The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 29, 2017

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Last Things: The Life of the Philosopher
James V. Schall, S.J. - 07/08/09
De Rerum Natura
“Pay no attention to the practitioners of philosophy, whether good or bad. Rather give serious consideration to the thing itself: if it seems to you negligible, then turn everyone from it, not just your sons. But if it seems to you to be what I think it is, then take heart, pursue it, practice it. . . .”
—Plato, Euthydemus, 307b.
“Thus I concluded the reading of my Confessions, and everyone was silent. Madame d’Egmont was the only person who appeared to be affected; she trembled visibly, but she quickly recovered herself and remained silent, like the rest of the company. Such were the results of this reading and my declaration.”
The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Conclusion.
“The figure of Christ is interpreted on the ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying.”
—Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, #6.


What is the life of the philosopher like? In the view of ordinary folks, it is a distinctly odd sort of life. Its very oddness is itself a philosophical problem. Why would anyone want to lead such a strange life? The First Law of Philosophy is that for every philosophy there is an equal and opposite philosophy. The Second Law of Philosophy is that they are both wrong. The Third Law of Philosophy is that, on second thought, they are both right. Some think that the best philosophy is simply common sense. Others do not think that common sense will get you very far. Besides, others say, such sense is not very common.

At his trial, Socrates was charged by the old accusers of confusing the ordinary people with his tricky questioning. He seemed to make the weak argument strong and the strong argument weak. People do not like to be corrected. In the Cave analogy in the seventh book of the Republic, when the man who had left the Cave to see the true origin of light and knowledge returned to the Cave to tell his friends the good news of the truth about the shadows, they threatened to kill him. The governor in charge of Christ’s execution said pretty much the same thing, “What is truth?” as if it made little difference. As an honest man he could say: “I find no guilt in the man.” But as a politician, he did nothing to stop His death. These are both paradigmatic moments in the relation of death, city, and truth.

The end of philosophy, none the less, is to know the truth. Otherwise, it is not worth pursuing. Indeed, otherwise, there is nothing to pursue. Philosophy is called a preparation for death, in fact. Many actual philosophers, however, doubt that such a thing as truth exists. Others do not think it is worth dying for. Still, the “truth” that there is no truth destroys philosophy. The supposed “truth that there is no truth” is the classic statement of intrinsic contradiction. Its “truth” would make all things incoherent, including itself. Its none-too-logical moral consequence is to allow us to do what we want, whatever it is. Not a few embrace such “philosophy” for this very reason, to allow them to do what they want with a clear conscience.

This same contradiction that “There is no truth” is the place from which all philosophy begins. Its incoherence as a proposition that affirms what it denies establishes the integrity of the mind. It makes the mind aware that it is mind. It affirms that truth exists in the very act of denying it. Were this not understood implicitly, the affirmation that there is no truth would never be made. The mind knows that truth exists in the very affirmation that there is no truth. We delight in this paradox when we first see its import. It is in fact our first contemplative act. It is a source of happiness to us, this power to know in its act of affirming and denying.

In the City of God, Augustine has a famous sentence that reads: “Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit”—There is for man no reason for philosophizing other than that he be happy (Bk. 19, c. 1). Few sentences are more powerful, more consoling, and more accurate. A connection exists between philosophy, happiness, and truth, the sorting out of which is the purpose of the philosophic life. Why bother with thinking if it arrives at precisely nowhere? We will not be wholly happy unless we know what, if anything, we can be happy about. We can be glad that we exist, but only if our existence has a purpose, an end. Purposeless things are “in vain.” If our lives are an unending series of “in vain” things, we soon go mad. But on that premise, madness and saneness cannot be distinguished.

We live in an era, however, that tells us that those who seek the truth cannot be happy, even less so if they claim to find it. Why so? Happy people who “know” the truth, it is said, are intolerant. They insist on “imposing” their truth on others. Truth separates us from our fellow wayfarers and doubters in this world, who do not know, or who also know other “truths” that cannot be true. We all have different “truths,” so we all must be wrong. If truth existed, it would be presumably easy to find and everyone could find it, not just the philosopher who doubts it. Peace then depends, so it is said, on the notion that no truth exists. Truth is the enemy of life and peace. That truth is relative must become the public law. We are founded in doubt. True philosophy is doubt. Dubito, ergo sum. This famous Cartesian principle should read, Dubito, ergo dubito utrum sum. And even if we discover some “I” in the doubt, it does not get us out of our own minds. We have to create a world in our minds and hope it exists in reality after the manner of how it exists in our minds. Being does not check mind.


In Plato’s Theaetetus, where the issue of the uselessness of the philosopher is classically thrashed out, we find the following amusing description of the common man’s view of the philosopher: “The philosopher grows up without knowing the way to the market place, or the whereabouts of the law courts or the council chambers or any other place of public assembly. Laws and decrees, published orally or in writing, are things he never sees or hears.”[1] The man concerned with philosophical things is rather personally helpless. He cannot tie his shoes, if he has shoes, which Socrates, the philosopher, evidently did not. About ordinary things that everyone knows, the philosopher is, as they say, mostly “clueless.”

