All I had in all my classes were jocks trying to make up credit, you know? You know that feeling? They weren’t there to learn at all. The first day of my Eastern Philosophy course the instructor walks out and goes, “God is consciousness, and we are all God trying to realize our full potential.” … WOOOW! [Bill’s voice is full of amazement] . . . Then this guy in the back row [in a hillbilly voice] is, “Yeah… we gowna hafta know thet? Thet gonna be on the qwizzz?”
– Bill Hicks, from American: The Bill Hicks Story
A Preposterous Introduction
Let me say a number of outlandish things that will hopefully interest and delight certain readers, but that will very likely astonish, annoy, or offend many others as well. I say emphatically that the aims of education today and for much of our past in modern technological society have not been informed by the love of wisdom that is our birthright as human beings; I also say that whatever small mention of philosophy and philosophy instruction has been made in schools by disciplinary experts and curriculum designers is largely a sham; moreover, I say that how philosophy is “taught” in Philosophy Departments by Doctors of Philosophy is likewise misleading. These are important things to state clearly because when we misconceive of philosophy, or when we reject philosophy in order to pursue lesser things like money, acclaim, power, sensual pleasure, or success, we are giving up on the one thing that can heal us, save us, enlighten us, contribute to our own happiness, as well as to the happiness of others, and even of the planet itself.
The philosopher Josef Pieper often remarked in his writings that Plato’s Academy had a cultic office of sacrifices through which everything that transpired educationally was brought under the aegis of sacred inquiry. For Pieper, as well as for Plato, a genuine education in which wisdom is sought cannot be otherwise than a divine pursuit since, as Pythagoras famously remarked, “Only the god is wise.” Philosophizing is the activity of human beings who are preparing to see through their mortal follies in order that they might rejoice in a glorious vision of their true nature as beings participant in Divine mystery and immortality. As lovers of Wisdom, philosophizing human beings seek to know a goddess; Wisdom (sophia), after all, is one of God’s most noteworthy feminine qualities.
Properly understood, philosophy is cultic. Wisdom is a kind of expansive-yet-simple understanding of reality, or what is. It is an intuitive, ordering knowledge which comes to us in passive receptivity through seeing (theoria) divine things with clarity. Wisdom is sought out relationally in love and openness, or receptivity. Although it is certainly the case that philosophizing human beings reason, think, and consider, the movement of the mind in philosophy isn’t the same as when we exert ourselves in masterful efforts at subject-object knowing in science, mathematics, or the technical arts, for instance; the human intellect is not drawn into communion with Wisdom through ratiocination — as though the mind could, by its own rigor and strength in reasoning, attain to the things of God. This is not to say that subject-object knowing is not important, or that reasoning is not a truth-seeking behavior of the mind in search of its ground. Of course it is. But object-knowing — including all the precious learning accrued by the ego over the course of one’s life, as well as our familiarity with the accumulated knowledge of western, technological civilization — is only an eggshell in thickness when compared to the unfathomable depths and expanse of theoria in relation to wisdom. Our own self-professed knowledge, by comparison, is laughable.
The greatest impediment to loving wisdom is pride or hybris. In our pride, we suppose that our accumulated knowledge and understanding is much more than it is; most especially, being prideful means that we have misidentified our true selves with any number of transient psycho-mental states. For instance, at any given moment, we may find ourselves swept up by affections such as low self-esteem or depression; pomposity, hatred, contempt, resentment, or self-loathing; fear, anger, humiliation, or lust; desire or despair; anxiety or competitiveness; jealousy or ambition; we may likewise be overtaken by the richness of our sensory perceptions, as well as by the variety or intensity of all the bodily stimulations we encounter, along with their associated pleasures or pains. Similarly, we may easily be caught up in the allure of beautiful ideas or words that ring with truth; by thoughts of good works or memories of good and precious things; by methodologies, logic, arguments, orthodoxies and opinions; by valuations, ideals, judgments, or else by insidious ideological systems that we feel make sense of things or that provide us with certainty. However, in all of these cases where we think we have come to know ourselves, we are really just confusing the psycho-mental ego-flux with our true self, which continues to escape our notice. When we do this, we lack self-knowledge.
