Convocation, Spring 2011
Welcome. Welcome especially to our new, select group of Graduate Institute students. Welcome also to returning students and colleagues.
Last summer, for one of our Wednesday evening “Life of the Mind” events (these rather informal events take the place of the more formal Friday evening lectures that occur during the regular academic year), I put together a panel of tutors to discuss the question, “What is Philosophy?” For that occasion, I asked each tutor to select a program author and give a 10-minute interpretation of what that author thought constituted the activity of philosophy. The presentations were so thought-provoking that, in the intense question period that followed, we never got around to what we ourselves think philosophy is. But here at St. John’s—where we aim at living the examined life, where questions regarding truth are welcomed in classes on Euclidean geometry, Chaucer’s tales, or the Bible, where the questions persist whether in the classroom or the Coffee Shop, at an After Seminar Gathering or at home—it seems only right to press ourselves to tackle that question. Today, in honor of your joining our community, I am going to put myself on the spot and venture to define philosophy.
Let me beat a hasty retreat. I will try today to say what I think philosophy is, as practiced here and as I have gleaned from my 32 years of experience at St. John’s. This version should not be considered what “we” think philosophy is—for, as you will soon discover, each tutor and each student is continually articulating, questioning, re-evaluating, and re-articulating what it is that we practice here, what constitutes the program, and virtually every other element of the best life as well. None of us would say the exact same things and we surely have some radical disagreements.
Furthermore, I have real trepidations about making the attempt to say even what I think philosophy is. Last year, when one of my colleagues was relating an anecdote to me, she recounted in passing that she had identified herself as a philosopher—and I found myself doing a double-take. I realized that I would never identify myself as a philosopher to anyone. Of course, I have no degree in philosophy, as she does. But I also would never identify myself as a mathematician even though I do have degrees in that field. As a tutor, I am clearly not an expert—not even in “my” field. Though I have some skills, I suppose, and I definitely possess arcane information that not everyone has, I do not spend my time considering abstract entities invented just yesterday nor struggling to prove claims about those entities. I simply don’t feel that I am pursuing the authentic activity.
On the other hand, am I not authentically doing philosophy here at the College? What am I doing if not philosophy as I examine the profoundest ideas both in great books and in our own lives? Having reflected to this point on my colleague’s open assumption of the mantle of philosophy, I realize I quite admire it and begin to wonder. Shouldn’t I too claim to be a philosopher?
As you may know, the etymology of the word “philosophy” is Greek: philos—meaning lover, and sophia—meaning wisdom. Can I not claim to be a lover of wisdom? Who wouldn’t claim to be a lover of wisdom? Well, during a seminar oral examination last term, one of my students described people she knew who claimed knowledge was unimportant, indeed that made decisions on the basis of that claim. But such people reveal their desire to “know better” than others around them, don’t they? Aren’t they claiming they have superior wisdom about the best way to live—even as they scorn the reading of books and the raising of questions? As Aristotle claims in the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.” (980a) But neither Aristotle nor I would claim those people my student described are living the philosophic life; indeed, they themselves are trying very hard to reject the philosophic life. What do I think characterizes a person who loves wisdom? What is the essence of the philosophic activity?
One common claim of the participants in the summer panel on philosophy was that each author considered philosophy to be a “way of life.” I immediately agreed. But I have learned to be suspicious of easy agreement. So I have since been prodding myself to examine what I mean when I say that “philosophy is a way of life.”
As is often the case, it’s easier to say what I don’t mean. Sometimes when we refer to “philosophy” we simply mean that someone studied philosophy at some university and got a degree. Certainly, this is not what I mean. To allow someone else to determine a set of books and ideas which are labeled “philosophy” and become conversant and knowledgeable about what they contain is too empty for me to want to make a life of it. Even the deeper version—where the expert is genuinely weighing various arguments against each other—seems more a valuable skill than a true identity.
Sometimes we speak of someone’s “philosophy of life,” by which we mean a set of beliefs, a creed—or at least a system, by which the person lives. This also is not what I intend by “philosophy.” Though most days I long achingly for such a creed (one that would guarantee the best decisions), I don’t see how unquestioning adherence to a code (no matter how hard-won nor how profound) could really constitute the activity of philosophy itself. Moreover, reading Don Quixote for my preceptorial last term has reminded me that every interaction with the world challenges such a code, requires—at a minimum—re-examination but usually re-interpretation and sometimes abandonment. What we see as giants often reveal themselves to be mere windmills. And meanwhile the too, too solid windmills of life resist one’s lance and sometimes break it.
