Book Review: Letters to a Young Philosopher

A friendly invitation to philosophy, the art of loving and dying

ashishm

Ashish Mehta | February 24, 2018


#Maria Vargas Llosa   #Philosophy   #Letters to a Young Poet   #Ramin Jahanbegloo  


Most of us would recall how sorely we needed a guide, a mentor, when we were in our twenties and starting out in a career, or in the deeper study of a branch of knowledge. What we needed was more than what beginners’ guides and the Dummies series could provide. We needed someone who would share his or her lifelong experience, counsel us on how to navigate the uncertainties ahead.

Seeking that kind of help, a teenager wrote to a poet, and the poet replied at length, and the two built a correspondence. It was later put together as a book, Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ – and a genre was born. (Mr Rainer, by the way, is to whom the letters in this book under review are addressed.) Thus, we have Letters to a Young Scientist (biologist Edward O Wilson), a Young Mathematician (math popularizer Ian Stewart) a Young Novelist (Nobel laureate Maria Vargas Llosa), a Young Contrarian (polemicist Christopher Hitch) and so on, down to a young teacher, a young farmer, a young gymnast, and a young Muslim. Among the missing vocations in the list, not counting politics and journalism, was philosophy – and, to fill the gap, who better than Ramin Jahanbegloo, who has a series of works addressing biggest questions in philosophy in gentle, jargon-free language, inviting non-academic readers to participate in the ongoing discussion?

The elderly philosopher here confesses at the outset to have been inspired by Rilke, and assures the young reader that these letters “follow the same tone of friendship and the same quest for beauty and truth”.

Philosophia, a Greek word, translates as love of wisdom, and thus the philosopher should be someone who is striving for
wisdom. Over the centuries, the meaning of ‘wisdom’ seems to have changed – at least its role has certainly shifted. Thus, the philosopher of today is someone employed in a university, with specialisation in textual study of metaphysics or ontology or logic or something sufficiently removed from the wise stuff. The original definition is, however, making a comeback with the ‘Philosophy as a Way of Life’ movement, as an increasingly uncertain world is again looking for wisdom. Jahanbegloo, happily, is addressing both kinds of young philosophers here.

“Philosophy, as the love of wisdom, had become for me a way of life. When we say philosophy is a way of life, we mean a certain dwelling in the world and in one’s historical time,” Jahanbegloo writes in the preface. Further, “Far from being just a set of clever questions, the act of philosophizing is to ask the everlasting Socratic question: in which way should one live?”

With that agenda, we have before us 16 lucid letter-lessons. They begin with the definition of philosophy (“Being a philosopher means not conforming to the general attitude which often looks for the meaning of life in what is set before it”). They go on expound on themes equally relevant to a university-employed philosopher as well as those in non-formal quest of wisdom – be it the art of loving or the art of dying. They also include truth, excellence, responsibility, mediocrity and aesthetics. With a nod to our difficult times, there are letters on patriotism, democracy and herd mentality too.

While keeping the larger definition of a philosopher upfront, the author – an Iranian-Canadian who has researched in India for long and is now back in the country as professor and vice-dean of the OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat – frequently returns to the question of shrinking space for philosophy and humanities in today’s skill-and-job-oriented higher education.

“This is a fine book,” as Bhikhu Parekh notes in the foreword, “full of wisdom, insights and subtle distinctions”. At 152 pages, it can be read in one sitting, and yet the reader – aspiring to become a professional philosopher or an amateur one – will keep returning to it for long.

ashishm@governancenow.com

(The column appears in the February 28, 2018 issue)

Comments

 

Other News

Media trial a dangerous trend: Aryama Sundaram

There is a danger in media doing trials of ongoing cases and this must be stopped, says senior advocate Aryama Sundaram. He castigated media trials and said nowadays in media while a case is going on you have debates where people are discussing what is right and what is wrong, which way the

PM launches Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission. Speaking at the launch, the Prime Minister said that the campaign of strengthening health faci

Want to learn the art of politics? There’s a course for it

Twenty-five youngsters with dreams of becoming political leaders – or of contributing meaningfully to governance processes – have begun their exciting journey, in a formal setting of an education institute. The Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership (IIDL), of the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini (

Making sense of facts – and alternative facts

The Art of Conjuring Alternate Realities: How Information Warfare Shapes Your World By Shivam Shankar Singh and Anand Venkatanarayanan HarperCollins / 284 pages / Rs 599 Professor Noam Chomsky, linguist and public intellectual, has often spoken of &ls

The Manali Trance: Economics of Abandoning Caution in the Time of Coronavirus

The brutal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has left a significant death toll in its wake. Health experts advise that the imminent third wave can be delayed by following simple measures like wearing a mask and engaging in social distancing. However, near the end of the second wave, we witnesse

Govt considers fixing driving hrs of commercial vehicles

Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has emphasised deciding driving hours for truck drivers of commercial vehicles, similar to pilots, to reduce fatigue-induced road accidents. In a Na

Visionary Talk: Aryama Sundaram, Senior Advocate on Governance & Judiciary


Archives

Current Issue

Opinion

Facebook    Twitter    Google Plus    Linkedin    Subscribe Newsletter

Twitter