Practical Concerns and The Philosophic Life

The philosophic life, understanding that phrase in its most comprehensive and classical sense, can often seem a remote and unrealistic notion in our late modernity. Human existence today, in the developed world, is so fraught with inescapable interconnectedness, indoctrinated utilitarianism, and the practical appeal of “capitalist society,” that Socrates’ observation, during the sentencing phase of his trial, that he simply had no money with which to propose a fine, or Epicurus’ comment that a pot of cheese would be sufficient feast for him, might seem like quaint reminiscences of a long lost path.

So it is that for young people who wish to pursue thinking as a life, rather than as a means to practical goals, the question inevitably becomes far more than a theoretical or historical curiosity: “How can one deal with the realities of finding employment and earning a living without sacrificing the essence of the thinking life, the freedom of time and intellect necessary for pursuing ideas and self-knowledge in earnest?” It was a question that preoccupied me in my younger years, and that I hear regularly from serious students I know well.

This topic arose a few days ago during a written exchange with one such student, after she had read my recent short article, “The Race vs. The Search,” which includes this contrast:

In a race, therefore, each step is primarily a fight against fatigue and hopelessness — an effort to “hold one’s form” — as one struggles unwaveringly toward a predetermined and expected end. In a search, each step must be taken carefully and attentively for its own sake, with focused curiosity, as it may hold a clue that will send the searcher off in a new, more promising direction.

In response to her request for clarification regarding some of the implications of this contrast for the subject of purposefulness, I offered the following observation:

Living with purpose, finally, does not mean having concrete goals. It means living your days, and organizing your life, for the sake of the activities that fulfill you and bring your life meaning and substance. And since thinking and understanding are the highest activities of the soul, the way of living that contributes most to your ability to think, and adds to your chances of understanding life and yourself more fully, is the most beneficial way. 

My student, currently embroiled in the practical realities of deciding how she will live and support herself in both the short and long terms, replied with the following wistful reflection:

I think it is right, beautiful, and ideal. But reading this paragraph, I could not help but think of the doubt that the theory, that beautiful way of living, is for the intellectual elite….I’m just wondering: If this lesson of life is a heritage from philosophers such as Aristotle, wouldn’t they give such lessons for people who can afford a lot of time for studying and are free from much exhausting labor?  

My answer:

It is certainly easier to live the theoretical life if you are free of all immediate material concerns. This is true not only in the obvious sense that an independently comfortable person – an aristocrat let’s say – has more leisure time. The aristocratic life of freedom from “jobs” also allows the person to think without his thought becoming distorted by material interests – fear of poverty, calculations of personal advantage. 

On the other hand, in ancient Greece, for example, even the men who had that kind of leisure (such as Plato) had other practical concerns – tyranny, political dangers, imprisonment for their views, and so on. The ordinary “gentleman class” of society could enjoy standing around the marketplace in philosophical conversations all day, true. But for the most daring and serious thinkers, this life was full of threats. Philosophers are always taking risks with their thinking, because they always ask questions that people in “our time” are not supposed to ask, or challenge the normal ideas that everyone is presumed and expected to accept. 

Furthermore, you forget the example of Socrates, who was poor but devoted himself to thinking and talking to others about philosophy, and seems to have rarely worked at a job of any kind during his philosophically mature years. In fact, we do not know exactly how he survived, materially, except that he probably had very few expenses of any kind, and likely got a little financial assistance here and there from his wealthier friends and “students” – remember that at his trial, Plato and a few others offered to pay a fine on Socrates’ behalf, as he had no money — because they valued his friendship. The Greeks, of course, were much more serious about friendship than modern people. “All things in common among friends” was an expression from Pythagoras and his school, but Plato quotes it in the dialogues many times. 

In addition, there was another kind of material condition that affected the gentlemen of Athens – war. Athens was at war with Sparta for twenty-seven years, including most of the mature teaching life of Socrates. He fought in the war himself. So did many men he knew. 

As for my student’s final question about the intended audience for this ancient teaching — “wouldn’t they give such lessons for people who can afford a lot of time for studying and are free from much exhausting labor?” — I offer the following:

Yes, in the case of Aristotle, that is certainly the case. His school, like Plato’s, was mostly available for the leisure class, the gentlemen with property and without ordinary jobs. As I noted above, this was not just a practical issue of “having free time.” It was also related to the best spiritual conditions for the philosophic life. And there was another consideration: The political protection philosophers may get from being associated with young men of the ruling class. (That didn’t always work out well, but it was certainly a hope – to influence men from powerful families to have a more sympathetic attitude toward philosophy.) 

So in our modern, democratic world, where there is no real leisure class, how do we apply these teachings to our lives? Can we? Do we have to pursue philosophy in a compromised way, or only “halfway”? 

Without trying to answer those questions completely right now, I will merely say two things. 

First, we do have the lessons of Aristotle and the other ancient thinkers to help us remember what the philosophic life, lived properly, would mean. This is important. Having the model in our minds and hearts, we can always use that awareness to help us keep a distance – an ironic distance I would say – from the practical lives we have to live in the modern world. Our bodies can participate in the economic life, as much as we must for survival, while our souls always remain somewhat detached and unconcerned about the material things. It is not easy or “ideal,” but fighting a war while thinking about Being was not ideal either. 

I sometimes think of working for money in a similar way: like going to war. You would prefer not to do it, but sometimes you have a practical duty that you cannot escape if you want to survive, so you do it as much as you need to, but only that much. In other words, you try not to become addicted to the fighting itself. It is a social duty only, and the purpose is to get it over with so you can return to your thinking and your conversations with friends. 

Second, the thinking life is not only the best life, but it is also the cheapest life. It requires very little wealth and few material possessions to live the life of the mind. Therefore, if one is moderate in practical needs and expectations, and is willing to work as much as necessary (and to save rather than spend most of what one earns), it is actually not as difficult to support this kind of life as it is to support other kinds of lives.

And for this second point as well, we have many good practical examples to inspire us. Socrates, as I mentioned, was poor but clearly did not suffer from it. Jane Austen was from an upper-middle class family, but they were not wealthy at all and eventually depended heavily on family assistance, while she never made enough money from her writing to support herself. Nietzsche had to give up his university teaching position after only a few years due to health problems, and lived the rest of his life as a writer on a tiny university pension (and a bit of help from friends), because he never sold any books. Most of the time, he lived in a small, tidy room with a desk, a bed, one chair, a washstand, and various bottles of medicine for his health conditions. 

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