Scholarly, All Too Scholarly
One can find philosophers everywhere and nowhere. The title has no firm content. At best, it’s rhetorical, carrying with it status and authority. One’s proclamations have weight wielded as weapons and tools if one only calls them philosophical. But the real philosopher doesn’t wield claims: she only stutters them. The real philosopher is mild and dispassionate. She is scholarly, all too scholarly. And so philosophy is status for the sake of status. Philosophy does nothing. Philosophical claims are not weapons. Philosophical claims are not tools. One can do no harm with a philosophical claim. And one can neither give aid.
And so philosophy is vulnerable. Status approximates value, and without value, status can be revoked without warning. The scent of our uselessness may one day rouse History, stirring its hunger. And we philosophers serve a much more useful role as nourishment than as company. Everyone implicitly understands this: defenses of philosophy are meagre and peripheral. Philosophy produces effective lawyers, effective entrepreneurs, effective doctors, and so on. But this is no defense of philosophy. This is a call to improve law schools and business schools and medical schools. Philosophy improves scientific discourse. But only because scientists are not taught to evaluate concepts. They are too busy robotically collecting data. Philosophy inspires literature and art. But only because artists find inspiration in everything. None of this supports philosophy. It indicts the other domains of academic education. Philosophy makes no special claim. It collects together all those areas of inquiry that have henceforth remained unclaimed by the other sciences but which the other sciences ought to claim. And this is not good enough: philosophy is not good enough. It must do more.
Philosophy, however, has its status for a reason. It was once threatening and useful, powerful and productive. Cities and states trembled in awe of its majesty and its honey-sweet phrases. The bastard child of science and sophistry, philosophy comes from a noble but troubled pedigree. Both of its parents emerged from the Greek contests of wisdom that had come to form one pillar of political legitimacy in the Archaic period, and the Classical period found them pregnant with a solution to new troubles. Let us then examine this pedigree to uncover philosophy’s noble blood.
The contest of wisdom was a central pillar of Greek political life during the Archaic period. Elite families and patrons earned status by allying themselves with those who won these contests. Their peculiar structure in comparison with other societies placed important emphases on what wisdom meant for the Greeks that are represented both in science and in sophistry. Greek contests of wisdom are judged by the people. Those same people served as the economic and military backbone of the Greek poleis and hence their approval meant something quite significant. This over time became more and more enshrined in law and in custom, but it is also the significance of this public concern that shaped science and sophistry, for both embody distinct strategies to contest different types of opponents.
Science reflected the demand for transparency in reason. It emphasises public reason and observation distinct from the kind of private, privileged inspiration that is claimed by poets such as Hesiod and others. While the method differs, the explanandum remains the same. The Theogony for instance proclaims a genealogy of the world from its origin in Uranus and Gaia. The history of the gods is seen as an explanation of natural phenomena. The gods, however, are not public. Their works and their pedigree cannot be verified by the common man. And so the scientist attempts to provide an alternative account of natural phenomena by appeal to those elements that his audience can verify and understand for themselves. So where Hesiod explains nature as the unfolding of the incontrovertible divine will of Zeus, Thales explains it as the unfolding of the “will” of water, and Anaximander as the unfolding of the “will” of the unlimited, and so on. Unlike Hesiod, the claims of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and so on, while strange, are simple and easily evaluated by ordinary people. And if those people see the reasons for an account, they are liable to vote for it over an account for which the reasons are private. The Greek public may have been devoutly religious, but they were not stupid enough to believe everything anyone says about the gods just because it was said about the gods. Indeed, the Greek public stressed novelty. The same old explanations became tired. It did not take wisdom to regurgitate old explanations for natural phenomena. Instead, wisdom was demonstrated by finding the limits of old explanations and proposing new ones that overcame those limits.
