A picture of Hannah Arendt

The Flywheel of Philosophy

Philosophy is hard to understand, but there’s a reason you should read it. My first experience with Plato, Aristotle, and contemporaries like Hannah Arendt came in the fall of 2004. I was getting a Bachelor’s degree in business, and I needed an easy class to fill my schedule – so I took Intro to Philosophy.

How hard could it be, right? We would talk about interesting ideas and I would write a paper or two. Simple. After that first class, I wasn’t sure the lecture had been taught in English. I recognized the individual words, but how they came together made no sense to me.

I didn’t do well in that class, but I learned a valuable lesson: Philosophy is a flywheel.

In the world of mechanics, the flywheel is a term for a large wheel that’s hard to spin. It takes incredible effort, but as it begins to creep around its axis, the sheer weight of it creates momentum making each revolution easier. Eventually, you can spin the thing with the push of a finger. These wheels are used to power all sorts of impressive machines in your life.

Philosophy is hard to grasp, especially in the beginning. The ideas feel heavy in your brain and there are words like Martin Heidegger’s Dasien that will mean nothing to you. Hannah Arendt’s take on totalitarianism requires real work on your part to understand. But as you mentally push against this giant and cumbersome wheel, it begins to turn. Each philosophical idea builds on the next, creating intellectual momentum that generates fantastical power.

Reading philosophy is still a challenge for me, but it’s getting easier and more fruitful. I’m not to the point where I can move this wheel with the simple push of my finger, but the ideas are coming and the terms have value.

That last part is important – the terms have value. Some books entertain, others instruct, and many will motivate you. Philosophy has the unique characteristic of getting you to think for yourself – and that’s why I encourage you to press with all your strength against the flywheel.

Read slowly – Take notes – Apply the ideas.


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