Philosophy is Not Convoluted, It Can Spark Great Conversation

What are some philosophical questions that would make great conversation points? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Ryan Holiday, Bestselling author of The Daily Stoic, Ego is the Enemy & media columnist, on Quora.

If you asked the average person what they thought a philosopher's job was, they'd probably saying something like: To ponder interesting questions. That's the stereotype of the philosopher--a big brain, pondering the confusing, complicated existential questions of reality while the rest of us work for a living.

Sadly, this gets philosophy completely and utterly wrong.

If you Google "interesting philosophy questions" a number of them come up:

Why is there something rather than nothing? Is our universe real? Can you really experience anything objectively?

Are these interesting questions? Sure. Do they have any real practical value to normal people? Absolutely not. They are perfect for university professors and pointless for the rest of us.

Where are the real questions: How should I live? What's the right thing to do in a tough situation? How can I manage my temper? Where does one find meaning? What is 'success?' Is there a purpose to this suffering I am experiences?

The great ancient philosophers would shake their head at one most people today consider to be "philosophy." To them, philosophy was supposed to help people practically. As Epicurus wrote, "vain the the word of the philosopher which does not heal the suffering of man." Thoreau, a few centuries later: "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts...but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust."

I don't mean to attack anyone who is interested in intellectual puzzles. It's just a mistake to consider them philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius, my favorite Stoic philosopher, actually takes the time to thank his teachers for helping him steer clear of that line of thinking, saying:

"I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn't fall into the sophist's trap, nor remove myself to the writer's desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens."

To him--and to me and others--the most fascinating conversation points are not things like "How many angels can stand on the head of a pin?" or "Are we actually living in a complex simulation?" Instead we want to focus on having conversations that make us better, that help us contemplate how to make the most of this brief time we have on this planet.

That means questions like:

"What does the good life look like?"

"What would you do if you lost everything that you had?"

"You're happy now while things are good, but could you be happy while in prison or being tortured on the rack?"

"What flaws do I have that I can fix?"

"If I found out I was going to die tomorrow, how could I handle it with strength, dignity and honor?"

At one point in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius to reminds himself to "Stick to what's in front of you -- idea, action, utterance." That's the job of philosophy. To focus on the life in front of us, not the distant cosmos.

The questions I am proposing are questions with no easy answer, but I would argue that they at least have an answer. They are not intellectual masturbation, they are designed to prompt real improvement not only in yourself but in the others around you. They generate wisdom not trivial or confusion.

Are they a little serious? Sure. But life is serious. Philosophy is serious. There are plenty of opportunities for frivolities and entertainment--but let's keep the two separate. Let's not pretend one is the other and fool ourselves into thinking we are doing anything other than messing around.

Even so, I think if you actually had a conversation about any of these things, no one would complain that it was too serious. They would thank you. Because it would change their lives.

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