Sophistry reflects a different but somewhat similar strategy. The sophist did not so much care for public reason or experience: he cared more for drawing himself toward the audience with bonds of identification and sympathy. He spoke in prose instead of verse, but nevertheless seasoned his words in order that they taste as sweet and as powerful in the ear as they do upon the tongue. This art of persuasion, of giving to words a distinctive and pleasant flavour, required study of its own sort. The sophists became experts in the meanings, the histories, the sounds, and the connotations or words, and they used that knowledge to their advantage even as others, such as Pindar, dismissed them as lowly, squawking crows–which was precisely the desired effect!
These strategies and others over time mixed and mutated in tandem with broader Greek society. Eventually full-fledged democracies were enfranchised and both science and sophistry were used by the elites in different ways as they attempted to respond to their eroding power. These responses in many cases barely concealed the contempt that wise elites held for common Greeks. Their situation was not altogether different from our present. The common Greek did not so much understand or care what these contestants said. They were in it for the spectacle and the validation of their own opinions and lifestyles. Hence in the contests, wisdom and study were quickly reduced to a jester’s farce for those who could scarcely learn from the wise.
Just as they do today, accomplished scientists and sophists came to resent the ignorance and the power of the common person. And like today, it is evident that this resentment is unwarranted. The wise were scarcely wiser than the average Greek. They were afforded important privileges in Greek society in virtue of the situation of their birth, but even despite these privileges, the wise were little better than the fools they derided. No Greek scientist or sophist could reasonably claim to know more than any common Greek, and in many cases, the common man knew much more. It is not the common man who we today ridicule for his absurd theories and his inability to accurately observe what stands immediately in front of his eyes. Indeed, there is at least some evidence that the common man could do this. He toiled and suffered to support himself and his kin, after all. There is no evidence, however, that the wise need ever do this, let alone were capable of it.
But this resentment is unwarranted for another reason as well. The common people grew in power over the nearly three centuries of the Archaic period until the emergence of the first real democracies, but they did not do so by simply taking power from the elites. It was the elites themselves who in their struggle against other elite rivals gradually gifted the common people greater status and power. And in many cases, this was not even power and responsibility that the common people always wanted. They for centuries threw their support behind elites who distinguished themselves from the unwashed masses for one reason or another just as poor whites do this today. But of course, no one really controls the tides of history, and it serves no one to resent it but those who lack the privileges of birth and wealth. Elites, of course, have never lacked these privileges.
Yet the elites persisted in their undue resentment of the common Greek. As the contests of wisdom gave way to people’s assemblies and people’s courts, many of their former contestants retreated from the public to private enclaves in which they religiously pursued their science and their study. They became absurd objects of public ridicule, ranting about Being and the power of the Vortex, the one and only god, all while speaking in tongues, refusing to utter the word “is.” Others did not retreat, but instead assaulted the common people. These elites invaded the people’s courts, often to cheers and applause, while they attempted to pass off their interest as that of the many. And they claimed some success at this. They commanded wealth and prestige. They commanded armies and economies. They claimed to shake the demos with every utterance, failing still to realise that their own tics and tremors had their source in the people to whom they remained servants.
And through all this, there was no serious improvement in political life. The Archaic period was violent and volatile. The Classical period too. Neither elites nor the people had the wisdom to rule. And as great poleis experienced their peak and began to decline, everyone, elite and commoner alike, cried out in anguish. And this time, science could not help them. Sophistry could not either. The comics were implicated and the tragedians, the last vestige of a dying, corrupt generation, abdicated their responsibility. The poleis needed something new, something capable. That something was philosophy.
