Schools of Thought

A school of thought is to be viewed as a single individual who talks to himself for a hundred years and is quite extraordinarily pleased with himself, however silly he may be.

Goethe

To give a name to a philosophical idea is to stamp it with a use-by date. The naming of a philosophy is much like the conception of life: as inanimate matter is bound together into a workable form and injected with energy and soul it is once placed under the curse – or blessing? – of mortality. As life takes its first breath, its clock starts ticking down. As a philosophy is named, a fragment is taken from the formless, flowing, evolving idea and is solidified into words on a clay tablet, left waiting to be broken by the hands of another or corroded by the winds of time. Once an idea is frozen into a school of thought, it is made ready to be refuted.

And yet … the binding of an idea to the static form of a philosophical school of thought is necessary – as necessary as a rallying banner on the battlefield – mobilizing, assembling and directing the chaotic torrent of men at war. The name transforms the formless cloud into a clear signpost, the shapeless sea of possibilities into a solid road to follow. As that adage goes: “strong opinions, weakly held” – the task of the intelligent mind is to be able to hold the banner without getting permanently attached to it, and to be willing to let go when it is time. The man of thought must be able to separate himself from his ideas, for the more attached you get, the more you use your ideas to define yourself, the harder it becomes to change your mind. When an idea begins to define who you are, getting rid of it becomes as difficult as amputating a limb – or perhaps even a heart. What defines man is less the ideas themselves, but the direction of his will, for it is this will that gives rise to and uses the ideas for its purpose.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things
Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence
Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations
These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

Tao Te Ching, Chapter I1


  1. Translation by Derek Lin
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Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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