Philosophy has many faces. For instance, following the method of negation in Vedanta, the lover of wisdom must begin to say, as she investigates herself, “not this, not this” (neti neti) to all egoic formations. Only in this way will she be able to cultivate an opening of consciousness towards the transcendent (Skt. paribhuh) or universal self. This weaning away from mortal things in search of what is deathless is likewise at the core of Aristotle’s conception of philosophy as “immortalization” (athanatizein, Nicomachean Ethics X.vii.8); or again, we find it as central to Buddha’s teaching about the self that is no-self (anatman). Indeed, “philosophy” is a beautiful word we can use to name the universal spiritual activity of making daily efforts to undo our confusions and to live more consciously. It is the quintessential human adventure of seeking to know oneself, which always entails leaving the ego behind. This is why Socrates famously referred to philosophy as the “art of dying and being dead” (Phaedo 67e). Philosophy is our most precious birthright as human beings.
Philosophy is a way of life. It is a daily spiritual practice that we engage in as human beings with both our head and our heart; we do it with the best part of our self as it seeks out the most Sublime object of our innermost yearnings. Philosophy is self-discovery; it is coming to know who you are when, in the end, you find out that you are all that is, that you are one with God and with all other people and things.
Philosophy is that magnetic force that lies unobtrusively at the base of your earliest memories, smouldering like sacred coals beneath a blanket of forgetting, of “growing up,” and of “getting serious” about all the egoic concerns that drive our much louder notions of progress and the will to conform, that fuel all falsehoods about the economy which are destroying the planet, and that replicate the patterns of samsara through which all of us move lifetime after lifetime.
Socrates tells us in his defense speech that our human participation in wisdom is best described as a profound awareness of our own ignorance rather than as the acquisition of even the most elevated, precise, diverse, or specialized knowledge. “Human wisdom” (anthropina sophia, Apology 20d) involves being able to see clearly just how little we know in relation to all that we do not know. Human wisdom is therefore a kind of humility that arises from contemplative seeing, or theoria.
Now Imagine for a Moment . . .
In ancient Rome, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius made use of imaginative thought experiments called hypomnemata in order to enhance his awareness of the cosmic order and to cultivate greater attunement towards the ground of being in his daily life. Taking up this same fanciful mode of evoking participatory experiences in spiritual reality, together let’s imagine for a moment what the sweetness of contemplation might taste like for the loving adventurer.
Theoria, as the seeing that we do during the activity of wisdom-seeking, is both transformational and joyous. The lover who is afforded a glimpse of what is in Wisdom’s light gazes upon all that she has come to “know” or to be certain about over the years with a new-found and vivifying amazement. All of the hardness in her heart melts away instantly. Humility now alights tenderly upon her spirit, whereas before any such opportunity may have felt like a heavy stone, a boot on the neck, or an unpalatable humiliation. In contemplation, she suddenly finds her heart filled to overflowing with deep appreciation. Gratitude and laughter overwhelm her spirit; how wonderful it is to see through her own false pretenses to knowledge!
Imagine how contemplation arises as a great and wondrous gift. Those touched by theoria in this way are instantly healed from so many troubles. Having seen through our wretchedness, imperfections, and wrongdoings — all those things for which we have long chastised and vilified both ourselves and others — we now regard these shortcomings in a new light. No longer are our faults viewed as the results of a sinful or blameworthy nature; instead, and like Er in Plato’s Republic, we are given to recognize them as the innocent outcomes of circumstance and necessity mixed with choices and behaviors that were formed amidst our ignorance. All things are, in a certain way, just the way they should be. Or perhaps like Boethius standing before Lady Sophia in his Consolations of Philosophy, in an instant, we too are able to find God’s providence in all things; once the roots of our anger are dispelled as our ego relaxes, everything appears as it truly is: just so, and as it was meant to be. All our daily complaints about injustice dissolve, and following Nietzsche in his praise for Amor Fati, we burst forth joyfully with “Yea-saying” for all that has been, all that is, and all that will be.
