Emily Williams ponders life’s big questions on a 10-week online course with The School of Philosophy and Economic Science.
In the wake of the Coronavirus lockdown, Emily Williams found herself pondering the important questions in life, and embarked on a 10-week online course with The School of Philosophy and Economic Science. In this article, she unravels her experiences and speaks to Will Pate, who has been a student at the charity organisation for 10 years and also now volunteers as a tutor.
What is wisdom? and who am I? These burning questions are almost as old as humankind itself. I must admit that, over the years, they’ve intrigued and overwhelmed me, but after scratching the surface, my train of thought gets lost again in the chaotic undercurrent of everyday life.
But then came 2020. The year of unprecedented change, unusual routines, and uncharted territory. COVID-19 has shaken up the world as once we knew it, and forced us all to find new perspectives as we embrace the unknown. During lockdown, and the extra time at home, it triggered me to face up to uncertainty, and find new ways to expand in confinement.
The School of Philosophy and Economic Science has been on my radar for some time, and I was delighted to discover that they were offering online courses over Zoom. The Introduction to Practical Philosophy course required no previous qualifications, and this turned out to be one of the best things about it.
The students came from all walks of life, but we were united by a sense of open-mindedness. Everyone felt comfortable to share their relevant personal experiences, and this sparked some of the most extraordinary and heartwarming conversations.
The goal of the online course wasn’t to find all the correct answers, but it encouraged us to adopt the ancient Socratic spirit of enquiry. Will Pate, my dedicated Philosophy tutor, presented us with concepts, which we then put into practice, and reviewed in the following weeks. The course’s circular evolving structure allowed time to revisit observations at the beginning of each class, and unearth a deeper understanding of them over time.
The 10-week course has been a valuable journey, and in seeking stillness, I have learned to create space for the power of presence and perspective. As Marcel Proust powerfully puts it, ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’.
So, what is Practical Philosophy?
The first, most striking aspect of our lessons was appreciating what philosophy really means. Until now, I’ve always viewed it as a timeless academic subject, following the teachings of ancient thinkers who have shaped the western world as we know it today.
However, I soon began to realise that philosophy is very much alive in the present day. It is more than just a study, it’s a personal and practical attitude, which helps you deepen and develop your understanding of life and of who you really are, while remaining fully engaged in the world. ‘Philo’ translates to ‘the love of’, and ‘sophia’ means wisdom. The word implies that philosophy is an active devotion towards reaching wisdom, and the outcome is wisdom itself.
Pierre Hadot, shows us how we can adopt a new way of life through philosophy: (to the ancient Greeks) ‘Philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practised at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life ... Philosophy is a conversion, a transformation of one’s way of being and living, and a quest for wisdom’.
What makes this introductory course unique?
I asked my tutor Will what he loved the most about the school, and it’s the diversity of experience that makes it so rewarding for him: ‘even though I might not directly relate with experience of a working mum, or a taxi driver, or a tree surgeon, I learn so much from their observations of philosophy in their daily lives, despite their different backgrounds, ages or gender. That’s carried on over the years, and it never ceases to surprise me.
‘The diversity is not only in the makeup of the group, but it’s also in the material that we’re looking at. We’ve had excerpts from Plato and an astronaut, to Shakespeare and sacred eastern texts. You just don’t know what’s going to resonate with different people, and it’s endlessly refreshing’.
Valuable Practical Philosophy techniques for everyday life The awareness exercise
This practice has been a core part of the courses for the past 60 years, and it allows you to become truly still, to tap into a greater depth of awareness. Sit in a comfortable chair and take a few minutes to be aware of where you are now. Think vividly about each of your senses in turn: feel the touch of your feet on the ground and your clothes on your skin; take in your sense of smell and taste; let your eyes, if they are open, receive colour and form without judgement, and hear the sounds around you from the closest to the furthest. Embrace it all and rest in this awareness until you are ready to finish. What would a wise person do here?
Incorporate this question into your daily life as often as you can. Even the smallest decision can be made clear and simple when you stop and consider your action. It helps you to focus on the task at hand and take a more mindful approach. Pausing
It’s useful to take a few seconds to pause after every activity, before proceeding onto the next. Pausing helps you to process what has just happened, and begin anew with your fully present self into whatever life throws at you next. How was the School of Philosophy and Economic Science founded?
The School of Philosophy and Economic Science was founded in London in 1937, a period of severe economic depression.
Its purpose, during these inter-war years, was to discover the natural laws governing the relations between people in society. Courses in economics were offered, inspired chiefly by the work of the 19th-century American economist Henry George. As time went on, the need became increasingly evident to look beyond the realm of economics. This led to an interest in philosophy – ‘the love of wisdom’ – as a means of gaining deeper insights into the natural laws governing humanity and the origin of those laws. What other courses do the School of Philosophy and Economic Science offer?
As well as the 10-week Introduction to Practical Philosophy course, the school offers a further 10-part Practical Philosophy course (‘Wisdom’) and additional modules that cover the topics explored in the introductory course in more depth and everything in between, from love to freedom.
The other arm of the school delivers courses on Economics with Justice, which includes both introductory and advanced courses, spanning ideas of how economic principles can help us thrive and prosper harmoniously in society. All courses are normally held at the School’s London premises in Marylebone, and are currently online. In either case, you can enrol via their website.
For advanced students, there are also more specialised courses, such as Sanskrit and Plato, and groups on a range of themes, including Law, Art, Architecture and Music. The school also offers retreats and has a long tradition of supporting mantra meditation, something many of its students have gone in for and find helpful. Accessible reading for Practical Philosophy beginners
The Introduction to Practical Philosophy course is entirely accessible for all, but for some people, reading is a useful way in. You can browse, buy and review more books written by some of the students on their online bookshop at www.schoolofphilosophy.org The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
An insightful book about awakening, and treasuring the now. It’s a guide to living fully in the present, free from transcending thoughts of the past and future. Tolle writes in an easy-to-read question and answer format, so you can read its poignant passages in digestible snippets. It’s one of those books that you can read again and take away something new each time. The Man Who Wanted To Meet God by Shantanand Saraswati
This book gathers the practical teachings of His Holiness Shantanand Saraswati in Northern India. He championed the Advaita nondualist tradition of knowledge, which is the idea that everything is the expression of one universal consciousness. In his stories, he covers birth, death, desire, and more, in an accessible and simple way.