to be. For the red pilled, it tends to be feminist immigrant transgender homosexual liberals, and for the woke it tends to be patriarchal white cis-gendered heterosexual conservatives. 

The problem with Lazy Enlightenment is that it doesn’t actually solve our problems. Rather than bringing us together and restoring trust, it simply speeds and intensifies our divisions. Moreover, it tends to be adopted with the same kind of thoughtlessness that made us susceptible to betrayal in the first place and has been marshalled by the same forces that deceived and exploited us to begin with. (Notice how the outrage of both sides has been monetized by those who would enrich themselves through misery.) 

Our predicament is similar to that of Dante at the beginning of the Divine Comedy when he lost his way and awoke to find himself in a dark wood, savage as death. He tried to find his way out on his own, but couldn’t. He needed a guide. For Dante, this guide was the poet Virgil who would lead him to freedom by another, more difficult, route. For us, I suggest, such a guide can be found in the character of Socrates. For Socrates provides us with an example of how a knowledge of our lack of wisdom can itself lead to wisdom. 

Plato’s Apology recounts Socrates’ origin story as a philosopher. Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon is said to have traveled to the Delphic oracle to ask whether anyone was wiser than Socrates. To this, the god replied that none was wiser. When Socrates heard this, he was incredulous, for he was well aware that he lacked wisdom. He thus went those reputed to be wise to question them and show that they were indeed wiser than he. He spoke to famous politicians, poets, and skilled craftsmen, but found them to be without wisdom. After a life of such inquiry, Socrates concluded that Apollo may have, in a sense, been right. For, though Socrates lacked wisdom, he at least knew that he lacked it, and this knowledge of his lack of wisdom was a prerequisite for searching for it.

In this manner, Socrates was likened to a figure of Silenus. Figures of Silenus were cheap jars in the shape of the ugly face of Dionysus’s drunk teacher of the same name. They were tawdry on the outside, but inside they contained statues of the gods. In the same way, Socrates looked ugly, disheveled, and unskilled, but when you philosophized with him, you could see he held something divine.[2] 

What then is this divine philosophy that Socrates can teach us? 

One way to answer this question is to turn to the academic discipline of philosophy to examine the “big questions” it allegedly considers. What is reality, and how is it structured? What is the nature and extent of knowledge (or rational justification)? Are moral values real, and, if so, what grounds their normative force? This list of questions provides us with a relatively clean abstract disciplinary division between metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. But while to an extent useful, it tends to reduce philosophy to yet one more academic discipline among others, and to equate answering these questions with mere puzzle solving.[3] 

A better question oriented approach is suggested by Kant when he claims that the interests of reason are encapsulated in three questions: Was kann ich wissen? Was soll ich tun? Was darf ich hoffen? (KrV A 805/ 833) [What can I know? What should I do? In what may I hope?]  These questions better express what motivates a life of philosophy. Yet, expressing these questions does not, by itself, tell us how to go about answering them. To do this, I think it is better to look at the practices of philosophy.[4] If we agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, what would the examined life, the life that is worth living, consist in? I’d like to suggest that four practices lie at the heart of philosophy: contemplation, dialectic, creation, and spiritual transformation. 

Practice I: Θεωρια

To begin, let us consider the practice of contemplation. This practice is perhaps best understood through the Greek concept of θεωρια. Θεωρια comes from the verb θεωρεω, which can mean to look at, behold, see, gaze at, contemplate, or consider. This is the verb, for example, used to characterize being a spectator at the Olympic games and beholding the athletes performing there. The most familiar way to think of this today would be through the concept of mindfulness popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” The idea is that, if we are to rid ourselves of illusions and merely reactive thoughts and behaviors so as to act consciously and with integrity, we must first be aware of how things appear to us. We must be cognizant of what we are thinking, feeling, or sensing. And, to do this, we need to detach, stand back, and observe our experience. Aristotle identified such contemplation with the highest form of life, even going so far as to call it divine.[5]

Likewise, this contemplative practice also grounds a philosophical method called phenomenology. According to the great 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger,

“The term ‘phenomenology’ expresses a maxim which can be formulated as ‘to the things themselves!’ It is opposed to all free floating constructions and accidental findings; it is opposed to taking over any conceptions which only seem to have been demonstrated; it is opposed to those pseudo-questions which parade themselves as ‘problems’, often for generations at a time.”[6]

And,

Phenomenology means …to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.”[7]

By contemplation, we can thus begin to peel away the accretions of habitual thought that have blinded us to reality.