Next – and most exhilaratingly of all perhaps! – imagine how on the heels of insight into injustice and our follies, we encounter wave after wave of healing forgiveness. How wonderful is such an experience! Prior to this sweetness, although we knew and mouthed the word, perhaps we never knew what forgiveness really felt like. Perhaps before this contemplative event in our soul, we could neither forgive ourselves nor forgive others; but now, and all-at-once, the heaviest burdens that we have carried our whole lives due to ignorance-about-our-ignorance are instantly dissolved. Imagine how the spirit erupts with holy light and beautiful release at this moment; imagine how the chest fills to bursting with love, just like a volcano. All at once, the majesty of the entire cosmic order looms up before us as a mirror for divine goodness and perfection. Likewise, we instantly recognize the vastness of creation as a mirror for all that is holy within ourselves; we experience the perfect and beautiful harmony in all things; in these few moments of consciousness-expansion that have been afforded to us through the gift of having glimpsed only a little in Wisdom’s light, we have seen all things at once, and we rejoice in a symphonic Halleluiah of the heart.
Each of these imaginative, hypomnematic experiments are meant to demonstrate to the mind and the heart which opens towards them how philosophy is principally about the expansion of consciousness. In philosophy, we come to knowing by loving. In our love of wisdom, we come to recognize the divine-in-man, the immortal soul in the mortal being, or the equivalency of atman and Brahman (Ayan Atma Brahma). Consciousness expands delightfully as we take up our purpose to become all love, such that love for what is pervades every atom of our being.
Imagine how, when the stranglehold of the ego relaxes its powers over consciousness, in Wisdom’s relational vision, we come to know that we are never alone, that we are indeed deathless (athanatos), and therefore that there is nothing, ever, to fear. Amidst such a vision, we rediscover our own lost innocence. We find the Kingdom of Heaven hidden within ourselves (Luke 17:21) when we come to know ourselves as little children once again (Matthew 18:3). In Wisdom’s light, we come to realize how the child within ourselves has been waiting so long for us to find him. Loving wisdom is an act of soul retrieval and recollection. We must go down and inward like shamans to retrieve and to restore our relations with the little boy or the little girl within ourselves who has been neglected for so long. Wisdom’s vision draws us back to our childhood selves with re-awakened love and compassion. We must learn to love ourselves! Philosophy especially necessitates a love for children and for learning to become young again. No wonder Socrates dialogued so much with the youth!
Philosophy as Soul Care in Everyday Life
Admittedly, such visions as we have just imagined together are extra-ordinary. However, we can come to know something of these gifts in our mundane, day-to-day loving, as when we love each other, when we love our family, or when we love nature and the Earth; when we love our students, or when we put ourselves behind others joyfully, we intimate the great goods of wisdom. We live in a kind of unspoken wisdom-seeking way.
Loving others with a deep affection that seeks to know the heart of things is a manner of philosophizing. When we enjoy even a fraction of these gifts, or if we catch just a glimpse of these blessings, it can shift everything else inside us over time – or even in the twinkling of an eye! We find ourselves enabled in miraculous ways for things that once were impossible for us.
These transformations of spirit happen because philosophy heals. Socrates has called the love of wisdom “soul care” for a reason.
But how can philosophy be “the art of dying” (Phaedo 67e) as well as “the art of caring for souls” (Apology 30ab)? How can the art of dying also be the art of healing? Aren’t death and healing opposites? After all, who would go to a doctor for healing and be happy to end up dead from the treatment? Here, I am reminded of the two-line “Doctor Doctor” joke:
“Doctor! Doctor! Please help me! I’m at death’s door!”
“Don’t worry. We’ll soon pull you through.”
