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Horizons: Family Office & Investor Magazine

Dr. Christoph Quarch: Learning From Socrates

Monday, July 26, 2021

Dr. Christoph Quarch is a philosopher, author and thinker. He advises companies and teaches at various universities. He also assists networks as a CPO (Chief Philosophy Officer) and author. In his many publications, he draws on the sources of European philosophy to find viable answers to the challenges of life in the 21st century.

One thing is certain: at the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, humanity has entered a phase of accelerated and profound change. Regardless of whether for good or bad, it will be fair to say that in just a few decades the face of the earth has changed rapidly and comprehensively. Probably both are true: At the threshold from the analogous to the digital age - in an epoch that scientists like to call the Anthropocene - humanity faces life-threatening risks, but also unprecedented opportunities.

Finding answers to these questions is the central task troubling all those who are in any way responsible for our planet and humanity: Politicians, entrepreneurs, leaders, scientists, artists, thinkers, etc. But it is ultimately up to all of us to figure out how we can use our technology wisely; how we can use our knowledge wisely; how we can manage our wealth wisely. We need to find answers to the question of how to contextualize and cultivate our magnificent achievements so that they prove a blessing to humanity - and not a curse. In short, we need wisdom.

Questioning leads to Wisdom

Since the days of Socrates it is known which way leads to wisdom: the way of questioning. And indeed, to find answers to the questions above, we cannot avoid raising another one: What do we want? Or in other words: What do we really want? What do we yearn for in the deepest depths of our humanity? What do we want beyond ever newer and smarter technologies; beyond ever newer and more detailed scientific knowledge; beyond ever more money and material wealth? Or to put it this way: what is the real meaning of all our doing and not doing? What is the ultimate goal behind all our goals?

These questions are not new. As long as humans have been able to think, philosophers, psychologists and scientists have tried to answer them. They impact the image of man through which we design ourselves and by which we measure ourselves - by the standards of which we settle in the world, organize our societies and our economy. Considering the challenges of the 21st century outlined above, it must be permissible to ask whether today’s dominant interpretations of our motivational system and the image of man associated with it are actually correct.

For it can, indeed must, be doubted that a conception of man is valid if under its influence we ruin the global eco-system. A theory of being human, which endangers the physical world and every living thing on planet Earth, is questionable. A conception of man that leads to sawing off the branch we are sitting on is probably insufficient. So, could it be that we need to rethink who we are and the way we are? Is there a goal behind our goals – a goal that we have overlooked as a result of our busyness and bustle?

There are no easy answers to questions like these. Perhaps that is why we somehow vacillate, dither and fail to initiate the urgent transformation. What is to be done? My suggestion is that we would do well to turn to the cradle of our culture and consult the ancient Greeks. For it was they who placed themselves under an imperative that has lost none of its relevance. This appeal consisted of two words only and was chiseled on the walls of the temple of Apollo in the central sanctuary of the ancient world called Delphi. They read: Know thyself!

If we want to meet the challenges of the future constructively, it will be crucial to know who we really are and what we as human beings are all about. Only then we will succeed to use the achievements of technology, science and economy wisely.

What if we asked the ancient Greeks for advice?

The ancient Greeks interpreted themselves in the light of their immortal gods. They called themselves brotoi (mortals) to emphasize the unbridgeable gap between men and gods. And yet, in the form of their gods, they revealed what human life might look like if it ever unfolded its potentials. Hence, SOCRATES (470-399 B.C.) and PLATO (428-348 B.C.) taught that being human was about nothing more than a homoio?sis theo?: an approximation to the divine - knowing full well that it is impossible to become a god oneself. Yet the divine appeared to them as the “measure of all things” indicating the ideals of human existence. For each god represented a particular aspect of what Plato called divine vitality: the sum of all values and virtues, of harmony and beauty, abundance and fertility.

So, if we asked the ancient Greeks for advice, they would most likely tell us that being human is nothing other than the constant pursuit of beauty and abundance, the desire for flourishing and prosperity, the striving for harmony with nature and with other people: the never-ending quest for flourishing vitality. Why? Because we experience our lives as meaningful, significant, fulfilling and powerful whenever we unfold our aliveness.

At the same time, aliveness cannot be reduced to the so-called positive emotions. Grief and sorrow, pain and suffering are also potentials of the human soul. They were considered by the Greeks to be experiences that offer us the chance to realize the full range of human potential – to nourish and strengthen soul and spirit, to grow and mature in order to become a great human being. This is precisely what the Greeks understood as the very meaning of human existence: neither happiness nor power, neither health nor comfort - but flourishing life, human greatness.

How to harness the most powerful energy of life

In their mindset this striving for aliveness as a cosmic principle is inherent in everything alive. The name they gave it is Eros. This word is often misunderstood as pure sexual energy. From a Greek perspective this is flat. To understand it correctly, we must think of passion, inspiration and enthusiasm.

Eros was considered to be a divine spirit. He who is seized by Eros, they thought, has a divine spirit - theo?s. He is en-theos-astic: enthusiastic and inspired (from Latin spiritus = spirit). Enthusiastic people have the capacity to go beyond themselves, to create new life, to dare a transformation, to unfold their potentials. Therefore, loving enthusiasm, Eros, is the most powerful energy of life. And it directs us - in every case and in every one of its manifestations - toward the goal behind our goals: flourishing aliveness.

