Sunday, September 2, 2012

Why Be A Philosopher?

Twenty years ago I made a fateful and, some would say, horrific decision: I chose to become a Philosophy major.

As I described in an earlier post, I felt at the time that I was setting out on a lonely road, a path far less traveled. Prior to this decision, I had not even considered majoring in something as seemingly esoteric as philosophy. I had felt most drawn toward Art and English, and indeed most of my friends seemed to be majoring in either of those two fields. At the time, I had actually just chosen Psychology as my major, for purely practical, career-focused reasons. However, after the first day of Intro to Philosophy, I was hooked. I promptly changed my major, and as they say, the rest is history.

Philosophy is perhaps one of the few fields of human endeavor that can attract followers with a zeal that is almost like being in love. Plato spoke of eros as a love of the good, a love that draws us passionately toward the sublime. He believed that philosophers, poets, and artists, in addition to (as we say) "platonic" lovers, are compelled by eros toward the various objects of their love. In the case of philosophers, this object is wisdom. The very word "philosophy" actually means "love of wisdom". It uses a different word for love, philia, but it echoes Plato's notion that philosophers are motivated by love.

It should also be noted that philosophy, poetry, and art are fields that are traditionally thought of as notoriously lacking in material rewards. Philosophers, poets, and artists, generally speaking, do not choose their fields for any practical reasons. It can verily be said that their passions choose them. There are not many other fields to which someone would choose to devote their life without any hope or expectation of monetary recompense. These fields, traditionally, are labors of love. They are specifically labors of eros, and to their devotees they can indeed feel quite erotic, in the sense of being driven by a burning passion for a beloved object, a passion for which one is willing to sacrifice and risk appearing to the rest of society as a crazy fool.

(I will note here briefly that what I am describing is also true of platonic love, but I will address that more fully in my series on love.)

In the summer of 1989, after I graduated from high school, I was very inspired by the movie Dead Poets Society. Although I had been a lifelong writer, that movie was one of the major early influences that pushed me in the direction of poetry (I had primarily just written fiction up till then, plus a few song lyrics). From my perspective now, it is evident that this movie demonstrates the idea of poetry as an object of eros. For those who love it, it produces a passion that is itself like being in love, and that makes material concerns seem pale in significance next to the spiritual rewards it provides. I have long seen philosophy in the same light, and I used to think that if I became a philosophy professor (which I had once planned on doing), I would want to impart a passion for philosophy to my students that was very similar to the passion for poetry which Mr. Keating imparted to his.

As poets are in love with and passionately seek out beauty expressed through the medium of language, philosophers are in love with and passionately seek out wisdom expressed through the medium of language. Language is an imperfect tool, but it's the best we've got. The poet is specifically charged with the task of figuring out how to make language an ever more powerful tool. The philosopher is somewhat more limited, in the sense that he must restrict his use of language, unlike the poet, to the rational and literal (generally speaking, though there have been exceptions to this rule; but in those exceptions, the philosopher becomes something of a poet).

So what are the rewards of philosophy? Do philosophers ever actually acquire the wisdom that they seek, and if so, what does that do for them?

These are very good questions. It has been said that philosophers do not ever actually attain wisdom, at least not in full, as the fullness of wisdom is a divine prerogative and not a human one. And it would not be befitting a true philosopher to claim that one is in fact wise. The word philosopher, after all, means "lover of wisdom", not one who has already attained wisdom. One can only hope and imagine that, inasmuch as they pursue the object of their love, philosophers do in fact acquire at least some measure of wisdom. But it is a quest that can never be completely fulfilled. It is the same with any eros. Poets and artists can never completely satisfy their hunger for beauty, just as the platonic lover never finds the fulfillment of his desires. It has also been said that all eros is unrequited love, in the sense that it is a perpetual longing and desire that never finds ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment.

For this reason, any devotee of eros will seem a little crazy and even pathetic to those who do not share their passion. But to the devotee of eros, everyone else is failing to see what they are seeing, which at worst can lead some of them to feel superior, and at best can lead them to want to share their vision with others and to inspire them with the same passion and enthusiasm.

So what does the attainment, or at least the pursuit, of wisdom do for the philosopher? Why such passion for wisdom?

Wisdom, assuming it is true wisdom, helps us to see things as they really are: the world we live in, human life, ourselves. It is about understanding the true nature of things. And that understanding, in addition to being valuable knowledge in itself, also helps us to live the best life possible. It is particularly important to have a sense of what is important, i.e. of what one should value most and what one should value less or not at all. As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

Pursuing philosophy, as I said, can seem a lonely path. It can feel like wandering off into the woods. But it is a journey well worth undertaking. As Thoreau said:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Philosophy, then, far from being an esoteric pursuit for a few academics in the ivory tower, is something that everyone should practice in some way. It simply means to think deeply about life, to know why you believe what you believe, to examine your values and priorities, to reflect on and understand what is truly important, and to live life as though it matters. Because it does.

No comments:

Post a Comment