Nonetheless – and despite it sounding ludicrous – dying in order to heal is always the way towards wisdom. When we come to certain places in our own lives, we find ourselves ripe to undergo the philosopher’s transformational death, in which we die to what we once thought we were but then become renewed in a wider, deeper awareness of what we truly are.
The gifts of seeing (theoria) are essential for our healing. This is why philosophy is essential to our education for happiness. These gifts can help us to overcome addictions to alcohol and drugs, as well as to leave behind past behaviors and mindsets that, on our own, we have been unable to address successfully despite our best efforts. These gifts of theoria, when they come to us as our hearts open, enable us all-at-once to heal and to grow. Our long-standing fears melt away; we become empowered to see through such powerful task-masters as anger, pride, crippling anxieties, impatience, and self-accusation. And when, amidst these visions of the lovable, we recognize our kinship with others and with all things, just think of the consequences! Imagine how abhorrent racism, xenophobia, contempt for the environment and for the Earth as our sacred home will be dissolved when each recognizes his kinship and his identity with the other! Think of the peace and goodwill that Wisdom’s light brings with it. These are only a few of the miracles and wonders that theoria, as the love of wisdom, provides.
Final Inflammatory Thoughts about Criticism and the Need for Laughter
Nay-sayers and critics who haven’t yet given up on this preposterous essay will attack it for its informality, for lacking all objectivity, for being devotional, awkward, or unacademic in tone, and for having next-to-no-footnotes or grounding in “the literatatoor.” They will similarly complain that it makes bold, unsupported/unsupportable claims, and that it appeals to feeling and the imagination for its effects rather than to careful reasoning or sound argumentation. Moreover, they will no doubt say that none of this sounds anything like philosophy or education. How did such a load of rubbish get published, anyway?
I have met many such people over the years, and where before it seemed to me to matter a great deal what they thought of me, nowadays I am thankfully less concerned with their complaints. One cannot live happily in fear of the bad opinion of others.
In philosophizing, one wishes to live authentically and truthfully in the development of a loving understanding; one hopes for the expansion of consciousness, and I believe also that as philosophers, we wish to articulate our experiences of seeing or contemplation (theoria) as well as our memories of searching (zetesis) in loving speeches (logoi) that reach out towards the ground. We do this to remind ourselves about what we have seen and learned and as part of our daily spiritual practice (askesis), but also in hopes of helping others along the way who may be like-minded (homonoian).
However, at the same time, whenever one speaks or writes about such things, one must also remember not to take one’s own words too seriously either. Put another way: one must not take oneself too seriously. This is a key practice for all philosophizing. It is why Plato tells us in his Seventh Letter that nothing he has ever written should be taken seriously (344cd). Over time, I have come to see that part of living the philosophic life must be learning to laugh at oneself, including one’s own “most seeerious insights.” In a certain way, unseriousness is how we will learn best to celebrate and to participate happily in the comedic, Dionysian dissolution of our ego.
* * *
Some years ago, I attended a stand-up comedy show featuring Gilbert Gottrfried here in Calgary with a former student of mine. It was an exquisite and unforgettable experience. Gilbert had enraptured the crowd with his outlandish, unspeakably filthy, and taboo-violating humor. Just when you thought there was no further he could go, and no other line he could possibly cross, he would smash yet another inviolable moral precept or boundary, taking you delightfully down further into a comedy death spiral. That evening, Gilbert was a remarkably gifted psychopomp; absolutely nothing you could think of was sacred or sacrosanct in his hands. Nobody and nothing was safe. Everything was torn up. You were torn up. The audience was entirely at his mercy. I couldn’t breath at all, and I almost pissed my pants painfully numerous times. My sides were split from laughing so hard and for so long. My face was streaming uncontrollably with tears; it was all I could do not to fall out of my chair, and I felt as though I were losing my mind. Quite simply, I had been entirely overcome. I was possessed by ecstatic laughter, transported beyond good and evil into a delightful realm of freedom from all Apollonian forms and constraints, including our oh-so-seeerious judgments and expectations. That night, Gilbert’s magical transport provided his audience with a beautiful release from themselves. At the end of the show, I remember feeling so happy and thankful towards him. On our way towards the exit, I spotted Gilbert standing by the door selling CD’s and copies of his latest filthy book. I can still recall all the warmth and peacefulness he exuded in his squinty-eyed smile as we filed past. Shaking his hand and offering my thanks to him for his performance, I could feel his graciousness. A sense of serenity enveloped me.