In beginning of his Apology, Socrates spoke of how strange the language of the law courts was to him when he had to appear before them. Actually, most people who appear in law courts anywhere in the world, even today, have to be instructed about what is being said and what is going on there. We are to be judged by our “peers” who find law courts confusing places. Socrates was pretty normal here. Legal oratory and dialectic can often be a form of sophistry. No wonder the early Christians were advised to settle their own controversies outside the public courts. But the description gets worse.

The Theaetetus continues: “The scrambling of political cliques for office, social functions, dinners, parties with flute-girls—such doings never enter his (the philosopher’s) head even in a dream.” But, of course, such goings-on are in fact everywhere around the philosopher, especially if he is in a city, as he usually is. They constitute the social gossip of any political capital. The philosopher, however, seems little interested in such mundane things that fascinate everyone else. Thus, the philosopher appears to the ordinary man as either a fool or a creature from another planet. He is someone either to avoid or laugh at, usually both.

The philosopher does not appear in or show interest in any “style” or “fashion” page of the local newspaper, unless perhaps he is particularly outrageous. “So with questions of birth—he (the philosopher) has no more idea whether a fellow citizen is high-born or humble, or whether he has inherited some taint from his forebears, male or female, than he has of the number of pints in the sea as they say. And in all these matters, he knows not even that he knows not; for he does not hold himself aloof from them in order to get a reputation, but because it is in reality only his body that lives and sleeps in the city.” The philosopher is not concerned with social status. How many “pints are in the ocean” has nothing to do with human virtue. To his fellow citizens, he seems more like a sleepwalker or a zombie than a human being. The word “arrogant” is often used of him.

It is enough for him if the philosopher has a place to sleep and something to eat. But even these things do not much concern him.

His mind, having come to the conclusion that all these things are of little or no account, spurns them and pursues its winged way, as Pindar says, throughout the universe, in the deeps below the earth and in the heights above the heavens; geometrizing upon earth, measuring its surfaces, astronomizing in the heavens; tracking down by every path the entire nature of each whole among the things that are, and never condescending to what lies near at hand. (173c-74a)

Thus, the philosopher is pictured as a thoroughly impractical, laughable man. The things he is about, measuring the earth and the heavens because “they are,” do not interest his more practical minded fellow citizens. They do not want to know what things are, but mostly what to do with them.

To give an even more concrete example of the uselessness of the philosopher, there follows in the Theaetetus the famous tale of the Thracian maidens. This story is graphically designed to illustrate the popular view of the worth of the philosopher in the eyes of normal young ladies.

They say Thales (the philosopher) was studying the stars, Theodorus, and gazing aloft, when he fell into a well; and a witty and amusing Thracian servant-girl made fun of him because, she said, he was wild to know about what was up in the sky but failed to see what was in front of him and under his feet. This same joke applies to all who spend their lives in philosophy. It really is true that the philosopher fails to see his next door neighbor; he not only doesn’t notice what he is doing; he scarcely knows whether he is a man or some other kind of creature. The question he asks is, “What is Man?” What actions and passions properly belong to human nature and distinguish it from all other beings. This is what he wants to know and concerns himself to investigate. (174a-b)

The philosopher apparently thinks these questions about man and his place in the universe are more important than concern for his ordinary affairs. If he were to devote himself to ordinary things, he could not investigate the higher things, which investigation is the prime justification for the philosophic life.

Socrates obviously praises this unconcern with practical things. It obviously relates to his own way of life. He is not concerned with wealth or prestige. He goes about asking the Athenians to “examine” their lives to see if such lives are worth living. The maidens, however, laugh at such impracticality. The Christian consideration of philosophy has to do with keeping the philosophic emphasis on the truth of things, while not ignoring the needs of neighbor. Indeed, it suspects that the ability to assist the neighbor has much to do with understanding things as they are in the first place. To say what a thing really is can today be a very dangerous judgment. Do the two, philosophy and practicality, belong together in a coherent whole?

Aristotle had suggested that if a man did not have his practical life in order, did not have the virtues, he probably would not have his theoretical life in order. But the real human adventure was to have the theoretical order right, the order of what is, even though the human life also belonged to the real world. A long list of things the philosopher does not know follows, such as the genealogy of famous men (175e ff.). “On all these occasions, you see, the philosopher is the object of general derision, partly for what men take to be his superior manner, and partly for his constant ignorance and lack of resource in dealing with the obvious” (175b). Needless to say, one of the needs of the philosopher is to be able to state the case against his own way of life well, as happens here in Plato. The philosopher seems to others to “show off.” His manner is “superior.” But there are simply a lot of ordinary things that any man is expected to know that the philosopher seems not to care about. To the ordinary man, this unknowing comes across as a sort of contempt for daily life, though for the philosopher it is a kind of freedom from distractions.


