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The Essayist: A Radical Education


When I was young, I went to a Christian school. That isn’t what is radical.

What is radical is what happened next. I graduated and started attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks. My major was history, but my minor was philosophy. It was the best choice I could have made.

It certainly wasn’t the best choice I could have made financially, but when do financial considerations enter into the discussion when you’re studying in the liberal arts? Hint: They don’t.

What was radical and – ultimately – life changing was my decision to study philosophy. My first real memories of studying it were hunched over a copy of The Big Questions in a class taught by one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met: Joseph Thompson. No one makes you think philosophy is cooler than he does. I know quite a few people who would agree.

While I don’t adhere to any one philosophical doctrine, the impact of simply studying other ideas left me changed. Nothing impacts a life or a lifestyle choice more forcefully then the ideas behind it. A tree cannot grow without roots; neither can a life be lived without a guiding philosophy.

I am not advocating you have to be a Platonist, Aristotelian, or a Kantian to live. Hell, you don’t even need to be a Christian, Hindi, or Pagan. What I’m saying is that in order to live there has to be a why. I’m not talking about the physical needs of being alive like eating, breathing, and sex, but the actual nitty-gritty behind our life’s choices. I’m talking about what moves us to act. What motivates us to live?

Studying philosophy helped me better understand the what and the why. Here’s what I learned:

1. Know thyself.

In Philosophy 101, this is almost the first thing you learn. It’s the classic phrase written atop the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Even people who aren’t philosophy students know this phrase. What it means – obviously enough – is know who you are. Know where you stand in relationship to everything else. Know what you believe in and why. Think deep when you can and don’t forget to live.

2. Find something that resonates with you.

This one is important-like-whoa. If you find a book, a quote, a movie, a person, or even just an idea that really resonates with you, then keep it. Write it down, memorize it, keep a copy of it with you. What really resonates with me (for whatever reason) is the Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. While a lot of it, if taken literally, is about martial living, there is this insanely deep core running through it that is wildly applicable to daily living. Crack it open, you’ll see what I mean.

3.When you find a good motto, remember it.

One of the most important quotes in my daily living is one by general-turned –president Ulysses Grant: “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as hard as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.” While Grant was talking about enemies in the context of actual war, it’s fair to say that we all face any number of enemies in a given day: weight gain, depression, bad habits, work stress, you name it. Sometimes just repeating the last line has given me enough of a mental push to do just that; to keep moving on.

While it is not enough to simply study philosophy, what is enough is to live it. If you think you’ve found something that you think will make you a better person: try it. At worse, you dared to be a better person. At best, you succeeded. Either way, you win.