We want to talk about philosophy from a practical standpoint, as a useful way of living, which people personally adopt without being able to talk about it.
When it comes to wisdom, there are three approaches:
First, there is the academic approach, where you have to write a paper and support your argument and defend your thesis with approved and authorized arguments which have been approved and authorized by someone else. The teacher, or professor, exists merely to make sure that authorization gets its due; the process is finally one in which the argument defended is not the student’s argument, but someone else’s argument, an argument which has already been approved. The game is: approving what has already been approved; and the result is: very little thinking takes place at all.
The academic approach is nearly always unsatisfying; it exists for teachers, not students, and the rigor involved only serves to frustrate those looking for a philosophy which is lived, and not just talked about. Paper-writing in school almost always chases people away to search for other avenues of wisdom.
The philosophy involved here may not be called religion, but this is what practical philosophy, even philosophy which explicitly rejects authoritarian religion, is. Philosophy exists, and it exists for 99 people out of a 100, as religion, as a way to behave for maximum advantage. Academics, naturally feeling themselves scientifically superior to anything merely practical (or, God forbid, “religious!”) in a common sort of way, demand a certain authority and rigor which kills the whole spirit of philosophy (and all its religious guises), ruining the process from the very start.
The second approach is the highly practical, or hedonist approach, the “religion” mostly taken up by the young, unattached male, which is no-philosophy or no-religion, a highly efficient approach that allows them to temporarily “believe” in whatever religion or ancient Chinese philosophy may be deeply or superficially held by the current female they are trying to seduce. This second approach has no authority or rigor at all, but more than makes up for this lack by being infinitely more practical than the first (academic) approach. Having been to college, or currently in college, academic “wisdom” may be quoted here and there to impress, but this is all simply part of the hedonistic goal of the second approach, which merely uses whatever is available to get what it wants from the female, who most likely has rejected the first ( academic) approach, as well, as being much too impractical. (And even the female who received an ‘A’ in philosophy did so only to please the professor.)
And this leads us to the third approach, mostly chosen by the earnest young female, searching for a “good philosophy” which shows them, hopefully with just a few quotes from Lao Tzu, to behave for maximum advantage in a world full of persistent, no-philosophy, male seducers, odious authoritarian religions, and corporate, Nature-destroying, cynicism.
The first approach, academic philosophy, has no practical use for anyone (except for those earning a living in academia) and can be fairly said not to exist at all. The second approach, the no-philosophy approach, has, by its very description, no real philosophical or religious existence, either—though its impact on the real world is significant and profound, and helps create the necessity of the third approach.
The third approach, then, is where philosophy, by default, really exists and is really practiced. This philosophy exists under the radar; it is not taken seriously, perhaps, because it is believed and lived most strenuously by women in an almost secretive and informal manner, manifested most intensely to lovers and potential partners. The third approach has been around long enough—since about the time when Christianity began to lose its pervasive hold on American morals—so that its philosophy has informed the last few generations: children learn it from their mothers, and, increasingly, from their fathers, and we can see it in Disney movies most visibly, films which feature talking animals and children who love animals, films which heroically attack Nature-destroying corporate cynicism, love of animals being a chief attribute of this pervasive, third-approach philosophy.
Whether it is Ayn Rand or Lao Tzu, every young woman who is not a cheerleader, and thinks for herself just a little bit, arms herself with a practical, anti-authoritarian philosophy, to fend off mean parents, mainstream religion, and no-philosophy, ravenous guys, and also to give herself a certain intellectual dignity in the face of the ravenous guy who affects a certain intelligence about philosophical matters.
This is a good thing; a young woman (or a young man, too; there are exceptions) should have a practical philosophy to navigate the perils of a cynical world.
But the good thing is almost a bad thing if the third approach philosophy is merely pragmatic. Fake wisdom is often worse than no wisdom at all, for nothing deceives quite like fake wisdom.
Here is the problem with the pragmatic: we have already seen how pragmatic the second approach is; the most pragmatic philosophy is the no-philosophy of the second approach, which can be any philosophy it wants, depending on its victim. The pragmatic philosophy of the third approach will always lose out, in terms of pragmatism, to the second approach. This will inevitably cause a great deal of emotional and mental and spiritual distress in the follower of the third approach; their “wisdom” only works for them up to a certain point, and they will find themselves constantly betraying their principles to a point where they begin to doubt they have a philosophy or set of beliefs at all, even as they tenaciously cling to their philosophy in a vague, self-doubting sort of manner.
We will look specifically at the most common principles of the third approach, a philosophy, which we have already pointed out, exists as an antidote to the super-cynical second approach in order to protect the person and the dignity and the sanity of the young woman making her way in the world. It will quickly be seen, however, that no “practical wisdom” can defend itself against the super-cynical Second Approach of “no-wisdom,” for the “no-wisdom”of the seducing guy is the ultimate pragmatism. And the young woman who chooses the Third Approach is vaguely aware of this, but finally succumbs to cynicism herself.
