Besides Diogenes and Socrates, you know what other philosophers were “Good Philosophers”? The nihilists. It’s easy to be true to your philosophical word when you don’t even believe in anything. Schopenhauer was a mean, repellent, repugnant, miserable lizard of a man. But he was a hell of a philosopher because his philosophy didn’t dictate he should be anything other. Life was cruel and meaningless. And so was Schopenhauer’s general character and demeanor. You can’t even criticize a good nihilist for failing to complete suicide because a good nihilist would just shrug and point out that whether they suicide or not has no meaningful bearing on anything. This is why someone like Thomas Ligotti is such a goddamned shitty philosopher. Besides being a shitty philosopher in the more generally accepted understanding of the term–coming up with stupid, nonsensical, indefensible arguments–he goes into a lot of effort to proclaim that the general state of things would be better if human beings never existed, but then he fails to suicide. Not only does he not have the courage to literally adhere to his assertion that he’d be better off dead, he thinks he’s being a “Good Philosopher” by simply refusing to procreate. You intellectually bankrupt little twerp! Just admit it, you don’t want to suicide because you sort of enjoy life and you don’t want to miss out. Why would you even write works of fiction if you were a true nihilist? Because you enjoy writing books you philosophically blind little maggot.
…Jesus. Sorry about that. What was I talking about again? Oh yeah, “good” and “bad” philosophers. The best pure philosophy comes from China. But were they “good philosophers?” We don’t really know because China has gone through a number of periods where they have decided they hated their own history. So they burn books and slaughter historians and other academics, and so we just don’t even know if some of their philosophers even really existed. We don’t know if Laozi existed, for example. Somebody wrote the book, obviously, but we don’t know who they were and if they lived true to their word. We know that Zhuangzi existed, but we don’t know how much of his book he actually wrote and whether he stood true with his philosophy. The same goes for the really great Chinese Buddhists. All we have are records of their sayings and some anecdotes from their disciples. So we don’t really know if Linji, for example, worried about if one of the female monks had the hots for him.
We do know a lot about the Japanese Buddhists. Some of them were “Bad Philosophers.” The great Zen Master Ikkyu spent much of his time calling a bunch of them out on it. He, for example, wore the wrong robes to a party once, and when informed about it, he stripped naked and left the party, saying, “It’s obviously a party for robes, not for humans.” Ikkyu was also cool because besides being a genuine master, and for pointing out the hypocrisies of Zen Buddhism at the time, he frequented brothels and wrote poems about masturbating and performing cunnilingus. However, he was also unfathomably mean and petty to other Zen masters who weren’t geniuses like himself. He was a jerk to Zen master, Yoso, who had taken over the temple where Ikkyu had studied after the death of their master. Unlike Ikkyu–who by all accounts was genuine, certifiable genius– Yoso had to work many years and exhibit almost unfathomable patience and dedication to reach satori, and while Ikkyu was traipsing all over Japan banging hookers, writing weird poetry and just overall acting like some medieval Japanese vagrant, Yoso was doing whatever he could to sustain the temple that had given both him and Ikkyu enlightenment. And when Ikkyu found out Yose was playing bureaucratic games to do so, Ikkyu had the nerve to criticize him for it. So, while I admire Ikkyu in some ways, fuck that dude. He’s a “Bad Philosopher” too. It doesn’t take a Zen Master to realize that poor, dumb Yoso deserved at least a little respect for doing what Ikkyu refused to until the last decade of his life.
You know who seemed to be a “Good Philosopher” in ancient Japan, though? Miyamoto Musashi, the itinerant master samurai who was probably the greatest warrior of an entire epoch. Musahsi may be best known in general for being the author of The Book of Five Rings, arguably the greatest martial treatise ever composed, and probably the best example of how one’s craft, spirituality and philosophy not only can meld and become one and the same, but how self-actualization really seems possible only after that melding has occurred.
Besides writing The Book of Five Rings, Musashi also wrote the Dokkodo, or “The Way of Walking Alone”– a missive of 21 precepts for living a fruitful and satisfied life. The 21 lines of the Dokkodo are, as follows:
- Accept everything just the way it is.
- Do not seek pleasure for its own sake.
- Do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling.
- Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
- Be detached from desire your whole life.
- Do not regret what you have done.
- Never be jealous.
- Never let yourself be saddened by a separation.
- Resentment and complaint are appropriate neither for oneself nor others.
- Do not let yourself be guided by the feeling of lust or love.
- In all things, have no preferences.
- Be indifferent to where you live.
- Do not pursue the taste of good food.
- Do not hold on to possessions you no longer need.
- Do not act following customary beliefs.
- Do not collect weapons or practice with weapons beyond what is useful.
- Do not fear death.
- Do not seek to possess either goods or fiefs for your old age.
- Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help.
- You may abandon your own body but you must preserve your honor.
- Never stray from the way.
Like the Tao De Jing or the philosophy of Bruce Lee, I stumbled across the Dokkodo sometime in my early teens. However, unlike the Taoism of Lao Tzu or Bruce Lee (and also unlike Musashi’s Book of Five Rings), the Dokkodo was clear and straightforward. Even a sex-mad adolescent dunce like 15-year-old me could understand and attempt to implement such ideals. You know, not only did I understand and attempt to implement them, I felt spiritually connected to them because it was, after all, “The Way of Walking Alone” and I already felt lonely and alone, and so it seemed like a decent way for me to get along in life. I even wrote the list down and hung it in my locker for the rest of high school.
