Pay Attention!?


One of the great crimes of the modern age (by which I mean since around the time of the Renaissance) is the “professionalizing” of philosophy.  It has, often among people with the best of intentions, become a purely academic study, with no “real world” implications.  It is exemplified in the statement, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” If I tell you that was said by Henry David Thoreau in his work Walden in 1854, you’ll realize how long this problem has been around.¹  (A recent article in the New York Times supports this contention, although I would push the authors’ timeline further back.)

So it is easy to think that “the love of wisdom” is a totally intellectual pursuit that brings no benefit other than equipping us with tools to win arguments.  The study of it has become a historical survey of “The Great Thinkers,” whose ideas are reduced to objects of analysis and compared and contrasted.  This approach stands in stark contrast to the original schools of philosophy whose purpose was to help people realize the wisdom within them, and in fact to realize the One.  There are still schools like this around today, but finding them can be a real challenge.

This development however has been offset by a growing interest in what could be called “autodidact philosophy,” of which this blog is an example.  This kind of “do-it-yourself” philosophy appeals to people disenchanted with traditional religion, as well as what academic philosophy has become.  People who want to be better people, seeking to reunite knowledge with happiness, wisdom with love.  For better or worse this movement has produced a whole universe of books, seminars, and courses.  (Sometimes these do actually find themselves in an academic setting, such as A Course in Consciousness I wrote about some time back.)  Many of these works seem aimed at convincing people that they can improve their egos.

But for the most part they (including this blog and the books that emerged from it) are limited by the tools of the intellect, on the part of the writers as well as the readers.  We have an implicit faith in “the supremacy of the intellect,” i.e. the analytical mind, and the ability of words to communicate all ideas.  As long as we believe the words to be supreme, there can be only knowledge, never realization.  Plato knew this centuries ago and wrote in his Seventh Letter:

For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself.

There is something deeper within us: Consciousness itself, which is the parent of the mind and which fuels the flame.  So it is incumbent on those of us who read these works to do so in a state of stillness and receptiveness to that flame.  No doubt it is made easier if one has had “much converse…and a life lived together,” but it can happen from books as well.  The aim is to expand the consciousness, and we can do that by being fully present as we read–not analyzing or criticizing.  To discriminate which influences we allow, and then give our full attention as a gift.

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Socrates in a Basket, from "The Clouds" by Aristophanes

Socrates in a Basket, from “The Clouds” by Aristophanes

¹Actually a lot longer that that.  Aristophanes in his work The Clouds (423 BCE) mocks Socrates as having his head in, well, the clouds, and being totally oblivious to what is going on around him.