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Can philosophy be practical and therapeutic?

Hellenistic Philosophers

The Hellenistic thinkers saw philosophy as therapy, and philosophy as a healer of souls. The classical Indian philosopher Patanjali saw his philosophy as both therapeutic and liberating. The Hellenistic philosophers claimed that 'Empty is that philosopher's argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated'. They claimed to treat the destructive passions, especially fear and anger, which they concluded led to war and conflict. These philosophers felt they did a better job than the astrologers and the religious teachers, because so much of suffering was based on false belief.

Lucretius and Death

The Epicurean, Lucretius, made this claim about death: 'It is irrational to fear that which we will not experience, death being non-existent, cannot in the nature of things be experienced, therefore it is irrational to fear death.' funeralLucretius felt that to truly comfort you he first had to prove to you that there's no afterlife. He thought that what most people are afraid of is suffering in the afterlife. So, to get rid of the idea of an afterlife, he had to convince you it is irrational to imagine that you survive yourself. If you think you're standing there in your mind, looking at your cadaver and thinking 'Oh, poor dead you, you are missing out on the good things of life.' If you can accept there will be no spectator there, that there is just nothing at all, then your fear will disappear. If there is nothing at all, then it would be irrational to think that it is a bad thing that has happened to you, because there is no you there for whom something bad could happen.

Love and Attachment 

The  sarvam dukham or 'all is suffering' of the Upanishads, Buddhism and Yoga captures more or less the same attitude towards attachment to the ephermal phenomena and relationships of the material world as the that of the Hellenist philosophers of Greece and Rome. These philosophers, both Hellenists and Indian, thought that the moment you have attachments to something outside yourself, outside your control, whether it's a child, or a spouse, then events that you don’t control are going to make you fearful, grief-stricken, and probably angry. Even the deep love of another is bound to be dangerous because we know that other people can be unreliable. That loved one may come to harm, even if the person is perfectly loyal to you. You may lose your child or your spouse by death, and then you will grieve and perhaps break from the loss. These thinkers believed if you understood how the universe worked then accepting it would calm you love

Personal Love

What these philosophers, including the Indian ones, leave out is the importance of personal love. They thought about it a lot, both the Hellenists and the Indians. They concluded that love or attachment wasn’t worth the trouble. We can argue with them and think that the attachments we have to our children, parents and lovers, are much more important than they claimed. We can accept the logic of their arguments but our modern view of life is very much based based on personal attachment.

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1 comment for this post

Wednesday January 13, '10 at 04:19 PM

Swami Atma

Nice article there. It makes a strong point for dispassion and renunciation.

Your last paragraph opens up to an alternate view. I look forward to future articles to make counter points as to why it's worthwhile to go through love + attachment + suffering.

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