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Karl Jaspers : The Philosophical Life

Extracts from :

Karl Jaspers

Way to Wisdom : An Introduction to Philosophy


The Philosophical Life

"If our lives are not to be diffuse and meaningless, they must find their place in an order. In our daily affairs we must be sustained by a comprehensive principle, we must find meaning in an edifice of work, fulfilment, and sublime moments, and by repetition we must gain in depth.

Then our lives, even in the performance of monotonous tasks, will be permeated by a mood arising from our conscious participation in a meaning. Then we shall be sustained by an awareness of the world and of ourselves, by the history of which we are a part, and, in our own lives, by memory and loyalty.

An order of this sort may come to the individual from the world in which he was born, from the church which shapes and animates the great steps from birth to death and the little steps of everyday life. He will then spontaneously fit his daily experience into that order.

Not so in a crumbling world, which puts less and less faith in tradition, in a world which subsists only as outward order, without symbolism and transcendence, which leaves the soul empty and is not adequate to man, which, when it leaves him free, thrusts him back upon his own resources, in lust and boredom, fear and indifference.

Here the individual can rely only in himself. By living philosophically he seeks to build up by his own strength what his world no longer gives him.

The desire to lead a philosophical life springs from the darkness in which the individual finds himself, from his sense of forlornness when he stares without love into the void, from his self-forgetfulness when he feels that he is being consumed by the busyness of the world, when he suddenly wakes up in terror and asks himself : What am I, what am I failing to do, what should I do ?

That self-forgetfulness has been aggravated by the machine age. With its time clocks, its jobs, whether absorbing or purely mechanical, which less and less fulfil man as man, it may even lead man to feel that he is part of the machine, interchangeably shunted in here and there, and when left free, to feel that he is nothing and can do nothing with himself.

And just as he begins to recover himself, the colossus of this world draws him back again into the all-consuming machinery of empty labour and empty leisure. But man as such inclines to self-forgetfulness. He must snatch himself out of it if he is not to lose himself to the world, to habits, to thoughtless banalities, to the beaten track.

Philosophy is the decision to awaken our primal source, to find our way back to ourselves, and to help ourselves by inner action.

True, our first duty in life is to perform our practical tasks, to meet the demands of the day. But if we desire to lead a philosophical life we shall not content ourselves with practical tasks; we shall look upon the mere work in whose aims we immerse ourselves as in itself a road to self-forgetfulness, omission, and guilt.

And to lead a philosophical life means also to take seriously our experience of men, of happiness and hurt, of success and failure, of the obscure and the confused. It means not to forget but to possess ourselves inwardly of our experience, not to let ourselves be distracted but to think problems through, not to take things for granted but to elucidate them.

There are two paths of philosophical life: the path of solitary meditation in all its ramifications and the path of communication with men, of mutual understanding through acting, speaking, and keeping silence together.

We men cannot do without our daily moments of profound reflection. In them we recapture our self-awareness, lest the presence of the primal source be lost entirely amid the inevitable distractions of daily life.

What the religions accomplish in prayer and worship has its philosophical analogy in explicit immersion, in inner communion with being itself. This can take place only in times and moments (regardless whether at the beginning or end of the day or in between) when we are not occupied in the world with worldly aims and yet are not left empty but are in contact with what is most essential.

Unlike religious contemplation, philosophical contemplation has no holy object, no sacred place, no fixed form. The order which we give to it does not become a rule, it remains potentiality in free motion.

This contemplation, unlike religious worship, demands solitude.

What is the possible content of such meditation ?

First, self-reflection. I call to mind what I have done, thought, felt during the day. I ask myself wherein I have erred, wherein I have been dishonest with myself, wherein I have evaded my responsibilities, wherein I have been insincere; I also try to discern what good qualities I have displayed and seek ways in which to enhance them. I reflect on the degree of conscious control over my actions that I have exerted in the course of the day. ...

Second, transcending reflection. Guided by philosophical methods, I gain awareness of authentic being, of the godhead. I read the symbols of being with the help of literature and art. I gain understanding of them by philosophical scrutiny. I seek to ascertain that which is independent of time or that which is eternal in time, seek to touch upon the source of my

freedom and through it upon being itself; I seek as it were to partake of creation.

Third, I reflect on what should be done in the present. Remembrance of my own life with men is the background against which I clarify my present task down to the details of this particular day, when in the inevitable intensity of practical thinking I lose my awareness of the Comprehensive meaning. ...

If I meditate in these three forms, self-reflection, transcending meditation, contemplation of my task, and open myself to unlimited communication, an imponderable presence which can never be forced may come to me : the clarity of my love, the hidden and always uncertain imperative of the godhead, the revelation of being perhaps bringing with it peace of mind amid life's constant turmoil, a trust in the foundation of things despite the most terrible catastrophes, unswerving resolve amid the vacillations of passion, a firm loyalty amid the momentary lures of this world.

If in my meditation I achieve awareness of the Comprehensive out of which I live and can live better, meditation will provide the dominant tone that carries me through the day in its countless activities, even while I am being swept along by the technical machine.

For in these moments when I return home as it were to myself I acquire an underlying harmony which persists behind the moods and movements of the day, which sustains me and in all my derailment, confusion, emotional upheaval does not let me sink into the abyss. For these moments give to the present both memory and future, they give my life cohesion and continuity. ...

Only transcendence can make this questionable life good, the world beautiful, and existence itself a fulfilment.

If to philosophize is to learn how to die, then we must learn how to die in order to lead a good life. To learn to live and to learn how to die are one and the same thing.


And now, in conclusion, let us venture a metaphor that may characterize the situation of philosophy in the temporal world:

Having oriented himself on secure dry land through realistic observation, through the special sciences, through logic and methodology the philosopher, at the limits of this land, explores the world of ideas over tranquil paths. And now like a butterfly he flutters over the ocean shore, darting out over the water; he spies a ship in which he would like to go on a voyage of discovery, to seek out the one thing which as transcendence is present in his existence. He peers after the ship the method of philosophical thought and philosophical life, the ship which he sees and yet can never fully reach; and he struggles to reach it, sometimes strangely staggering and reeling.

We are creatures of this sort, and we are lost if we relinquish our orientation to the dry land. But we are not content to remain there. That is why our flutterings are so uncertain and perhaps so absurd to those who sit secure and content on dry land, and are intelligible only to those who have been seized by the same unrest. For them the world is a point of departure for that flight upon which everything depends, which each man must venture on his own though in common with other men, and which can never become the object of any doctrine."

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