Practical Philosophy

My friend Lizz Goldstein wrote a thoughtful and moving blog entry on visiting Auschwitz and on visiting the dearth of Jewish presence in Lithuania. Bless her eloquence and passion!

The main topic: As with many topics on this blog, I first learned about Practical Philosophy from the NY Times. The concept seemed appealing: using the wisdom of ancient and modern thinkers to solve day-to-day problems. The course sounds much like many of the yoga/meditation classes sprinkled around the country. Mindfulness, focus, etc., etc. I especially liked “whoever or whatever is in front of you is your teacher.” When I read that, the cat was trying to sit on the newspaper, or maybe on my lap. And I immediately thought of the calendar that hangs in my bathroom wall with the wisdom of cats: “Go on a roll” with a kitten having fun with the toilet paper he’s just unfurled.

So I decided to investigate further. The School of Practical Philosophy traces itself back to ancient Greece and Egypt and draws from thinkers of various religious and philosophical persuasions. In its current form it began in 1937 to strive for economic justice. (Boy, could we use more of that about now!) And I note that there is still an economic component to the program, though it appears inactive, at least in this country. Announcements for an unspecified fall program and a study day in November are still up on the web site.

The suggested reading list serves up top notch writers and could serve as the syllabus for any philosophy course: Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, three of Plato’s dialogues, Rumi, C.S. Lewis, Marcus Aurelius, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Aldous Huxley, Yeats. Among the Eastern thinkers, I’d only heard of Swami Vivekananda. This is no lightweight stuff.

Then I found the criticism – that the school is a cult, (NYTimes says no) that it engages in deceptive advertising. The most coherent negative appears here. The only problem that I found with that critique is its lack of specificity. It mentions “serious allegations” but doesn’t say what they are; it claims the school espouses a “conservative social vision” but acknowledges that it does not impose its vision on anyone; and that course offerings promote a particular philosophy, not a survey, something that is obvious from the very first page of the web site.

There may be flaws in the school, but it can’t be all that repressive, otherwise its former students would be like former Scientologists – stifled. Speaking of which, the culties some time ago hired three “journalists” to investigate the St. Petersburg Times.

No word on the outcome of the “investigation,” but one hopes that those three will never be able to work as journalists again.

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