This is an excerpt from the book series Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge. You can get a copy here.


 

In a few years, I must finish a certain work. I need not hurry myself; there is no good in that—but I must work on in full calmness and serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as briefly and concisely as possible.

—Van Gogh

How is wishing to be in the spotlight on television similar to a cargo cult?

Without knowledge of philosophy and science—the future, where our views and technologies are going to lead us—and our (own and foreign) history (the past, how we have gotten to today’s circumstances), we are living in an eternal present. A present that only exists—without a connection to a past that could possibly explain the present, and without a tomorrow that might develop from today.

What is left for people who are robbed of such standards (with which they could evaluate their situation) is only a glance at their current cultural environment, society, or a telescope into a different world—the media and its admiration of famous people. Although our culture is more likely to hold us in our own social position, television broadcasts the life of (seemingly) successful people. It does not show, however, what steps each celebrity had to take to get there.

Thus, sometimes celebrities are seen as supernatural people. Without the knowledge of how to understand the world and how to build an existence, a life, and success in small steps, this appears, for this reason, like some kind of magic. It appears that if you only get your face on TV, success is going to automatically occur. Similar as to how heroic acts do not necessarily make a hero, someone who is celebrated as a hero does not necessarily become a better person.

It is a belief similar to the so-called “cargo cults” of the native inhabitants of the islands northeast of Australia. They built primitive runways and control towers in preparation for the Allied forces’ aircrafts during and after World War II on which to land and unload valuable goods. Their execution seemed flawless to them, but they were missing something essential: cargo planes do not simply land because there is a runway. They are specifically ordered, loaded, and then sent to certain airports—with all parties involved being members of the Allies’ international network of mutual trust, protection, and trade.


Example

Another example of a cargo cult is China under Mao Zedong. The state ordered the Five-Year Economic Plan of 1958, the “Great Leap Forward,” in which large parts of the population were moved from working as farmers to producing steel. The idea was to achieve the economic success of industrialized nations by imitating some aspects, steel production being the most prominent factor at that time. Although China did produce massive amounts of steel, its quality was low grade, and it could hardly be sold on the world markets; the shift from agriculture to industry caused the biggest famine in human history.


The interaction in front of the camera, the building of runways, the steel production, or the gaining of knowledge are surely important goals in each individual realm. Alone, however, they do not lead to success, prosperity, or creativity. So if we want more than to copy others or maintain the status quo, but also create new things and, therefore, change the world by setting a living example, we have to understand the basic context. Understanding the basics, we can then, too, comprehend new and unknown situations. We do not only want to occupy ourselves with the past and what is known, but also prepare for the future. This requires knowledge of philosophy and the sciences.

CARGO CULT ·  A cargo cult refers to the behavior where someone tries to imitate certain aspects of another (successful) person, expecting the same success. For example, celebrities are often on TV but just by managing to get yourself on TV, you will not necessarily become a celebrity.

This book, as well as philosophy in general, teaches the procedure to master problems and challenges, and to enable one to live a self-determined life. Just as in nature, where sensory cells have formed to react to external influences (instead of being pre-programmed), so it is that philosophy teaches humans methods of thinking to find answers to their questions concerning their lives.

Although numerous guidebooks have already been written on these topics, many times those offer just a series of personal accounts and general guidelines. What is missing is the broad foundation on which we can make the best decisions in a given situation—a foundation that connects our enthusiasm, values, and our inner world with rationality, science, and facts. Just like the pictures on television, it is, however, at a certain point no longer enough to be an example. For the distance between others and ourselves to not become too vast, we have to take our fellow man by the hand and climb new heights together. We need to learn to teach what we intuitively know and feel to be right.

