“I believe the first duty of philosophy is making you understand what deep shit you are in.” ~Slavoj Žižek
Philosophy should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. Philosophy should be a danger. It should come as a shock to the system, a defibrillator of the soul, even a mockery of everything we’ve always held dear.
It should come as a daunting question mark that haunts our dreams. It should come as a fire that burns the petty kindling of our precious “truths.” It should be sinister, intimidating, and fierce. Otherwise, it is of little use to us. Philosophy that is comforting, placating, and reassuring can no longer be considered philosophy. It makes the cardinal sin of becoming religious.
As Rebecca Goldstein said in Plato at the Googleplex, “Philosophical thinking that doesn’t do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all.”
Pain is a seed, cultivate it:
“There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain.” ~Aeschylus
Painless inquiry does not make skillful philosophers. Skill in philosophy comes from asking difficult questions, heartbreaking questions, soul-crushing questions, the kind of questions that hurt and force the head of our fragile mortality over the existential dread of the abyss.
Great character is forged in the furnace of great adversity. Pain is mere kindling. Nothing burns brighter than pain. But those with great character have the courage to bask.
Disaster can hone us into masters. Pressure can polish our pain into providence. What hurts us can sharpen us if we let it.
As Naguib Mahfouz said, “The problem is not that the truth is harsh, but that liberation of ignorance is as painful as being born. Run after truth until you’re breathless. Accept the pain involved in recreating yourself afresh.”
Philosophy should unearth the mystery from the misery. Deep, cutting philosophy, not only reveals the hidden pleasure in pain, but it also unleashes the pleasurable experience of transforming pain into strength. It’s a way of plucking the elusive Phoenix Egg from the sea of its own ashes. It’s a way of pulling our rebirth out of our death.
When we plant the seed of pain in the fecund humus of our courage, we grow the empowering Tree of Good Humor. From this tree blooms the secret of getting power over comfort, power over placation, and power over power itself—that is the power of High Humor.
As Max Eastman said, “Humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully.”
Risk over Reward:
“To be human is necessarily to be a vulnerable risk-taker; to be a courageous human is to be good at it.” ~Jonathan Lear
Philosophy should keep courage ahead of comfort. It should stay as close to the edge as possible without going over. It should choose dangerous questions over safe answers. It should be about taking risks, turning tables, flipping scripts, pushing envelopes, and kicking open third eyes rather than maintaining the status quo. Philosophy should be anti-status-quo.
Philosophy should question comfort despite the tiny-hearted. It should question power despite authority. It should challenge all gods despite belief.
As Henrik Ibsen said, “There is always risk in being alive, and if you are more alive there is more risk.” Indeed. Philosophy is about being more alive. It’s about living dangerously, loving dangerously, and asking dangerous questions. It’s about risk over reward, knowing that greater rewards will come from taking greater risks.
If, as Jung said, “the main function of religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God,” then philosophy’s main function is to drag people kicking and screaming into a direct experience with God.
Good philosophy doesn’t balk. It’s autonomous. It’s Contrarian. It’s trailblazing. It creates worlds between worlds that questions all worlds. Deep philosophy gives us the latitude to make mistakes. It gives us the power to pivot, to interrogate rather than gravitate. It chooses risk-taking over script-making. It doesn’t settle, it meddles. It mixes it up. It kicks up the dust and knocks off the dross. It chooses improvisation over tradition. It transcends the comfort/discomfort dynamic through sincere nonattachment.
Dangerous philosophy forces us into a full-frontal confrontation with Infinity itself.
Process over prowess:
“I understood myself only after I destroyed myself. And only in the process of fixing myself, did I know who I really was.” ~Sade Andria Zabala
Wholeness is never complete. It’s a process, a journey. It’s all means and no end. Becoming whole is realizing that we are always falling apart and coming back together again. It’s always a journey, never a destination. It’s always a process, never a completed prowess.
As Isaac Asimov said, “Education isn’t something you can finish.”
Philosophy reminds us to sell our certainty and buy curiosity. It reminds us to keep humor ahead of hubris. Because life is never complete. We must learn; unlearn; relearn. Then rinse and repeat. Never settle. Life is only ever a process. The journey is always the thing, whether we like it or not.
Philosophy should be dangerous precisely because we tend to lose sight of this fact. Danger keeps us alert. It keeps us on our toes. It keeps us humble, grounded, and in the moment. It keeps us questioning the sinister reality that outflanks our flash-in-the-pan mortality with its all-encompassing and ancient immortality. It reminds us to remain courageous. It keeps us aware and awake, in awe and in astonishment at the overwhelming infinitude of it all.
Philosophy should be dangerous precisely because otherwise we fall into the trap of believing that the world is not dangerous, or that we are not mortal, imperfect, or fallible. Because otherwise we decay. We succumb to weak comfort zones. We give into fear and choose placation over providence. We bolt down the horizon and forget that it is not a boundary. We die inside of half-lived lives. In short: we fall into disgrace. We become stains on the canvas of life.
But if we keep philosophy dangerous then we have a mighty alarm clock that can awaken us from pretending to be asleep.
About the Author:
Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.
This article (Philosophy Should Be Dangerous) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and self-inflictedphilosophy.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.