Is Philosophy Practical?

By Sarah B. Van Mater

Very often an idealistic cosmological philosophy must face the charge of appealing exclusively to the intellect. Many people feel it is remote from human life because it deals with long time spans, immense areas of space, and matters which cannot always be perceived by the senses. They characterize such approaches as mental escapes, rationalizations of the unpleasant realities of daily life, or pale abstractions which only divert energy away from the worldly arena where so much human suffering goes on. This is a serious charge, for certainly there are great dangers in any sweeping intellectual system: we can become so caught up in its intricacies, in the symmetry and balance of its propositions, that we lose contact with our fellow men. Nonetheless, ideas which may at first appear abstruse explanations of the world, many times have a profound impact on our life and attitudes when they become a vital part of our whole being rather than a mere intellectual construct.

One example of a seemingly remote idea which can affect almost every area of life is the classification of the various aspects of man's being. While each religion, philosophy, and science considers the problem from a slightly different perspective, the theosophical view will serve as a case in point. Broadly speaking, it pictures man as having within himself more evolved consciousness centers from which the intellectual, psychological, and physical portions of his being have unfolded. The less evolved, more easily perceived parts of man's being, while existing independently, are intimately connected with the spiritual source within. This inner divinity is just as much a part of man as his more familiar selves, but few men have learned to raise themselves to such a universal level. All these different grades of awareness which we discover in man interact with each other constantly and so influence one another, change, and grow. The theosophic system goes on to explore these selves more closely and to relate them to other phases of the universe.

At first glance, a detailed division of man's being and a discussion about the relationship between its different levels may seem no more than an intellectual exercise. Upon reflection, however, the practical consequences of such ideas on our behavior and approach to life become myriad. For instance, if a person feels that he contains within his own consciousness a link with a divine being which is himself, his view of his possibilities changes. He sees himself as more than an animal, as being able to meet problems that arise by looking within for strength and guidance. He no longer feels the need to lean on other people or outer circumstances to find confidence in his abilities or encouragement for the future. At the same time, the conviction that all men are expressions of an innate divinity brings respect for those around him. His relationship with others appears in a new light, for prejudices built on differences along physical, personal, or intellectual lines cannot consistently exist with the belief that, at their core, all men are gods.

Moreover, we are constantly surrounded by death and misfortune. If a person believes that the aspects of men which he contacts in daily life are but the tip of the iceberg of their being, he will find comfort and strength in the face of calamities, whether to himself or others. Why should we grieve over the death of a loved one when we realize that the individuality, the essence, of that person remains untouched by death, and that in the future it will unroll the lower portions of itself again to manifest on earth? Of course, we miss the presence of those we care about, but we will not feel the emptiness of a final destruction or separation. What was best in that person, what he essentially was, cannot be destroyed, and is only enwrapped for a period of rest before coming forth into the world again. Such an idea of man's nature cuts at the root of each individual's fear of death. By gaining an understanding of man, what he is and how he is constructed, we are helped through daily life, particularly in the most trying periods, for it is just this type of philosophy that can sustain us in times of personal crisis or sorrow.

At this point, however, we may well ask: "How can I know these ideas are true? Are they merely beneficial to people because of their potential results in daily living or do they reflect some kind of reality in nature?" Here is where the importance of the specific, detailed structure of a philosophy becomes apparent. By comparing the philosophical ideas, including their intellectual and physical implications, with the world we see around us and with ourselves, we can arrive at some type of mental satisfaction that the ideas proposed by a particular line of thought are not only 'nice' or 'pleasant,' but find their foundation in the laws of the universe as it actually exists. It is in judging the truth value of ideas that the intellectual and scientific systems of thought, remote or technical as their formulations may seem, become necessary and justified.

Therefore, a philosophy which meets the needs of men will both reflect the structure of nature accurately and apply to man's everyday experience. In order for such ideas to be helpful practically, they must descend from the realms of theoretical debate to become an intimate part of the person himself. They must be absorbed into the whole person rather than being, like a fact about the migration of birds, stored away in some corner of the brain. A good friend once told me to concentrate on practical philosophical ideas, but he added , "Each of these ideas is practical, if you know how to put it into use." Most of us, however, have trouble enough in trying to live the most obviously practical concepts we adopt; we often fail to carry their implications into our daily contact with others. Indeed, just because everyone is different, what may seem eminently useful to one may seem the most shadowy of abstractions to another. The important thing is to infuse our daily living with whatever outlook, approach, or ideas we accept intellectually. We then come to realize that the distinction between an intellectual abstraction and a practical tenet of behavior ultimately lies in our approach to the ideas and in our willingness to make our practices and beliefs harmonize as fully as possible with each other.

(From Sunrise magazine, February 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)

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