The Bite: An Apology for Philosophy, Part I

socrates

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.

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7 Responses to The Bite: An Apology for Philosophy, Part I

  1. Pingback: Since I Know You’re not Interested in Philosophy’s Apology… | Idle Speculations

  2. Nate says:

    “Socrates claims that he serves his fellow citizens 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.”

    I’d like to note that this is a devastatingly complete take-down of the United States’ Peace Corps.

    Let me try to steer a bit closer to your purpose.

    “337. The reason of effects. — Degrees. The people honour persons of high birth. The semi-learned despise them, saying that birth is not a personal, but a chance superiority. The learned honour them, not for popular reasons, but for secret reasons. Devout persons, who have more zeal than knowledge, despise them, in spite of that consideration which makes them honoured by the learned, because they judge them by a new light which piety gives them. But perfect Christians honour them by another and higher light. So arise a succession of opinions for and against, according to the light one has.”

    –Pascal, Penseés

    Do you ever have this concern about the practice of philosophy? It’s easy to defend the idea of gadflies when we imagine them regularly stinging a country about the question of slavery, but I wonder if it’s easy to defend the general momentum of philosophical activity as being consistently toward a real good. Perhaps the conclusions and wisdom of philosophers goes by turns being right and wrong and right and wrong again. Would one have to defend the idea that there are some pieces of actual consensus among the philosophers?

  3. Thanks for the very interesting comment!

    I grant there’s a tacit criticism of the Peace Corps in this line of reasoning, but I wouldn’t call it a complete take-down, much less a devastatingly complete one! After all, volunteers generally serve in technical positions; one friend taught English in a village school, another helped develop water supply and filtration systems. Thus the importance of character and prudence is indirect at best, which is why they accept volunteers as young (and foolish) as 18. The Penseé you cite may also serve here, for perhaps we’d agree that to the degree volunteers have learned to care for their own souls, they will be more able to serve others, even if that service aims at the more technical goods of the body rather than the philosophically inflected goods of the soul.

    As for your second point, I wholeheartedly second your suspicion of any claim that the general momentum of philosophical activity is consistently toward a good. Of course, to go deeper into this matter we’d need to clarify our premises and terms. For starters, I don’t regard most of what goes on in philosophy departments as “philosophical activity”, so I wouldn’t say professional philosophers or academics generally are consistently moving toward the good. But if we’re talking about the real McCoy, genuine philosophical activity—however we might define this after a long friendly conversation—then it’s easier to imagine it is consistently directed toward the good. That’s not to say there won’t be a lot of meandering and fruitless effort along the way, rather like the “being right and wrong and right and wrong again” that you describe, a dialectic that’s visible in many of the Platonic dialogues. It’s also not to say that the good in view will necessarily be a public good. And this may be the sticking point for you, for it’s not obvious, to me anyway, that philosophical activity must be publically justifiable: its good doesn’t have to be “real” in the sense that’s assured through consensus. That said, I do appreciate the deeper more treacherous waters towards which your questions point. I think Socrates was also sensitive to them, which may be a reason that in the Apology he alternates between grandiose and Lilliputian images of himself, between presenting himself as heroic Achilles and a pesty gadfly.

  4. nate451 says:

    “I grant there’s a tacit criticism of the Peace Corps in this line of reasoning, but I wouldn’t call it a complete take-down, much less a devastatingly complete one!”

    I was being hyperbolic in my snark, but I would defend the substance of the claim.

    I served in a technical capacity in the Peace Corps, too: I promoted agroforestry techniques to help farm more sustainably in Cameroon. This was a technical capacity for which I was ridiculously unqualified, as are the vast majority of Peace Corps volunteers. Not only are the majority of volunteers not trained technicians, but the term of service for volunteering (two years plus three months of training) is inadequate for transferring that knowledge to people living in the villages one is supposed to be serving. To address this, the Peace Corps has created the pleasant fantasy of post stages: where successive volunteers bring their posts to greater levels of maturity with respect to the technical knowledge they’re promoting. I found the idea of post stages hilarious, in practice.

    More generally, though, there’s a mismatch between what kind of a person one is immediately after graduation from an American college or university and what kind of a person one works with in a host country.

    The American graduate has a host of abstract skills: the ability to navigate a river of incoming information for relevant skills to accomplish particular tasks in an organization is probably chief among them. The graduate has extensive social skills and a deep knowledge of the context of their culture. They can reference important books, films, sports teams, and concepts in a way that makes them fit well into an office or campus or whatever hub of elaborate organization they’ll find their way into.

