Philosophic Principles, Part Two
In Part One of this discussion, I included the following among my principles:
Profit. Never seek material gain from the best thing you can do; for that is the literal meaning of selling one’s soul. You will not get it back.
Upon reading this particular principle, a serious student who is trying to work out her own life priorities at this time offered her first reaction, which included the following somewhat personal interpretation:
The reason why a stable life is more dangerous than an unstable life is that the stable one appeases a person to be satisfied with this life. The stable life is only for the body not for the soul, and the soul will starve if a person exploits it for the body. In this regard, to never seek material gain means to have courage in the face of a poor, unstable, but meaningful life, I understood.
I replied to this student’s interpretation as follows:
Well, it is important not to overvalue material things, but in this case, I did not say that you should never seek material gain at all. I said “Never seek material gain from the best thing you can do.” I meant it more as a pointed criticism of popular intellectuals or fashionable thinkers who use their ideas as a way to make money or build fame. They are making a commercial product out of the highest part of themselves, specifically. This degrades and distorts their thought. You can build houses sincerely and uncompromisingly for money. You cannot build arguments sincerely and uncompromisingly for money. Thought for profit will necessarily twist itself into the shape that makes the most money. Today, we have a lot of popular intellectuals, meaning people selling ideas for wealth and fame. That means they have sacrificed whatever honest thoughts they ever had. To make your mind a servant to material desires is to turn yourself into an “idea salesman,” rather than a true thinker. That is what the Greek sophists were, and why Socrates and Plato despised them.
Of course, if you are truly devoted to your thinking, and refuse to turn it into a commercial product, this might indeed lead to some material hardships in your practical life. In that case, your interpretation would also apply. After all, it would be very sad if Socrates had looked back at his life and thought, “You know, if I had just charged three drachmae from everyone who wanted to hear my conversations, I could have had a nice house with a swimming pool and retired at sixty! No worries, no hemlock, just a comfortable life and a respectable old age.” Happily – for him and for us – he never thought such things.