In what feels like a clandestine act at the witching hour, I light a candle and attend a Zoom meeting: Philosophy at Midnight. I’m part of a group of people who meet fortnightly to brood over the bottomless pit of deep thoughts. The rules: you must only talk about the chosen subject and don’t forget to light a candle.
Not surprisingly, as it’s midnight, I’m feeling tired, but this group wants to discuss Plato’s cave. Sitting in my study in rural Wales, I am one of many on the Zoom call. There are people who are sitting in their rooms in NYC, Ohio and Denmark. Some are quiet and just nod agreeably — others fire off questions. I’ve broken my own rule to never read or talk philosophy in the late hours. Philosophy is like cheese, it shouldn’t be consumed at night.
Some questions are harder to answer than others. The most befuddling questions are the simple ones with very few words: “What’s the meaning of life?” In almost a year of a forced hiatus from life as we knew it, it’s a question that many of us have allowed ourselves to ponder. And why wouldn’t we get all metaphysical; our lives have been dismantled.
Sales of Stoic and ancient philosopher Marcus Aurelius’ book, Meditations, have increased since the pandemic. So it’s not only me who has turned to philosophy.
I studied philosophy at university, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my approach to life’s difficulties have been, well, philosophical. In lockdown, I’ve clung to the words of the ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, who believed that life is a constant state of flux.
I felt a little uncomfortable that I was comfortable in the exile from normality. I didn’t feel the same anguish as my family, and it’s not just Heraclitus I need to thank for my insouciance — it’s the Stoics. The ancient philosophy believed in embracing the idea that bad things will happen to us, and in order to take away the sting, we should imagine they are.
We need to accept that we cannot change what happens externally, we only have the power to alter the internal. Most things we cannot change, but our power lies in how we respond to the things that happen to us.
Many people think that they don’t like philosophy, that falling down the rabbit hole gets you nowhere – you stare into an abyss, only for the abyss to stare back at you. But it’s not just the increased sales of Meditations that shows how we’re all getting philosophical – it’s also the questions we have been asking in our collective ennui.
We’re all used to being armed with what makes us who we are in the vision we have of ourselves: the office, our friends and family, and the hobbies we choose. Thanks to the pandemic and lockdown, we’ve been stripped bare of who we thought we were. So who are we when we are no longer ourselves?
In the first lockdown, I remember that the conversations I had with my friends and family were about how we were filling our days – days that were being increasingly imbued with a stagnant cloud of disinterest.
Existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, said: “You are nothing but the sum of your acts.” And it is this idea that we have become well acquainted with – whether we’ve ever heard of Sartre or not. We started baking banana bread, and we tried to learn new languages and new skills in a state of panic.
What the pandemic has given us is time to be reflective and ask the questions that we only ask when we’re a little bit squiffy. Philosophy doesn’t belong to old professors in black polo necks or to the pretentious. To think that one knows everything and therefore has no need to stare into the abyss, is complete folly.
A wise man once said: I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.
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