The Intellect Alone Leads to Despair: How Can We Approach Philosophy as a Way of Life?


The intellect, rational mind or faculty for thinking has many benefits and it is certainly something which is hugely promoted in our society: from success at school to debates in the news and media; even man-made money and economic theory is based on a vision of the human individual as free, selfish, and rationally minded.


When so much value is placed upon this ACTIVE faculty of reason or intellect, it is no surprise that we have a lot of unhappiness in the world. This is because the intellect alone leads to despair.


When so much value is placed upon this ACTIVE faculty of reason or intellect, it is no surprise that we have a lot of unhappiness in the world. This is because the intellect alone leads to despair.

Now don't get me wrong, I am quite academic. I love learning, thinking and discussing; I study philosophy (of religion) and therefore I inevitably value and participate in intellectual discussion. But increasingly, I am discovering that philosophy is not and certainly does not have to be a purely intellectual pursuit.


From Antiquity (ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome) to the Medieval period, philosophy and theology were a way of life. Scholars such as Pierre Hadot highlight that, in antiquity, 'intellectual' philosophical learning was accompanied with 'spiritual exercises' which were practical and embodied. In the Medieval period, the university system did not exist in the way that it does today and subjects were limited, so one studied them all. You could be a polymath (someone who studies everything) and have encyclopedic knowledge because there were so few books that it was quite possible to have read them all!


http://idlespeculations-terryprest.blogspot.com/2009/11/monastic-theology.html
Practicing Monastic Theology. St Benedict 1420. Source: idlespeculations blog

While in the monastic period, intellectual labour was not identical with everyday life and many groups would be excluded from such pursuits (women, slaves, the poor etc), the intellectual and everyday tasks complemented each other.


Scholars such as Yves Lacoste emphasise this sense of balance between the intellectual and contemplative during this time, when people lived in communities and the intellect served the greater purpose of spiritual devotion and contemplation towards God and Truth. This is the path that many of the great mystics, monastics, and 'intellectuals' lived in prior to the slow emergence of modernity which began with the Renaissance before leading to the Age of Reason and European Enlightenment.


With the intellectual European Enlightenment of the 18th (ish) century, God's creation- nature- came to be seen as graspable through the faculty of reason which itself was possessed by human beings. The secrets of the universe could be grasped through measurement, logic, and a new kind of 'natural philosophy.' Suddenly, through the gift of the intellect, human beings were uncovering it all.


While at first the aims of enlightenment were not necessarily opposed to religion, over time faith and revelation were considered irrational in the eyes of reason. Eventually, the central position which religion held in mainstream society was replaced by a neutral 'secular' realm and 'objective' knowledge in the form of logic arose as the new scientific method for measuring and understanding the universe.

A Natural Religion. (Photo illustration by Shaylyn Esposito; Photos courtesy of Wikipedia, iStock/Khaneeros) iStock/baona)

Yet this new intellectual approach to knowledge was underpinned by the belief that human reason could capture ultimate truth and therefore humans could learn, in order to understand, in order to control and manipulate.


This new intellectual approach to knowledge was underpinned by the belief that human reason could capture ultimate truth, and therefore humans could learn, in order to understand, in order to control and manipulate.