Practice II: Διαλεκτιη

The second core practice of philosophy, dialectic, builds upon this. Dialectic comes from the Greek concept of διαλεκτιη, and can, for our purposes, be best defined as a truth oriented conversation characterized by its question and answer format in which various positions are subjected to rational scrutiny. Several features of this definition are worth noting. First, note that the process is truth oriented. Dialectic is a disinterested inquiry. It is not about boosting your ego or improving your self-esteem, and its goal is not to establish your reputation or that of your tribe. Rather, in dialectic, it is better to be to be refuted than to do the refuting, because the one refuted is brought closer to the truth.[8] Imagine that you had a disease and believed that you possessed a cure for it, but, before taking it, your friend showed you that you were misguided and that your putative cure was actually poison. In this scenario, it would be much better to be refuted and learn the truth, than to “win” the argument and drink the lethal potion. Dialectic, then, is not about “owning” your opponents. (Those who buy or sell merchandise about drinking their rivals’ tears, are far from the realm of philosophy.)

Next, note that dialectic is a conversation, not a monologue. It is a dynamic interaction of minds, and thus cannot be scripted. And, as a result, it requires the presence of mind developed in contemplative practice. It is also worth observing here that this is one of the key reasons why classical texts are essential to philosophical education. It is not as if past thinkers have somehow passed through the veil of illusion to hand us the unvarnished truth. Instead, great books are dialogue partners, challenging our assumptions and presenting us with different ways of looking at the world. Contrary to stereotypes, the very idea of a cannon can establish and protect intellectual diversity.

Finally, dialectical dialogue is a process of rational questioning, unfolding in a series of questions and answers. These questions may involve asking for definitions (“what do you mean by that?”), asking for evidence (“why should I believe that? Or what is the evidence for your position?”), or asking for the consideration of counterarguments (“how is this consistent with that? Or doesn’t your position entail that bad outcome?”)

By engaging in such a process, we refine our views and come closer to the truth. Dialectic presents us with a virtuous cycle in which we ascend ever closer to the Truth. This can be seen in Hegel’s use of the German verb aufheben to characterize the process. Aufheben can mean to cancel, preserve, or to pick up. In the same way, in dialectic some claims are canceled in that they are proven wrong, but they are not wholly rejected, since the basic exploratory motive of the position is preserved along with its more adequate elements, and finally the position is lifted up to a higher level by being placed in a broader explanatory framework.

Practice III: Ποιησις

The third core practice of philosophy is creation. This is expressed by the Greek word ποιησις which is defined as “fabrication, creation, or production”, as in a poetic composition. It comes from the verb ποιεω  which means “to make, create, bring into existence, compose, write, or cause”. People often fail to note that philosophy, no less than poetry or art, is a creative endeavor. To respond appropriately to the dialectical dance, one needs to be able to create new concepts, frameworks, and systems. Deleuze, for example, goes so far as to define philosophy as “the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.”[9] … “or, more rigorously, philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts.”[10] Likewise, the importance of creativity can be seen in Nietzsche’s hierarchy of the camel, the lion, and the child in his Three Metamorphoses. The camel seeks out difficulties and proves himself by bearing much. He bears the burden of the law’s thou shalt. The Lion, in turn, rebels against this, asserting “I will” against the thou shalt of the law, shouting a sacred “no” in defiant freedom. But the highest stage, claims Nietzsche, is that of the divine child. For the child can utter a sacred yes and create new values. Nietzsche asks, “what can the child do that even the lion could not do? Why must the preying lion become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will, and he who had been lost to the world now conquers his own world.”[11]

Core Practice IV: Θεουργια

The final core practice of philosophy is spiritual transformation. This is expressed in the Greek concept of θεουργια which means “divine work, sacramental rite, or mystery.” For our purposes, we can define it as a spiritual practice meant to lead one to union with Absolute Reality. Just as theology (θεος + λογος) is rational discourse about God, so theurgy (θεος + εργον) is god work that prepares one for non-discursive knowledge of the Absolute. In this way, it is similar to the Chinese concept of Qigong, “Qi” for universal vital energy, and “Gong” for work. It is thus no surprise that philosophy has been associated with a variety of spiritual practices throughout history such as Qigong, Taijiquan, Yoga, Meditation, shamanic journeying, Jungian dreamwork and active imagination, Astrology and Astral Magic, Alchemy (with its idea of the philosopher’s stone), and contemplative prayer.

We can see the importance of this spiritual dimension of philosophy in Plato’s seventh letter. This is one of the few instances we have of Plato speaking about his philosophy in his own voice, rather than through the fictional characters in his dialogues. Plato confesses:

“There is no writing of mine about these matters, nor will there ever be one. For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself.”

