Estimated reading time 11 mins.
I previously posted an article presenting a Ben Folds song, describing in detail what the lyrics meant to me, as in them contained a lesson I wanted to articulate for myself and any readers. It was born out of an idea to present the song to my Korean university students in our English conversation class as a fun way to introduce a theme for discussion, one which I also thought very relevant to their lives.
In my previous article, I wrote: There is a phenomenon familiar to most, I’m sure, that books, songs, or movies we love become more or less meaningful as we get older and revise our own worldviews. I have often found that a single line speaks more strikingly to me as, over time, applications of the lesson held in it have demonstrated its truth in real-life situations again and again. This is also true of whole themes of books, movies, and songs, as well as in essays and non-fiction works I’ve loved. I live, I experience people and events, and I see more deeply and clearly what the authors were talking about. It then becomes my own first-hand knowledge, making it more powerful when applied in my own life. It’s very satisfying when things you’ve loved are proved through experience to be truer and thus become even more meaningful.
This is true of another Ben Folds song, ‘Philosophy,’ and here, I would like to dissect these lyrics as I did the previous song. I’ll add that I have also made of this a lesson plan for our English conversation class, and I’ll be discussing this theme with my students in a few weeks. For this blog, I submit a fleshed-out, native-speaker version for myself and readers. I again disclaim that I don’t speak for Ben Folds here; this is wholly what I take from the lyrics myself. I also again invite you to think about what the lyrics mean to you as you read through, while I hope that you might gain some insight from my own take.
Won’t you look up at the skyline
At the mortar, block, and glass
And check out the reflections in my eyes
See they always used to be there
Even when this all was grass
And I sang and danced about a high-rise
And you were laughing at my helmet hat
Laughing at my torch
And those others didn’t see it. They laughed. People often laugh at dreamers, visionaries. But nonetheless, they are the ones who move the world and raise us all, who make our own lives possible. Ah, but that is a whole other subject.
Go ahead you can laugh all you want
I got my philosophy
(Keeps my feet on the ground)
And I trust it like the ground
That’s why my philosophy
Keeps me walking when I’m falling down
He doesn’t care what others think. He only trusts the truth. 2+2=4. If he keeps his focus and standard of truth within reality, he stays on the ground. The branch of philosophy indicated here is metaphysics, i.e. the nature of reality. We have to live in reality and face facts if we want to live. We can’t fake facts. The world is complicated, and we will all experience failure, frustration, or perhaps worse, at some points. People can laugh all they want, but this narrator knows that only a philosophy grounded in reason and reality can guide him through such setbacks.
I see that there is evil
And I know that there is good
And the in-betweens I never understood
Once one defines good and evil, there are no grounds for choosing anything in-between. Moderation has no place in a proper code of morality. Being moral consists of never (not sometimes) evading facts, i.e. of practicing the virtue of justice, and of always (not sometimes) seeking the truth and discovering the good, what is right. And once one knows that, what does it mean to say that you intend to practice what’s right “moderately?” People say, “We can’t go to extremes.” But to be “extreme” merely means to be consistent, i.e. to practice the virtue of integrity. In the branch of philosophy in question here, ethics, to be consistent means to never wittingly choose the wrong. To do so only betrays the good and empowers the evil. You can’t be in-between in issues of morality. This issue was made clear to me by Ayn Rand in this characteristically concise and original essay.
Won’t you look at me I’m crazy
But I get the job done
I’m crazy but I get the job done
To be “crazy” here just means that he is going against the mainstream. Everybody says that such-and-such is right, but he ignores that (which he views as nonsense or evil) and goes on pursuing his truth. And of course, because his philosophy is grounded in reason, facts, and reality, he “gets the job done,” i.e. he is practical. A proper morality ought to be practical. It ought to tell one how to pursue and gain values, leading one to success and happiness in this life on earth. Today, unfortunately, mainstream morality is set counter to reality and subsequently impedes progress and individual happiness, to the extent one tries to adhere to it.