But we should not confuse Eros with desire and greed, hunger or need. Loving enthusiasm does not grow out of lack and neediness. It is also not controllable by our will or producible by technology. The same is true for any other form of passion. It seizes us, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. Anyone who has ever fallen in love knows this only too well: it is impossible to fall in love by forcing oneself to do so.

Passion, inspiration and enthusiasm - Eros in a word - are not about satisfying our needs. Rather, they grow out of abundance. They are out to increase life: to make the world richer, to foster aliveness. Eros strives for life and for ever more life. His loving enthusiasm releases creativity and the joy of creation.

A Sense for Connectedness

Here, too, we can learn from the Greeks. They knew that the passion of Eros is kindled by the beautiful. We are thrilled, PLATO taught, whenever beauty kindles the passionate fire of aliveness in our hearts. Then we feel the desire to generate beauty ourselves.

Those who are attracted and inspired by the beauty of a person - or the beauty in nature, in art, in society - unleash their best potentials; they long to live up to their source of inspiration: to become beautiful, to plant and nurture beauty, to generate beauty through beautiful deeds and actions. Those who ignite their inner fire on the lush beauty of aliveness will be strong enough to begin a process of lasting transformation and will be able to face the great challenges of our time.

Passion and enthusiasm not only strengthen our own creative energy. Enthusiastic people love to share their findings and insights. They can’t help but cooperate with like-minded people and partners. They appreciate interacting co-creatively and opening up new horizons through their collaboration. Eros is a social actor that fosters connectedness and cultivates team spirit.

And that’s not all: besides its incomparable ability to strengthen people’s relationships, enthusiasm pushes people to unite in harmony and peace: to create balanced orders and conditions for their common enterprises and endeavours. The power of enthusiasm is therefore the most important resource for any transformation. Whenever enthusiasm comes into play, you can be sure that innovation and creativity will blossom. This is because it has the potential - provided it has not been artificially manufactured through manipulation and conditioning - to trigger lasting change in the service of aliveness.

Know the goal behind your goals

Let’s go back to the beginning: In order to meet the great challenges of our time, we need to know what we are really looking for. We need to know what is really important to us. We need to ask about the real purpose of our human endeavours. For only when we know our real priorities will we be able to apply our knowledge, technology and wealth wisely. Having recognized that there is indeed a purpose behind our goals - flourishing and fruitful aliveness - it is time to ask ourselves how we can redirect our economies and businesses so that they no longer diminish or even destroy aliveness, but contribute to the increase and preservation of life.

"Homo Deus": A lifeless failure?

First, it is useful to pause for a moment and remember where unprecedented amounts of power, money and knowledge are currently being amassed: in the global IT corporations that are flooding the public with their promises of a magnificent life in a digital world inhabited by AI, robots, androids, cyborgs and other superhuman creatures. NOAH YUVAL HARARI has shown that the ultimate aspiration of 21st-century-humanity will be the abolition of death and the artificial self-deification of man into Homo Deus. But we should resist these temptations. In truth, the vision of a world of technologically optimized but lifeless beings on a depleted and polluted planet - or in artificial habitats on Mars - is a nightmare; especially considering that what we really want is nothing but aliveness, intense life, laughter and tears, birth and death....

If we ask ourselves how we can use our achievements wisely, here comes my suggestion. Let’s invest not in technological disruption, but in mental disruption. What we really need today is a profound shift in the way we think. We need to understand that it is time to support and strengthen those endeavours that serve aliveness - everything that is in line with the very meaning of being human, instead of always inventing new artificial needs that nobody really has and tools that nobody really wants. What could this mean?

The most important feature of a new economic mindset will be a redefinition of the purpose of our companies: no longer just material and monetary growth, but human growth: growth in liveliness. This does not mean that monetary growth is wrong. It means recognizing that it is of secondary importance compared to what people really crave; as well as measured against what is urgently needed in the age of climate change.

Meaningful business in the 21st century will be in the service of a thriving and prosperous humanity - in harmony with life and nature. Progressive businesses will redefine themselves as gardens rather than machines. This is what I call mental disruption: a profound change in the way we think about business - a new beginning that reconnects business to the fundamentals and aspirations of people and nature.

The re-set of economic thinking will be ushered in by a re-set of the economic motivation system. Neither greed nor fear will be the driving forces of enterprise, but enthusiasm and passion - what the Greeks called Eros. Eros is more concerned with the multiplication of flourishing than optimizing smart machines, more with creation instead of maximization. Businesses that are enthusiastic about beauty and aliveness will be a good investment – because wherever passion for life moves a human heart, you can be sure that something meaningful and fruitful will emerge.

There is nothing our world needs more these days than the spirit of aliveness. It is the resource for our common future. We are well advised to reconnect with it. It is time to do what the novelist D.H. LAWRENCE once called for: “We must plant ourselves again in the universe.”

Recommended Reading:

Christoph Quarch: The Great Yes. How to Unleash the Meaning of Life. Kindle 2021, € 13.99.

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