Guidance and Independence

It is not weak, nor any contradiction of the desire for independence, to look to others’ opinions in assessing one’s own thoughts and behavior. The mistake or weakness is in looking to others’ opinions at random — looking to the crowd, or to the popular, or to the powerful. One has already made a great advance in self-knowledge and independence who is able to recognize the difference between seeking guidance and merely seeking approval.

For what is their thought or wisdom? They follow the poets and perceive the crowd as their teacher, not seeing that the many are bad, and the few good. (Heraclitus, DK B104)

The search for a true judge is fraught with danger, delusion, and many disappointments. But such a judge can be an invaluable guide, particularly to one who is inexperienced or in the fog of doubt — and who among us, for that matter, is ever entirely free of inexperience and doubt? The first rule in any search for a good judge: One who is soft or immediately accessible cannot be trusted. A guiding judge, like a diamond, must have a hardness about him, an impenetrability, and will be discoverable only by a soul with the patience of eons, the desperation of hopeless depth, or ideally both.

It is not a teacher’s job to make your life more comfortable or enjoyable, but rather to show you the value of your discomfort and suffering. Anyone who urges you to “take comfort” or dismiss pain is no teacher, but rather a tranquilizer. The easy answer is presented as a sure path to the goal, but in truth such an answer is always an obstacle to real progress, typically a dead end, and sometimes even quicksand. For “the goal” is not, as it were, the goal, but rather an invitation to stop struggling along, to let go, to console oneself with false images of completion.

You will not find the limits of the soul by going, traveling on every path; so deep is its logos. (Heraclitus, DK B45)

It is hard to live, if you accept what life is. But hard and undesirable are very different things. In fact, nothing truly desirable is ever easy, and the most desirable things are possible — if at all — only as the fulfillment of eternal patience in want.

A number of Korean students who know me well have developed a habit of occasionally throwing random “meaning of life” questions at me out of left field, as casually as though they were asking whether I like apples. I always try to reply to such impossible questions earnestly, but preferably in a way that invites follow-up questions and further discussion.

Yesterday, I received the following text message from one such student: “Teacher, what is philosophy for?”

I answered with several messages of my own:

“Seeking the Good so you have a standard for living.”

“Without it, life is random, leads nowhere, and ends empty, meaningless.”

“Simple answer: Philosophy is for being alive in the fullest sense.”

“Simplest answer: Philosophy is for understanding what a circle is.”

Not knowing how to listen, they do not know how to speak. (Heraclitus, fragment DK B19)

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