I say go ahead and laugh all you want
But I got my philosophy
(Keeps my feet on the ground)
And I trust like the ground
That’s why my philosophy
Keeps me walking when I’m falling down
I pushed you cause I loved you guys
I didn’t realize you weren’t having fun
And I dragged you up the stairs
And I told you to fly
You were flapping your arms
Then you started to cry, you were too high
In my conversation class, the issue of intellectual independence came up in our recent discussion of that other Ben Folds song I referred to above. Sitting with one small group, one girl was nodding her head, obviously seeing clearly how right it was that one had to know for oneself. But with a kind of half-smile, almost in a wistful, longing way, she said to me, “It’s just so hard.” I replied that it was hard to really think, but then, how hard was it to try to act when you don’t know what one ought to do and why? She got it, nodding with a hint of conviction, but still looked more as if she had a week’s worth of homework ahead of her and only a day to do it.
Now you take this all for granted
You take the mortar, block, and glass
And you forget the speech that moved the stone
But it’s really not that you can’t see
The forest for the trees
You’ve never been out in the woods alone
To see the forest for the trees means to see the whole among seemingly disparate concretes, or “the one in the many.” It means to have perspective, to see how things fit together, to discover principles. It is to see what is common in things which appear different at first glance. Many people don’t do this very well. They see things as individual instances with no connection. But to live this way makes life seem way more complicated than it is or has to be. Indeed, to take each event as something new with no connection to the past or future makes living impossible—and it is certainly not the human mode of survival.
But everyone is capable of thinking. Everyone has the faculty of reason. Everyone CAN see the forest for the trees. But that many seemingly can’t is not always all their own fault. Our education systems and our current culture and prevailing philosophical views don’t teach people how to use their most precious and efficacious tool: their minds. Our reason is the means by which we survive. It’s how we form concepts, how we integrate and make sense of the world. It’s how we can store vast amounts of knowledge, allowing us to move on to ever-greater knowledge and achieve feats of its application. Because we’ve been so successful for so long at mastering nature’s secrets and living so well, many people in the developed world have got by without having to think too independently, thereby never developing their most precious faculty.
But you can choose to go into the woods alone. You can start to think for yourself and strengthen your most precious tool. And it’s essential if you want to personally live a successful and happy life in this world.
So you can laugh all you want to
I’ve got my philosophy
(It keeps my feet on the ground)
And I love you you’re my friend
But you got no philosophy
Now it’s time for this song to end
In the end, we can’t give up our minds and lives (i.e. our time, attention, energy, money, etc.) to those who choose not to think. In my own life, if someone has no philosophy—nay, that is, no desire to strive and develop one—my relationship with them ends to that extent. My attitude to the world is: “I love you and wish you all the best. Good luck, everyone. But you’ve got no philosophy, and I can’t give you one. You have to work that out for yourself. And if you don’t want to, then I have to move on.”
Everyone has a philosophy, whether they know it or not. The only choice we have is whether we arrive at our philosophic ideas through deliberation and conscious choice, or whether we accept them passively from others. Everyone has a view of the world, of physical reality (i.e. metaphysics), what is true or not, or what constitutes knowledge (i.e. epistemology), what is right or wrong, good or bad (i.e. ethics/morality). Unfortunately, most of us absorb this from the culture, and rarely take time to think seriously about why we believe what we believe, why it is true or false. We just take what is given from our parents, from our teachers, from the society we are brought up in, from the culture at large.
But if we really want to succeed in life, to be practical, it is essential that we answer these questions for ourselves. It is essential that we are certain that we are right, and that what we know and do is true and right (i.e. corresponds to reality). It is hard to think and to develop a philosophy. But it is infinitely harder to try to live without one.
To call myself a student of human flourishing means that I’m constantly striving to refine my own, never allowing truths to go by unseen, lessons to go unlearned, or errors to go uncorrected. And because of this approach to life, I’ve discovered and developed a practical philosophy which has led me to flourish ever-better each passing day. As does everyone, I face many challenges, but because I’ve put the work in to discover the truth of the world, my place in it, and what I ought to do, my philosophy keeps me walking when I’m falling down.