Philosopher Kings, Naturally


Last week I attended Wisdom 2.0 Business, a thought-provoking conference in NYC about innovation, mindfulness and purpose-driven work. On the flight home, while I was mindfully catching up on some reading, not to mention sleep, an Economist article on Philosopher Kings caught my attention. The author's premise is that executive types would gain more from studying and discussing the classics than from pursuing a myriad of other professional development routes including embarking on outdoor adventures, fraternizing at idea conferences or consulting with consultants.

I don't disagree with the underlying assumption that reading great works is highly beneficial. I was a history major, after all. However, I wonder if it is strictly an Either/Or proposition.

As I think back to some of my favorite writers, many of them found inspiration in nature. Thoreau retreated to a pond to escape the clamor of contemporary society. Austen and her protagonists took to long walks in the English countryside as a respite from the intrigues of the parlor. Aristotle's "natural philosophy" was based on observing and explaining the phenomena of the natural world. (OK, maybe Aristotle wasn't a favorite of mine, but he certainly was influential, e.g. Either/Or decision-making derives from Aristotelian logic.)

I also reflect back on my own training as a teacher. David Kolb's research into learning has withstood the test of time. We learn best by having a tangible experience, reflecting on that experience, drawing conclusions and then testing those conclusions.  This is an iterative process. If we get bogged down in one or two parts of the cycle we don't fully integrate the learning, and most importantly, we don't see behavioral change. Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Kant and others wrote about Praxis, the concept of putting ideas into practice. My mentor teachers spoke about being a "reflective practitioner". The role of "philosopher king" would in and of itself demand constant interplay between the worlds of thought and action.

Back to the article. The author wrote that "mindfulness helps people to relax but empties their mind."  I would not claim to have a "deep" mindfulness practice, but I do meditate on a regular basis. It is by necessity, really, because that is the only way I can truly quiet my mind to make way for at least the potential of clear-minded thinking. The emptying of the mind is a significant first step.

My proposal is this: might we be looking at Both/And? Might the evolution of our philosopher-leaders-in-training be best served by a combination of high quality inputs?

Quality of Mind (Meditation) + Quality of Content (Great Works) + Quality of Reflection (Unplugged in Nature) + Quality of Interaction (Dialogue, Application, Feedback) = Quality of Action (Accelerated Wisdom).

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