Excerpt: 'The Quest for God and the Good: World Philosophy as a Living Experience' by Diana Lobel
Among the enduring works of twentieth century literature is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. A psychoanalyst and concentration camp survivor, Frankl testifies that human beings can survive tremendous suffering if they understand it to have some purpose. Any one of us can triumph over incomprehensible pain if we can reframe our challenges to discover their hidden meaning and value.
Based upon this insight, Frankl developed the psychological discipline of logotherapy (from the Greek logos, meaning, and therapeia, healing, care, or attention). He posits that the fundamental human drive is not the search for pleasure or power, but the search for meaning; each individual must find a personal understanding of his or her life purpose.[i] The search for the meaning and purpose of life is indeed universal. Human beings want to know why we are here, whether there is a transcendent being or dimension in the universe, and whether existence is fundamentally good. Above all, we want to know whether the search for God and the good will bring us happiness and fulfillment.
The discipline of philosophy has traditionally addressed these fundamental questions. Contemporary historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot has shown that for ancient thinkers, philosophy was not simply a theoretical discipline, but a way of life. Philosophical arguments were in essence spiritual exercises whose goal was to transform the self. “Philosophy,” he writes, “then appears in its original aspect not as a theoretical construct, but as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way. It is an attempt to transform mankind.”[ii] The truths revealed by ancient texts may appear simple at first glance, even banal. “Yet for their meaning to be understood, these truths must be lived, and constantly re-experienced. Each generation must take up, from scratch, the task of learning to read and to re-read these old truths.”[iii] The task of reading for self-transformation is itself a spiritual discipline, for “we have forgotten how to read, how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return into ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate, and let the texts speak to us.”[iv]
Dale Wright, a scholar of Buddhist philosophy, likewise advocates a meditative reading practice that entails philosophical, reflective activity. “It is never content with the obvious; it will refuse to hold onto customary forms of understanding in order to push beyond what is already within grasp. The initial act of reading serves to lure the mind out of complacency and inertia by challenging it to consider something new, or to experience more deeply what has already been thought.”[v]
In that spirit, the goal of this study is to explore the insights of central thinkers and texts that address fundamental existential questions. Specifically, we will explore the connection between concepts of divinity or an absolute and the good life. While we as moderns often associate religion with the search for eternal liberation or immortality, central texts of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions are equally concerned to uncover the meaning and purpose of life in this world. These key texts and thinkers maintain that human beings find true fulfillment by making contact with fundamental values at the heart of reality.
Our first question as we undertake this search: why is spiritual life so often described using metaphors of quest and journey? A journey implies movement in space, a physical going out toward a destination. A quest too implies going out in search of something. The quest and the journey suggest that history, events, and narrative are meaningful––perhaps even holding intrinsic, sacred importance. In contrast, many traditions speak of God, ultimate reality, or nirvāṇa as a spiritual absolute that does not move or change; they suggest that the ultimate human goal is to arrive at a static eternal perfection. For example, Aristotle’s philosophical God does not change; it is pure Being, the unmoved mover, thought thinking itself. It does not seek or lack; it eternally contemplates its own nature. Similarly, Plato’s realm of the Forms is a beautiful mosaic of eternal, unchanging essences. The metaphor of the quest, in contrast, suggests that narrative, search, and change are meaningful; that the journey itself is its own reward.
The latter perspective is at the heart of this study. It is not my goal to arrive at a universal definition of God and the good. Rather, I will endeavor to present the aesthetic beauty of multiple visions presented by thinkers across history and across cultures. I will suggest that investigation and discovery are themselves processes of value.
In this spirit, Kenneth Seeskin has suggested a novel interpretation of Socrates’ teaching that knowledge is virtue: the pursuit of knowledge itself entails acts of moral courage. Likewise, opening ourselves to a genuine search for the Absolute brings purpose, fulfillment, and challenge to our lives. Each approach we explore adds a color to the spectrum, a dimension without which the whole would be incomplete. To recognize the beauty and wisdom of each perspective expands our vision both as spiritual seekers and as moral agents.
There is a conventional philosophical saying that every person is either an Aristotelian or a Platonist––that we either share Aristotle’s passion for scientific investigation of our world or Plato’s love for an ideal realm of pure eternal truth. In contrast, I would like to suggest that when we study Plato and Aristotle with sincerity and conviction we find each thinker’s worldview compelling within its own framework. My aim in this study is to share that process of discovery.
From the Introduction to The Quest for God and the Good: World Philosophy as a Living Experience by Diana Lobel. Copyright © 2011 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
[i] See Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.
[ii] Pierre Hadot, “Spiritual Exercises,” in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 107.
[iii] Ibid, 108.
[iv] Ibid, 109.
[v] Dale S. Wright, Philosophical Reflections on Zen Buddhism, xii.
About the Author:
Diana Lobel is Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University and the author of Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Halevi’s Kuzari and A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya Ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart.