Soapbox: publisher's perspective |

The Philosophy of Crisis: How Great Thinkers Approach Hard Times

Soapbox: Publisher's Perspective | 20 May 2021


You know people always talk about ‘being philosophical’ about the difficulties they face. But what does that mean? Does it just mean accepting all the horrors that life can throw you and shrugging and saying ‘Oh well, that’s just life!’ Or does it mean searching for reason and logic behind the curve ball that life has thrown you? 

To help me I thought perhaps I should actually consult some of the greatest philosophers who ever existed to see what they had to say and see if they were ‘philosophical’ about their lives! Here is the result of my research.

Let me start with Jeremy Bentham who you may never have heard of but who lived in England in the 18th century, and wrote: The Principals of Morals and Legislation in 1789. He proposed that human activity is driven by two motivating forces: the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure. He argued that all social and political decisions should be made with the aim of achieving “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”. He proposed a ‘felicific calculus’ that can mathematically express the degree of happiness experienced by an individual.

He also insisted that all sources of pleasure are of equal value so the happiness derived from a good meal or the company of friends is equal to that from an activity which may require effort or education such as philosophical debate or reading poetry. He assumed a fundamental human equality with complete happiness being accessible to all regardless of social class or ability. An admirable sentiment.

John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) said that “decisions should be made on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, even allowing individuals to be free to do whatever gives them pleasure even if it could harm them – but they are not allowed to do things that will harm others – the individual is only sovereign over his own mind and body. “One person with a belief is a social power equal to 99 who have only interests”, he declared. Something that today’s “influencers” would love you to believe!

But let’s go back to the very beginning of philosophical thought and look at the Daode Jing, formulated millennia ago by Laozi who was obsessed in finding The Way’ or Dao. He concluded that life has 10,000 manifestations but only one of them has free will, and that is of course mankind. And because we have free will we are the ones who cause the problems and disturb all the other 9,999 manifestations! I can only say I totally agree and sincerely hope that we stop soon.

But we won’t because as Adam Smith said back in the 18th century: “People act out of self interest, and only agree to cooperate with others to exchange goods and services that they want and can’t provide themselves, and do so in a way that should benefit both parties (especially themselves!) “Man is an animal that makes bargains“, he says, “civilized society stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes”. His most famous work ‘The Wealth of Nations’ foretold the specialization of labour and he would be proud today to see the hazmat suit and PPE manufacturers evolving swiftly to meet demand.

But going way back in time again, Siddartha Gautama, later to become Buddha, told us very simply that “suffering is an inherent part of existence”, and is caused by craving for both power and pleasure, and “pleasure is only ended by detachment”. Did he mean social isolation? Of course not! He meant switching off from the desires of life and focusing on the eightfold path of Dharma : right effort, right concentration, right speech, right understanding, right mindfulness, right action, right intension, right livelihood. Quite a challenge. Can you do it?

Perhaps we should consult Confucius a bit more to find that right path. His real name was Kong Fuzi which means Master Kong and he said that we can transform others by faithfulness and sincerity which seems hard to do but he proposed that we “make our virtues visible” by pursuing rituals and traditions so that our faithfulness and sincerity can be seen by others who will then learn and be transformed. I do hope he’s right, and I do believe that in times of difficulty going back to our time honored rituals and traditions does bring comfort and security.

Rousseau an eminent French philosopher contends that man in a state of nature is fundamentally good but when the idea of private property developed society had to then develop a system to protect it, and the system evolved into laws proposed by the owners of property intended to control those without it and thus “bind people in unjust ways.” “Man is born free” he said “but everywhere he ends up in chains”.

That is too sad a thought to finish up on so let us return to the English philosopher John Locke who in the 17th century tried to establish if we are actually born with ideas and concepts already built in to us, but concluded that “everything we know is gained from experience”, so anybody can be transformed by a good education. On that I 100% agree, there is no better foundation for a life of meaning than a great education, so that we face this crisis we can not only accept it philosophically but perhaps do our own part to make life better for others and for ourselves.

In these challenging times, those are the sort of people we are looking for!

But as we come to terms with the ‘new reality’ as some have dubbed post - covid life we need to think very constructively as to what to do with it, and why. We need to look at the way in which we live, the ways in which we and society change and the final result we want to achieve. For many the idea of crisis being opportunities is real but for me it is all just part of the great unfolding of life, as change is always happening but perhaps the corona virus pandemic has just accelerated that change and we need to accelerate our adaption! I turn again to the great philosophers to bring us reason and meaning!

Let’s start with William Du Bois who died in 1963 who said ‘if we aspire to a broader and fuller life we need to believe in the possibility of progress. If we lose this belief we suffer a form of death–existence without growth, so we must believe in life. But as George Santayana said, also a 20th century philosopher, for progress to be a possible we must not only remember after past experiences but learn from them. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, is his famous dictum. So we need to find different ways of doing things, adaption not revolution so that our civilization is cumulative, building on what has gone before. Excellent advice, but so often, and perhaps deliberately, forgotten as so many mistakes are so often repeated.

We need to actually look towards the consequences of our actions, not just the principles says William James an earlier US philosopher, who created the idea of pragmatism, he tells us to ‘act as if what we do will make a difference, it does, he alert, which is indeed a gratifying thought.

The problem, as 19th century German philosopher Schopenhauer claims, is that our version of the world is limited by the limited observation that we can make of a vast universe will of which our will is just a part, our version of the world does not include things we have not experienced, so we take the limits of our own field of vision to be the limits of the world. So true and even in these days of universal internet access we still have only a tiny perception of the world which limits our ability to make or accept change. So while Kierkegaard says that while we have absolute freedom of choice when making decisions, and we can choose to do anything or nothing our minds usually reel at the thought of this absolute freedom and a feeling of dread or anxiety accompanies the thought making our thoughts dizzy and anxious rather than truly free!

What we face of course is nothing new. American philosopher John Dewey wrote that our problems arise because we are trying to make sense of changing world and adapt that to the traditions we have inherited. And as we look around in this crisis bound world the changes are coming thick and fast and are not matched by many of the out moded traditions which simply cannot be allowed to continue. He says that philosophy is not about gaining a true picture of the world but about problem solving. He reckons we only really think when confronted by problems. Though it does seem to me that for some people the conclusions of Kierkegaard are more apt – their thinking becomes confused and fraught with anxiety!

Karl Marx one of Germany’s most famous philosophers (though perhaps not the most loved!) looked at the problems in society around him and concluded that people tended to align into groups with others who shared the same social and economic interests and naturally aligned against those who were in conflict with them, with the social and economic status of each group defined by its relationship with property and the means of production. The proletariat owning little property or business and the bourgeois owning most of it. (How little has changed in the last 200 years…) But when the means of production is now virtual and the output is digital or in a cloud, then we have no real idea of what we own or where it is!

Has this scamper through the great thinkers of the ages helped you make more sense of the world? Or has it just left you dazed and confused as my old heroes Led Zepplin said. Either way, it doesn’t matter, accept your fate philosophically!

Thank you,