What is Living Truthfully?
The Death of Socrates | Jacques-Louis David 1787.
It always baffles me when I hear people say that studying the humanities is useless and a waste of time. The notion comes in many forms:
“Got an arts degree so that I can work at McDonald’s.”
“Do a STEM degree even if you don’t like it, as that’ll help you get a job.”
“No one cares about a pompous philosopher… go get a job, hippie!”
“Go to university to get a degree so that you get a high paying job: that’s the purpose of your life.”
The last quote may be a bit melodramatic, but the point still stands. Now we must give the devil his due. Humanity is forever cursed with perennial and existential problems, e.g., poverty, wars, pestilence, environmental catastrophe, etc. As we’re all part of an unbelievably nuanced network, we must work, produce, be of value to our communities and contend with these predicaments. Or else, society will cease to exist, and we all perish. Thus, the pragmatic utility of one’s life matters much more than we think.
Furthermore, if we’re to survive in our tribe individually, it has to be done through reciprocity and mutual value exchange. A young person is naive, unskilled and virtually useless to society. But they are also full of potential. One of the salient purposes of great institutions like the university is to actualise this young person and mould them into good and hopefully virtuous citizens. So the efficiency of how one spends their time and resources is no trivial matter, and practicality needs to be prioritised. Or to be crasser, if everyone would just sit in a room and philosophise all day, who the hell is going to build the bridges or treat my sick kid?
Despite my affinity with the argument for productivity and value-creation made by modernism and the industrial revolution, I find many problems that arise from ignoring the humanities for practicalities sake. As I think, we currently live in times of the utilitarian ethic gone to its extreme. If we had a better understanding of the classics and the great philosophies that formed our culture, we would’ve noticed the ominous signs.
Modern people are cursed by the pathology of utilising or, at its extreme, exploiting everything. It starts with nature (e.g., deforestation) and probably ends with ourselves (e.g., workaholism). For us, nothing can just be for its own sake. Everything must either be explained away (categorised) or utilised for some end goal. The idea that a house is nothing more than an object to live and eat in, while maybe providing some privacy to have sex, is an asinine idea to our experiential phenomena (and definitely would’ve been to our ancestors) even if we aren’t consciously aware of this reality. A house is more than its functions; it’s a home where sentimentality, for better or worse, lingers. And our homes are full of meaning — probably the most real thing to human beings. A home is where families sup together (which has its own layers of meaning), where arguments are dished out, lessons learned, hearts broken and the most intimate forms of love manifested. A home is essentially where most of our lives are lived, which is why the proverb goes, ‘home is where the heart is’. It’s no mere mistake that kids who come from a “broken home” are deeply troubled or traumatised. Needless to state, “broken” doesn’t mean the water doesn’t work or the heating is terrible, but that the child’s developmental experience was fractured due to the home’s distressing environment. This isn’t in the domain of objects but the domain of values and meaning, which is what’s ultimately relevant to us. Before the phenomenologists understood this datum, our religious structures narrativised this in stories and metaphor eons ago.
And now, unfortunately, we’re utterly unaware of qualia and the broad spectrum of human experience. We live on a presupposition that every action is, or ought to be, inferred through empiricism, proposition, practical rationality, and utilitarianism; finally, material and societal progress will fulfil all human yearnings through our findings. Contemporary culture assumes the parochial scientific framework informs us of quality, morality: ought and ought not, and that scientism could be the panacea to our plight. Our condition is viewed as something to be labelled and fixed. The human experience itself has been systematized and dehumanized. As the modern world becomes secular and religion (even though new subpar pseudo-religions have emerged in the political domain) is jettisoned, we have extrapolated science from its distinct domain (which it has served marvellously) to all of epistemology by making the unwarranted assumption that the philosophy of natural science is the only way to get at truth. So it only makes sense not to waste time studying anything outside of science or that which can be commoditized and serves a purpose in a market economy.
In tandem with the presuppositions of utilitarian scientism comes another: the humanities are antiquated and have no use in the modern world. Firstly, reiterating my previous frustrations, studying the humanities doesn’t require a market utility; its telos is not to help us get a job or even necessarily solve some specific clear-cut problem. Secondly, despite the humanities not innately having the aforementioned purpose, it certainly has an invaluable place in the modern world. The least it can do is help us get a job. One of its paramount purposes is to help us become formidable individuals by helping us think and write clearly, understand human nature and by extension ourselves, apprehend reality and act accordingly, which will hopefully create better citizens not only for any single nation but all of humanity.
