Philosophy for Dummies

Today is an important day in my life – it marks the first day of me being a full-time philosopher. You may be asking yourself what that job exactly entails. When one hears the word – “philosopher” – one usually thinks of old men with long beards arguing over arcane theories which have zero practical application. You may also think of a college student who can’t pick a major and wants to pay back student loans as an Applebee’s waiter. Or you may just think of a twirled-mustache-corduroy fricker pompously sitting in Starbucks reading a book on Plato. All of these stereotypes are sadly close to reality. I attempted to twirl my mustache this morning and have indefinitely retired my razor until my beard grows a proper length; I am even wearing a sweater vest while writing this – “dressing the part” may help stimulate pretentious brain cells. Suffice to say I am trying to bring some legitimacy to my new career which is neither respected nor lucrative.

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Let’s circle back to the question of what the job of philosophy actually entails? My previous co-workers – who I wholeheartedly miss – thought it would be funny to buy me Philosophy for Dummies by Tom Morris; Yes the same series of yellow books that 50-year-olds buy when learning Microsoft Excel. I laughed when I unwrapped this present of “knowledge” and was skeptical about the merit of its content. My skepticism quickly faded when I read that Tom Morris was a Philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame for 15 years and is world-famous for his books and lectures – all detailing how philosophy is practical for the modern world. Morris is not a dry-boring professor but rather a funny down-to-earth guy who once taught one of the most popular classes on Notre Dame’s campus – Philosophy 101. Morris defines philosophy as follows…

“The word philosophy just means ‘love of wisdom.’ This is easy to understand when you realize that love is a commitment, and wisdom is just insight about living. Philosophy, at its best, a passionate commitment to pursuing and embracing the most fundamental truths and insightful perspectives about life.”

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Philosophy is precisely what this blog aims to do – garner more wisdom and insight in order to lead a better life. Morris elegantly states what purpose this “insight” serves…

“Philosophy at its best is an activity more than a body of knowledge. In an ancient sense, done right, it is a healing art. It’s intellectual self-defense. It’s a form of therapy. But it’s also much more. Philosophy is map-making for the soul, cartography for the human journey. It’s an important navgational tool for life that too many modern people try to do without.

Philosophy is merely the act of examining life so that the journey is best enjoyed. To put another way, philosophy is a searching spotlight on a winding road – without the light, it would be easy to miss the scenery and possibly take the wrong path. In respects to illumination, William Ralph Inge once said that “the object of studying philosophy is to know one’s own mind, not other people’s.” Morris adds to this concept…

We question things as deeply as we can, in order to understand as deeply as possible. The ultimate goal is a firmer grip on who we are and what our place in the world really is.

But more often, philosophy can be thought of as a package of existential survival skills, along with the determined application of those skills in a sort of a search-and-rescue mission for the soul. Philosophy is not just a game. It’s not just a mental sport. It is the most vital use of our minds for getting our bearings in life.

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Hence, as a full-time philosopher, I will strive to learn those existential survival skills to not only enhance my own understanding but also my readers’ understanding through this blog and books that I publish. The ultimate goal is to bring the complicated subject of “Philosophy” to a greater number of people and bring it down a couple of pretentious notches. I didn’t go to school for philosophy or have any formal background in the subject – I frankly am taking the advice of one of the greatest philosophers of all time…

“The only true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing.”
-Socrates

It is not the pompous and complacent intellectual who dominates wisdom but rather the humble and curious truth seeker. So I hope that makes my title of philosopher a little less ridiculous sounding and I hope everyone sees that we all have a little Socrates in us – hopefully minus the beard and crappy pay.

How Reading can Prevent Sexual Harassment

I’ve been thinking a lot about Harvey Weinstein lately and how appalling he was to so many women. Mr. Harvey was like an incubus always searching for his next penile power grab. A lot of women have come out against Harvey, and the world has generally begun to talk more about the closeted topic of sexual harassment. Some of my friends on Facebook have written “Me Too” on their wall to show people that these disgusting acts are happening close to home. The question is how to fix this epidemic? Obviously, we must continue conversations about sexual harassment and push the message that it is never okay to take advantage of another person. That is an excellent starting point, but in my opinion, it falls short of what will actually help the problem.