[The book] aspires to be an invitation or introduction to philosophy for any lay person, most especially the young, wishing to learn something about this venerable intellectual tradition which started in Greece. I am addressing, above all, those who do not regard philosophy as being solely a venerable tradition but as a mode of thought that is still valid and can be of use when confronting their day-to-day problems. The main point is not to know how Socrates, twenty-five centuries ago, found a way of coping better with life in Athens, but to find a way of better understanding and enjoying life [today] …

—Fernando Savater, The Questions of Life 

But what are the questions with which we are confronted? Not all people can read and only a few read books on a regular basis. Is philosophy for this reason just a mind game for the rich and educated? What role does something like philosophy play in the life of an “ordinary” person?

The point is that every human carries a philosophy within him, upon which he either consciously or unconsciously acts. If not coming from one’s own considerations, then such philosophy stems from family, the group, or the national culture. An individual’s views are in turn fed by the ideas coming from the intellectuals—ideas that drip down to popular science books, schools, newspapers, and television. Contrary to production methods (and applied sciences to a lesser degree) which are under the constant scrutiny of market forces, these ideas spread mostly unhindered, as long as they are not questioned.

Such philosophical arguments are the result of thousands of hours of mental work of many scholars. Is it possible for someone who has never engaged in philosophy to build his own philosophical position or even go against opinions coming from universities? Probably, those people will glean their philosophical positions from their surroundings and imagine that they are independent of “those up there,” and that others’ ideas have no impact on them. But changes in the views of the general population almost always come from changes within the academic (or religious) sector. If you do not think for yourself, others will do the thinking for you. If a large portion of the population is not interested in philosophy, then a small number of philosophers will have a big impact on the entire population. People accept ideas that have “taken hold”—stayed unquestioned, that is. Therefore, it is even more important for anyone who is interested in philosophy to analyze current schools of thought and to actively get involved in the discussion, especially with the momentary trendsetters, and to make his or her voice heard.

[…] the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.

—John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money 

Ayn Rand made a similar statement:

The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow. They come to be accepted by degrees, by dint of constant pressure on one side and constant retreat on the other—until one day when they are suddenly declared to be the country’s official ideology.

—Ayn Rand, The Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution 

But why do we have to deal with abstract philosophical questions at all? Are there even questions beyond the political, economic, or scientific realm that are relevant to our lives? First it needs to be noted that knowledge is built upon a hierarchy. Answers to political, economic, and also scientific questions are found in association with answers coming from deeper levels of questions about human nature, logic, and even reality itself and how we perceive it. Most people merely lack self-confidence or courage to examine such questions; they ask themselves why exactly they should study and discuss philosophical teachings when thousands of others have already done so and supposedly confirmed them. As described earlier, philosophy is not subjected to direct examination like science studies are. Despite having a philosophy that conflicts with reality, we might not even realize it to be wrong (because we cannot see missed opportunities). We might realize it only when it is too late, as in the form of an inhumane system of government that was built on the very same flawed philosophy; or we might simply not know what it even means when a philosophy conflicts with reality.

Thus, it is up to each individual to decide whether to spend time studying philosophy or not. Joining leaders and using their success to measure the truthfulness of their philosophies appears to be a better alternative. But the difficulty here is to abstract someone else’s concrete actions for general guidance for our own lives, or the reverse, connecting that person’s lectures with his or her success; for that, we would need the very basics of philosophy we previously ignored. A person who has achieved wealth and power might have cheated his way to the top or simply was very lucky. Likewise, it does not necessarily mean that a person with lesser success is following a false philosophy or that the right philosophy would automatically lead to success.

Nevertheless, no matter how we twist and turn it, we do need a personal philosophical foundation to check how we should act. Despite having a grasp of this foundation, success is not guaranteed; you are not suddenly capable of moving mountains. But every new day, with each new decision, based upon accurate philosophy, we have a compass with which we can examine our direction at any given time. If we are moving in the right direction, although our steps might be very small, we can live in confidence that we are always getting closer to our goals. Contrary to everyday or temporary knowledge, a philosophy—even if it appears small and insignificant—influences each of us in every decision. An error in the foundation in our philosophy would be like having taken the wrong turn in a journey’s beginning and finding yourself in the end at a totally different place than prospected. It is not important how fast you are moving but that you are making progress in the right direction.