Street philosophy

"You don't learn philosophy in the lecture hall. You learn it on the street. The rest is bullshit, and you know it."

Socrates (attrib.)

The best way to think of philosophy is not as a noun, but as a present participle: philosophizing. There is no such thing as philosophy, there is only philosophizing.

Philosophizing, in the Hellenic concept, means an active wrestling with one’s conventional opinions and perceptions. It is something we can practice everywhere and at all times – on the bus, in a restaurant, having breakfast, going to bed. It is something we should try to weave into the fabric of our daily life.

We need to bring philosophy out of the lecture hall and show its practical benefits to ordinary people. At the moment, people in Britain and Russia don’t have many places to turn when tragedy hits them.

Increasingly few people in western societies believe in Christianity. We try to turn to eastern faiths, like Buddhism or Yoga, but these always feel a little exotic, not to say alien.

But what does our own society have to offer, other than the triumph of western science, which presumably means if tragedy hits you, reach for the anti-depressants.

What our own society has to offer is philosophy – not just Stoic philosophy, but Epicurean, Aristotelian, Platonic. Greek philosophy is like a rich well at the centre of our culture, which has become grown over and lost from sight, but the water in the well is just as clear and life-sustaining as ever.

If European culture is a forest, then Greek philosophy is the secret well that has enabled that forest to grow over the last two thousand years.

And it is our inheritance too, not just as Europeans, but as human beings. The object of inquiry in Greek philosophy is not the European mind, but the human mind. Greek philosophy gives us a way of understanding the mind, learning how to become attentive to it, and how to free it of emotional suffering and bring it into harmony with reality.

And those lessons are just as applicable for people living outside Europe. Indeed, other great cultures, such as Buddhism or Taoism, came to very similar conclusions and cognitive techniques about a hundred years before Greek philosophy.

It excites me that the insights of Greek philosophy are gradually returning to the mainstream of our societies, in part through the success of cognitive behavioural psychology, which uses the techniques and insights of Stoic, Epicurean and Aristotelian psychotherapies.

But a lot of work still needs to be done to improve the reputation of philosophy, which has grown dusty and unkempt from being shut up in libraries and lecture halls.

With this in mind, I decided to carry out an experiment last Sunday, and go down to Speakers Corner and do some street philosophizing. I partly wanted to do it just to practice public speaking. Plus I thought it would be fun.

I set off bright and early on Sunday morning, walking through Hyde Park carrying a yellow bucket, for me to stand on. I arrived at Speakers Corner but there was no one there at all, just a handful of middle-aged skin-heads who looked like they were planning a Nazi rally.

Disappointed, I headed off home with my bucket, and decided to try my luck later in the day.
At about four o’clock I came back from various travels around the city, tired and in need of a cup of tea. I didn’t really feel like going back to Speakers Corner and subjecting myself to possible humiliation. But it was an exercise, it would be good for me. So I picked up the bucket, and set off once more.

This time, as I approached Speakers Corner, I could see it was busy. It was a glorious summer’s day, and the sun shone down on around 500 people.

There were about five speakers surrounded by perhaps 80 people each – two of them radical Muslims, predictably, shouting loudly and angrily in Arabic, while a crowd entirely made up of young Arabic men listened and cheered, no doubt while they were cursing the British government.

Another fellow, with a long white beard, was standing on a ladder and speaking to a large crowd about Jesus. I heard him say ‘So what if I do look like Father Christmas?’ There were some people walking around him babbling ‘Jesus loves you, Jesus loves you’ over and over.

I walked to the outer rim of the crowds, and found a spot from which to observe. Opposite me was a man wearing a large purple hat with horns coming out of it. I knew this guy – he claimed to be an alien. Every Sunday he turned up, stood on his ladder, made jokes, and tried to get people’s attention. What did he do the rest of the week, I wondered?

I decided I might as well get to it. But how does one begin? Does one release a flare? Ring a bell? Unveil a large sign saying ‘show beginning’? I decided simply to stand on my bucket. So I got up on it. Oh momentous event! There I was on my bucket. A martyr for philosophy. A stylite, if you will.

No one paid me much notice. A few people walked by, looked at me standing on my bucket, and walked on. I heard a guy snigger to his girlfriend, ‘look, that guy’s just standing on a bucket!’ I felt rather foolish.