The philosopher goes from a particular question at controversy to the broader one, namely, from “Is this act just?” to “What is justice?” (175d). Socrates contrasts the two: “There is one who has been brought up in true freedom and leisure, the man you call a philosopher; a man to whom it is no disgrace to appear simple and good for nothing when he is confronted with menial tasks, when, for instance, he doesn’t know how to make a bed, or how to sweeten a sauce or make a flattering speech.” Notice that such a man who does not know how to make a bed or a sauce or a flattering speech is none the less “brought up in true freedom and leisure.” It is those who are not so brought up, evidently, who make the beds, the sauces, and the speeches. They do not have time or interest to be philosophers.

But further, “you have the other, the man who is keen and smart at doing all these jobs, but does not know how to strike up a song in his turn like a free man, or how to tune the strings of common speech to the fitting praise of the life of gods and of the happy among man” (175e-76a). Notice the list of what the philosopher can and cannot do. He can “strike up a song like a free man.” He knows the words with which he can properly praise the gods and good men. Evidently, the task of praise is one of the responses the philosopher gives to reality. This praise is something that needs to be done and he can do it. Yet, the praise cannot arise out of necessity but only from a kind of abundance of light or vision that the philosopher sees in things.

The question next arises about whether evils can be eliminated by philosophy. This question is a perennial one, one which the philosopher must address. The prevalence of evil, as both Augustine and Aquinas knew, is one of the primary reasons given for irrationality in the world. Notice this answer in Plato:

But it is not possible, Theodorus, that evil should be destroyed—for there must always be something opposed to the good; nor is it possible that it (evil) should have its seat in heaven. But it must inevitably haunt human life, and prowl about this earth. That is why a man must make haste to escape from earth to heaven and (here) “escape” means becoming as much like God as possible; and a man becomes like God when he becomes just and pure, with understanding. (176a-b)

It is not easy, of course, to persuade men to become just and pure with understanding (176b). But unless they can be so “persuaded,” they cannot be “made” just and pure otherwise. If they were “made” to be just and pure, they would be automatons, not human beings. The reasoning of a Plato foreshadows the revelation that did come.

This theory of evil, as presented here, is interesting. Evil is not destroyed or eliminated by some device or program. It seems to be necessary in order to give us something to avoid, almost as if we have to have this alternative to make virtue clearer. There must be some risk to human living itself. Here, I think, we have an implicit discussion of free will. The “something” that is always opposed to the good is somehow within us, something within our power to accept or reject. It does not have its seat “in heaven.” God is good.

Those who do evil “do not know what the penalty of injustice is, which is the last thing about which a man should be ignorant.” We should know the consequences of our acts. Yet, surprisingly, this punishment “is not what they suppose—scourging and death—things which they may entirely evade in spite of their wrongdoing.” The whole structure of the Platonic corpus is that in this life it is possible to escape punishment. This possibility finally established why there had to be the immortality of the soul. It was proposed in order to resolve the question of whether the world was itself created in injustice, which would be the case if real crimes were not finally punished. Once the immortality of the soul is understood, if we escape punishment in this life, which is possible and indeed probable, it does not follow that we are not judged. “It is a penalty from which there is no escape” (176e). The doctrine of hell is thus already in Plato as a logical consequence of his realization that injustice is not always punished in our courts and in our culture.

The unjust man lives a life that corresponds to the unjust pattern in his soul (177a). His city corresponds to his internal disorder. Cities reflect the order or disorder of the souls of their citizens. One who chooses injustice or against virtue will go on living one bad life after another. Plato’s image of souls choosing again and again another way of life in order to be perfect has within it the truth that is found more clearly in Christianity, though already in Plato, namely, that we must choose rightly the first and only time we live. Plato understood that our choice would not be better a second or fifth time around. Plato returns to the argument about whether things are as they seem (177c).

Plato states the political consequences of a state that rejects immortality: justice becomes “Whatever the community decides to be just and right for that community for as long as it remains so established” (177d). In effect, no things can be called good if this view is true. Thus no enthusiasm for the good arises from the relativism that finds the good to be whatever it chooses on that basis alone. A community makes laws for its good. Good becomes utility (178a). This view is very modern, though already in Plato, as most things are.

“Now, Protagoras, ‘Man is the measure of all things’ as you people say—of white and heavy and light and that kind of thing without exception. He has the criterion of these things within himself; so when he thinks that they are as he experiences them, he thinks what is true and what really is for him” (178b). Such is the logic of the position. When the philosopher arrives at this point where he is the measure of all things, not God, as Plato held, then there can be no philosophy whose task it is to explain what is. There can only be a struggle of sundry opinions. The arguments of Thrasymachus, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche to the effect that all that is left is power have their point in this system.

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