If we want to help make the world a better place, it is worth taking the time to study philosophy well, strange as that might sound.
I know that sitting back and reading a bunch of old books over the course of several years does not seem like a good way to change the way things work. But I would say it is at least the necessary condition, for being able to change things for the better.
Philosophy allows us to think through the nature and purpose of the world’s political, social, economic orderings. It will force us to seek knowledge where we become able to recognize our ignorance. It will also allow us to work through our own moral beliefs and assumptions, helping us to realize that some of our moral convictions are not as well-founded as we might believe, letting us slow down and ask whether it’s really good to try to change the world into something inspired by an unreflective moral opinion.
Most of all, though, it allows us to shape and change ourselves. We become the sorts of people who can point out the flaws in a bad argument, who can seek out the structure of a good chain of reasoning, who can speak less ignorantly about justice and political effectiveness and human psychology. We become the sorts of people who can learn from others rather than just jealously guarding our own opinion and keeping ourself safe from others’ insights.
We become the sorts of people who focus on virtue, who can play the long game and think in terms of years or decades rather than days and months, who care more about succeeding in our internal efforts than our external ones, who can handle failure with courage and success with grace, who will live with integrity and perhaps not betray and undermine our ideals in a moment of temptation, or of fear.
There’s no shortcut for all that. And the way to get there is not by going along living unreflectively and just getting older. A sustained effort at becoming wiser is necessary as well. It is a tedious journey, across ground that is not well-travelled. Even those who sincerely attempt it will often get stuck partway.
But with perseverance and patience, it is possible.
Now, admittedly there’s an exception to what I’m saying. The person who wishes to change the world immediately and continuously through small acts of kindness and compassion might not need to study much first. The sort of person who sells all possessions and goes to live among the homeless, helping and caring however is needed, will perhaps not have much need for a grasp of philosophy. If that is you, then I praise you and have nothing more to say. However, I think that such folks are the very rare exception, and the vast majority of us are benefited by taking the time to understand, before we seek to bring about change.
For me, although it isn’t completely decisive, there are few things which more strongly seem to indicate a lack of intellectual courage and capability than when someone simply accepts a contemporary political narrative.
It’s astonishing to me how often this happens, among apparently intelligent people, on both sides of the political spectrum.
It’s astonishing how a person can accept a whole, one-sided list of political doctrines of the day without ever beginning to question any one of them. It’s amazing how the same arguments for each point are repeated almost verbatim, as if we’re talking to a single person wearing multiple faces.
And let’s be clear — there are people who will try to dress it up, speak vaguely and mysteriously, bring in a variety of quasi-theoretical considerations, when discussing what they believe or why they believe it, as if trying to redirect attention away from how obediently they have accepted their ephemeral political orthodoxy. But give them time. If they care more about feeling good as a member of a tribe than they do about pursuing wisdom, it will become clear what they believe and why, if we observe intelligently.
So then, how can we avoid falling prey to this tendency ourselves?
I have two suggestions. One is to take it as axiomatic that both left and right are equally stupid. I know the left will say that the right is full of uneducated hillbillies, and the right will say the left is full of brainwashed conformists. Maybe both are correct, I don’t know. But to avoid being a political drone, the trick is to avoid taking a side and applying a double standard. Instead, look for the wisdom in both sides, because there is much, and also keep an eye out for the stupidity of both, because it’s also not hard to find.
My second suggestion is less reliable. What I recommend is learning about economics and politics from nonpartisan, non-biased sources. The reason this is dicey is that someone on the right who wants to learn about economics might, for instance, take a book about libertarian economics and call it the dispassionate truth of things, and the left can do similarly on their side.
Still, while this second suggestion can be misunderstood or misused, I think it is worth saying. If we are lacking basic conceptual tools for making sense of what’s happening in the world of politics, it might be hard to see when one side of the fight is misrepresenting things.
And a hard lesson I’m learning is that this is something you just have to be okay to do only for yourself. Even intelligent people who have dug in on the partisan thing cannot be argued out of it, no matter how obviously deficient their arguments might be (and sometimes the arguments really are shockingly deficient). It’s hard to watch their intellectual self-disfigurement happening, when the remedy for their ills appears so simple, but in my experience this is an area where even otherwise-intelligent people just cannot learn and grow until they themselves are ready to.
