How Studying Philosophy Can Change Your Life (No. Seriously…)

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Long ago, Aristotle rightly said that human beings are rational animals—and there’s the rub.  We are both reasonable and animal.

Well, this is awkward.

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Traditionally, philosophers have focussed on the rational aspects of being human; but two centuries ago, Charles Darwin taught us to think of ourselves as animals who evolved over millions of years to become who we are today.

He is, of course, quite right about this.

Since humans and our not-quite-human ancestors have been around for ages and ages, we have developed a number of important strategies for survival.  Whenever someone attacks us, we stand and fight (if we think we can win) or we run away (if we suspect that we can’t).  It’s pretty simple.  Fight or flight.

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And so it is unsurprising that whenever we humans are confronted with a hostile opinion, our first inclination is either to attack it or ignore it.  Fight or flight.

Let me give some context to my remarks.  I am a philosophy professor at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto and every year I teach a course called Introduction to Moral Philosophy.  As well as teaching authors who are Catholic or are sympathetic to Catholics, I also include Friedrich Nietzsche, a notorious atheist from the 19th century.

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Students are often scandalized by my including Nietzsche on the syllabus.  (In fact, one of my students once reported me to the Dean of Studies for teaching atheism to seminarians.)  Some think that Nietzsche should be ignored (flight), or, if he is considered, he should be severely and unceremoniously chastised, defeated and condemned (fight).

I do neither.

The great thing about philosophy is that you don’t have to run away from or beat up people who disagree with you.  It’s not an either-or.  There is a third alternative: try to understand them.

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I admit that it is a counter-intuitive move.  When people disagree with you, your natural reaction is to run away from them or to refute them.  But you will be richer if, instead of running away or refuting them or actively trying to misinterpret them, you actually try to understand them.

“Nietzsche—you say that ‘God is dead’.  What do you understand by the word ‘God’; and how is it that such a being could be said to die?  And if God died, does that imply that God was alive at one point?  And if he died, was he also born?  And exactly when did he die?  Did he die of old age, or did someone kill him, or did he die in some other way?  Or is this all a metaphorical way of speaking?  If so, what is the reality underlying the metaphor?”

I’m not saying that you have to agree with Nietzsche.  (Actually, I really hope that you don’t.)  I am saying that before you condemn him or ignore him or muzzle him, you should try to understand him.

What is true of Nietzsche is true of anyone else you meet.

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So next time you are talking to someone with whom you disagree, before you blow him off or shut her down or loudly denounce him on the internet WITH ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, ask your opponent some questions and try to figure out what the person meant.  Only then are you in a position to agree or disagree.  Only then is it reasonable to decide if you want to fight or run away.

De. Sean Mulrooney is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at St. Augustine's Seminary, Toronto.

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