In the republic of letters, “philosophy” sometimes refers to the study of the truths and principles underlying all knowledge and being. This concept of philosophy seems a worthier candidate than the other two, but it does not, at least on the surface, appear to be a way of life. This formulation obscures the vexed character of the philosopher’s relation to truths and principles.
At this College, we are keenly conscious of the difficulty of knowing the truth. Let me, in my perplexity, turn toward one of our profound original sources for help. In the inception of our Great Books program, the Socratic life as depicted by Plato provided much inspiration and guidance for our activities in this community. Many of my own ideas about the philosophic life stem from the picture I have constructed through reading the Republic, the Apology, the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, and, of course, the Meno.
As you yourself saw in Socrates’ interactions with Meno, Socrates resists the glib answer—whether it be a secondhand speech of the professional rhetorician Gorgias or an overhasty dismissal of mundane matters. He lingers over even the most basic questions: What is a bee? What is a figure? How do I form a double square? During my years at St. John’s I’ve learned to allow these questions to bring me up short, to pause and reflect on each word, to check the momentum impelling me to leap over the simple-sounding. In the process of so doing, the familiar becomes unfamiliar. We see with fresh eyes both the diagonal of a square and ourselves. Suddenly we do not quite recognize the square root of 8; we begin to wonder whether we should really call square root of 8 a number; whether we know what virtue is; whether we, like Meno, are asking questions only to find out what other people say and not because we really want to know, really love wisdom.
But how do I tell whether I “really” love wisdom? Once a doubt creeps in regarding my unexamined, unconscious motives, it’s difficult to judge whether I’m directing myself toward wisdom or wandering, lost among shadowy opinions. My own touchstone necessarily derives from experiences akin to those of the slaveboy, moments that not only feel like the lifting of a veil between my eyes and some object of thought but that also are accompanied by a sense that a previously dormant part of myself has suddenly quickened with life and activity. Life lived in the absence of this invigoration feels, if not dead, at least empty. Or perhaps more accurately, that other life lacks a vital dimension. As Virginia Woolf (The Common Reader, “On Not Knowing Greek” p. 32) has put it:
... all can feel the indomitable honesty, the courage, the love of truth which draw
Socrates and us in his wake to the summit where, if we too may stand for a
moment, it is to enjoy the greatest felicity of which we are capable.
I don’t think I, or Woolf, can persuade someone that this dimension exists. But I do think experience has engendered in me a passion to think, to endure the struggle toward clarity. But how do these momentary glimpses of felicity constitute a way of life? I’m not satisfied that I’ve focused on the key element yet.
Love of wisdom, as manifest in Socrates and cultivated at St. John’s, requires absolute honesty. Socrates is unafraid to admit ignorance publicly. And he frequently adjures his interlocutor to speak “just what he thinks” rather than what someone else has said; he demands of Meno, “What is your own account of virtue?” (71d) One reason we eschew secondary sources here at the College is that the din of other voices tends to drown out one’s own thought. It sounds an easy matter to “say what you think,” but it’s actually much easier to know what someone else has said or to guess what others want to hear. And secondary sources are not the only danger to developing one’s own honest thought.
Even if others can ask just the right question to shake us out of complacent judgments, provide us with a well-chosen instance of a general claim that illuminates an otherwise dark and puzzling construction of the world, surprise us out of a deeply satisfying interpretation with a carefully crafted formulation, or refute one of our claims with a reasoned analysis, no one can have the “Aha!” moment for us. So a philosopher doesn’t let Plato or Aristotle or a tutor or another student simply tell him/her what to think. But what does the philosopher do? How does the philosopher free the voice inside struggling to be heard?
To look within and evaluate the structure, quality, and range of one’s experience, the integrity of the conclusions drawn from that experience, and the consistency of the complex web of those conclusions—that demands rigor, humility, suffering, submission, courage, tirelessness. If one dwells with this kind of love of wisdom, nothing is so cherished or so private that it is not to be held up to scrutiny. The supreme challenge of this kind of honesty is a lifetime project. Perhaps this is what I mean by making philosophy a way of life?
