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What is Philosophy for?

In Ancient Greek, philo means love and sophia means wisdom; philosophers are people devoted to wisdom and are unafraid of asking questions. Philosophy gets us to submit all aspects of common sense to reason. It wants us to think for ourselves. Is it really true what people say about love, money, children, travel, work? Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical – rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established. Philosophy is committed to self-knowledge – and its central precept – articulated by the earliest, greatest philosopher, Socrates – is just two words long: Know yourself.


  • The world's first true and probably greatest philosopher
  • Plato devoted his life to helping people to reach fulfilment
  • Plato had four big ideas for making life more fulfilled:
    • Think more instead of going with popular opinions and common sense; know yourself
    • Let your lover change you; true love is admiration and the right person helps us grow to our full potential
    • Decode the message of beauty; beautiful objects are whispering important truths to us about the good life
    • Reform society; think about how the government and society should ideally be to increase fulfilment
  • The world will not be right until kings become philosophers or philosophers kings; he wanted philosophy to be a tool to help us change the world.


  • Arguably the most influential philosopher ever and was fascinated by how things actually work
  • For Aristotle, philosophy was about practical wisdom and here are four big philosophical questions he answered:
    • What makes people happy? Aristotle set himself the task of identifying the factors that lead people to have a good life. He suggested that good people possess distinct virtues; in particular: Courage, Temperance, Liberality, Magnificence, Magnanimity, Pride, Patience, Truthfulness, Wittiness, Friendliness, and Modesty. Moral goodness is the result of habit.
    • What is art for? The task of art is to make profound truths about life, stick in our minds.
    • What are friends for? The true friend is someone whom you care as much as you are about yourself; you expand into the life of another.
    • How can ideas cut through in a busy world? He invented the art of rhetoric: the art of getting people to agree with you. You have to recognise, acknowledge, and sooth people's fears; you have to see the emotional side of the issue and edge around it accordingly. You have to have a sense of humour because attention spans are short and you have to use illustrations and examples to make your point come alive.


  • Some of his extraordinary and provocative statements are "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger" and "God is dead! And we have killed him"
  • He was a prophet of what he called self-overcoming, the process by which a great-souled person rises above their circumstances and difficulties to embrace whatever life throws at them
  • He wanted his work to teach us "How to become who we really are." His thoughts centers around 4 main recommendations:
    • Own up to envy; there is nothing wrong with envy as long as we use it as a guide to reach what we really want. Every person who makes us envious should be seen as an indication of what we could one day become.
    • Don't be a Christian; he resented Christianity for protecting people from their envy and Christianity amounted to a giant machine for bitter denial.
    • Never drink alcohol; he hated alcohol for the very same reasons that he scorned Christianity because both numb pain and both reassure us that things are just fine as they are, sapping us of the will to change our lives for the better.
    • God is dead; for Nietzsche, the 19th century was reeling under the impact of two developments: Mass Democracy and Atheism. The first threatened to unleash torrents of undigested envy; the second to leave humans without guidance or morality. It conveys his view that the Christian God is no longer a credible source of absolute moral principles

Lao Tzu

  • Lao Tzu is said to have been a record keeper in the court of the central Chinese Zhou Dynasty in the 6th century B.C., and an older contemporary of Confucius.
  • Lao Tzu is said to have tired of life in the Zhou court as it grew increasingly morally corrupt; so he left and rode on a water buffalo to the western border of the Chinese empire.
  • Lao Tzu wrote became the sacred text known as the Tao Te Ching. See
  • There is a story about the three great Asian spiritual leaders (Lao Tzu, Confucius, and Buddha). All were meant to have tasted vinegar. Confucius found it sour, much like he found the world full of degenerate people, and Buddha found it bitter, much like he found the world to be full of suffering. But Lao Tzu found the world sweet. This is telling, because Lao Tzu's philosophy tends to look at the apparent discord in the world and see an underlying harmony guided by something called the Dao = the path
  • The "Dao" is the "way" of the world, the path to virtue, happiness, and harmony.
  • Most of Lao Tzu's suggestions are very simple.
  • First, we ought to take more time for stillness. "To the mind that is still," Lao Tzu said, "the whole universe surrenders."
  • We need to let go of our schedules, worries, and complex thoughts for a while and simply experience the world.
  • We spend so much time rushing from one place to the next in life, but Lao Tzu reminds us "nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished."
  • It is particularly important that we remember that certain things like grieving, growing wiser, developing a new relationship, only happen on their own schedule, like the changing of leaves in the fall or the blossoming of the bulbs we planted months ago.
  • When we are still and patient we also need to be open. "The usefulness of a pot comes from its emptiness." Lao Tzu said. "Empty yourself of everything, let your mind become still."
  • If we are too busy, too preoccupied with anxiety or ambition, we will miss a thousand moments of the human experience that are our natural inheritance. We need to be awake to the way sounds of the birds in the morning, the way other people look when they are laughing, the feeling of wind against our face. These experiences reconnect us to parts of ourselves.
  • Another key point of Lao Tzu’s writing is that we need to be in touch with our real selves.
  • We spend a great deal of time worrying about who we ought to become, but we should instead take time to be who we already are at heart.
  • We might rediscover a generous impulse, or a playful side we had forgotten, or simply an old affection for long walks.
  • Our ego is often in the way of our true self, which must be found by being receptive to the outside world rather than focusing on some critical, too-ambitious internal image.
  • "When I let go of what I am," Lao Tzu wrote, "I become what I might be."
  • "The best people are like water, which benefits all things and does not compete with them. It stays in lowly places that others reject. This is why it is so similar to the Dao."
  • Each part of nature can remind us of a quality we admire and should cultivate ourselves—the strength of the mountains, the resilience of trees, and the cheerfulness of flowers.


  • Confucius was said to have been born in 551 BC in China and was a student to the Taoist master Lao Tzu
  • According to tradition he began government service but when a neighbouring ruler presented 80 beautiful women and 124 horses to them, he found this to be deeply improper and left the court
  • Confucius's works were collected into the Analects collection of sayings written down by his followers
  • Some morals Confucius taught was his version of the golden rule to "not do unto others what you don't want done to yourself"
  • Confucius helps us to remember the importance of ceremonies; Confucius believed in the value he called ritual propriety
  • Rituals are premeditated and deliberate and help stir our emotions deeply; they help us to understand how to behave
  • We should treat our parents with reverence; he believes that we should obey them when we're young, care for them when they're old, mourn for them when they die, and make huge sacrifices in their memory thereafter (filial piety)
  • Confucius recognised that in many ways, moral life begins in the family; we cannot really be caring, wise, grateful, and conscientious unless practice these things in our own families
  • We should be obedient to honourable people; Confucius told his followers: "Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son.
  • We need to be modest enough to recognise the people whose experience or accomplishments out weigh our own; the relationship between superior and inferior is like that between the wind and the grass: the grass must bend when the wind blows across it
  • Bending gracefully is not a sign of weakness but a gesture of humility and respect
  • Cultivated knowledge can be more important then creativity
  • Confucius was adamant about the importance the universal wisdom that comes from years of hard work and reflection
  • He listed benevolence, ritual propriety, righteousness, wisdom, and integrity as the five constant virtues; these must be constantly cultivated just like plants in the garden
  • We need to devote more energy into slowly changing our habits; this is more than anything, important in becoming truly intelligent, accomplished, and wise