Or again, he notes:

“By repeated use of these instruments, ascending and descending to each in turn, it is barely possible for knowledge to be engendered of an object naturally good, in a man naturally good; but if his nature is defective, as is that of most men, for the acquisition of knowledge and the so-called virtues, and if the qualities he has have been corrupted, then not even Lynceus could make such a man see. In short, neither quickness of learning nor a good memory can make a man see when his nature is not akin to the object, for this knowledge never takes root in an alien nature; so that no man who is not naturally inclined and akin to justice and all other forms of excellence, even though he may be quick at learning and remembering this and that and other things, nor any man who, though akin to justice, is slow at learning and forgetful, will ever attain the truth that is attainable about virtue. Nor about vice, either, for these must be learned together, just as the truth and error about any part of being must be learned together, through long and earnest labor, as I said at the beginning. Only when all of these things–names, definitions, and visual and other perceptions–have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy–only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can they illuminate the nature of any object.” Letters VII 343e-344b.[12]

So, for Plato, one must not only strive to be intellectually sharp, but to be spiritually good if one hopes to grasp the form of the Good.

These then have been the four core practices constitutive of philosophy: θεωρια, διαλεκτιη, ποιησις, and θεουργια. I hope that, even if only in a small way, you might come away with a new appreciation for the examined life and the practice of philosophy. Until next time, I will leave you with some concluding advice from Plato.

“You must picture …. the extent of the undertaking, describing what sort of inquiry it is, with how many difficulties it is beset, and how much labor it involves. For anyone who hears this, who is a true lover of wisdom, with the divine quality that makes him akin to it and worthy of pursuing it, thinks that he has heard of a marvelous quest that he must at once enter upon with all earnestness, or life is not worth living; and from that time forth he pushes himself and urges on his leader without ceasing, until he has reached the end of the journey or has become capable of doing without such a guide and finding the way himself. This is the state of mind in which such a man lives; whatever his occupation may be, above everything and always he holds fast to philosophy and to the daily discipline that best makes him apt at learning and remembering, and capable of reasoning soberly with himself; while for the opposite way of living he has a persistent hatred” Letters VII.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Analects trans. Dawson (New York: Oxford University Press).

[2] Alcibiades makes this comparison in Plato’s Symposium.

[3] And this very delegation of philosophical curiosity to tasks akin to solving crossword puzzles may have been the actual intent of this disciplinary ideal. See, John McCumber’s Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy in the Macarthy Era for an analysis of the political forces that shaped the trajectory of analytic philosophy. See also https://againstprofphil.org/2016/02/26/hyper-disciplined-minds-the-professionalization-of-philosophy-and-the-death-of-dissent/

[4] For an account of how the practice of philosophy as a way of life was central to the ancient tradition see Pierre Hadot’s What is Ancient Philosophy? As can be seen in what follows, my account diverges from Hadot’s in rejecting what I believe to be his artificial sundering of the figures of the philosopher (one who seeks wisdom but can never find it) and the sage (one who has attained wisdom), and in his consequent subsumption of the philosophical life under a modern broadly Kantian moral framework (demanding an infinite moral progress towards an ultimately unattainable goal).

[5] For example, in book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics, he claims that a life of contemplation constitutes the highest life for man. “So if among excellent actions political and military actions are distinguished by nobility and greatness, and these are unleisurely and aim at an end and are not desirable for their own sake, but the activity of intellect, which is contemplative, seems both to be superior in worth and to aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its pleasure proper to itself (and this augments the activity), and the self-sufficiency, leisureliness, unweariedness (so far as this is possible for man), and all the other attributes ascribed to the blessed man are evidently those connected with this activity, it follows that this will be the complete happiness of man, if it be allowed a complete term of life (for none of the attributes of happiness is incomplete)” (NE 10.7). Likewise, he claims that this would be the only life worthy of the gods. “We assume the gods to be above all other beings blessed and happy; but what sort of actions must we assign to them? Acts of justice? Will not the gods seem absurd if they make contracts and return deposits, and so on? Acts of brave man, then, confronting dangers and running risks because it is noble to do so? Or liberal acts? To whom will they give? It will be strange if they are really to have money or anything of the kind. And what would their temperate acts be? Is not such praise tasteless, since they have no bad appetites? If we were to run through them all, the circumstances of action would be found trivial and unworthy of the gods. Still, every one supposes that they live and therefore that they are active; we cannot suppose them to sleep like Endymion. Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness” (10.8).

[6] Being and Time, Int. II ❡7. trans. Macquerrie and Robinson.

[7] Ibid., 2.C.

[8] See Plato’s Gorgias 458.

[9] Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 2.

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Thus Spoke Zarathustra trans. Kaufmann

[12] In Plato: Collected Works ed. Cooper.

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