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Let’s first point out the obvious – the majority of sexual harassment involves women as victims and men as predators. Not all men are like Harvey Weinstein, and not all men are predators, but a lot of men have a second brain dangling between their legs. This second brain is exceptionally persuasive. How powerful is it? Speaking for myself, when I went through puberty, my penis was like a mini-Danny Devito continually giving me commentary throughout the day. Suffice it to say, Danny Devito never really goes away because of the evolutionary urge to procreate. The primal default of a man is to spread his sperm throughout the world. The penis is constantly screaming “ME, ME, ME, ME, ME!!!!”

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These urges along with other primal tendencies, like aggression, are kept in check by societal norms, laws, and morals. Norms can only go so far; when push comes to shove, that second brain gives a rat’s ass about standards, punishments, or consequences. Sexual harassment usually occurs behind closed doors when the predator can get away with the act. So what can be done to control that second brain? I think a lot of men have a good handle on their Danny Devito because they were taught from a young age what was right and wrong. Maybe they had a great set of parents who modeled a healthy male/female identity. Maybe it was a community role model who exemplified the attributes of respect. Maybe it was a religious upbringing that taught the importance of the Golden Rule.

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Whatever the reason, some men have no problem shutting down that bald-headed beast. But, not everyone is so fortunate to be raised with these types of people or messages – and sometimes even with these efforts – some men miss the point. Speaking for myself, I was raised in a home with excellent parents who taught me morals, and I had friends who came from similar backgrounds; in later years I found out that some of my friends did sexually harass women. So how can we fortify this cracked roof of parental advice and community support so that young men won’t continue to slip through and cause irreversible damage? The key is empathy.

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In my opinion, empathy is the single hardest trait to master in life. Empathy entails stepping into the mind and body of another person: seeing what they see, touching what they touch, feeling what they feel. It is such a complex idea that no person will inadvertently acquire it as a skill – one has to be deliberate. So how do we become empathetic? One of the key ways we evolved to acquire empathy was through storytelling: stories allow us to use our imagination, gain knowledge and think more deeply about problems. Books provide the most in-depth opportunity for storytelling through first-person and third-person accounts; allowing one to fully understand the emotions and personalities of various characters. Reading permits people to step into worlds which are very different from their own and to explore divergent viewpoints. I was never very empathetic until I started to read the classics and entered the masterful characters of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Melville. These stories force a person to see, think, and feel what a character feels – empathy anyone?

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I never grasped the magnitude of rape, murder, harassment, and adultery until I took the time to sit down and open a book. This brings me to my ultimate point: We need to push young men** to read great works of writing so that they can begin to understand what it feels like to see life from different vantage points. Parents, teachers, and community leaders need to stop thinking books are for SAT prep or just entertainment and start realizing that they are instruments of empathy and deep-psychological understanding. For example, try to read Anna Karenina, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Les Liaisons Dangereuses without wrenching over the emotional states of the main characters. There is no excuse for not reading to your child, setting time for your teenager to read, or sitting down to read yourself – only a high source of empathy will allow a predator to stop – and step – into the soul of its prey.

This post started to get a little long (I actually want to turn this post into a book), but I would love to hear your comments on the effects of reading on your own empathy and how we should go about sexual harassment prevention. 

**We obviously also need young women to read, but this post is mainly targeted towards young men. 

Want to Join a Cult?

What does it take to start a cult? What does it take to join a cult? Both of these questions are extremely interesting because they try to get at the heart of human behavior. We are social creatures who crave acceptance – sometimes this acceptance leads people to believe in bizarre things. For example, take the Mormon cult leader Warren Jeff who controls a group of fundamentalists from prison – even after being charged with sexually assaulting children and having 70 wives.

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How about one of the most famous cult leaders of all time – Jim Jones. Jones led a group of over 900 people to Guayana, South America to start their own socialist colony. This socialist experiment in Jonestown quickly turned into a horror movie after Jones convinced everyone to commit mass suicide. I am amazed at the ability of cult leaders to have total power over their followers; I barely can keep my chihuahua from peeing on the carpet. To better understand the birth, growth, and death of Jim Jones, I read The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. This book is exceptional and really helps the reader understand the evil of Jim Jones. Jones was a charismatic leader who never backed down and desired complete control. Unfortunately, these traits were mixed with just enough moral ambiguity that followers thought they were being led to the promised land rather than their gravesite.