Philosophy began with the followers of Socrates as they attempted to come to terms with their mentor’s trial and execution. But it was Socrates himself who first saw the demand for it. It was he who sacrificed his own interests for that of his polis, attempting to inspire his countrymen to pursue virtue and therefore achieve peace, order, and good governance. The object was to employ scientific reasoning in the public sphere to guide public decisions. But this science was in the tradition of Antiphon, Parmenides, Gorgias, et cetera, who largely reduced being to the self. Natural study was primarily study of one’s own psychology and its phenomena. It was from here that the science of ethics drew its first breath. For unlike Gorgias, Socrates was unsatisfied with the good being reduced to that which fulfilled fleeting desires. Echoing Antiphon and Parmenides, Socrates objected that desires provide only what seem good, and not what is good. But demonstrating this distinction remained the most difficult challenge that science faced: scientific norms are foreign and strange, just as Socrates’ ethics was. And so the people rejected it despite Socrates’ best efforts. They saw it as a threat to their sovereignty and their customs, but also to their well-being.
Rightly or wrongly, they lashed out at Socrates and extinguished his science, leaving his followers searching for solutions. Some gave up the effort, retreating to their houses, their barracks, or their barrels. Others sought solutions beyond Socratic science. This was primarily Plato’s doing; it was he who united Socratic science with a kind of sophistic drama that was sure to attract and enchant the public while also challenging it to improve. And in this, found success where his mentor found failure. Plato challenged the Athenian orthodoxy on every conceivable dimension of their worldly existence while nevertheless cultivating for himself a fine reputation. For it was Plato who realised that while one’s science may bestow upon its bearer untold riches and prestige, it is worthless while it appears degenerate and diseased. Gone were the days of the shoeless wisemen; a new era of philosophers in dyed fabrics and fine estates had commenced. The people must see with their own eyes the value of the preacher’s science.
But Plato was not so careless that he forgot his modesty; he did not follow the sophists in their luxury and their ostentation. Though of noble blood, his skin was middling. He was attractive yet not flashy. For the public can see success, and they can also see corruption. It is better not to rouse suspicions in the philosophers’ line of work.
Armed with the image of Socrates, the martyr for a better Athens, and his own talents for beautifying an assault on the common mores, Plato elevated the philosopher to a place of nobility in the minds of the public, a place that it has since remained. He did this by engaging directly with those who held the power in the polis: the common man. He placed his dialogues in the public consciousness alongside those of the great tragedians and comics, and he outshone them all. His strategy was simple: exhort the public to care about an issue, to put aside their jest and their passion while enticing them with those very things, and then hit them with the serious matter at hand. Plato employed all of the comics’ tricks–irony and mockery and schadenfreude–while elevating discussion with the gravity of tragedy. In this way, Plato not only demonstrated the costs of vice and benefits of virtue, but also a method of eliminating vice and cultivating virtue: critical self-examination.
Yet the actual success of philosophy at solving social strife is difficult to demonstrate. Plato’s philosophy existed during a time of unprecedented domestic stability in Athens. But Athens was then no longer the dominant superpower that it once was and faced few of the same threats. The apparent success of philosophy then may be mere coincidence. Despite his popularity, Plato may have had no serious effect on the political life of the average Athenian. Indeed, his philosophy itself may be seen as an expression of a common Athenian exasperation with the turbulence that preceded his generation. Had Plato more time in the sun, we could quite possibly discern more closely his effects; but as it stands, Athens itself came to an end as an independent polity soon after Plato’s death, succumbing to historical contingency. Philosophy has no place in empire; the public there is too massive, too diverse, and too disparate to have any serious effect on policy. Hence philosophers retreated within the self once again, dulling their claims and rendering them useless.
But today we need them again. We need the sharpened tools of Old Aristocles. The people have risen up! The people have seized back power! The democratic republics of the liberal age were a meagre compromise, only changing the shape of empire. But today matters stand differently: instant communications and near-infinite access to information have shrunk empires and rebirthed the polis. Athens lives today online. And just as Plato’s generation, ours cries out in anguish at a rudderless world. Should we not then recapitulate philosophy, shock the academy until its atavism is complete? Let us return to our workshops to sharpen our claims, philosophers! Let us excise evil and cultivate virtue! And though we have no guarantee of success, no certain precedent upon which to stand, let us find courage in our effort to find the better.