October 4, 2014

A Rite Of Passage And School Of Life For Adulthood – On Their Reinvention And Reestablishment

Photo by Amy Grubb, The Guardian

by Luke Cunard
The Guardian, October 3, 2014

The above-linked article about a young Englishwoman marrying herself grabbed my attention in an unusual way.  The subject of the article, Grace Gelder, regards the novel notion of self-marrying, which she undertook in March 2014, as a pact with herself.  That is, a promise to herself to strengthen her commitment to personal self-awareness and development, including improving her relations with others, then "somehow enacting that in how you live your life from that day on."

Such a crucial rite of passage for acknowledging personal growth and strengthening social well-being, though universal in ancient and likely prehistoric societies, is now not only sorely and almost totally lacking in the secular West, it is also gradually being given up elsewhere in the world. The current high level of personal discontent and social un- or dis-ease, in the West and increasingly elsewhere, warrant the reinvention and reintroduction of such a rite.

Such a renewed rite of passage with its attendant ceremonies and rituals would need to be voluntary.  How else could it be palatable to and binding upon the modern, Enlightened individual?  Successfully completing the rite would be contingent upon the initiand having undergone self- or institutional-instruction in such subjects as critical thinking and applied personal and moral philosophy, especially that found in Stoicism and Epicureanism.  It would also entail at least a minimal exposure to a significant portion of the world's other moral philosophies, including the moral teachings of the world’s religions. A tall order, you say?  Yes, but something this good could not and should not come easy.  Some would fail, others would succeed partially, and still others would succeed fully.  Still, this would be a great improvement over the current lack of such a rite and its attendant personal and societal discontent palpable in the ever-growing secular population of the world.

A public ceremony would give the rite social affirmation and validation. During this ceremony vows would be made based on a credo of humane personal virtues and moral principles the initiand would choose, write down, and commit to, and thereby be something to return to for guidance throughout his/her life.

The effectiveness of this life plan would depend on the degree and quality of preparatory effort and subsequent commitment and application of the initiand, and the support of his/her family and friends. Beyond this, society's only obligation would be to inform the potential initiand of the rite, it's content, and usefulness. There would be no age limit as to when the initiation could be attempted.

This is a revolutionary idea especially in the current cultural context of US society where Abrahamic religion and libertarianism are pervasive, freedom and individualism are overly touted, social responsibility and accountability discounted, and parenting is too often insufficient, totally lacking, or relegated to institutions such as schools and prisons.

Imagine, a minimally structured, voluntary rite and plan for becoming and being human - a set of ceremonies and rituals with a guide for living that a person could choose to undertake him/herself!

In retrospect I firmly believe I could have benefitted from such before I launched myself in the adult world at the age of 18. Yes, I may have ignored it but, then again, I might not have. Either way the option would have been available and had I chosen it there might have occurred a positive difference in my personal development and accomplishments, and in my treatment of others throughout my life.

Photo by echiner1/Flickr, The Atlantic 

by Lauren Davis
The Atlantic, September 21, 2014

For those of us who don’t want to start their moral life from scratch but would prefer a tune-up, there is now an opportunity to address our mature personal and social dysfunctions through philosophy.  In 2008, Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy, founded the “School of Life” in London to promote the practical use of philosophical ideas in everyday life.  His school has expanded to Paris and Amsterdam and “campuses” will open in the U.S. in the coming year.  The Atlantic writer Lauren Davis describes (link above) how the School works as follows:

The School of Life is a cozy space that hosts classes and lectures; the organization also consults with big-name businesses and sells “books, objects, and tools” to help anyone who walks through its doors make headway in “the quest for a more fulfilled life.” Its offerings are playful yet sincere; unique, even if occasionally verging on the overly cutesy. It’s philosophy that borders on therapy; take, for example, one-on-one classes like “Bibliotherapy,” or “Visual Arts Therapy,” in which trained psychologists prescribe novel-reading or painting instead of pills. Or the tongue-in-cheek emotional baggage tote bag—“the trick is to carry it elegantly,”
But even those who are cynical about the combination of profit and philosophy may find The School of Life’s non-fiction series substantive. In these short books, sophisticated wisdom from philosophers and other great thinkers is made digestible and fresh. Old, powerful ideas are re-explained simply and packaged between colorful covers. Each is authored by a different writer with a background in philosophy or an overlapping and related field, like psychotherapy. How To Stay Sane, How To Find Fulfilling Work, How To Change The World, and How To Think More About Sex (by De Botton himself) have a characteristically dry British sense of humor and no-nonsense approach to topics that are often considered taboo or clichéd. Ultimately, De Botton is trying to bring philosophy back to its roots—a source of enlightenment and cure for daily ills, accessible to anyone who can reason and reflect. After all, Socrates, the bearded, besandled grandfather of much of today’s philosophical thought, did nothing more than wander the streets observing and playfully testing the beliefs and behaviors of those around him—no big words or citations involved.
What these authors seem to be saying is that philosophy does not have to be aloof and pretentious. It’s as simple and natural as asking questions about ourselves and the world around us, using logic and skepticism as tools. It’s the process of looking for meaning and guidance in how to act. It’s curiosity and common sense, passed down over hundreds of years of human experience. It’s living your life in an engaged, intentional, contented way—or, more fancifully, in the pursuit of wisdom. It can, and should, be utterly practical.

Being central to the personal and moral foundation of humanness as discussed above regarding a rite of child-adult passage and a school for improved personal and social well-being, philosophy emerges as far more than the professional intellectual pursuit of mostly white men at universities.  It becomes part of that full panoply, that full impressive array, of human culture as an adaptation that our prehistoric ancestors invented, the ancients in all corners of the world built upon, and that each succeeding generation has steadily improved upon.  It exists primarily to guide the building and maintenance of persons as members of viable societies.  It is the foundation and binding moral essence of a self-perpetuating cycle of birth, learning, achievement, and death.

There is more to becoming and being a person and group member than the coding found in our genes and the functioning of our neurons.  Surely there is a necessary and irreducible role for the rites, ceremonies, and rituals that address the emotional needs and propel the becoming of persons, and that facilitate such persons becoming and being valuable members of societies.

In this sense philosophy is much more than a waste of time as some leading scientists have recently portrayed it.  It is the storehouse and map for our humanity.


Mike Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Barnes said...

Hi Jim,

I discovered your blog through your comment regarding Massimo Pigliucci's article, Why not Stoicism?.

Regarding today's post, I think that a philosophically-minded approach could be useful in making meaning in our lives. It would, however, only fill a small role since much of philosophy nowadays isn't much concerned with our emotions and social connections that are so important to our lives which is why most people think it's useless.

I'm inclinded to agree with you that our modern, secular culture in America lacks a healthy tradition of "making humans" as Stephen Jenkinson would say. (If you've not heard of him, please look here: http://orphanwisdom.com/.) And any philosophizing that I would find worthwhile would need to aid us in being human.

I think American society is becoming indifferent to the remembering of our collective past; a loss of cultural memory. If I'm right, I think this is contributing to a loss of quality culture. What do you think?