Then a person strode confidently up to me, and said ‘what is the subject of your talk today, Mr Speaker?’ Ah ha! A customer! ‘Well, I, it’s Stoic philosophy.’ And we were off. I explained to him the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy and their practical benefits, he nodded and said ‘right, so it’s like cognitive behavioural therapy’. “Yes, exactly! Well, actually it’s more that that, because Stoics also believe that all our minds are connected in one giant network, called the Logos.’

The guy wasn’t so into that, so we disputed about that for a bit, with him insisting I had not a shred of evidence to prove that all our minds were connected in a giant network of consciousness, and that I was suffering from delusions. Anyway, he accepted the first part of my argument, but didn’t seem that transformed by it.

By this time about ten other people had arrived and gathered round my bucket, and we were off. For the next hour and a half, I disputed, philosophized, and extrapolated. What struck me about it most was what a participatory experience it was. The people who gathered round me all instinctively grasped the Stoic ideas I was outlining. There was this small cockney guy in front of me, and he was nodding vigorously, and saying ‘exactly, it’s like the mind is a muscle, an’ you gotta exercise the muscle to make it grow, innit?’

You could take this to mean that the British public, or at least the Speakers Corner crowd, is unusually educated and philosophically-minded. This would make sense – they do turn up at the Corner and philosophize every Sunday. But I think, also, that Stoicism simply feels natural to us. Its ideas don’t seem alien or abstract. A lot of them are simply common sense.‘We know all this stuff already, innit, we jus’ forgotten it!’ as the cockney put it.

Because the people around me were so participatory, so eager to get involved, ask questions, dispute and object, it was actually very easy to stand there and talk. It would have been much harder to give an uninterrupted talk for two hours. As it was, when one point died away, someone else would ask another question or raise a point.

Two other things struck me. Firstly, I was struck that people seemed very literate, fluent even, in philosophical and mystical concepts. Some tall guy wandered up and was disputing with me about going beyond duality, and other such highfalutin mystical concepts, but then as soon as the cockney interrupted him, he got very grumpy and angry.

It struck me that westerners have become very well-read and well-versed in mysticism and philosophy, but we have forgotten how to put it into practice. We read rather than practicing. We think being mystical is like learning a language, learning the concepts. But it’s not. So in fact, people were all too ready to agree with me, to nod vigorously and say ‘yeah, that’s it, exactly’, but then walk off unchallenged and unchanged to their usual lives.

The other thing that struck me is that street philosophizing has its dangers. You are out there in the street, beyond any institutions or confines. Even Aristotle and Plato had their academies, their institutions with strict entry requirements.

The danger is, in the spiritually starved and tradition-less environment of the twenty first century, the street philosopher becomes seen as some sort of faith healer or guru. People start looking at him or her with big round eyes, drinking in his every word, switching off their rational and sceptical brains and going into awe mode.

There was one boy like this, an Arab boy, and he stood in front of me and listened and watched without blinking. And eventually he said ‘you say this will help me? It will help me with depression? I would like. Where I go? You help me?’

I blinked. ‘I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not even a psychologist. I can help you find a place where you can get CBT, if you want. I can suggest some books you could read.’
‘I not read good.’
At this the tall grumpy mystic said ‘you should meet him, and help him.’
‘I…er…well, here’s my email. I will try to help you find a CBT therapist.’
‘Maybe you could help me?’
‘I’m not trained.’

That’s the danger. I’m just trying to introduce some basic philosophical concepts. I have absolutely no claim to any special insight or virtue. The tall mystic guy said to me ‘I feel that your words are exciting and enervating, but then you leave us in limbo. We don’t have anywhere to go.’

But philosophy is not a movement with a leader. We have enough Eduard Limonov types, people who feed off the adulation of others, who thrive on the bloody sacrifices that the young offer to them. Narcissists. But philosophy is no such guru activity. It is something an individual can only practice on himself or herself, using his reason.

It was a fun afternoon, and it felt wonderful to discuss philosophy, the subjects most dear to my heart, with complete strangers in my home city. It felt natural. This was civil society in action – citizens gathering together to discuss what is the wisest way to live.

I think you have to be careful, when you stand on a bucket, that you are not putting yourself up on a pedestal. You have to be careful you don’t make promises to others, don’t accept if desperate and meaning-hungry people offer the gift of themselves up to you. But with that caution in mind, I look forward to the next time.