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!


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.

This anthropocentric or human-centred view defines modernity: a view where human progress is seen as absolute and where humans exist above all other aspects of creation because of their faculties of reason.


Reason was the language of God in the natural world, and humans had been given the gift to recognise it.


Yet this natural God of reason was no longer mystical or distant and the world was no longer enchanted or hidden. In the eyes of the enlightenment, everything must reveal its true nature according to reason and therefore humans displaced God as the centre of the cosmos and its workings. The revealed God of scripture was dead. Now human reason had become master of its own universe.


However, this vision has failed us.

Our trust in human progress has clearly faltered.

As we bear witness to economic and environmental crisis; high levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide; disease, fervent inequalities, violence, and destruction, it appears that our appeals to the intellect will not offer definitive answers to the questions: What should we do? What is next? The activity of the human mind and the reality it created seemed to have caused the problems we experience today. Continuing with the intellect alone will only lead to more despair- both on the individual, social, and cosmological levels.


The activity of the human mind and the reality it created seemed to have caused the problems we experience today. Continuing with the intellect alone will only lead to more despair.

If we look back through history, it would seem that the seemingly 'non-rational' traditions of storytelling, game playing, ritual enactment and religious expression gave us meaning and alternative structures to be within and exist through. The over-intellectualisation of the human race led to such pursuits being deemed as irrational and inferior to reason. However this needs- and is- changing.


The three ways the intellect alone leads to despair are:

1- When it is active and leaves no room for the passive.
2- When it is logical and leaves no room for the imagination.
3- When it pushes forward and does not allow room to receive.

Ultimately, the issue with the developments from The Enlightenment was not the intellect in itself, but the way the intellect became distinctly separated, exalted, and held above everything else. The emphasis on activity and forcefulness is key.


The intellect is an active force: it is engaging and always doing. This in turn has led to UTILITARIANISM: a view which argues that all action has USE VALUE: that all action is useful in some way: contributing to our betterment and progress.


The intellect is an active force: it is engaging and doing. This has led to utilitarianism which argues that all action is determined by its use value.

And now we get to the juicy stuff...


The idea that everything serves a distinct purpose and has a distinct value - that from all we do we expect to receive something in return- leaves no room for grace, beauty, revelation, mystery, contemplation, true leisure, play, and ultimately God or Truth.


Because- whether you believe in 'God' or not- the idea that we can attain or experience flow, unity, oneness, truth or something along these lines implies a relationality that cannot be attained purely by the activity of the intellect.


The medieval monastics and ancient philosophers seemed to know this and, increasingly, this is what embodied practices such as yoga and meditation are reminding us: the power of silence, stillness and letting go all allow us to be open to receive. The ability to rest in awareness which, in all its silence or apparent lack, somehow seems to hold more truth than all the great books of philosophy, is truly magical.

A Playful Practice. Copyright @ Florence Harry 2021. www.flossophyfashion.co.uk

If physical practices are reminding us that 'coming home' is not about the self-proclaimed brilliance of the human mind or the possible forms of activity and value we can attain, but a beautifully simple openness to receive and listen which is found within a contemplative approach to knowledge, it is my belief that the intellectual and philosophical side of things still has a long way to go.


From research production to student recruitment, universities are increasingly determined by a value-money system which, for the most part, leaves little room for contemplation and reflection.


But, if even quantum scientists will tell you that science requires great use of the imagination to create new theories, we must also remind ourselves that 'humanistic' disciplines are also a product of the imagination of researchers, even within long-standing or 'objectively' defined traditions. Perhaps it is time to start thinking about how we value such intellectual works and, indeed, if they must carry 'use value' at all, or if they can be a site of contemplation too?


Perhaps it is time to start asking more about the broader value of intellectual work. Is intellectual labour always determined by a 'use-value,' or is there space for contemplative thought, as well as hard-working thought; the possibility of receiving as well as actively doing?


Of course, intellectual work is not confined to universities. Perhapsthe university is where the intellect is distinctly channelled as a form of 'work', but we each engage with our intellect every day.


How can we make more space to listen, to receive, to embody, to converse and to share with others, without feeling that the intellect- our intellect- has to have the last word, dominate, or capture the reality which it pursues?


Ultimately, a purely intellectual approach to reality, truth, and self won't make us happy. Encouraging more playful approaches to engage with intellect, honour the imagination and ride the waves of passive reception and openness to receive, in a slightly paradoxical way, will bring more truth into our lives.



In Hindu, Vedantic and Vedic traditions, the concept of play or Goddess Lila has a pivotal role. Source: Alan Watts website

Thanks for reading.

Floss x


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"The sun and the moon, the individual soul and the supreme soul and in the same way, the union of all dualities, is called Yoga." Yogabīja, 87a-90b.

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