Conditions of the Philosophic Life

Recently, a serious student who has embarked with gusto on the path of philosophy mused, in an e-mail, about what it means, definitionally speaking, to “be who she is.”

Let’s say this is a note for the future, in case I might lose myself someday. What if I lose myself and forget who I was? Read this: “From myself in the past (2022) to myself in the future (20xx) — I have no idea why you lost yourself, but I want to help you because I want you to have the best kind of life. There would be so many details needed to revive your memories, but let’s start with these two points: First, I love philosophy. It partly means that I love thinking, writing, and reading. Secondly, I’m trying to live as sincerely and honestly as I can. If I get some thoughts or feelings that are so heavy that they distort and muddy my mind, I’m trying to purify it by admitting the fact, whether pleasant or not, and being honest with myself. So live by those two things, and if you still struggle with confusion about yourself, then just visit my Teacher!”

The following is my reply to that somewhat whimsical self-definition.

First, I love philosophy. It partly means that I love thinking, writing, and reading.

Well, let’s be slightly stricter about our definitions here. Many people enjoy thinking, writing, and reading, but are not philosophical at all, or even remotely interested in philosophical questions. Thinking about what? Writing what? Reading what? Philosophy cannot mean just thinking, writing, and reading in general, because then everyone who enjoys (or even loves) those activities would have to be called a philosopher. That wouldn’t seem correct, would it? 

So let’s refine what it means to “love philosophy,” by clarifying just a bit more carefully what philosophy involves. First of all, a person who is writing in a philosophical way must be doing so with something philosophical to write about, which means that he must have thought about the issues philosophically before writing about them. The writing is a way of communicating or preserving the thoughts. And reading, too, must have a philosophical purpose; you read to search for answers to questions you have, or to gain a deeper understanding of the questions themselves, which means that you have already been examining the relevant issues philosophically before reading, in order for the reading itself to be a philosophical endeavor. So, if we are to rank these three activities — writing, reading, thinking — it seems the thinking is the most fundamental one, since it is the cause or goal of the other two. Therefore, perhaps we ought to define philosophy more strictly as a kind of thinking. 

On the other hand, since philosophy itself is not a hobby or interest, like table tennis or Roman architecture, but rather a way of living one’s life, we should bring this element into the definition too. We might say, then, that philosophy is a way of life focused on thinking. In other words — and this is very important — it is a way of life in which thinking is not a means to some practical end or material result (like thinking about how to get rich, or thinking about the best way to get a good sleep), but rather, in the philosophic life, thinking itself is the goal or purpose, the end to which the whole way of life is devoted. Other people think for some purpose external to thinking, whereas the philosopher thinks for the sake of thinking.

Now of course this way of life — thinking for the sake of thinking — must have some objects of thought, and obviously the objects of thought must be important, serious, and not primarily related to achieving practical goals, since a way of life devoted to trivial objects would be empty and worthless, and since practical goals would contradict the idea that philosophic activity is “thinking for the sake of thinking.” Let’s say, then, to keep this short and simple, that the philosophic life is a life centered on thinking for its own sake, and this thinking is about the most serious and important theoretical questions, such as “What is a human being?,” “What is the world?,” “How are we related to the world as a whole?,” “What is the relationship between mind and reality?,” “What is the relationship between matter and ideas?,” “What is the connection between thinking and feeling, reason and desire, etc.?,” “What is the best way to live?,” “What is the good?,” “What is the beautiful?,” “Is there a world independent of matter or time, and if so, how does it exist?” 

These are not all the questions of philosophy, of course, but they summarize or crystallize many of the essential issues that philosophic thought is concerned with. Collectively, we could say that these questions indicate the search for wisdom, and therefore a life dedicated to these questions (and any other issues related to these questions) is a life of seeking wisdom for its own sake. And to do something “for its own sake” is to do it because we think that thing is valuable and necessary to us in itself, not for any external benefit to be gained from the object. (The benefit is internal to the activity.) And to live your life for something that you value for its own sake is to say that you love that thing. So the life lived for the sake of seeking answers to these highest questions is the life of “loving wisdom,” which makes the people who choose that life “lovers of wisdom,” i.e., philosophers.

