What is one thing that the father of ancient philosophy and the father of modern philosophy have in common? Besides their immense contributions not only to philosophy but also geometry and numerous other fields, there is another commonality I have recently noticed.
Depending on who you ask, the father of ancient philosophy is said to be either Pythagoras or Socrates. As great as Socrates was, the title “father of philosophy” more rightly belongs to Pythagoras who preceded Socrates by about a century. In fact, it was Pythagoras who coined the term “philosophy”. A seeker of wisdom, Pythagoras set out from his home on the Island of Samos to explore the world in search of truth and knowledge. His furious pursuit led him to to an understanding of mathematics for which he is now most commonly known. Seeking for a term to describe himself as a lover of wisdom, he combined the Greek word for love (philo) and wisdom (sophia) to get philosophy.
After returning home from his journeys, Pythagoras was eager to start a school to begin teaching all he had learned. Not wanting to cast his pearls before swine, he required students of his school to go through an initiation process before being permitted to become his disciple. Part of this process involved taking a five year vow of silence. Part of the reason for this was to teach his disciples self discipline – a trait which he regarded to be essential to such a serious endeavor as the pursuit of wisdom. As many of us experienced when playing “the quiet game” as a kid (a game obviously invented by parents) it takes a lot of self discipline to remain silent for a prolonged period of time. In addition to teaching self discipline, Pythagoras also wanted his disciples to learn the value of silence and of quieting the mind. He once said “silence is better than unmeaning words”. In the place of quiet stillness, the mind is most conducive to introspection and most receptive to intuitive insights. He also said ““be silent or say something better than silence”. Disciples of Pythagoras (called pythagoreans) were people that if they spoke, you would want to stop and listen because they only broke silence when they had something of immense value to share.
Fast Forward about a millennium and we get to the father of modern philosophy: Rene Descartes. Descartes is best known for his maxim “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes was a rationalists who believed that everything there is to be known can be derived by logic. He discarded all his beliefs and started from scratch by addressing the basic question: how do I know that I exist? As Morpheus said to Neo in The Matrix when discussing the nature of reality: “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” The Matrix is a modern day rendition of something Descartes taught: that our senses can deceive us, and therefore cannot be entirely trusted. In The Matrix, the senses were deceptive because humanity and the world existed inside of a computer program. In a thought experiment Descartes presented, he proposed that it’s at least theoretically possible that all that our senses tell us are deceptions of some demonic force. If we cannot trust our senses, then how can we know that we even exist at all? “Cogito ergo sum” was Descartes answer to this question. Descartes reasoned that thought itself is the definitive proof of existence. Whatever form it is that we exist in (whether it be in a computer program, or in a dream, or a brain in a vat, or any of the other theoretically possible thought experiments that have been proposed), the very fact that we are able to contemplate our own existence proves that we do exist in some form (whether it be in the form our senses lead us to believe or a myriad of other possibilities).
This simple but powerful maxim served as the foundation upon which Descartes constructed his entire philosophy and belief system in which he sought to show by such logic not only the existence of self, but of the soul, and of God.
What’s interesting is that this foundational premise upon which his entire philosophy was built came to him when he was spending a day alone in quiet with his thoughts. The story goes that it was a cold day and in order to escape the cold he shut himself up in a small room close to an oven (some versions of the story say he actually climbed inside the oven) and spent the day there meditating. While spending the day in quiet contemplation, he received insight as to how all truths are connected to one another, and that if he could find therefore one foundational irrefutable truth, then upon that foundation he could arrive at other greater truths. “Cogito ergo sum” was that foundational truth. It was also in quiet contemplation on this same day that he received insights that led to his profound contributions to analytical geometry (another similarity with Pythagoras).
There’s another story that one day a group of friends came to see Descartes around 11am and were surprised to find him still in bed. “What are you doing?” they inquired. “Thinking” the philosopher replied. His friends ridiculed him for wasting time and being lazy. He ridiculed them for prioritizing menial unimportant tasks over the beauty of pure quiet introspection and contemplation. Descartes wasn’t being lazy but was extremely productive lying there in bed because the bulk of his work took place within his mind and this work was best accomplished during hours of uninterrupted silence.
Both of these great fathers of philosophy taught the value of quiet stillness, something I believe is all to lacking in our world today, and I dare say is lacking in your own life. Between email, social media, smart phone apps, television, work, other responsibilities, etc. we have lost sight of how valuable quiet stillness can be. This is unfortunate, as it is there in that place of quiet stillness that not only are we the most peaceful, but the most receptive to intuitive insights and deep contemplation and introspection.
The purpose of this post is simply to encourage you to find a way to incorporate a little more quiet contemplation into your life. You need some time alone with just you and your thoughts. Not only have the great philosophers throughout history taught this, but to whatever degree you have experienced this in your own life, you know it is true.
Jarrod is an INFJ who loves studying and writing about things like philosophy, psychology, theology, conspiracy theories, & all things spiritual, mystical, & supernatural. The creator and curator of INFJ Writers, he lives in Austin, TX with his wife and three kids.