But many, perhaps most, people think they are being honest with themselves and others. Is there some special way for a philosopher to scrutinize his opinions, debunk his own illusions, penetrate his own defenses? All too often in the past, I have wrongly thought I understood. Just as the slaveboy was fooled by the resonant sound and delightful simplicity of a “double area” arising from a “double length,” I have been seduced by mere words. Just as Meno was only able to accept a definition in the “high, poetic style” (76e) of Gorgias and could not “hear” the better, perhaps truer, definition, I too have exhibited a weakness for the lofty adjective, the idealistic phrase, the neat dichotomy. Is there some characteristic other than the only partially reliable ability to analyze one’s own claims that sets the philosophic life apart?
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, as Socrates spends his last day on earth in prison waiting for the fatal cup of hemlock, he depicts a mode of existence for the philosopher that is thoroughgoing and quite stark. This topic of conversation is launched by Socrates’ claim to his friends that he is willing and indeed even eager to die (62c). In response to his friends’ incredulous reactions, he makes the yet more astounding claim that “philosophy, practiced in the right way,” is “one thing only, namely training ....for dying and to be dead.” (64a) He explains that pleasures of food, drink, sight, and all pleasures of the body distract a person from pursuing the full truth of the being of things in general (64c-66c). So “real philosophers train for dying, and to be dead is for them less terrible than for all other men.” (67e) For they have purified their soul—“in separating so far as may be the soul from the body, and habituating it to assemble and gather itself together from every region of the body, so as to dwell alone and apart, so far as possible, both in this present life and in the life to come, released from the body’s fetters.” (67c)
Now, here indeed is a version of philosophy that is a way of life—but a highly problematic one. Not only does it not echo very much our own way of life here at the College (we do rather enjoy the wine and food as well as the conversation at our after-seminar gatherings), but it presents itself as a way of death at least as much as a way of life. As one of Socrates’ interlocutors puts it, “[the many] would say [such a person] has one foot in the grave.” (65a)
To think that the body is simply a hindrance to truth is probably not in my capacity, not least because it seems also to undermine the power of music and poetry. Worse yet, this version of philosophy, where private cares must be set aside, normal obligations disdained, and connections to family and friends attenuated, seems almost inhuman. In the Phaedo, this indifference to earthly concerns is admitted to be inhuman, in the sense that it is described as divine. And I am inspired by talk of the soul longing for its own eternal ground of the truth; I’m even more moved by the picture Plato paints of the dying Socrates. He never once weeps; he never even trembles; he continues calmly discoursing about various subjects—not only philosophy, but also the various possibilities of life after death, or no life after death; he is a rock for his grieving friends. I truly hope that I can confront my hour of death as nobly and with as much equanimity as this Socrates.
Nonetheless, I cannot live this life. I’m probably too weak an individual to be an ascetic, even if I believed this was in fact the philosophic life. But the truth is: I can’t believe such asceticism is the way to wisdom. Even Socrates’ admissions that the goal of philosophy is, strictly speaking, unachievable in this life and that the philosopher is only cultivating a certain attitude towards the body, even these admissions do not salvage this version of philosophy for me. I suspect truth of being various, of descending on us in a multitude of shapes, of being grasped through the imagination as well as the intellect, of residing in friendships and society as well as in the individual.
But perhaps Socrates intends something more subtle than his conversation in the Phaedo superficially indicates. Though Socrates does, at the beginning of the dialogue, send his family away in order to converse with his friends, we are first allowed to see the 70-year old Socrates not only with his wife but also with his toddler son. Then we see him reflecting on the inextricably linked natures of pleasure and pain as his shackles are removed and we hear him connecting his own immediate bodily experience to his conclusions about the nature of pleasure and pain. Then we learn that he has been composing songs in case dialectical conversation did not properly fulfill his vocation. Music, poetry, friends, family, pleasure, pain, conversation—these still engage the nobly dying Socrates.
Perhaps being philosophic is more about holding a certain posture towards all of life—an attentiveness toward the world, toward oneself, and toward others; a readiness to act on the basis of thought and not merely on the basis of custom or pleasure; a critical observation—to be sure of opinions and ideas but also of life, awake to the timeless within the temporal. I still don’t think I will be able any time soon to say, “I am a philosopher.” But I will say that I am working toward being a philosopher. And I hope you’ll work with me as well.