That’s a bit of a summary, and doesn’t really explain all the emotional and spiritual factors involved in the philosophic life, how someone proceeds from a non-philosophical life, which is everyone’s life growing up, to a philosophical life, which very few people ever find or reach, or what approach to practical and social life is best suited to supporting and maintaining the primary activity of philosophy, which is thinking for its own sake. But it is a useful sketch of what the philosophic life means, and therefore might add something to your time capsule for your future self, assuming your future self ever got lost and needed to be reminded of its natural purpose.

Secondly, I’m trying to live as sincerely and honestly as I can. If I get some thoughts or feelings that are so heavy that they distort and muddy my mind, I’m trying to purify it by admitting the fact, whether pleasant or not, and being honest with myself. 

Heavy feelings that might distort or muddy your mind are inevitable, and also, I might add, necessary. No one with a philosophic nature is easygoing or immune to heavy feelings or dark thoughts, not only regarding the world around one but also, and perhaps especially, regarding the world inside oneself. Standing at a distance from normal life in order to see it more truly and clearly is not the activity of a normal or comfortable person. A great deal of confusion and discomfort is required to condition a person to pursue this sort of life in the first place, which is why most real philosophers are melancholics, and all real philosophers people who, for some reason or other, do not function well or easily in ordinary practical or social life.

Plato, who examined the philosophic nature and the prerequisites of the philosophic life more deeply than anyone else has ever attempted in writing, is very direct on this point. Consider this account, from Socrates in The Republic, of the conditions of the soul necessary for the development of a philosophic nature:

“Then it’s a very small group, Adeimantus,” I said, “which remains to keep company with philosophy in a way that’s worthy; perhaps either a noble and well-reared disposition, held in check by exile, remains by her side consistent with nature, for want of corrupters; or when a great soul grows up in a little city, despises the business of the city and looks out beyond; and, perhaps, a very few men from another art, who justly despise it because they have good natures, might come to her. And the bridle of our comrade Theages might be such as to restrain him. For in Theages’ case all the other conditions for an exile from philosophy were present, but the sickliness of his body, shutting him out of politics, restrains him. My case—the demonic sign (daimonion)—isn’t worth mentioning, for it has perhaps occurred in some one other man, or no other, before. Now the men who have become members of this small band have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession it is. At the same time, they have seen sufficiently the madness of the many, and that no one who minds the business of the cities does virtually anything sound, and that there is no ally with whom one could go to the aid of justice and be preserved. Rather—just like a human being who has fallen in with wild beasts and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficient as one man to resist all the savage animals—one would perish before he has been of any use to city or friends and be of no profit to himself or others. Taking all this into the calculation, he keeps quiet and minds his own business—as a man in a storm, when dust and rain are blown about by the wind, stands aside under a little wall. Seeing others filled full of lawlessness, he is content if somehow he himself can live his life here pure of injustice and unholy deeds, and take his leave from it graciously and cheerfully with fair hope.” (Republic VI, Allan Bloom translation, 496a-e)

A potential philosopher, meaning a young person who has been attracted to philosophy, and is therefore capable of being “converted” to the philosophic life, must have something significantly “wrong with him,” from a societal point of view — some internal problem, practical shortcoming, or unavoidable obstacle — that makes ordinary success unlikely, and ordinary social life painful. This abnormality — poor physical condition, dread of “the madness of the many,” revulsion against “the savage animals” vying for influence within his soul — helps to push one into those soul-deepening doubts that the person of easy success will never experience, and towards the soul-examining questions that the “well-adapted” person will never ask. This is the “fork in the road” condition that few ever experience, wherein the young person with the necessary gifts of intelligence and desire, aided by the necessary limitations of social or practical deficiency, has an opportunity, typically with external assistance from someone who recognizes those gifts and has the ability to foster them, to find his or her way onto the strange and beautiful path of a philosophic life. Also essential to this life, then, or at least to avoiding some of the heaviness or muddiness which can distort the soul seeking this life, is the building and maintaining of a spiritual corner of the universe, apart from society and its battering winds, in which one may live privately with one’s philosophic thoughts, minding one’s own business, “as a man in a storm, when dust and rain are blown about by the wind, stands aside under a little wall.”

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