The Reason to Philosophize

Stoicism and (to a lesser extent) Epicureanism, two late Greek philosophic schools often regarded as relatively minor movements during the intervening centuries, have become fashionable of late, primarily thanks to popular philosophy — the realm of touring lecturers and media stars — which is not really philosophy at all, but rather a quasi-philosophic posture assumed in the manner of a self-help strategy, specifically a method of “reducing stress,” which the pop philosopher is likely to aggrandize as “peace of mind,” or even “ataraxia” or “apatheia.” Such formulations find their serious roots in the ideals of calm impassivity or undisturbed spiritual serenity so highly valued by the most famous Hellenistic schools of thought. Specifically, these schools identified ataraxia or related notions as a goal of life, toward which philosophic activity is the means, i.e., the most practically effective way of achieving the tranquil or serene state of mind, the state in which one is able either to disengage from, or withstand the challenges of, human life with perfect equanimity.

The current popular renaissance of Hellenistic philosophy, and particularly Stoicism and Epicureanism, should not be too surprising, perhaps. Socrates, in the Republic, explains that it is the nature of democratic man to dabble freely in various ways of life, judging almost everything worth a try, according to democracy’s defining belief in equality. Hence, democratic man will put on the money-maker’s hat one day, the ascetic’s the next; he will join the crowd of political activists this year, and then develop an enthusiasm for private study next year.

But when — perhaps due to personal frustrations or societal dismay — he gets a taste for trying out philosophy, given that he is doing so on implicit premises of democratic relativism (every life can be “the good life” in its own way), he will naturally tend to be attracted to: (a) ready-made “schools of thought,” which promise a complete set of pre-packaged answers or tenets that one must simply learn, whether from a self-styled guru or a YouTube channel, and (b) philosophic practices (as opposed to ideas) that seem to promise goods external to philosophy itself, such as a calmer mind, an escape from job stress, or a reduction of those excessive agitations of passion and desire that tend to make us uncomfortable and anxious.

In other words, democratic man comes to philosophy looking for the same goods that might also be approached by other, more familiar methods, such as running or gardening, which makes philosophy — intellectual gardening — particularly attractive to him only if and when it looks profound but feels unthreatening, whereas the genuine philosophic pursuit often looks superficial from the outside, while feeling deeply threatening from the inside.

To state this yet another way, if philosophy (which in reality is very difficult and generally impenetrable without years of dedicated effort) is found appealing by the non-philosopher, it will usually be for its perceived benefits, which is to say for its supposed external rewards. Hence the specific attraction of those ancient schools proposing to teach men how to achieve ataraxia or impassivity through philosophic discipline, as though the purpose of the theoretical life were to learn how to become less anxious and divest oneself of worries. 

There is no doubt that philosophy in any meaningful sense will be accompanied by a measure of spiritual detachment and the subduing of inner and outer disturbances of the soul. There is a great difference, however, between saying that the philosopher must be calm and detached, and saying that calm detachment is the reason we philosophize. Furthermore, I have no doubt that philosophic guidance and ancient wisdom are most urgently needed in our crumbling time — though I would say they are needed not as an adventure for the democratic soul, but rather as a countermeasure against the worst tendencies of the democratic soul. What is at issue here is not whether philosophic study is beneficial, but what philosophy is for, and where the “peace of mind” promised by the Stoics and Epicureans fits into the properly philosophic life. 

The basic question I am raising, then, is this: Do we need philosophy in order to become calm and undisturbed, or do we need to become calm and undisturbed in order to philosophize? If the former, then philosophy is merely a practical method of attaining the impassible condition of any flower in the garden or cow in the field. If the latter, then philosophy requires that one approximate the emotional aloofness of that flower or cow not as a goal but as a precondition.

These two alternatives imply all the difference in the world, and indicate why Stoicism and Epicureanism, for all their respective charms, ultimately leave me cold. For the first position described above is precisely that of these fashionable Hellenistic schools, both of which highlight this view, on occasion, by directly comparing their sought-after state of repose or forbearance to the condition one sees in an irrational animal when it feels sated and unthreatened. In effect, they argue that all our higher reasoning and contemplation — philosophy itself — is necessary and good primarily in order that humans might earn or recapture the natural aloofness and equilibrium displayed by default among the so-called “lower” lifeforms (“lower” as judged on the hierarchy which both of these schools reject, for reasons directly related to what we have seen about their view of life’s aim, and of the strictly practical role of philosophy in attaining that aim).

In opposition, however, to this Hellenistic idea that we must philosophize for the sake of ataraxia or apatheia, I am of the view that we must attain ataraxia for the sake of philosophizing. In contrast to the primarily instrumental approach of the Stoics and Epicureans, for whom philosophy is merely a means to something external to philosophy as such, I would argue that philosophy is the goal, the end in itself. Philosophic thought, or rather the philosophic life, is mankind’s “that for the sake of which,” to borrow Aristotle’s formulation.

