Philosophy as a model of active and responsible life

The task of philosophy then becomes an opportunity to dialogue. We have to risk being in search of what joins us in our dissimilarity. 

Simona Alagia
26 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.


"Discussing the War in a Paris Café" (1846-1896), Illustrated London News. Wikicommons/Frederick Barnard. Some rights reserved. The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, whose work serves as a kind of pivot for the post-Europe project, turns philosophy into a way of life. By describing life as a movement that originates in the instinctual dimensions of human being and extends to the most abstract moments of metaphysical speculation, he presents an ethics based on responsibility and action.

The good life

Specifically, Patočka appeals to an idea of the “good life” that comes out of the discovery that human existence has an inherent value, even if it cannot be calculated or measured. Human life is a dynamic not only of biological function but also of understanding that does not reveal an ideal universe with eternal and abstract rules, but on the contrary brings a kind of clarity to the “experience we have” of the concrete world.

Ordinary life, in its absurdity and dissolution, is a central notion of Patočka’s vocabulary. Living “well” means for him understanding the dominance and the “nonsense” of the everydayness. And for Patočka, the vision of the “Good” brings the human subject to itself, in relation with the capacity to know its limits and its existential instability. In other words, the human being realizes that her life is unpredictable and full of obstacles. Despite this, she learns the importance of overcoming fear and making her own choices with courage.

Patočka shares this account of the self’s relation to the good with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. In particular, Patočka identifies the “good” with the truth searched by every single person, in order to find an appropriate balance and path of action in dealing with the world of things and people.

Care for the soul

In this sense, living the “good life” is intimately connected to the idea of “care for the soul” and also to “spirituality”, as the capacity for thinking freely and for oneself, in a search for the truth.

Free thinking is not a mere talent or a luxury that a person takes advantage of from time to time. It is rather a fundamental ability, which refers to the essence of the human condition and corresponds to the will to break free from anonymity.

This is the structure of human thought according to the Prague philosopher: in brief, the capacity for finding solutions to the problems of existence. From this perspective, thought and action cannot be separated.

Now more than ever, we are constantly called upon to deal with a reality in crisis due to the emergence of an irrational form of technical reasoning. Patočka thinks that the philosopher’s task is to interrogate the perverse mechanisms of contemporary society, which control individuals, even in their private lives. Only in this way is it possible to rediscover the concrete sense of human life, which is characterized by both living well and freedom.


According to Patočka, this is the perspective from which, nowadays, we should look at Europe. Care for the soul has been at the center of European philosophy since it originated in Ancient Greece. Care for the soul is a philosophical and political project based on the understanding that the human being is capable of truth and justice.

Patočka suggests rethinking the political dimension as a space of human existence that originated in ancient Greece together with history and philosophy. In this context, the idea of Europe was born. Trying to avoid a traditional euro-centric view, the Czech philosopher indicates that humans in the twentieth-century have the “chance” to reconcile with their own past and to understand that only history, i.e. the sum of our actions and passions, can provide concrete answers to human desires and wishes.

For this reason, Patočka argues that a responsible attitude, in the present historical context, would be the attitude of someone who thinks that “living in truth” is still possible, despite all the harsh struggles she has to go through. In light of two World Wars and the violence which is still present all over the world, the philosopher of Prague underlines the importance of building human solidarity, brotherhood, and respect. Individuals should not give up their own ambitions, but this  cannot mean ignoring the needs of other people. For the author, “life in truth” is a challenge that leads to what he calls the “solidarity of the shaken”, where by “shaken” he means those people who have lost everything but not their willingness to search for a meaning in action, in thought and in their relations with others.

The essence of Europe, as far as Patočka understands it, consists in accepting the danger and the doubts about the future, by both recognising this fundamental uncertainty and continuing to struggle for a possible meaning, for an answer to this crisis. In the end, the idea of philosophy as “care for the soul” reflects for Patočka the thought of European humanity, finally called upon to become aware of plurality.

It means trying to come to terms with one’s self and with other selves, even those who might be seen as enemies within the contingencies of the present moment. The result is hopefully a reestablishment of confidence in an ever-changing world. For Patočka, plurality is not only the fundamental prerequisite of political life, but also the most important aspect of the human condition which is vulnerable, colorful and bizarre.

The task of philosophy then becomes an opportunity to dialogue. We have to risk being in search of what joins us in our dissimilarity. Europe, thus, is not only a value, but on the contrary a mission that must open to a reflection: it’s worth “changing life” to rediscover the Socratic “love of knowing” (philosophia), that is life in its fullest.


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