Posted On 11 May 2010
What is the vision of sages? It’s the apprehension of those who master life. I explain one way to understand it by the end of this post.
Those who master life are successful philosophers [also see the post “Define Philosophical”].
Philosophers are people who are determined to master life, to live well, to become wise, or to die in that attempt.
In other words, they are seekers wholeheartedly committed to living well. So the purpose of philosophy is to live well; by way of contrast, it is not to spend life merely attempting unsuccessfully to live well or not even trying to live well.
Though vague and abstract, this provides an initially useful categorization of human beings. A human being is either a nonphilosopher or a philosopher. A philosopher is either as-yet-unsuccessful or successful.
Imagine two vertical lines on a sheet of paper; label the columns from left to right ‘1‘, ‘2‘, and ‘3.’ Each person is either in category 1 (nonphilosopher), category 2 (as-yet-unsuccessful philosopher) or category 3 (successful philosopher, sage).
In other words, the dream of philosophers is to master life, to attain category 3, to become sages, to be wise. It is only those who realize that dream who have the vision of sages.
Like life as a 1, life as a 2 is unsatisfactory. Being a seeker is transitional. It’s easy to get stuck in 2 (as I have!). Being a sage is not the same as being a master thinker. Please don’t confuse thinking well with living well.
If life is worth living, and it is, then it is worth living well. It is worth mastering. What does that mean?
Mastering life requires living an examined life. In Plato’s famous words, for humans “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Mastering any valuable task requires disciplined, focused, persistent practice of the right kind. Mastery never happens accidentally. Philosophy is no different in this respect from any other valuable task.
It is not obvious how to master life. The truth is that it is very difficult to master life, to attain the vision of sages.
Is having the vision of sages and enjoying life as a successful philosopher worth the price of living an examined life? There’s no way to tell without doing it.
Please don’t make the common mistake of confusing studying philosophy in a classroom with being a philosopher. Don’t confuse living well with merely thinking about living well. Philosophy is an academic discipline, but it’s not merely that. Though it is possible to study philosophy, it is impossible to become a successful philosopher merely by reading or thinking about it. Philosophy is a way of life. It is useless unless practiced, unless improvements in apprehension show themselves in behavior.
Some good thinking is necessary to living well, but it is not necessary to become a master thinker in order to live well and becoming a master thinker is detrimental to living well if it detracts from practicing philosophy. It is not even necessary to be literate to be a sage!
If the vision of sages isn’t just some kind of sophisticated conceptual understanding, what is it?
I don’t know. At least not yet, I’m not a sage.
Even if I were a sage, it would not be possible to communicate the vision of sages verbally. That is impossible. Many sages have warned against even trying.
This warning points in exactly the right direction: the vision of sages is nonverbal.
Some psychologists have recently noted that “[m]uch of the human world becomes verbal” and that “[e]ven the most obviously ‘nonverbal’ is probably at least functionally verbal for humans” [Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, p. 46].
Many animals are able to learn how to respond relationally to various kinds of nonarbitrary combinations of stimuli. For example, rats can be trained to scamper down the more dimly lit of two passages.
Humans, though, seem to be unique in the sense that we are able to learn how to respond relationally to various kinds of arbitrary combinations of stimuli (as if those stimuli were combined in a nonarbitrary way). Since the combinations are arbitrary, the cues required to relate them would not come from the natural way the stimuli are related but from contextual clues.
When relevant contexts are studied by stimulus equivalence researchers, those contextual clues seem to be verbal. For example, “flying bat” would be understood differently in a cave as opposed to on a baseball diamond by those who have learned English.
If so, objects can be related arbitrarily in an indefinitely large number of ways that allows those who understand the verbal clues to make sense of the world. In this way, most or all of a given human’s experience is verbal.
Nearly all of us live our lives in either category 1 or category 2. This is often also true for sages, except that they have an escape into nonverbal emptiness the rest of us lack.
I’m suggesting that the vision of sages refers to the domain of life beyond both the non-verbal or pre-verbal experience of all non-human animals and human infants as well as the verbal experience of nearly all human children and adults.
Successful philosophers, of course, were once human infants and are still able to live in the verbal world of human experience. However, they are not trapped by that verbal world. They are not condemned to live in it perpetually, without relief.
The vision of sages is a way of talking about spiritual liberation, freedom from having to experience the world only verbally.
If so, this is why it is impossible to conceptualize your way to understanding the vision of sages, to think your way to freedom.
There is also no reason why, if you are willing to pay the price, you, too, cannot enjoy the vision of sages. It is your birthright, but you must claim it.
What is its price?
Letting go of verbal reality, getting beyond the domain of incessant conceptualizing, mastering a practice of emptiness (such as zazen meditation).