A few weeks ago I received a letter from a regular reader of this column, who is an intelligent and serious philosopher, and who also happens to be an inmate in a prison in Arecibo. His name is Juan Rivera Valle. Juan is very much interested in reflecting about philosophical questions. Good for you Juan!
The purpose of philosophy, as an every day adventure, is to help people, regardless of their present circumstances, to search for the good and full life, not just a long one. Survival into old age, as Seneca said, requires only good luck, where as living enough demands character, reflection and profound thinking, as you are trying to do. A life is long when it has been fully lived, meaning that the mind and the heart learned to supply their own bounty and to empower themselves from within.
So Juan, philosophy can help us in the very complex process of understanding others; that is trying to put ourselves in the place of the other. And by doing this exercise, we start to recognize other people as fellow creatures, meaning to be able to understand them from within, to take momentarily their points of view. This I cannot easily do when I was a teenager. The older I get the easier it becomes to get playful and more flexible, as an essential condition for treating people as people and being well disposed to them.
I have learned, with some difficulty, that whenever we speak with someone else we are laying down a common territory in which my “I” can become “You” and vice versa. The problem is when we do not speak enough to others… If we can not recognize that we have something fundamental in common, then we cannot exchange anything. Then conflict can flourish and even violence can become another form of misfortune.
When we recognize a common humanity with someone, we realize that we belong in some way to each other, that we are both on the same side. It does not matter if I am old and the other person is young, if we are man and woman, white and black, dull-witted and intelligent, healthy and fragile, rich and poor. The philosophical exclamation is: I am human, and nothing that is human is alien to me!
Being aware of my own humanity means that in spite of all the very real differences between individuals, I am also in some way inside the being of all my fellow creatures. By thinking and behaving in this way we are all advancing our own interests (from Latin inter esse), meaning between human beings, and applies to what connect us to other people. This predicament I learned from my father, Piculín Morales, who always stresses the interest of being a human being among other human beings: treating other humanly and being so treated. Juan, many thanks for your letter which help me to recognize that we are all made of the same clay, which is at once ideas, passion, bones and flesh.
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