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pathways (guide)

2 mentors, teachers and gurus

From The Glass House Philosopher 31st July 2004:

A guru is someone you revere, someone you believe in, trust implicitly, without thought of question or criticism — someone who shows you the Way.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a guru. I do not wish to be. I find the very idea nauseating. Sometimes, I am tempted to set a really bad example — behave disgracefully — just to make the point. The problem is that my friends and supporters would be embarrassed and ashamed of me. They wouldn't see the joke...

When I graduated from London in 1976, the buzz was that each of the lecturers thought that it was someone else who had 'been Geoffrey's mentor'. By some fluke, I had achieved a First in each of my eight papers. But no-one had been my mentor — because they all were. I had gone round the entire department.

As a student, I regarded everyone I talked to as someone to learn from. Not only fellow students but friends, family or indeed anyone I met who made the mistake of asking me 'what I did'. It made me a terrible bore. The worst kind. The most casual remark became the trigger for a lengthy philosophical diatribe.

I've lightened up a lot since then. To regard every person you meet as a potential sounding board, or suitable partner for philosophical dialogue, is to treat them as a means to your own end. (It sounds like Socrates, doesn't it? But I suspect that Plato's writings paint a very misleading picture in that respect.) To be 'the philosopher' in your relations with others is always and on every occasion a choice — which can be made for good or bad reasons, depending on the particular circumstances.

In other words: learn to be tactful...

To return to the point. Teaching is something I would describe as a necessary evil. You've got to get the information across somehow — in course books, lectures, seminars. It's all brain food for the aspiring student. But that's not where you learn to be a philosopher. Philosophy isn't a 'subject' that you 'learn', it's not a body of knowledge. A philosophy course is a training you go through. If you finish your course, and all you know is 'which philosopher said what', or the difference between materialism and mind-body dualism, or realism and idealism — well, that's great for impressing people at social gatherings...

It was through the relationships I built up with my teachers — my mentors — that I made that transition to actually doing it, not just being able to talk cleverly about it. Philosophy has the power to change your life, certainly. You don't need a guru. Teachers are useful. But even with the best teachers, the essential work you've got to do for yourself.