How to make philosophy epic

Richard Weber has a dream. He grew up in a rough neighbourhood in Connecticut, where most people he knew spent their free time doing weed, coke, heroin or crystal meth. By the time he was 18, Richard was doing coke every night. He managed to pull out of that free fall before it killed him, as it killed several of his friends. He started doing civic activism, working out and practicing martial arts, perfecting his hip hop MC-ing skills, and reading ancient philosophy.

He picked up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations from his local public library, and was deeply impressed. He says: “I completely understood what he was talking about. It reminded me of Buddhism, but it didn’t say that all life is suffering. It said life is good and full of happiness if you learn to follow the path of virtue.”

He's now on an epic quest: to set up a training school for young people that will teach them Stoic philosophy and martial arts, for free. He's financing it through the sales of his hip hop music. He says: “I want to create the Stoic version of the Shaolin monks.”

Here’s why Richard’s work is important: popular philosophy is clearly enjoying a revival, and is broadening its reach into the realm of self-help. But its audience is still somewhat confined to the self-help audience, which is to say, mainly middle class people between the ages of 30 and 50. That’s an important audience, but the question is how to widen the appeal to others, particularly younger people. How do we get young people into philosophy or Positive Psychology when, as the psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky admits, “so much of it seems hokey or Pollyanna-ish”?

If we’re going to broaden the appeal of the ideas of philosophy, we need to make it epic. We need to fit them within an epic, heroic framework. That’s what the human psyche responds to, particularly when we’re adolescents. Think about the stories that have meant something to us over the last few decades, like The Matrix, the Star Wars films, the Lord of the Rings films, the Spiderman films, even the Toy Story trilogy. These films contain ideas from moral philosophy and spirituality, but they put them within the framework of epic, heroic quests. That’s how they got their ideas to spread so widely.

You might think I’m joking. What does Spiderman have to do with moral philosophy? But I’m serious: the only moral philosophy many young people come across today is the scraps of it contained in popular culture, scraps like ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ (Spiderman) or ‘hate leads to anger, anger leads to suffering’ (Star Wars) or ‘Free your mind’ (The Matrix) or ‘All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’ (Lord of the Rings). These hackneyed moral proverbs got the circulation they did because they were embedded in the heroic narratives that our minds crave.

Let me use a metaphor - if the ideas of philosophy are like a space shuttle, then the epic narrative is like the rocket-booster, that propels it into orbit. If it wasn’t for the booster, the ideas would probably never get off the ground.

Take the Bhagavad Gita, a work of philosophy sneaked into mass circulation by being embedded in the middle of the epic narrative of the Mahabharata. In the middle of a battle, at the moment of highest suspense, Krishna stops his chariot, turns round, and delivers a 700-verse philosophical treatise to Arjuna. Take Star Wars. In the middle of the epic battle between the Empire and the Rebellion, Luke heads off to Dagobah and listens to a long philosophical disquisition by Yoda. Think of the Arthurian myths. For several books, Arthur and his knights pursue their worldly adventures, and then suddenly Galahad goes off on a spiritual quest for the Holy Grail. The monks and clerics of the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries knew their business. They knew that if they wanted to make the ideas of Christianity spread widely in the brutal culture of the Dark Ages, they would need to present them as warrior hero stories. So they invented chivalric romances.

Philosophy has historically been suspicious of epic narratives. Plato, who initially wanted to be a tragic playwright, banished poets from his Republic because he was scared of poetry’s magical power over the irrational, emotional parts of our nature. That was a big mistake. One of the reasons Greco-Roman philosophy was swept away by Christianity, despite the best efforts of Julian the Apostate, was because Christianity took Greek philosophical ideas and embedded them in the framework of an epic narrative of bravery, sacrifice, love and the cosmic battle between Good and Evil.

Christianity created heroic role models, martyrs whose life-histories embedded Christian ideas into inspiring stories. Philosophy has few such heroic role models, unfortunately. And it needs them. Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian philosopher and author of Heroes and Hero Worship, understood this better than most philosophers. He wrote: “not our logical, Mensurative faculty, but our Imaginative one is King over us; I might say, Priest and Prophet to lead us heavenward; or Magician and Wizard to lead us hellward”.

Today, if we want to invent something to fill the ‘God-shaped hole’ left by the decline of Christianity, then we need to present the ideas of philosophy and psychology using the language of epic warrior quests, whether in non-fiction books or, even better, in novels and movies. The most successful modern works of ideas have presented them within the framework of heroic quests: think of Sophie’s World or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Psychologists and philosophers are beginning to realize this. One example is a new initiative by the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who is famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1960s. He’s just launched something called the Heroic Imagination Project, which teaches the principles of social psychology to young people using the narratives and rhetoric of heroes and superheroes.

Another example is the ground-breaking games design of Jane McGonigal, who argues that computer games are so popular with young people because they tap into our natural desire for heroic, epic quests. So, if you want to spread positive memes, put them in a game-like framework where young people can feel they are on an epic quest where they can earn achievements and level up their skills. She helped herself overcome the effects of concussion by turning it into a heroic game, in which she was ‘Jane the Concussion Slayer’, battling the demons of her concussion symptoms [see the post before this one, which has a video of her talking about this]. She and other game-designers are now building games to teach the ideas of philosophy and Positive Psychology to young people, using heroic quest narrative games.

What we really need are stories. We need, as Carlyle wrote, a “Poet and inspired Maker, who, Prometheus-like, can shape new Symbols, and bring new Fire from Heaven to fix it there”. Who’s up for that epic quest?