The Health that Really Matters

In the Gorgias, Socrates draws our attention to an important parallel between the human organism and the human psyche—both can be healthy or unhealthy.  Though we are very accustomed to thinking in terms of bodily health, we can find ourselves to be quite inarticulate when we consider our psychological health.

When we think about the body, we are quick to recognize its needs and quick to acknowledge the importance of the practices that will support bodily health.  We need to feed our body a balanced diet with the nutrients that maintain healthy functioning, supply energy and support growth.  We need to exercise the body, whether through living a consistently active lifestyle or through intentionally working parts of the body that are otherwise not being engaged.  And, in the case of illness or damage, we need to seek out the medicinal and behavioural correctives prescribed by an expert who understands human organic functioning.

Of course, we do not always follow the demands of this vision of healthy eating and acting.  We take our bodies for granted, and we live from the powers they afford us without “paying back our debt” to them.

Often, we start to notice this, in ourselves or in others, sometime around the age of 40, when it’s clear that things have been handled badly and the body is in trouble.  Or, maybe we do demonstrate more vigilance and pay some continuing attention to responding to these bodily needs.  In either case, though, we acknowledge the issue, and we can pretty clearly recognize what is happening and what should be done.

When we turn to the health of our souls, however, we typically do not acknowledge such a systematic regime for health.

Though we notice severe breakdowns in the lives of others, and though we ourselves may face crippling problems in our emotional lives or in our behaviour in our relationships, we typically remain fundamentally blind to the demands of psychic health.  We often recognize and criticize the manifest symptoms of ill health (especially in others), but we do not recognize them in their causal context—we do not see where they come from and why.

Where does psychic health (or illness) come from?  At a basic level, we can identify healthy conditions for the soul on the model of healthy conditions for the body: the soul needs nutrition, which mostly means intelligent stimulation and emotional support, delivered though human companionship in the form of mutually respectful communication and shared participation in engaging activities.  We need art, play, education, meaningful work, aspirations and love.  And, like bodily exercise, these nutrifying activities and structures need to be introduced intentionally when they are not happening on their own.

Working out more precisely what form these healthy practices take is also possible, and, as is the case with the science of bodily nutrition, this is done well by those who have devoted themselves to developing expertise in the study of the soul.  Unfortunately, public discourse in this area has been taken over by representatives of drug businesses, dishonest advocates of exploitative social policy, and the entertainment industry.  In place of a regime for health, we are offered a sure route to psychological malformation and dysfunction.  Fortunately, the science of the soul is still available to us in the great foundational works of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre and so on, and in the more recent works of the great existential psychologists like R.D. Laing, Salvador Minucin, D.W. Winnicott, or J.H. van den Berg.  The answers are there, if we are willing to look for them.

And what should a healthy soul look like?  Again, I think Socrates can help us to identify the goal at which we should be aiming.  In a number of different places, Socrates identifies four basic “excellent fulfillments” of the soul: courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.  These four provide an excellent model for what we should expect of ourselves.

Courage is basically a self-reliant commitment to standing up for what is important because it is important.  There is something wrong in our own development if we are not willing or able to do this.

Temperance is basically a matter of emotional self-possession.  We will all undergo experiences of sadness, anger, fear, joy and so on.  Temperance is being able to navigate these experiences well, neither losing ourselves to them nor suppressing their importance.

Wisdom is the developing of insight and good judgment.  It is not healthy to be ignorant of our surroundings, or to be incompetent in our ability to choose an effective practical response to them.

Justice is a commitment to being a good person: to caring for others, and to holding oneself answerable to standards of right.

As we plan our lives and make our arrangements for the activities we will engage in, the people we will engage with, and the projects we will undertake, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we are cultivating these virtues in ourselves and in others, or whether we pursuing the psychological equivalents of obesity, lung cancer and gum disease.

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  1. Kirsten
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I have heard many people report that once they start exercising, they often find themselves drawn toward other behaviors that promote one’s health–e.g., eating and sleeping in a balanced way. Indeed, I have had the quite stark experience of all of these practices “falling off the wagon” at once. Your post prompts me to reflect that it has been my *education* that has fostered persistent life-long changes in how I experience and deal with my health. Most notably, I have a much more robust sense of what counts as health, and equally a greater sense of the variety and depth of practices that must be undertaken to work on one’s health. The current preponderance of health clubs, health drinks and exercise regimes seem in many ways to me to be frantic attempts to work on our flagging and impoverished relationship to health. It reminds me of Heidegger’s closing point in “Building Dwelling Thinking” that the popular emphasis on the “shortage of housing” misses the mark entirely when it comes to figuring out the crises we are facing in our way of dwelling.

  2. Laura
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    In reading this post, I was struck especially by the temporal nature of a healthy (or unhealthy) soul. Socrates’s four components of a healthy soul show themselves, it seems to me, as a characteristic *readiness* to deal with what matters in oneself, others, and the surrounding world. While we can point to any number of examples–of manifestations–of courage and cowardice, temperance and intemperance, wisdom and stupidity, justice and injustice, how we identify a courageous, temperate, wise, and just person is characterized by the *ongoing* ways in which this person deals with the world and with others. Courage and justice are not things one does once in awhile, but are resolutions as to what kind of person one will be over time–something inseparable from how one commits oneself to engaging with the world. They are, as you say, life-long pursuits, and ones that affect in a *total* manner the worth of our own lives and the quality of our interpersonal world.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).