So instead try to effect and to celebrate your own liberation from the basest conformity, and if possible, look on the willing suffering of the mindlessly partisan with some humour, and not with pity.
I used to be a bit sceptical about the value of published contemporary academic work. After all, I’ve met a lot of academics, spoken to them, listened to them, and I know how many faults a great many of them have, including intellectual faults.
So why do I need their help? If I just look at the evidence and weigh it for myself, I might not arrive at all the right answers, but at least I won’t have been duped into believing some fashionable theory that in twenty-five years will smell of dust and cobwebs and mold. I don’t want to know what people are saying about Plato — I want to know what Plato said!
My feelings have changed, though, for several reasons. That’s not to say that I care less about the primary texts, but I do now find more value in the published academic work on a subject.
For one thing, overall movements of scholarly thought on a question are less ephemeral than I had previously believed. Maybe the emphases will change over the course of decades, but the general consensus of academic opinion on a question is not so swift-moving that it invalidates itself. This is not to say we can’t entertain our doubts about aspects of the scholarly consensus (I certainly do!), but on those points we probably do well to try to remain humble, recognizing the weight of the argumentation that stands against us, even if it’s not ultimately conclusive in our view.
It’s also easy to see when a theory is idiosyncratic, held only by a small number of scholars, and even then it is easy (if they aren’t terrible writers) to see what evidence they provide for their claims so that their unique contribution can be either taken up or rejected.
The process of publishing a peer-reviewed journal article ensures that academic literature on a subject is basically the highest-quality writing we’ll be able to find about that thing. That’s not to say the process is flawless, but even a very flawed academic must be disciplined in argumentation to get something published, and will likely receive feedback requesting changes for any deficiencies in writing, which alleviates much that might be problematic in a given professor’s classroom lectures or professional interactions.
Someone who has decided to write an article on a given topic and has gone through the process of developing a strong argument and sifting through the evidence will have had to do a lot of reading and investigation, which will be synthesized and expressed in the final written product. Thus, by reading a single article, we can benefit from hours of reading and reflection done by someone else.
These writers, imperfect though they may be as individual people, are far above the average in terms of capacity for intellectual work, and through the sort of cooperation that is born from quoting each other’s published work and anonymously reviewing one another’s submitted work, they end up generating insights and interpretations which would never occur to most of us if we were alone with a primary text or the basic sets of data. Academic publishing is set up to reward innovation that meets high standards of argumentation, and this combination means that we are likely to encounter intriguing ideas and connections that we could not have formed on our own.
I never realized how powerful a tool Google Scholar can be. I wish I had realized it when I was a student. I even wish I had understood its value in my most recent job.
Have you used Google Scholar within the past month? If not, then chances are, you’re missing out.
Now, true enough, some of the search results that come up for Google Scholar are garbage, not coming from reputable publications. These are pretty easy to spot and weed out, though, and the pieces that are published in good journals will also show up in these searches.
Many times when we think of questions which would be interesting to look up on Google, we could find more good information, and more quickly, if we transferred our search over to Google Scholar. This is not just helpful for writing papers — this is how we can attempt to get the best information whenever we want to remedy our ignorance.
Published academic work certainly isn’t all we should be reading. But it has its place, and as I’m coming to learn, we neglect it to our own detriment.
But anger always makes it more difficult to think clearly and to keep proper perspective.
And every instance of anger feels abundantly justified in the moment, even if we will look back on the vast majority of them with sufficient distance and (assuming we aren’t completely stunted in our moral and social development) be able to recognize that it was selfish and silly to get as angry as we did in a particular set of circumstances.
And even in the times when we would be justified in getting angry, even then, we do ourselves no favours by getting so angry that we can’t think clearly.
No one can tell us in the moment to “calm down,” if we are going to be angry. Beforehand, though, we can resolve for ourselves to seek to avoid anger as much as we can.
This is a tough one. We’ll fail more than we succeed. Once we try fighting it we’ll notice that the silliest things will manage to bring us to anger. It will remind us how little self-control we really have, a fact we are usually able to forget and ignore.
I have a reputation for being a calm and peaceful and patient person, and for the most part I am grateful to say that’s been true. Still, even for someone with my placid disposition, I’m surprised how often I feel the blood in my chest growing hot as I’m filled with righteous indignation, which in hindsight is often not quite as righteous as it seemed at the time.