For example, the caricature of the typical philosopher is some french intellectual smoking cigarettes and talking about abstruse topics that have no relation to the real world. So we assume this is what philosophy entails. Nothing could be further from the truth. Philosophia, love of wisdom, is the reason universities and, by extension, modern science exists. The world we see today sits on a bedrock of religion and the humanities that stretch across thousands of years and multiple cultures. And the age-old question that probably formed the discipline of humanities is, ‘how to live?’ It may be that if this question weren’t asked, none of the modern institutions that imbued our world today would exist. Nicomachean Ethics was a self-help book without the fluff, after all. How lovely is it that some of our ancestors were wiser than we could ever be, and we get the privilege to study their work. We indeed are a result of an unbelievable ancient and profound tradition. So when I posed the titular question, ‘what is living truthfully?’ I hoped REALM, in some way, as insignificant as it is, to be a part of this collective enterprise that I deeply admire and revere.
And of course, given that life is replete with pain and tragedy, truth isn’t merely intellectual or propositional as we need it to live; it’s something that must be embodied, as the existentialists asserted. The truth of knowing how to live is being congruent with society, culture, ourselves and reality; it’s a mode of existence that ameliorates suffering and hopefully brings some good into being. I think such congruence feels like a symphony and the epicentre of meaning. Nothing supersedes it. And if done properly without any deceit or manipulation, I think it’s even beautiful. Therefore, as audacious as it may seem, this is the purpose of REALM.
As I embark on this journey, a question I asked myself (and continuously keep asking) is ‘who the hell am I, a mere software engineer without any formal training in the humanities, to undertake such a colossal task?’ And top of that, apart from my academic inadequacies, I find a lot wrong with me as a person. Forgive me for the pathetic and histrionic self-flagellation, but like most people, my conscience incessantly reminds me of my intellectual, moral and spiritual shortcomings; my character flaws. Besides, I know I’m not the only one with these feelings because an aphorism (which I found was written by Carl Rogers) I live by is, “What is most personal is most universal.” This may be the reason that we relate with each other much more through suffering than ephemeral pleasures. So given this fact, what gives me the right to explore the most fundamental questions of life when I haven’t even got my life fully in order?
Nothing gives me the ‘right’ per se other than being human: I’ve realized that while every act of creation, be it producing a piece of music, building a product as an entrepreneur or even writing a simple essay, is somewhat imbued out of one’s hubris it’s also an attempt to rectify oneself, society, culture and probably being itself. In this absurd world, as Camu would say, It’s a yearning we all have for lucidity. And it’s also true that the impetus behind our acts of creation is largely unbidden. Certain things in life just grab our attention, and then we cannot let go as it becomes an object in our conscious experience. Therefore, we can never truly ascertain the reason for doing anything creative.
Socrates, the father of Western Philosophy from Greek antiquity (whose death is portrayed by Jacques-Louis David in the painting above), is known for speaking of a Daemon, whose voice (impersonal to his will) warned him against what not to do. He says in Plato’s Apology:
“You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician.”
At his trial, he was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens through his asking of politico-philosophical questions. After his conviction, he was given a death sentence as determined by the dikasts. Socrates chose to face death without fear or antipathy despite his condemnation as his Daemon made no sign of opposition. He listened to the Daemon, and he proclaims:
“Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you […] Hitherto the divine faculty of which the internal oracle is the source has constantly been in the habit of opposing me even about trifles, I was going to make a slip or error in any matter; and now as you see there has come upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition, either when I was leaving my house in the morning, or when I was on my way to the court, or while I was speaking, at anything which I was going to say; and yet I have often been stopped in the middle of a speech, but now in nothing I either said or did touching the matter in hand has the oracle opposed me. […] For the customary sign would surely have opposed me had I been going to evil and not to good.”
It wasn’t just Socrates, but even Marcus Aurelius, who’s become eminent in contemporary culture with the popularity of Stoicism, wrote about a similar Daemon in Meditations, his personal writings. Comparably, great psychoanalysts like Jung and Freud from our times understood and elucidated that the individual self is constituted of multiple personalities.
I use Socrates and the other superlative thinkers only to demonstrate that we all have this Daemon, whether we acknowledge it or not. You may call it your conscience, superego, guiding spirit or even God, but I think ignoring it would be at your own peril. Ask yourself why is it that your conscience tortures you whenever you defy it? And if you incessantly keep defying it, can you live with yourself? This is your Daemon. It isn’t something that can be intellectualised but only felt in one’s heart.
I ardently believe that cavalierly disregarding our conscience leaves lamentable consequences not just for ourselves but also for the rest of society. And my Daemon has been telling me to start this project for a while, and I have no way of shutting it off, nor do I want to. So this project is an article of faith. However, I don’t want to do it alone as I believe, and must state at the risk of looking self-righteous, listening to my conscience doesn’t only serve me but genuinely helps the world. Therefore, through REALM, I hope to bring back the oral tradition that we seem to have lost to an empiricist world. REALM is essentially a dialectical process oriented towards the Logos, a theologos—conversation about the divine. And maybe, this is what living truthfully ultimately entails.
~ Rahul Samaranayake,
Creator of REALM