However, after high school, the Dokkodo became something of an afterthought. Something I was vaguely aware of in the back of my mind, but nothing that had any appreciable impact on how I was living my life.
Until a couple of months ago.
I saw a piece of artwork on facebook that was of a samurai with the Dokkodo lines written off to the side. So I decided to do a spontaneous appraisal of how well I have fared in adhering to a philosophy that had once had such a measurable impact on my life and outlook, and which must’ve continued to have some sub-conscious, residual influence in the intervening years.
The appraisal didn’t go well…at all. Sure, precepts like 15 and 16 are easy enough. I don’t even own a gun, which, in this society means I’ve done a pretty good job at adhering to precepts 15 and 16. But look at precept 12–I spent the first half of this damned thing complaining about where I live. And since I was complaining, there goes precept 9, as well. And, while we’re at it, Musashi’s very first exhortation is for one to essentially accept one’s fate…and we know how that’s going.
The one precept that really got to me, though, was number 3–do not, under any circumstances, depend on a partial feeling. That’s all I do. That’s how I’ve lived the entirety of my life. Every decision I make is based on a partial feeling. Every decision I’ve made, it seems, has been some kind of a compromise made only in the hopes of some kind of vague reward that never fully manifests.
In the spirit of transparency and authenticity, I’ll admit that my initial plan for this essay was to end with some pseudo-reveletory idea that being a “Bad Philosopher” is redemptive. It’s what makes us human. It’s what inspires us to do better. Yadda, yadda, yadda. I could’ve even gone full Zen poetry bullshit with it, like: “Sometimes in order to be a ‘Good Philosopher’ we must be ‘Bad Philosophers.'”
But over the course of writing this thing, what somehow has come up for me is that the only real thing separating the “Good” from the “Bad” philosophers is a matter of courage. To be a “Good Philosopher” is simply a matter of having the nerve to live to your ideals, or to only act on full-blown feelings, even when it’s difficult or painful to do so. It’s about being brave enough to be authentic to yourself, because, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing I really control at any given moment–am I being who I really want to be at the moment? In counseling, we call this the “locus of control.” I can’t control my circumstances, but I can control how I respond to those circumstances. I can’t always control my emotions, but I can control how I react to my emotions. Choosing how to be at any given moment is ultimately the only freedom any of us have. It’s why dying with grace is so beautiful to us. Whether you’re being violently murdered, or wasting away from a degenerative disease, you can’t control how you’re going out, only that you’re going out with some degree of decorum.
Initially, a keen mind might pick up on some potential problems with this idea. My old standby, the Nazi’s, after all, were true to their ideals. They had the “courage” to be Good Philosophers. They were committed to their full-blown feelings as anyone could be. As was Stalin and Pol Pot, and the Europeans who conquered the New World via genocide and enslavement. And so on. Bad people are often “Good Philosophers” then, right?
But I really don’t think so. The thing about philosophy is it never lies. It’s always true. If your philosophical/spiritual values and mores are rotten, then their fruits will be rotten, as well. If your philosophical/spiritual outlook places the “locus of control” for your happiness on something other than yourself, you’ll never be happy because you can’t control anything or anyone except for your own choices about things. If you’re unhappy about some aspect of your life and blame the Jews, you’ll become Hitler. And when did that asshole ever look happy? If you’re unhappy about something and blame your lack of power over others, you’ll become Stalin. If you blame your lack of happiness on your lack of gold, you become Cortez or Pizarro. If you’re unhappy about something and blame it on your lack of fame, you audition for a reality TV show. And none of those people seemed to find any peace or contentment, because they’re real issue was they were Bad Philosophers in the more generally accepted meaning of the term and didn’t have the courage to to be honest with themselves about it.
Again, it’s courage. Who has the courage to not maim, murder, rape and pillage? Who has the courage to not conquer? Who has the courage to be lazy and dumb and useless? Who has the courage to lie down under the cherry blossoms and write meaningless poetry?
Who as the courage to be that authentic? Who has the courage to be their true “self” at any given moment? (NB the discussion around the relative existence or non-existence of the “Self” is for a different time and place and would be akin to focusing on the finger pointing to the moon, and not the moon itself.)
Who has the cojones to accept their fate?
But what if I have built up an entire life by not having the courage to be myself? By acting only on partial feelings? By not accepting my fate? What if I have a career and a marriage and friendships and so on that are grown entirely on the soil of Bad Philosophy? How can they maintain if I suddenly start being authentic, depending only on full-blown feelings? Would it not destroy the entire garden? And even then, is the destruction making way for something more fruit-bearing? And even then, is it worth the cost of such destruction?
You can see how the winds of philosophy and spirituality are perilous. That should be clear by now. They can take you off course so easily, if you’re not careful. It’s not a coward’s game. There are long-term repercussions to every decision made, whether they stem from “Good” or “Bad” philosophy. Who has the courage to even engage in the journey?
Me? I’ll continue to take my chances, even if it means losing out on a $20,000 raise and a chance out of this wind-scorched Valley. It’s a full-blown feeling of mine to do so. Perhaps I’ll have the courage to accept at least that much of my fate….
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