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Philosophies of Life:
Personal and Traditional
When one considers the many aspects of one's "inner life," it becomes clear that most, if not all of them are based upon some philosophical conception. Psychologists have long known that individuals, who have a strong sense of their life's purpose, as well as a spiritual, religious, or ethical viewpoint, tend to live longer, healthier lives. Further, they are less likely to suffer from depressive episodes (Hassad, 2000). Although each person's individual "philosophy of life" is different, there are some well-known philosophical interpretations that can shed some light upon common attitudes concerning personal identity. Six famous life philosophies are attributed to Socrates, Freud, Albert Camus, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Muhammad.
Although there are several ways in which one can interpret the meaning of life and personal identity, perhaps one of the most useful steps one can take in the process is to recognize the vast range of viewpoints that are possible in the quest. While it is true that many people draw their personal life philosophies from religion -- few recognize that most actual life philosophies are a kind of hybrid derived from cultural, moral, religious, spiritual, and psychological sources. Indeed, even the most traditionally religious person (from whatever religion one happens to practice), is extremely likely to have been impacted by his or her surroundings, past, and internal beliefs more than he or she could ever fathom. Therefore, developing a view of personal philosophy is best accomplished by drawing from interpretations from several viewpoints.
Perhaps one of the most stereotypically religious life philosophies might be attributed to followers of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. Ask any devout Muslim, the world over what drives him or her with regard to identity and purpose in life, and he or she will tell you that it is devotion to God. Further, upon examining a religious Muslim's life, one will see that much of his or her daily life is dictated by devotion to the precepts of the faith -- all with the goal of pleasing God. Interestingly, however, there are several non-overtly religious or spiritual philosophies that can also be incorporated into this kind of philosophy.
Consider, for example, the view of the famous philosopher, writer, and statesman, John Locke, who wrote, "good and evil, reward and punishment, are the only motives to a rational creature: these are the spur and reins whereby all mankind are set on work, and guided." (Locke, 1693) Although most religious people (Muslim or otherwise) would no doubt assert that they wish to please God out of plain devotion, many may also admit that a good deal of their actions and motivation is spurred by the desire to gain reward in the afterlife, or conversely, to avoid punishment.
Again, although one may be overtly religious, as well as fearful of punishment and expectant of rewards, there is also another aspect of all religions that is rarely discussed but often acknowledged -- and that is the role of doubt in identity and self-motivation. In this vein, it may be beneficial to sprinkle in a little bit of Albert Camus' philosophy of Absurdism, that is the assumption that "human beings are basically irrational and human suffering is the result of vain attempts by individuals to find reason or meaning in the absurd abyss of existence (Todd, 1997)." Although the ultimate conclusions of this "absurdism" are characteristically abhorrent to the religious viewpoint, some shadows of them nonetheless exist, even if it is not acknowledged outwardly. However, Camus' assertion that one must either abandon meaning in life and thus commit suicide, create "artificial meaning" as in the case of religion itself, or accept the fact that life is meaningless but live anyway (much as an atheist would). To be sure, most religious people would feel strongly against such a viewpoint, however, to incorporate just a bit of Camus' viewpoint gives the life philosophy a bit of a tempered reality that is more consistent with the human experience.
Speaking of the human experience, one can also incorporate the role of life experience on self, identity, and outlook -- again the hallmarks of a personal philosophy. Of course, one of the best philosophers to include in this category would be Sigmund Freud. This, because unlike many others, Freud emphasized the importance of early experiences -- that is, individual life experiences (specifically in infancy and childhood), as key indicators as to the eventual outcome of personal identity and philosophy. Again, although the religious viewpoint may assert that personal experience should not matter, and that life is precisely what God would want it to be, and Camus might imagine that the individual deals with the absurd through a choice (between life and death), Freud deals with the notion (that even religious people experience), that how one sees oneself, views others and the world, as well as how one behaves, is determined by experience alone. Again, on its own, many take issue with Freud's assumptions (especially with his intense focus on bodily needs and functions), yet few can discount the importance of personal experiences in how one melds to concepts of religion, spirituality, fear of punishment, desire to please, as well as relationship to doubt or the "absurdity" of life itself.
Although the religious person tempered by the various viewpoints discussed above may imagine that he or she is completely free to determine his or her philosophical stance, the reality is that most (if not all) humans are governed by outside forces, at times totally at odds with one's personal beliefs. This might be described as a kind of "Leviathan" force, personified by government or law. Thus, in the hybrid philosophy, one must include a touch of Hobbes, specifically concerning the notion that without outside force, humanity cannot be counted upon to rein in selfish impulses (impulses that often are in stark opposition to stated beliefs or morals). In this portion of the philosophy, the individual must realize that the role of outside forces necessarily greases the wheels of human interaction, and tempers the weaknesses possessed by all.
Finally, in an encompassing life philosophy one must recognize the importance of introspection, as well as the questioning mind. After all, without this there would be no form of philosophy whatsoever, just a blind "acting" without any kind of internal knowledge concerning personal motives. Of course, the best example of this kind of introspection is embodied in Socrates' "questioning habit," represented in classic "Socratic interrogation," or throughout and unflinching examination using "logical nit-picking," to lay bare common illusions concerning reality (composed of human thought, action, and motivation, to name a few aspects).
Clearly, it is all too common for any individual to embrace a particular aspect or viewpoint of life philosophy without examining just why he or she has done so. Not only is this habit annoying in the extreme, but it can also be dangerous morally, as well as socially. As Socrates, himself, is said to have understood, "devotion to truth," is a necessary part of identity. As he so famously said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." To go even farther, the unexamined life can make life for everyone a great hardship or even tragedy. After all, how many wars have been waged due to the unexamined motivations of the people called upon to fight?
In short, it seems that no single viewpoint is sufficient to create a good personal philosophy of life. The simple fact is that any one stance creates a flawed viewpoint, one that is extreme, reactive, damaging, and most likely never "examined." Thus, one must acknowledge the role of religion, spirituality, government, fear of punishment and longing for reward, as well as doubt and introspection. Without these, one finds abuses both personally as well as globally. Yet, as Socrates presumably would have agreed, a…[continue]
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