The Socratic philosophy is the only true antidote to the second approach, for Socrates recommends argument, not a set of wise quotations, as defense: the only true philosophy reacts to world-seductions by making the seductions themselves the true content of its philosophy as it carefully analyzes these seductions and gives them their due, and ascertains what they ultimately entail, without embracing or rejecting them at first. In this sense, the Socratic philosophy is like the second approach, keeping itself free to adapt in real time to whatever comes its way, and not trapping itself in a set of “wise sayings,” which can always be turned inside out and upside down by anyone who is moderately clever.
Here, for instance, is the “wisdom” of Lao Tzu, which millions learn in the form of “wise sayings” and which millions of women religiously use to keep themselves safe from the ravenous horrors of the cynical and selfish world:
Silence is a source of Great Strength.
Stop thinking and end your problems.
Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.
Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others.
Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need approval.
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.
There is a common thread to all these quotes, and their “wisdom” is such that one can see why those who desperately need to resist the seductive no-philosophy of the Second Approach would find this attractive. As we can see, it is precisely this kind of philosophy which we mentioned above: a way to behave for maximum advantage, a philosophy which is closer to a practical religion: but recall what we said about a philosophy that is practical—it will always be defeated pragmatically by the Second Approach, which is free to be as practical as it needs to be, which holds all the free-ranging, pragmatic cards, since it invests in no preconceived, fixed wisdom at all.
What we notice about the “wisdom” of Lao Tzu is that it encourages its followers to be silent, to invest in no argument at all; that is, this philosophy argues for a kind of no-philosophy (just like the seductive Second Approach!) Lao Tzu, in speaking to the woman who needs to protect herself against the take-no-prisoners, say-anything-to-win, super-pragmatic Second Approach, counsels that one should just shut up, keep silent, don’t argue, don’t think, don’t try to convince, don’t seek approval—in other words, it resembles the myth of the maiden who flees Apollo and turns into a tree. Protect yourself from the false seducer by becoming a rock.
But is this bit of pragmatism possible? Can one really survive in this world by not caring what others think? By not seeking anyone’s approval? By not thinking? Is this good advice? It is perhaps good advice when facing down an enemy with sugared words, but even here, will shutting one’s ears and closing off one’s thoughts really work?
Lao Tzu is counseling the woman (or the man) to avoid argument altogether. Lao Tzu is saying: use ignorance as your fortress. Make people think you are smart by never uttering a word. Roll yourself up into a ball and shut out the world. This may work at times, but always? Is this “wisdom,” then? No, it is fake wisdom. It is foolishness, really, and it only appeals because it partially mimics the no-philosophy of the second approach seducer. Lao Tzu’s “wisdom” fails, for only the courageously free Socratic argument can determine the good from the bad, when it comes to speech and its entire nexus of motivations. Non-verbal judgment and ‘thinking without thinking’ are valid approaches, but with Lao Tzu and the wisdom of the Tao, we see a complete withdrawal from social activity and argument recommended—and this cannot possibly help anyone as a philosophical lifestyle. The wu wei of Lao Tzu is a counter-intuitive, anti-philosophical attempt to mimic second approach wisdom—which will always be the ultimate rebellion against the (academic) first approach.
Here is more “wisdom” from Lao Tzu lest we be accused of being unfair:
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes— don’t resist them. Let things flow naturally forward.”
So all change should be accepted? Even bad changes? What does this mean exactly: “Let things flow…?” If this “flow” is natural in the sense that it is fundamental to the universe and inevitable, then one couldn’t stop it even if one wanted to, and if the “flow” can be stopped for some reason, wouldn’t one want to stop a “flow” that does harm? And if it does no harm, who would want to stop it, anyway? Is Lao Tzu saying that we should not act to change our environment at all? Is this practical? And if he is not saying this, what is he saying?
“Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.”
Again, this is basically saying the same thing: accept everything. Be “simple” is fine advice, but it is much easier to say “be simple” than to actually “return to the source of being,” which may or may not be “simple” for us, depending on how we experience “being” when we are with our kids at the shopping mall. “Be patient,” says the wise philosopher, with your “enemies,” even, we presume, as they are killing your friends. “Compassion” towards oneself is a good thing, we assume, and the same as being compassionate towards others, except those who are not compassionate towards us—our enemies, to whom, just like our friends, we show “patience,” and not “compassion.” It all gets very confusing after a while, when trying to piece together the nice qualities of wisdom.
Is it good to be reminded to be nice to oneself? No doubt it is. Or, to be told to show your enemies a certain amount of patience? Or to be reminded to keep things simple? Of course it is. But aren’t these truisms, platitudes which grow on trees? And do they apply at all times? Can one really use ‘sayings’ such as these to figure out practical problems? I’m going to be “compassionate” towards myself and have this piece of cake. Wait. Or should I be “compassionate” towards myself by not having this piece of cake. Which is it? Wisdom that can mean anything is, in fact, nothing.
Lao Tzu is no-wisdom. It is the second approach. We may as well admit it. It is nothing but a Trojan Horse, a “philosophy” of the fox for use by the chickens.
There. We’ve said it. The horrible truth is revealed. A “simple truth,” and “compassionate,” and we don’t care what anyone thinks, and we think nothing of it, and we give no thought to anything at all, as we move, like immense wisdom always does, with its accompanying shadows, into silence.