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Jim Jones was born on May 31, 1931, in a small Indiana town. He was raised by an eccentric mother who defied conservative social norms with her independent attitude, beliefs in reincarnation, and prickly personality. Jones’ father was a WWI vet who could not work because of his disabilities and who had no energy to raise an energetic boy. Jones was a loner and soon began to stand out from the other boys with his religiousness. On any given Sunday, he would go to several services, not to praise God, but to understand what preaching style worked best to energize congregants. By the time he finished high school, Jones was working at a hospital where he would eventually meet his future wife, Marceline Baldwin (not pictured below).

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Jones and his wife would quickly move to Indianapolis where Jones attended some college and preached at evangelical-tent events. Jones would eventually establish the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s – a church that trumpeted racial integration, socialism, and community action. It was at the Peoples Temple that Jones discovered the power of deception by performing false healings and false prophecy; he would many times walk around the congregation with rotted chicken offal claiming it was cancer just removed from a member. Jones quickly gained followers from all walks of life who appreciated his message of social equality and marveled at his God-like abilities. Jones would eventually move this congregation to Northern California using the tool of fear – he claimed that there would be a nuclear holocaust in the Mid-West and that they were no longer safe.

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It was in Northern California that the Peoples Temple morphed from an eccentric Christian church to a full-blown cult. Jone’s began to have his members live communally and give large portions of their paychecks to the “socialist” cause. With greater wealth, Jone’s was able to expand his ministry and garner even more membership. Jone’s quickly began to stretch himself too thin and eventually, he began to take painkillers and amphetamines. His drug use made him more erratic and power-hungry – he would gradually start asking for sex from his female congregants. This sex was supposedly meant to lift up the women, and few members resisted; he would even have sex with several male members asking some if they wanted to be “fucked in the ass” after church meetings. This “uplifting” sex gave Jones greater control which eventually expanded to increased paranoia. Staged assassination attempts led his followers to believe that the FBI, CIA, and Fascists were after their happy community.

[Jim Jones, Peoples Temple Church Services]

The Peoples Temple morphed into a military compound with several members patrolling the grounds with firearms. This paranoia and the fear of nuclear holocaust led Jones to found Jonestown in Guayana. Jonestown was meant to be a sanctuary, but it actually represented the apex of Jone’s control over his members. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown which led to him being attacked by a Temple member – Ryan escaped with 15 of Jone’s followers. Jones, in all his paranoia, told his members that the government would soon come to torture them and convert the children to fascism – to prevent this from happening everyone had to commit suicide. 909 people, including Jones and his wife, died from cyanide in the mass suicide – 304 were children.

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So how did Jone’s get 909 people to commit suicide? It began with his ability to twist the truth so that the majority of his followers believed he had special powers – all while an elite inner circle assisted with these deceptions. Why did the inner circle help him? Because they often believed in his message of social change and felt powerful being in the graces of such an influential leader. Most of the congregation was made up of poor-uneducated members who were entirely dependent on Jones for their jobs, housing, and food.

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It was hard to leave the cult because Jone’s would actively prevent dissenters and it was easy to rationalize that he was telling the truth – “If there are lawyers, teachers, and businessmen following him, then he must be the real deal.” Finally, Jones was an expert at fear which he used as a tool to further separate followers from leaving the Temple. All these things mixed to create a twisted peer pressure that propagated infidelity, drug use, bullying, harassment, corrupt morals, and eventually death. We need to study these things because there are cults today and leaders who use the same principles. Be wary of half-truths and always seek knowledge so that this particular past will never be repeated.

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Abraham Lincoln vs. Donald Trump

The wise old owl lived in a oak,
The more he saw the less he spoke,
The less he spoke the more he heard,
Why aren’t we all like that old bird?

What do Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump have in common? Almost nothing besides them being white-male republicans. Lincoln grew up in poverty, Trump grew up in wealth. Lincoln was self educated, Trump was ivy-league educated. Lincoln became a lawyer and politician, Trump became a real-estate investor. Lincoln took moderate stances on issues, Trump currently takes extreme stances on issues.Lincoln took great efforts to avoid political hostilities, Trump takes great pride in politic incorrectness. My mind has been comparing these two men because I just finished the Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. Throughout this read, I marveled at how Abraham Lincoln was able to walk the precarious tight rope of politics to achieve extraordinary goals. Lincoln had to appeal to Radical Republicans, Conservative Republicans, War Democrats, and Peace Democrats all while orchestrating a Civil War. He was elected in 1860 on a platform that supported the institution of slavery but not its expansion. Between 1861-1865 he slowly implemented policies that eventually abolished slavery through the ratification of the thirteenth amendment. Lincoln never made decisions lightly and would contemplate every outcome with the utmost detail. Many times, Lincoln would sit back and listen instead of jumping in and making a rash decision. Lincoln’s talents of compromise and patience are what I most admire about our 16th president. People don’t realize that Lincoln was not always popular throughout his presidency and at some points had lower approval ratings than George W. Bush. He was constantly racked with stress and by the end of war he looked as though he aged 20 years. He had to deal with a divided country, a war that resulted in 600,000 fatalities, the reconstruction of the devastated south, mounting federal debt, political rivals, and a crazy wife. Through all of this, he still managed to make great decisions that were moderate and in the end brought the country back together. The United States would not be the same without Abraham Lincoln and I am so grateful that I was able to learn about him in a in-depth manner.

