Author says philosophers teach all we need to know to succeed

January 13, 2000
Web posted at: 3:43 PM EST (2043 GMT)

(Womenconnect.com) -- What do the ancient philosophers have to tell us about modern business? Everything we need to know to succeed, according to Tom Morris, PhD., philosopher-consultant to major corporations such as Coca-Cola, IBM and Merrill Lynch. Morris' legendary enthusiasm for Socrates and friends has helped to fuel a renewed interest in philosophy among non-academics nationwide. The former rock guitarist and Notre Dame philosophy professor is author of "If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business" and the recently-released "Philosophy for Dummies." Morris is chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Q: When you're on a plane sitting next to a typical business traveler and say you're a philosopher, what's the reaction?

A: They don't spill their drinks, but they are genuinely surprised, and right away start asking questions. I've ended up having such amazing conversations -- from an impromptu two-hour session on business ethics with the Chairman of the Weyerhauser Corporation to an hour of advising former baseball great (and current Money Store pitchman) Jim Palmer on public speaking. Remember his Jockey commercials? I told him that speakers are often advised to imagine the audience in their underwear, but he's probably the only speaker out there that the audience is imagining in his!

It doesn't always get silly. Middle managers tell me their aspirations, salesmen share what they've learned about enthusiasm. CEOs talk about the big picture. I once sat for an hour with an ad agency executive and listened to him tell me how the business people he deals with need to hear a little stoic philosophy! It's amazing. Wisdom in the air.

Q: Don't most people think philosophy is too abstract for them?

A: Only people who once had a bad philosophy course in college or read the wrong book. I don't recommend Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" for lunch break reading. But the ancient legacy of philosophy is wisdom about living -- the most practical stuff imaginable. I just mentioned the stoic philosophers. Emperor Marcus Aurelius pointed out long ago that, whenever we encounter something unexpected, unpleasant and difficult, three reactions are possible: Anger, action or acceptance. Unfortunately, most of us react far too often with the first possibility, anger. Marcus says that's never the best response. If the situation can be changed, take action. If it can't, then accept it. Anger does no good at all. Now that's practical advice.

Socrates talked to ordinary people about things that matter. Seneca, Confucius, Lao Tsu -- philosophers like these were map makers for the human experience. They wanted to help us get our bearings in life. What's important? And what's not? Some philosophers turn it into an elaborate intellectual game, but at its best, philosophy is, as the ancients said, advice for life.

Q: Are modern-day people, such as techno-heads, capable of reading and understanding great thinkers, or do the ideas have to be dumbed down?

A: Even though my new book is called "Philosophy for Dummies," there is no real dumbing down going on in its pages. I believe that if a philosopher speaks from the heart, out of his own experience as a human being, speaks clearly, and makes his points straightforwardly, then busy people will be able to tune in and understand.

Navigating the information glut of the modern world actually requires a great deal of logical savvy on the part of people. If they bring that discernment to the questions of philosophy, they sometimes find to their own surprise that they're making tremendous progress on life issues and ultimate questions that may have just perplexed them before. As a real philosopher myself, it's my job to be their guide. But it is a little like Outward Bound for the mind -- they have to ultimately pull themselves up the hill, but I can help point them in the right directions.

Q: Do modern people only care about philosophy as a means to an end -- business success, getting dates?

A: Ha! Yes, at first. But then they get hooked. I've had an amazing number of experiences where people first came to me to find out what the great thinkers had to say about sustainable success, and then they got interested in nearly all the practical issues that philosophy addresses.

And as to the part about philosophy helping to get you dates -- you are referring to dates the fruit, I assume.

But I shouldn't joke. Philosophy brought together Abelard and Heloise with historically noteworthy results. And once a survey of bookstores in New York City a few years ago did conclude that the philosophy section was the number one place for meetings with romantic potential. And it had nothing to do with toga parties. So go figure.

Q: Describe the career path that brought you here.

