Writing in a private journal over seventy years ago, the literary critic Alfred Kazin said, “More and more, it is clear to me that what I suffer from is the lack of a working philosophy, of a strong central belief, of something outside to which my ‘self’ can hold and, for once, forget its ‘self.’”
Most people probably don’t ever approach the idea of finding a “working” philosophy, or for that matter a philosophy of any kind. Satisfied with the “self” that guides their thoughts and actions, they glide (or not) through life oblivious of the need or desire to know more about the nature of the life they are living. But at some point they may encounter a moment, a crisis, a serious bump in the road and ask, “Who am I? What am I to do with this life? Why am I here? At this point, like Kazin, we might start looking for what he called a working philosophy, a set of propositions, of questions and possible answers to those questions. What is interesting about what Kazin penned those many years ago is the complexity of the notion of finding something that the “self can hold…and then…forget its self.” That last thought is more complex than just grabbing hold of a philosophy and holding on to it like a life raft.
What can he mean by forgetting his self? One answer is to be found in the Perennial Philosophy, that thin thread of wisdom traditions that began when the first human beings discovered the very idea of a self, a personal identity that said, “I exist. I am an individual person, not like others, and I can think things, and I can choose what I do.” It is at this point that selfconsciousness is born, and that birth often results in a divided self, an inner and outer persona and was what Kazin was asking not to suffer from with its feelings of separation and conflict.
That sense of separation is often called the Fall of Man and is what traditional religions offer as relief through faith, devotions and feelings of safety from conflict. But sometimes these traditions may not satisfy or provide relief from what in Kazin’s time was called an existential crisis.
A true working philosophy is one which can be practiced, not just studied. It can be put to work for us and provide a sense of unity and clarity. It addresses our longings and crises, and the only allegiance it demands is consistent attention. The Wisdom Traditions here at UPR offer an opportunity for students to find a working philosophy through the study of a history of the human effort to find a personal set of values and examples of how some human beings have found a path that is life-enhancing.
The traditions are Eastern and Western, culturally diverse and intellectually stimulating. They address the physical, mental and spiritual nature of human existence in an expansive cosmos of great mystery and wonder, while at the same time providing the opportunity to acquire undergraduate and graduate degrees. And this year, with the support and coordination of our national accreditation partner, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) we are beginning work on a Doctoral program with a primary focus on the Wisdom Traditions within our dual programs of Consciousness Studies and Transformative Psychology.
Professor Richard Geldard, Consciousness Studies
Dramatic Literature and Classics, Stanford University. Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University, Doctoral Faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson (see www.rgbooks.com)