* * *
As a final hypomnematic exercise for us, let’s imagine the great joy to be had in uproarious laughter that relaxes and destroys the fevered “I”, that slaughters every sacred cow, and that dissolves each psycho-mental impediment to knowing the Dionysian ground which hides beneath all illusion – all that is neti, neti. Imagine the laughing Shiva-destroyer dance of one who, with the help of spirits not unlike Socrates’ daimon (which always says neti, neti), is able to participate in this ego-rending celebration! Such laughter is the spirituality of the true philosopher. It is why the comedian, on his best nights, says delightfully of his audience, “I destroyed! I slayed! Knocked them dead… murdered. I killed’em all!”
There are, however, different deaths related to comedic transports in relation to wisdom. Consider George Carlin’s well-known remarks about the “killer comic”:
Comedy’s nature has two sides. Everybody wants a good time and a couple of laughs, and of course, the comic wants to be known as a real funny guy. But the language of comedy is fairly grim and violent. It’s filled with punch lines, gags, and slapstick. After all, what does a comic worry most about? Dying! He doesn’t want to die.
“Jeez, I was dyin’. It was like death out there. Like a morgue. I really bombed.”
The death of which Carlin speaks in this passage is quite the opposite of “the art of dying” that we have thus far investigated. Here, we see that the death which is most feared by the comic is the failure to inspire a Dionysian descent or dissolution in his or her audience. This is a key insight: the most fearsome death is not the dissolution of the ego or its subjection to ridicule and destruction, but the Apollonian solidification, hardening, or entombment of the soul; amidst such a sorry, oh-so-seeeerious state of affairs, the comic is unable to break through established orders, and he cannot liberate his audience from what Bill Hicks has called all those “fevered egos that are tainting our collective unconscious and making us pay a higher psychic price than we imagine”. What is to be sought out and what is to be avoided are essentially mirror opposites in the practice of wisdom-seeking.
So in the end, this essay may indeed be quite ridiculous. And I don’t know why it has managed to be published! But it has been written earnestly, and with the hope that its play of images, the memories it evokes, and the connections it presents to readers might enflame some of you and help you to begin your own quest for wisdom. Certainly, my remarks have at times been awkward and outlandish, but only with the intent of whetting your appetite for a personal embarkation. Philosophy is, after all, about finding what is sacred in yourself as well as what is unserious. And as you do philosophy, it should stir up within you a great delight in your being. May the spirit of philosophy therefore enflame your soul while you seek to know your true self, and as you grow in your love for wisdom, may these inflammatory remarks about philosophizing help you to die, or at least to be killed most joyfully!
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand, and S. J. Tester, Loeb Classical Library 74. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Carlin, George. The Best of Brain Droppings. White Plains, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1997.
Hicks, Bill. “The Comix Annex.” Track 4 on American: The Bill Hicks Story. Audio CD. Redbush Entertainment, 2014.
___. Love All The People. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2005.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Plato. The Collected Dialogues. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Steel, Sean. Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses. New York: Peter Lang, 2018.
 Bill Hicks, “The Comix Annex,” Track 4 on American: The Bill Hicks Story. Audio CD Redbush Entertainment, 2014.
 For an extended discussion of Aurelius’ hypomnemata in relation to philosophizing, see Sean Steel, Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses (Peter Lang, 2018) 28-32; various hypomnematic experiments for practitioners are also included in the Appendix section of this book (357-372).
 Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand, and S. J. Tester, Loeb Classical Library 74 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973) IV.20ff.
 George Carlin, The Best of Brain Droppings (White Plains, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1997) 78-80.
 Bill Hicks, Love All The People (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2005) 210.