Philosophy as the Original Source of Self-Help

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.-Friedrich Nietzsche

Addiction is one form that suffering takes. Addiction may be the starkest form of the most basic question a human faces: Shall I live or shall I die? If one chooses to live, then she must address the questions of not only how to survive, but how to live a good life. These are deeply philosophical questions.

Philosophy asks questions about human nature. What sorts of creatures are humans? What distinguishes us from other animals? Are we physical beings or is there something spiritual about us? Are we inherently social with needs that make us rely on others or are we significantly independent from others? Given what we are, what can and what should we be doing with our lives?

…how we struggle to make sense of our lives and our place in a vast world that may seem hostile, unjust, unfair, and a source of great suffering…-Peg O’Connor

Philosophy is also concerned with the human condition, which is the state we all share as humans, where there is suffering and pain, joy and confusion. We are all dependent beings who try to attain independence. Is it just natural that humans will struggle and suffer in certain kinds of ways? For many addicts, a central question is, how we struggle to make sense of our lives and our place in a vast world that may seem hostile, unjust, unfair, and a source of great suffering and confusion. This struggle to find a place and to find value or hope is what I as a philosopher see as a struggle about the meaning of life.

Another way to say it is, addiction is an existential condition.

So, how does one go about the very messy and often confusing and confounding business of living? Where can one turn for help? I offer philosophy.

Philosophy is the original source when it comes to self-help. The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle understood philosophy as an activity; it is a way of life. Each of these philosophers was concerned with living a good life or flourishing. Each also tied the well-being of an individual to the well-being of others. Self-help and other-help are flip sides of the coin.

To flourish, it is necessary that each person examine her life in very intentional and directed ways. This involves interrogating her own character and her relations to others. Examining one’s life is how one cares for her soul, which is the most important undertaking in human life. The language of the soul leaves many uncomfortable and veers into murky metaphysical matters. One may substitute “person” for soul, and the message is the same.

Just how important is self-examination to the care of the soul? In 399 BCE Socrates had been found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and worshipping false gods. In the penalty phase of his trial when the prosecutors were seeking his execution, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” If he could not practice philosophy as he had, challenging the youth to interrogate their beliefs about justice, truth, beauty, and piety and in the process making himself and his students better people, he would rather face death. Living an unexamined life is not really living.

Living a life of active addiction is not fully living. In a sense, one is not fully inhabiting her own life; the alcohol or the drugs are the primary focus in the worst throes of addiction.-Peg O’Connor

Living a life of active addiction is not fully living. In a sense, one is not fully inhabiting her own life; the alcohol or the drugs are the primary focus in the worst throes of addiction. It at least is not living well or flourishing because the ability and opportunities to examine life are impaired.

Active addicts may be asking questions about who we are, how we want to be, what sort of meaning can we make of our lives, and how we are connected to other people. But, active addicts tend not to address these questions in the most productive way because we often fail to distinguish appearance from reality. For Plato, this inability is one of the greatest obstacles to any knowledge including self-knowledge. As other philosophers demonstrate, a lack of self-knowledge or a big degree of self-deception is a source of great suffering.

…addicts tend not to address these questions in the most productive way because we often fail to distinguish appearance from reality.-Peg O’Connor

Back to Nietzsche, who also claimed that it is meaningless suffering that makes life intolerable. How does one find or give meaning to her suffering so that she may not only survive but flourish? This is both a philosophical and practical question that addicts confront every day.

Over the years I have heard many active and recovering addicts ask questions that I cannot but hear as philosophical. Some of them are:

  • Am I the same person now as when I was drinking or using?
  • Do all addicts or do all addictions have something in common?
  • Isn’t there a paradox in saying I am powerless as one way to overcome addiction?
  • Am I responsible for being an addict?
  • “Normal” drinkers just don’t get it. Do we live in different worlds?
  • Do I need to have faith or some sort of conversion “ah ha moment” to recover?

Philosophy has been grappling with the broader issues that underpin these questions. All this grappling means that philosophy (when practiced and lived well) puts sharply honed tools at our disposal. We might also take a suggestion from the poet Rilke, who said of certain types of questions, that “we should live the questions now.” Philosophy provides some of the tools for doing so.
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