“But,” one might reasonably ask, “if ataraxia is required as a precondition of philosophy, then how does one attain ataraxia in the first place, that spiritual serenity or detachment in which contemplation is most possible?” 

The answer: By philosophizing. Aristotle says we acquire virtue the same way we learn a skill, namely by doing it, i.e., by repeatedly undertaking the activities, however incompletely, which if pursued consistently until habituated, will finally be undertaken in their fully developed and most fruitful form. Analogously, we may say that the act of philosophic investigation itself, however nascent — the activity of learning without reference to practical ends, but merely for the sake of understanding ourselves and our surroundings — may become such an engrossing activity that it will increasingly free the mind from all but the most immediately pressing practical concerns, dangers, or disturbances. And this growing detachment from practical life and social interests — this developing ataraxia, if you will — in turn conditions the mind to pursue philosophy with ever greater and more consistent abandon. 

A key issue has arisen here: Ataraxia, on this alternative (pre-Hellenistic) view, is a sort of material condition for theoria. This explains much. For the Epicureans and Stoics are materialists through and through, and thus inclined, like all materialists, to conflate conditions with causes, i.e., to identify the material states of things with the reasons for things.

In Plato’s Phaedo, facing the final hour before his execution, Socrates treats his friends to a brief account of his philosophic “second sailing,” namely his turn away from the scientific materialism of Anaxagoras and the other philosophers we now call the pre-Socratics, and toward his mature focus on matters of the human soul and the dialectical search for true definitions. Such a materialist, he muses, if asked to explain why Socrates is sitting in his prison cell now, would inevitably say that

I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture….

In this sort of account, Socrates explains, the materialist would be

forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts. [Phaedo, Jowett translation, 98c-e]

The materialist, asked to give a reason for human action or choice, can do so only in terms of the conditions that allow it to occur, for he admits of only material causes. The dialectician, by contrast, sees that no account of human things is intellectually viable which neglects the role of desire and rational wish, which is to say of explanation in terms of purpose and perceived goods

Similarly then, when asked why he philosophizes, the materialist, insofar as he has the integrity to see that a human explanation is required, can, with consistency, offer nothing but what is materially apparent: When we are thinking philosophically, we are detached from earthly concerns and fears — we are in a condition of ataraxia or apatheia. Hence, he will conclude, this condition itself must be the reason we philosophize, just as the material nature of Socrates’ bones and sinews must be the reason he is sitting in his prison cell. 

A further explanation for this emphasis on the emotional state underlying philosophic thought, as though this state itself were the reward and proper aim of philosophy, is that the materialist can offer little other justification for his own philosophic activity. That is, if in reality all is matter in motion, atoms with no true meaning or “essence,” then how can one justify the search for knowledge at all, in a way that does not contradict the materialist position. This, in effect, is the thrust of Socrates’ critique of Anaxagoras and the other physicists in the Phaedo, cited above. For if we are, as it were, analyzing the life out of life — reducing human life to nothing but its constituent material elements — then what right do we have to claim a special status for philosophic activity (the search for wisdom) as such, anymore than we have a right to claim that humanity as such has a special status relative to the other animals, all of us being, in the end, merely atoms bouncing around in space? 

The Stoics and Epicureans, more consistent in their materialism than most others, frankly, see that there can be no defense of philosophy as the highest life, to be lived for its own sake, which would not contradict their materialism. Hence, they tend to justify the theoretical life on purely pragmatic or utilitarian grounds: Philosophy can help us achieve the state of repose in which we are least disturbed by fear and anxiety — and it has no other or higher purpose. The material condition in which philosophy occurs — its underlying state of unperturbed detachment — is the purpose.

This effectively makes philosophic contemplation itself a sort of useful myth or “noble lie” (to employ the Platonic expression paradoxically) through which men may learn to subdue their anxieties, whether by separating themselves from the sources of agitation (Epicureanism) or by rendering themselves impervious to those sources, like men who learn to walk on hot coals (Stoicism).

The Hellenistic materialist, if asked to explain why Socrates is philosophizing in his prison cell in his final hours, would perhaps say, “He philosophizes because in this activity he is able to subdue his fear of death.” 

The genuine Socratic, by contrast, would explain it thus: “He philosophizes because he believes that striving to understand his own soul and its highest good is the only activity that ultimately matters, so much so that he told his jurors he would not give up this activity even if they promised to set him free on the condition that he stop pursuing it; so much so that he is happy to discuss such fatal questions with his young friends even in his final hours; so much so that he chastises those friends for hesitating to challenge his account of the soul’s immortality, as though the fact that he is about to die should make a philosopher any less willing to examine life and death honestly.”

On both accounts, Socrates does not fear death. The difference is that in the first account, that absence of fear is the reason for his philosophic activity, whereas in the second, it is merely the underlying condition in which his activity is best pursued. This is no small difference, no “semantic issue.” What is at stake is whether philosophy is a useful practical strategy, or the way of life which in itself fulfills human nature; a means of subduing emotional disturbances, or the only hope of self-knowledge; a way of escaping life’s pain, or a way of sublimating it.

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