Interested in a Game of Philosophy?

Callicles: It is a fine thing to partake of philosophy for the sake of education, and it is not shameful to pursue philosophy while young….there’s a certain freeborn liberality in the young man [who pursues philosophy], and if he doesn’t engage in philosophy he is unfree, someone who will never think himself worthy of any noble or beautiful thing. But when I see an older man still engaged in philosophy and not turning from it, I think the fellow deserves a whipping, Socrates. For as I said, a fellow like that, even if well-endowed by nature, is bound to become unmanly, fleeing the center of the city and its marketplace where, as the poet said, “Men grow distinguished”. He is sunk and hidden from sight, spending the rest of his life whispering with three or four kids in a corner, never uttering anything free, important or sufficient. —Plato’s Gorgias, 485a.

It’s no stretch to say that Callicles’s opinion about philosophy is shared by most human beings. Philosophy is a game suitable for one’s youth, which is a time when sports and other idle interests are indulged because they are thought to serve education.  But grown men like Socrates who engage in philosophy when they might be doing something manly and practical in the city or marketplace—politics, business, law, medicine, engineering, etc—these “men” deserve to be punished.

As indeed Socrates was, eventually.  As indeed many college students are discouraged or punished by their parents when they say they want to major in philosophy. I recall a friend’s father threatened to stop paying for her education if she insisted on majoring in philosophy: “Utterly useless garbage” was his summary judgment.

Philosophy is worse than useless, actually.  My friend’s father and Callicles were right to worry that those who fall in love with philosophy may indeed become as useless to the city (i.e., the world of practical affairs) as, well, children playing soccer in a park where, once upon a time, grown men—sunk and hidden from sight—discussed philosophical matters with each other and with the curious and bright young men of noble families.  Among the chief accusations for which Socrates was tried and condemned to death was that he corrupted the youth by encouraging them to question the wisdom of their parents and politicians and other upholders of the conventional moral order. So it’s easy to see why the social-political order might want to exile or kill the philosophers, and afterwards seek to forget them.  After all, what good have philosophers ever done for the city?

There’s another aspect of philosophy that rubs upstanding members of society the wrong way.  It’s bad enough if, like Socrates, you’re running around unemployed and barefoot, talking dirt to the upcoming generation, but imagine your resentment at seeing Socrates lounging around in the agora with your children while you labor on behalf of your family and the common good.  Imagine how the working stiff feels “ploughing distressfully up the road…when he perceives cool persons in the meadows by the wayside, lying with a handkerchief over their ears and a glass at their elbow.” Robert Louis Stevenson continues his brilliant An Apology for Idlers:

Alexander is touched in a very delicate place by the disregard to Diogenes. Where was the glory of having taken Rome for these tumultuous barbarians, who poured into the Senate-house, and found the Fathers sitting silent and unmoved by their success? It is a sore thing to have laboured along and scaled the arduous hilltops, and when all is done, find humanity indifferent to your achievement. Hence physicists condemn the unphysical; financiers have only a superficial toleration for those who know little of stocks; literary persons despise the unlettered; and people of all pursuits combine to disparage those who have none.

Though the idler and philosopher are not the same sort of animal, they do both look from the outside to be unmanly and playing at games when they should be taking life seriously, as real grownups do. Both seem to deserve a whipping for refusing to play by the majority’s rules, though in fairness it must be said the idler does less harm than the philosopher.  Still, both have their apologists, as we shall see.

Update: The idler’s apology is here, the public apology for philosophy is here.

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