A: I grew up in a business family and went off to the University of North Carolina determined to study business and become a corporate attorney, ultimately with the goal in mind of running a major company. I was derailed from this path when I fell in love with the questions of philosophy and religion. So I wrote a book in that area my senior year at UNC, and then I went off to graduate school at Yale. At the end of six years, I earned a PhD in two departments, philosophy and religious studies. While writing my dissertation in philosophy of religion, I got a real estate broker's license, taught part time at Carolina, wrote my second book, had my first child, and decided to go teach full time at Notre Dame, where I was a professor for 15 years. Notre Dame was great, and I often had an eighth of the student body in my classes. It was high energy, over the top, philosophical fun. But I felt a sense of calling to bring philosophy to the broader culture. And I started getting invitations to speak to local business groups, then to regional meetings. And now, almost entirely as a result of word-of-mouth, I get over 100 invitations a year to speak to some of the biggest companies and associations in America. The demand for philosophy has gotten so overwhelming that I've created an Institute for Human Values, bringing together a number of other philosophers to help me serve the needs of contemporary businesses.

It's all a pretty unexpected development. I sometimes feel like a surfer who happened to put his board into the water right before the big wave hit. All the baby boomers at mid-life want to philosophize. But so do the Gen Xers and everyone else! It's an amazing thing. What a great time to be a philosopher!

Q: What are the traits that have made you successful?

A: Enthusiasm for life and for what I do. That's the most important trait. And the energy that enthusiasm creates. Humor has been important too. And a genuine caring for people. An ability to focus and to enjoy working very, very hard at times. I just finished drafts of my 15th and 16th books, and both projects have required intense focus.

I'm resilient. Ok, I whine too sometimes, like everybody else. I've learned to smile at adversity. And when it's really bad, I grin. But I expect nothing valuable to be easy, and that attitude helps immensely. I love people and I love to get good people together. Ultimately, relationships rule the world. I'm also a person of faith, and that keeps me grounded as well as serving as a constant source of inspiration.

Q: What's the most outrageous thing you've done to get attention for your mission?

A: My mission is to get people excited about ideas that can change their lives. In that pursuit, I've brought the Notre Dame Marching Band into a classroom to play the Victory March. I've served as national spokesman for Winnie the Pooh, pitching Disney's home videos featuring that most philosophical bear. And I once sent Regis Philbin a 4-foot-high plastic blow-up doll based on the famous Expressionist painting "The Scream," to convince him to have me on his show to talk about my book "True Success." It worked. And he did think it was a scream. I've also thrown out several hundred thousand Snickers Bars to audience members over the years who have given good answers to my philosophical questions.

Q: Where are the great women philosophers?

A: In philosophy classrooms all over the country. In big companies. In small companies. In volunteer organizations and neighborhoods all over the place. My wife is one!

When we look at the history books and look up the great philosophers studied throughout the world, we get, for the most part, all guys. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Pascal, and on and on. This is a result of limiting assumptions made about education in past centuries, pretty much worldwide. We have lost a great deal of the best wisdom of humanity by not encouraging women to think and write as philosophers. But women have been too smart to have their voices go unheard. They have philosophized orally through the generations. They have written their thoughts in novels and poetry for a very long time. Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), Jane Austen, Mary Shelley -- these are just a few of the names that leap to mind when the topic of women philosophers comes up.

Of course, our educational assumptions have finally changed for the better worldwide, and now some of the most prominent academic philosophers in the world are women. Until her recent death, the British novelist and academic philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote powerful things on life and goodness. Martha Nussbaum, Eleonore Stump, Marilyn Adams, Linda Zagzebski, and many others are making a big impact on the current university philosophy scene. So it's not long before the history of philosophy books will have to add chapters on a number of great women thinkers of the 20th century. But there are also women philosophers of everyday life who aren't professors and don't write novels. One who does write very good books is the interior designer Alexandra Stoddard. Her books are about life itself and are full of sagacious advice for living. I recommend her to everyone.

Q: Which modern-day CEOs personify precepts of the great thinkers?

