I read a quote in one of those celebrity columns recently that just blew me away. It’s not that I believe everything I read, especially when it comes to Hollywood, but for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the quote was correctly stated.
It was attributed to Angus Young, member of the band AC/DC. Think big arena rock, throbbing bass, and screeching vocals. You could identify an AC/DC song in the first few measures by its distinctive bass line and ribald lyrics. Many fans have smirked in recognition of the adolescent angst celebrated in the songs.
So here’s the quote attributed to Angus: “I don’t listen to music. I stopped listening 25 years ago when I started making my own.”
Oh, Angus. Wow. That has got to be the most radically conservative thing I have ever heard.
What’s so amazing about this is that we all do the same thing. We establish certain ideas and opinions about things and we get attached to them. They become part of our identity. We build our lives around ideas we may have had when we were in our twenties. If we’re aware of these ideas at all, we might notice that we’ve changed our minds over the years, but for the most part, we tend to hang on to our opinions for decades. It’s just easier that way—no need to go there and think through that again!
This thinking and rethinking is what philosophy is all about. Socrates said that the purpose of philosophy is to help us become “excellent human beings”. Our experiences help shape our philosophies, but our minds give us the ability to think logically and apply our knowledge.
Socrates himself always said that the only thing he knew for sure is that he knew nothing. He was fond of saying that there are two categories of beings that do not engage in philosophy—the gods or sages, who are already wise, and the senseless people, who THINK they are wise. A philosopher is a person in the middle, someone who is not yet wise but at least knows it.
That’s not a bad place to start.
Since there has been so much French-bashing lately, let's celebrate a famous French philosopher, Rene Descartes (day-CART). Descartes was a brilliant mathematician who later became known as the father of modern philosophy, and his “Cartesian Method” remains an integral part of mathematical studies as well as a time-tested approach to scientific research. It basically breaks down the process of inquiry into manageable pieces.
Got a problem? First, you break it down into smaller pieces. Then, you arrange these pieces from the simple to the most complex. Next, you analyze each one, beginning with the simple ones and moving on until you tackle the most difficult concepts. Finally, his approach required the investigator to keep analyzing the tough notions, even when they seem unfathomable. We use this approach all the time without realizing we’re being so Cartesian.
But the most revolutionary concept Descartes introduced was that of universal doubt. Since the times of the early Greek philosophers, the field of philosophy was generally regarded as the study of the theories of the great thinkers, and required a whole lot of discussion around which thinker had the most profound ideas. Descartes came up with a revolutionary notion—that each of us should approach philosophy from scratch. In other words, we could study the great philosophers if we wanted to, but then we had to throw out all those ideas, stripping everything down to its most basic elements, and come up with our OWN ideas. This seemed preposterous to many at the time. What…we should think for ourselves? But, why? HOW?
Descartes wasn’t satisfied basing his own life philosophy on the ideas of others. He believed we should each tackle the big questions and think our way through the process of reaching our own conclusions. So, in true Cartesian style, he started with the most basic concept first. We all know that classic annoying backseat question, “Are we there yet?” Well, try this one on for size: “Are we here now?”
Descartes came up with a famously succinct statement in response to this timeless question: “I think, therefore I am.” (In Latin, Cogito ergo sum) If I am here contemplating this question, it means I am alive and thinking. If I am alive and thinking, then it follows that I must indeed be here. Whew! Glad that’s settled.
Of course, it isn’t really settled. You could spend a long time thinking about that, and I invite you to do so. For now, let's go back to Socrates.
Picture this odd-looking guy wandering around Athens in a shabby cloak and barefoot. In all places, at all times, in everything he does, he is grabbing every opportunity in his daily life to ask questions.
He doesn’t ask easy questions. He asks hard ones, probing ones, ones that maybe even piss you off. As he used to say about himself, “I am utterly disturbing and I create only perplexity.” Hmm. I think we all know people like that. The thing is, we rarely think of them as philosophers. Perhaps we SHOULD.
Socrates’ purpose was to question his peers so that they would question themselves, their ideas, their choices, their very way of life. He liked to stir things up, but his intentions were pure. He looked upon himself as a midwife, helping people give birth to their own truths, their inner possibilities. And, like childbirth, that process could be messy and painful. He could put people in a foul mood. He understood implicitly that the value of asking questions is not in finding answers, but in revealing ourselves.
This reminds me of the Eskimo in Alaska. (Just so you know, it’s correct to refer to Inuit people in Alaska as Eskimo. If they live across the border, in Canada, they prefer to be called Inuit. Go figure.) The Eskimo people have a saying that goes something like this: “We don’t tell a story, a story tells us.” By that, they mean that if we hear a story, the valuable thing is not what is said in the tale, but what appears in our minds as a result of hearing it. And so it is with questions.
We can learn a lot about ourselves and our own life philosophies by asking ourselves this: What are my Angus issues? What thoughts have I attached myself to? When did I last spend time rethinking these issues?
Let’s use the ol’ Cartesian method here, starting with simple ideas and moving toward more complex ones.
Start small. Look at an opinion you have, like “I hate country music.” Hmm. Okay. Is that ALL country music? Is that ALL country singers? Is there not a single country song or artist that I like? What would it be like if I didn’t have that opinion? What would it be like if I had the OPPOSITE opinion? Would my friends laugh at me? Would I have to hide my CD collection? Would I start wearing cowboy boots? What really bothers me about country music? Why do I get so riled up, anyway?
Examine the differences between ideas and habits. Perhaps you are more attached to one than the other. In the country music example, how much of your opinion is based on your idea (“I hate it, so I never listen to it.”) and how much on your habit (“I never listen to it, so that means I hate it.”)?
After you’ve tackled some little Angus issues, move on to bigger ones. Let’s say you don’t believe in life after death. You think that once you die, it’s all over. No spirit, no heaven, no soul, no nothing. On what have you based this notion? When is the last time you revisited this idea? What would it be like if you didn’t have that belief? What would it be like if you strongly embraced the OPPOSITE concept?
Your goal: to become aware of the thoughts shaping your daily life, and to begin questioning them. It might be disturbing. It might be invigorating. I hope it’ll get you thinking.
We need more thinkers on this planet!
Maya Talisman Frost is a gifted teacher, facilitator, and mediator. She has been helping people engage their formidable frontal lobes since 1983. Maya uses a unique blend of philosophy, compassion and humor in individual, nonprofit and corporate settings to kickstart creative problem-solving. Her "Celebrate Your Cerebrum!" full-day retreats are scheduled for various cities around the Pacific Northwest in the months ahead. She'll offer her "Massage Your Mind!" seminars in California, British Columbia and Mexico in spring of 2004. This article is an edited version of the first lesson offered in her FREE 12-week "Massage Your Mind!" online course.