    On the other hand, the graduate is unlikely to be able to do more than the most rudimentary cooking, knows almost nothing about electricity, and probably doesn’t know much more about growing plants than he remembers from the story of Indians teaching the Pilgrims to bury fish with their maize. That’s not such a big problem in America: if they need to host a dinner, install a dimmer switch, or start an herb garden, they can hop on the internet or head on over to a big box store and ask pertinent questions.

    In terms of practical, basic skills, the American graduate is like an infant: disconnected from the incredibly elaborate infrastructure in which they live, the world is mind-bogglingly challenging.

    The Cameroonian (in my case) of the same age has actively participated in about twenty harvests, can repair the wiring in their own house, and is incredibly self-reliant. (I had to shy away from a cooking example… Cameroonian men don’t know how to cook much, either. There goes my parallel structure.)

    American graduates do not know how to care for their own affairs. Why? Because, in general, it’s far better to have learned to be flexible and to have a nose for connecting resources in a context like ours. It suits them well for our economy. And it makes them terrible candidates for helping developing nations.

    This has grown over-long and is not something you have any obligation to be interested in. If you are curious, there’s a good piece by Robert Strauss, who was the Country Director of Cameroon while I was a PCV, in the NYT on this subject.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/09/opinion/09strauss.html?_r=0

  5. nate451 says:

    “…If we’re talking about the real McCoy, genuine philosophical activity—however we might define this after a long friendly conversation—then it’s easier to imagine it is consistently directed toward the good.”

    I think I see what you mean, though this runs perilously close to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

    “It’s also not to say that the good in view will necessarily be a public good. And this may be the sticking point for you, for it’s not obvious, to me anyway, that philosophical activity must be publically justifiable: its good doesn’t have to be “real” in the sense that’s assured through consensus.”

    This is a point interesting enough to have at least one long conversation about. I’m wary of things that seem privately “real”, but can’t achieve consensus. One of the most important insights of modernity has been the discovery that many diverse, private phenomena have common biological causes. Diverse labels get applied to them and, in the perceiver’s mind, the label is indistinguishable from the phenomenon itself. (For an example of what I mean, check out this Radiolab segment. http://www.radiolab.org/2012/dec/17/mind-altering-bliss/)

    If individual philosophers are able to achieve a private good, it doesn’t surprise me that they want to swear by the unique goodness of their practice. They may be mistaking a label for a cause, just as many of the devout do.

    Are you really ready to forswear the need of the genuinely good, the genuinely true, to be common?

  6. Nico says:

    The question of whether Socrates would support the Peace Corps (and foreign aid altogether?) at first did not intrigue me because it felt, as the poster said, hyperbolic and snarky. But the sincere response and counter-response persuaded me of the question’s legitimacy.
    Perhaps I am dulling the sharpness of Socrates’ radical statement when I choose to interpret it as — ‘it is important to attend to your own search for truth and bring your humility at *not* knowing fully to any role you play in the public affairs.’

    I’m thinking about service-learning here as one sort of practical answer. (An ‘official’ definition of service learning: Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.) The approach is specifically designed for people to approach their tasks with real humility – to take on Socratic uncertainty along with their also-Socratic certainty/passion to “do good”. (But like almost anything, as it becomes institutionalized, it loses its more interesting paradoxes and bits that induce useful cognitive dissonance.)
    The Peace Corps, as a public and publicly-funded institution, has to use the language of mission statements and business (products and outcomes) to justify its continuing existence (furthering mutual understanding and reducing the likelihood that we’ll kill each other). And so it’s unlikely to put out press releases saying that, through the work of the Peace Corps, individuals from different cultures are ‘muddling’ their way, together, through right and wrong and right to being closer to truth and good.
    Sorry I moved so far from your original post — which is good! Hannah Arendt has a nice essay on philosophy, politics and Socrates’ trial: http://www.scribd.com/doc/39664446/Philosophy-and-Politics-Arendt

    • Nico, sorry I’ve been so slow replying to your thoughtful comment. Thanks for the definition of service learning, and your observation that institutionalizing anything reduces the healthy tensions and cognitive dissonances that keep people on their toes as they engage in their work seems exactly right to my ear. I also like the image of the Peace Corps offering individuals from different cultures a chance to get to know each other and muddle through together—nothing like actually being-with people to remind us of our common humanity.

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