A: Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard actually studied medieval history and philosophy. I believe that she is in a position to do great things that are philosophically well grounded. Bill Stavropoulos at Dow Chemical strives for an ethically-based vision for his business. Plato would applaud him. Lauren Patch at Ohio Casualty has moved his company from the old command-and-control model to a new sense of community. Aristotle would be proud. Dave Komansky at Merrill Lynch works constantly to keep that huge organization focused on a few basic principles that could have been printed on the togas of many of my favorite ancient philosophers. Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame has built his company practically living all of the seven conditions of success I've found among the writings of great thinkers around the world. There are too many to list. And isn't that great? A couple of decades ago, it would have been much tougher to answer such a question.

CEOs, chairmen, presidents, COOs -- all across the top level of organizations in America, I'm seeing a new thrust to use ancient wisdom for modern innovation. I admire Kent Foster, former President at GTE, the leadership at Federated Investors, Steve and Lori Leveen, the co-founders of Levenger. In organizations of all sizes, I'm seeing people at the top who care about using the best wisdom to build their companies and treat their associates as valued partners.

Q: Will philosophy help me understand my boss?

A: Absolutely. Every executive has some sort of worldview that they act and think out of. Philosophy can help you spot the fundamental values that are pushing your boss to do whatever she, or he, does. Philosophy -- at least the way I do it -- can give you many points of contact for working productively with your boss, however easy or tough that might initially seem.

Philosophy is just, etymologically, "the love of wisdom." And wisdom is something we all need a little more of when working with others.

When you give talks, what professions are most receptive to or hungry for philosophy?

What amazes me is that they all are! People going through massive amounts of change seem most desirous of getting their bearings. When all around us is confused, we need a positive philosophy to keep us afloat. With all the reconfigurations going on in financial services, health care, and even manufacturing, I'm having more and more people come to me for fresh perspectives on collaboration, corporate spirit, and the best advice for handling change.

Q: What do you read, what do you listen to, when not working? What are your favorite websites?

A: I read everything. Today, the Dalai Lama, Hamlet and the poet Rumi. Tomorrow, who knows? I like to mix old and new. John Byrne's book on Al Dunlap, Chainsaw, mixed with some Aristotle. I love to listen to jazz and blues music. Also rock with good guitar parts!

On the web I go to all sorts of sites, like Salon.com. But I spend a lot of my computer time answering incredible emails from people who have visited my philosophical website and who are sharing their perspectives with me. I put new essays or draft book chapters on that site every Monday.

Q: What's the best book in your field you've read lately? Ever?

A: Humility precludes a straightforward answer to this question. But I'll name the 1st-century philosopher Seneca as writing great stuff we all can use. The Dalai Lama's recent book Ethics for the New Millennium is a good simple look at what ethics is all about. In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal's Pensees are incredible commentaries on faith, reason, and the human condition. For a great mid-life crisis book, look at Tolstoy's brief Confession.

Q: What's your favorite setting for a business lunch -- real or imagined?

A: My best business lunches are here in Wilmington, North Carolina, overlooking either the ocean or the Intracoastal Waterway, where we can watch the sailboats go by. The sunshine and sea spray make for a relaxed atmosphere. That helps everyone to be more open and creative.

Q: If you could invite any three people, living or dead, to lunch, whom would you invite? And what would you order for them?

A: Plato, Steven Spielberg and Jesus. Plato because he was the great visionary intellect of the ancient world who decided to write philosophy in the form of lively dialogues that any intelligent person could read and understand. If he were alive today, I bet he'd be doing television and films to reach even more people. Spielberg because he is the master of making an impact in film, and he cares about genuinely human questions that go beyond mere entertainment. Plato and Spielberg could help me get philosophy out to the broadest possible audience. And, finally, Jesus, because I've got a lot of questions myself.

I'd take them to Emeril's in New Orleans and order an 8-course meal so we'd have long enough for all my questions. It would be a heavy lunch in every sense of the word.

Q: Word association: Can you name a philosopher or philosophy that comes to mind when we say Bill Gates? Donald Trump?

A: Machiavelli, Machiavelli. Next question?

-- The Business Lunch interview by Ann Japenga

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EMAIL TOM HERE: TomVMorris(at)aol.com.

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