Thanks to all those who attended our first Socrates Café Brooklyn, “What is Success?”  It was a real pleasure meeting all of you, hearing your stories and struggles, and peeling back the veneer of our conventional views on success to try and approach the heart of the matter.  I think we often fail to realize the power and importance of throwing ourselves into dialogue with people from different walks of life and suspending, if only for a few minutes or a couple of hours, our basic assumptions about ourselves, our trajectory in life, and our view of the world.  It is not easy–indeed, in our discussion, we hit a few bumps in the road and the engine stalled a few times; but confusion is the crucible of a higher, deeper, rounder form of consciousness.  And we had some unpleasant exchanges; it became clear pretty quickly that the philosophical is the personal.  But overall, I think we had a good first showing and I look forward to our next meeting in January.

Some highlights from our discussion:

-a former musician, who after striking it rich discovered that all that glittered was not gold and, to the chagrin and disbelief of his friends, left that life to become a social worker

-a well-educated man with a Masters degree who is now homeless and questions our American sense of success as a bogus ideology

-a middle-aged woman who has recently been let go from her job, but is excited to finally have the time and space to pursue a new path

-a young man who believe success is purely subjective, in the eye of the beholder, and who embraces a nihilistic view of life

-a young woman who questions her motivations for pursuing a career in academia

-a middle-aged man who fell into a job running a family business he didn’t think he’d enjoy, but by focusing on the day-to-day, eventually took pride and found pleasure in his charge; abandoning a career track as a social worker

-a young man wondering when his life would “start.”

Per the final comment, it reminded me of a recent article I read on a trend in popular writing on philosophy:  as a “way of life” or “art of living”:

In this understanding of the Western tradition, the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself at a given moment. One day you suddenly, painfully realize that something important is missing in your life, that there is a gap between what you currently are and the sense of what you could be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. In a way, you don’t even exist yet. (It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing; by subjecting those around him to the rigors of his philosophy, he was bringing them into existence properly.) Philosophy thus presupposes a certain degree of self-detestation. It may well be that philosophizing begins in shame. If you are a bit too comfortable with yourself, if there is nothing you are ashamed of, you don’t need philosophy; you are fine as you are.   

I think there is a connection here not between philosophy and religion per se, but between philosophy and a formal aspect of the religious life and worldview:  that human beings are not ok.  In other words, in contrast to our default secular attitude, that health is the norm, and disease, disorder, and disfunction are the exception, the religious attitude starts from the opposite premise:  that humanity is inherently flawed, finite, fallen–“warped wood,” as Kant put it.  The human animal needs the scaffolding and bulwarks of ritual and tradition to get it on good course and keep it there; these are technologies and therapies intended to recall the soul back from its natural tendency to retreat into the cave of its own ego.  As Alain de Botton has argued in his recent book, Religion for Atheists, from an existential perspective, religion gets this crucial aspect of human life better than the secular world, which is often hell bent on a “this-worldly” notion of success; but we need not believe in an “other world” (mythological religion) to appreciate the value of the practices often associated with that belief (mystical or contemplative religion, or what we popularly, and confusingly, call “spirituality”).  Similarly, Pierre Hadot adapted St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “spiritual exercises” to refer to the habits of mind philosophers prescribe to ward off suffering, anxiety, and self-enclosure.

I invite fellow Socratics to continue the conversation here online!