The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates
Those who read Stevenson’s An Apology for Idlers will know that it was emphatically not an apology in that ordinary sense where we express contrition for some misdeed. It was, rather, a vigorous defense of idlers. Likewise, I am defending philosophers, not apologizing for them. (The Greek word apologia means ‘a speech in one’s own defense.’)
But defending philosophers against what? Well, there’s the “utterly useless garbage” accusation made by the father of a college friend; there’s Callicles’ accusation that philosophers are irresponsible and childish to the extent that they don’t man up and participate in the affairs of the city; and there are of course Athens’ several accusations against Socrates—among them, that he corrupted the youth, didn’t believe in the gods of Athens but worshipped other divinities instead, and was a sophist who made the weaker argument seem the stronger. Keep in mind that the historical case of Athens v. Socrates is deeply symbolic of the general case of the City v. Philosophy. In other words, much of what worried the Athenians about Socrates is what typically should worry political communities about philosophers.
I’m not going to dwell here on the details of what philosophy’s defense actually entails. Those waters get deep fast. Instead I will sketch some outlines of her defense. Those interested in learning more may want to begin by reading Plato’s two dialogues that directly address the issue of Socrates’ own apology, The Apology of Socrates and The Crito. (Readers be warned: in Plato, often things are not what they seem; this means that grasping the philosophical import of a dialogue requires considerably more work than simply reading it.) Here I’ll briefly sketch the public case for philosophy, and in the next post I’ll sketch the private case. The public defense justifies the philosopher’s way of life to the city; the private defense justifies this way of life to oneself.
Publically, philosophy claims to be of service to the city, albeit indirectly. (Again, “city” here is shorthand for any socio-political order; I use “city” because I’m thinking of the Greek political order called a polis.) So, what’s an example of philosophy’s service? In Plato’s dialogue, The Apology, Socrates claims that he serves his fellow citizens by exhorting them to take self-examination seriously, and by encouraging them not to care for the affairs of the city before they’ve learned to care for their own affairs. Nor should they even care for their own affairs before they’ve learned to care for themselves. This sounds reasonable, for we’re familiar with the common-sense notion that you will be of more use to others if you have learned how to take good care of yourself. Even Callicles—the man who darkly hinted that Socrates ought to be whipped for playing philosophical games instead of serving the city—even he admitted that if a promising young man “doesn’t engage in philosophy, he is unfree, someone who will never think himself worthy of any noble or beautiful thing.”
Philosophy, then, serves the city by encouraging its citizens to examine their lives and consider what noble or beautiful things they want for themselves. This might seem a defense of the private virtues of philosophy—that it serves education and personal growth—but the argument is that the more noble and beautiful the citizens are as individuals, the better off the city will be as a whole. The better the parts, the better the resulting whole.
As those who converse with Socrates soon learn, he doesn’t think you have any business claiming you know what’s best for Athens if you haven’t first given thought to a few little preliminary questions, such as, What makes for a good human life? After all, you need to know what it means to flourish as a human being if you’re going to live a good life, or be involved legislating the good life for others. So, what is virtue for a human being? Oh, and by the way, what is the Good?
These are huge questions, obviously, and it’s enormously frustrating to many of Socrates’ interlocutors that they somehow get mired in these deep philosophical waters when all they really want is to know how to become worldly successes. Yet Socrates has a point when he claims that the question about what constitutes a noble human life is prior to questions about how to benefit (and benefit from) the affairs of the city.
So how does being apparently useless and idle fit in this story? If Socrates is to be believed, the disengaged, idle aspect of the philosopher that Callicles thought deserved a whipping now appears in an entirely different light: The philosopher is free. (Recall that Socrates is unemployed, doesn’t serve in political offices, and is formally accused of not worshipping the gods of the city—which is a way of saying he doesn’t believe the things most people believe.) This freedom is why he’s capable of inquiring about what is the best way of life for a human being, not just what’s best for a citizen of Athens. No one who’s preoccupied with worldly affairs has the time or energy for such inquiries.
Moreover, the disengagement signified by idleness is crucial because it’s hard to see things clearly when you’re fully engaged with them. Patriotism is often so ugly because people thoughtlessly identify The Good with their city’s good. Consequently, they are reluctant to look too closely at the city’s flaws, much less criticize her. “America: Love it or leave it!” is a perfect example of this thoughtlessness. The deeper psychological truth is that most of us can’t bear criticism of ourselves or the things we love, so we act consciously and unconsciously to defend ourselves from it. For this reason, someone who’s not so engaged in the affairs of the city; someone who has acquired a more comprehensive perspective; someone who loves their city not blindly but with open eyes; such a one will be in a far better position to be of genuine service.
That’s one idea, anyway, behind why it’s good for the city to have idlers and other outliers—folks who are in many ways, as Socrates famously said of himself, like gadflies. Ask any horse and he will tell you that gadflies are worse than useless; so how does Socrates make this simile fly? The city or body politic is the horse—a large, powerful but rather sleepy and dim animal who, contrary to its own opinion, actually benefits from being bugged and bit into wakefulness and looking after its best interests. (Pestering us with questions such as, Do we really want to elect tyrannical types to lead us? Is enslaving a people really in our best interests? Does it make sense to give the best hours of my life to work I don’t enjoy or respect? etc.) I conclude with what Socrates says on behalf of himself as a gadfly, sent by the god of course:
My sort has simply been set upon the city, as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly. Just so, in fact, the god seems to me to have set me upon the city as someone of this sort: I awaken and persuade and reproach each one of you, and I do not stop settling down everywhere upon you the whole day….you may be vexed, like the drowsy when they are awakened, and if you obey Anytus and slap me, you would easily kill me. Then you would spend the rest of your lives asleep. (Apology, 31a)
Update: You can read the next post on this theme here.