So what about Trump?  Trump is currently the front runner for the Republican Party which ironically Lincoln helped found back in 1854. The Republican Party is quite different today than it was in Lincoln’s time but United States politics is not. As in Lincoln’s time, there are rival parties and a lot of bickering over how best to run the country. Trump unfortunately is far from one to compromise and is very quick to respond to opponents via the media. He spouts hate and reminds me of a bully with a lot of money. Lincoln never ostracized and downgraded members of his own party; Lincoln especially never offended others publicly with the intent to draw publicity. These contrasts make me sad because I want the next president to be like Abraham Lincoln and I want Americans to remember what works and what does not work in politics. Politics requires compromise and nothing can be accomplished without careful consideration of all perspectives. We should not base our vote on whether a candidate is a Republican or a Democrat but rather on their character and their ability to work with others. Can anyone honestly tell me that Donald Trump will unite our country and make it better through his graceful character? Lincoln was one in a trillion but we can at least look for a candidate that mirrors him in at least some manner. Let’s learn from the past and remember that great leaders are those who are humble, not those who hold themselves higher than everyone else…Trump Tower anyone?

The Asthmatic Boy who Became the Unstoppable Man

After a heroic battle charge during the Spanish-American War, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt decided to swim 300 yards out to a ship wreck for fun. While swimming with one other Rough Rider, a group of sharks materialized. The future President merely shrugged it off and told his companion not to worry because he had read that sharks don’t bother swimmers. The life of Theodore Roosevelt is truly incomprehensible. The Pulitzer Prize-Winning biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, is 742 pages and only covers his life up to 43 years of age. He read on average 1-3 books a day while simultaneously being President of the United States (over 10,000 books in his lifetime). Not only did he read, but Teddy published 38 books, many becoming highly esteemed textbooks (The Naval War of 1812 as one example). On his honeymoon to Europe he decided it be fun to climb Matterhorn (at the time, only a few individuals had accomplished this multi-day feat).

Teddy began his life as a very sickly child who had chronic bouts of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. He loved the outdoors and could be found classifying animals and practicing taxidermy. In a healthy state, his energy was infinite-If he grew up in our era of ADD/ADHD medication, he would be an over-prescribed walking zombie. I believe that his regular bouts of illness motivated him to experience as much as possible while he was not bed ridden. While at Harvard, his doctor told him to avoid exertion, otherwise he would die an early death. Good old Teddy ignored this advice believing that a stagnant life would be the equivalent of a life six feet under. This drive for adventure led him to the booming West, where he regularly hunted large game, ranched in harsh conditions, and lived the life of a real cowboy. His ability to actually enjoy uncomfortable conditions is truly amazing. He was described to be smiling, with his iconic big teeth, after several excruciating ordeals of hunting trips while his friends were half dead from the unforgiving bad lands of the Dakotas.

Roosevelt’s relentless energy, along with his uncompromising morals are what made him an extremely effective politician. He worked his way up the ranks of New York and Washington politics by sticking to his social principles and not the principles of the corrupt industrial-political machine. He was a Republican but made decisions for the betterment of the country as a whole. Industrial lobbyist paid the corrupt “Republican Machine” over 1 billion dollars to remove Roosevelt from the position of New York Governor (where he was very powerful in reform legislation) to Vice President (where he had little power whatsoever). I truly emulate Teddy Roosevelt and wish that there were more politicians like him in today’s government. A politician should put party politics aside and put the good of the country first and foremost. As for me, I wish to live a full life like Teddy and go about everyday with determination. A life of principles and purpose has no equal and Theodore Roosevelt has helped me to see what a life like that truly looks like.

“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground”

-Theodore Roosevelt