In an earlier post, I sketched a public defense, or apology, for philosophy by suggesting how her unconventional activity might nevertheless be valuable to the city. I also promised that I’d say a little about the private defense of philosophy. (What I mean by a “private defense” is an account that justifies the philosophical way of life to oneself.) I still intend to keep that promise. As a preface, however, I’d like to consider why a potential practitioner might first want to hear philosophy’s private virtues defended.
More than any other human activity, philosophy assumes for itself the freedom to examine assumptions, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices of all sorts, including the presumptions of religion and science. In so daring—as Socrates did—to scrutinize and even to criticize conventional views, it’s easy to see how philosophers may be seen as threatening to others, even if their true intention is only to examine the currently received wisdom in order to find out whether it’s the perennial wisdom. Or, as Nietzsche put it,
What is the first and last thing that a philosopher demands of himself? To overcome his age in himself, to become timeless.
What presumption! How instantly irritating such a chap is likely to be to “his age” and its large herd of sacred cows. No wonder history is littered with martyrs like Socrates, Jesus, and Bruno, to name just a few.
If the danger to the philosopher from the city is clear, where’s the danger in all this for the would-be philosopher’s soul? I see it writ large in the city’s concerns about philosophy and in Nietzsche’s remark. For consider where exactly the philosopher must be standing to “overcome his age in himself, to become timeless.” He’s not standing within the city, for what’s available to him there are the very customs, traditions, and beliefs that he’s committed to examining rather than blindly accepting. So where is he getting this grand perspective Nietzsche describes?
There’s no obvious answer to this question. And that’s the problem. That’s why philosophy needs a private apology. For once you step outside the comfort of the familiar cave that is your culture, it’s not clear how to find your way, and it’s not clear you will ever find your way. There is no guru, no method, and no teacher upon whom you can simply rely, though there are other travelers from whom you may learn much. Nor can you simply rely on yourself; for after all, presumably you’re seeking wisdom because you don’t possess it. You may become more wise, or you may end up unwise, unhappy, and less fully realized than you would have been had you remained true to the wisdom of your age instead of seeking to live in the light of timeless truth. History, anyway, suggests you’re likelier to live a good and happy life by finding a niche for yourself within the social order.
One reader’s comments neatly point to the salient issue:
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?
Are you really ready to forswear the need of the genuinely good, the genuinely true, to be common?
Stepping outside the realm of consensus reality, you may find, as this reader suggests, that you’re just meandering and getting nowhere finally. That’s one reason why, even if you did manage to convince a jury that your freedom is in the city’s interests, you still might wonder whether you want to embrace philosophy’s radical freedom.
I’m reminded, yet again, of Callicles’ view that as children it’s fine to play around with philosophy and its big ideas—it’s even good for you, he says—but to persist in this as an adult is childish and foolish. Now, a strong soul in love with wisdom can live with being called childish and foolish by men like Callicles—who live only for power and the good opinion of others—but such a soul must nevertheless take seriously the great uncertainty and risks to one’s own flourishing associated with the demands Nietzsche says philosophers make of themselves. How do you justify such a way of life to yourself?