As a middle aged man. Wondering what life is really about. Reading about stoicism and being reminded that… ‘well what ever happens you pop your clogs like everybody does anyway’ doesn’t energise me much. Is there a philosopher that can provide meaning and cheer me up? I don’t want to turn into a Victor Meldrew!
Answer by Peter Jones
Stoicism has a lot going for it and it comforts many people, but it is not an explanatory theory and perhaps this is why it does not energise you. You have to take it on trust and it provides no answer for philosophical problems. It teaches the Unity of All but only as an article of faith and there is no developed metaphysical theory to ground this faith. It appeals to those who do not wish to venture into religion and mysticism yet would like to have some system of ethics and some life-style advice even if it is speculative and philosophically ungrounded.
You will not find a philosopher who can ‘provide meaning’ in the European tradition. Every attempt fails because no fundamental theory is possible within dualism. From your question it seems you have already noticed this.
For something more useful and hopeful you’d have to look elsewhere. I would suggest a study of the literature of the perennial philosophical tradition, for which speculation is supported by empiricism and dualism is banished.
If you know Stoicism then it is a small step to the philosophy of Middle Way Buddhism and to the idea that life is learning experience which in the long-term cannot go wrong. We can only learn faster or slower. There is a vast literature from which to take pot-luck. In the perennial tradition there is only one method and this is self-enquiry. The entire idea would be to follow the Oracle’s advice to Know Thyself. Only this would be a full cure for the sufferings of temporal existence. Nevertheless, there is a fully developed explanatory theory that explains how the world works and which allows us approach philosophy as an intellectual investigation.
It is said that once we know ourselves for what we truly are the question of meaning and purpose is answered. Thus the pessimism of Russell’s ‘Western’ philosophical approach is not found in the philosophy of non-dualism, where philosophers tend to be filled with excitement and joy by the astonishing wonders of life and death and the possibility, open to all of us, of transcending them for a knowledge of what the word ‘Unity’ really means.
There’s no predicting what you might enjoy reading since everyone starts from a different place. For a flavour of this other more helpful and hopeful philosophical view you could check out Rupert Spira, Mooji, Osho or Sadhguru on YouTube For an analytical approach explaining the metaphysics of this view the obvious name to mention is the Buddhist master Nagarjuna. Then there is Francis Bradley, George Spencer Brown, Hermann Weyl, Erwin Schrodinger, Douglas Harding and others who come at the issues from various intellectual directions, one of whom might appeal and perhaps even energise you. If you are coming from a Christian background I’d recommend Paul Ferrini and if he doesn’t cheer you up I’d be surprised, or perhaps Keith Ward or David Bentley Hart.
Ferrini and teachers like him such as Wei Wu Wei, the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi rarely deal with the metaphysical details, leaving them to others, and so if you are a philosopher you’ll want to get to grips with Nagarjuna and his proof of the Unity of All. For an introduction to this tricky topic I always recommend The Sun of Wisdom by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso. Books on Nagarjuna by Western philosophers tend to be over-long and unnecessarily complex even where they’re trustworthy.
In short, I would suggest opening the window and letting in the whole of philosophy before giving up on the discipline and becoming Victor Meldrew. No amount of footnotes to Plato is going to help. For a survey of the perennial teachings on the meaning and purpose of life and death some search-terms would be ‘non-duality’, ‘advaita’, ‘neutral metaphysical position’, ‘Unity’, ‘Emptiness’. This may lead you out of the terminal pessimism of our failed academic philosophy and into something a lot more intellectually plausible, hopeful, helpful, systematic and organised.
It’s a drastic solution but afaik the only one available. The alternative is the doom and gloom of our modern university philosophy which self-avowedly understands nothing and is not even as useful as Stoicism. For any optimism an explanation of death would be required and mysticism is the only discipline that studies this issue as an empirical matter rather than merely speculate. A theory of death is never going to dispel our worries, but a taste of it is known to do away with them entirely.
Reassuringly, according to the perennial view of Buddhism. Taoism. advaita Vedanta, Sufism and so forth it would be impossible for the real you to ‘pop your clogs’, but this could only be known by discovering who one really is.