I think a tool from Plato’s workshop is helpful here.
It’s good to remember that everyone thinks they’re doing what is best. Even the addict who makes a self-destructive choice for the thousandth time is, in the moment of decision, seeing the world through a wildly distorted perspective that shows the addictive choice as the good one. How much more will all of us see ourselves as doing the right thing, we who have not admitted we have a problem, who do not see the rest of the world as normal and ourselves as aberrant.
The person you’re talking to or dealing with is trying hard to do the right thing, as difficult as that may be to imagine in the moment. That other person is striving for the good, the just, the best, as well as they can, even if they may lack the knowledge or skills or vision to see that what seems best to them is really unhelpful or counterproductive or dangerous.
“So what? They’re trying to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean I can’t get mad at them!” Indeed, it is still possible and often justifiable to get angry, even having made that admission.
However, in my experience this is one of the best ways for staying calm, not only externally but internally. Once we admit that they’re just trying to do what’s right from their standpoint, and we take just a second to start to try and see how they could perceive their actions and words in that light, it’s astonishing how anger begins to evaporate.
I too often forget to follow the path of thought that I just described. When I remember to do it though, and I deal with a conversation partner reasonably, I find the outcomes tend to be much better, and even if things don’t go better, I still won’t regret having followed the path without anger, because then I can withdraw at an appropriate moment, without rancour. Even that is a great improvement over the alternative.
And the best part is the stillness in my soul afterwards. I hate being angry after an interaction and going back and replaying it and wishing I’d pointed out this hypocrisy and that inconsistency. Getting to avoid that is, all by itself, completely worth the effort of being less angry.
I admire both Straussians and Neoplatonists (or at least, the more intelligent representatives of each group). However, I’ve found it exceedingly rare to find any friendliness between the two sides, let alone respect. This is strange to me.
I see Straussians and Neoplatonists as doing similar, parallel interpretive work, on different aspects of Plato’s thought. I’m not an expert on either school, but I find it wonderfully refreshing and inspiring to read around within the works of both and to reflect on them. Many of the things I love about Plato and Socrates are extended, elaborated, in these two very different intellectual traditions.
It will seem strange to hear me say that the two are in any way parallel. It would be more typical to say that they are simply unrelated, or perhaps even that they are completely opposed.
Still, I think what I said is true. The way I’ve always spoken of it is to say that Neoplatonism has a wonderful way of systematically working out the implications and consequences of Plato’s metaphysical thinking, while Straussians are able to delve deep into Plato’s thought from the standpoint of political considerations. For what it’s worth, I’d go further than this and say that the Neoplatonists seem to me to have a claim to having solved some of the most challenging metaphysical puzzles, and Straussians to having made some most profound contributions to understanding the relationship of the philosopher and the city.
In my reading, I don’t find the Straussians thinking much about metaphysics, preferring either to let the rest of the world of philosophy do that less interesting sort of work, or else, in some cases, to say that there is probably a secret metaphysical teaching according to which everything is flux and change and reducible to natural science, but if there is a defence of this secret teaching which is able to enter into the metaphysical debates of philosophical history, it must be even more secret because I have never yet seen it.
And likewise the few Neoplatonists out there today generally seem to take Plato’s political teaching largely at face value. Perhaps the original school of thought that we now call Neoplatonism did not exactly do so, but today I think that is more the norm.
And yet there’s no reason why each could not learn and benefit from an admiration of the other side’s labours, at least privately even if professionally there is less opportunity for cooperation. But even this doesn’t seem to happen very often.
One thing I love about both the Neoplatonists and the Straussians is the way they work so hard to find truth and beauty where others would lazily never be able to progress beyond attitudes of contempt or puzzlement or indifference, in approaching the texts of Plato.
In large part, that is what I find most winsome about both. That is where their special virtue resides.
If they could only turn that talent which they have each honed so well toward each other, there should be no difficulty. These two sides who have practiced giving Plato the benefit of the doubt can surely seek the truth where it may be found among others of Plato’s contemporary admirers.
To my mind, Straussians and Neoplatonists alike each give us access to a major aspect of the brilliance of Plato, in a way that the great majority of us would never be able to arrive at on our own, without help.
To embrace either one of them is a source of delight and insight. Being a disciple in either tradition opens the world to us in ways we could never expect.
For this reason, it is right to have great respect for those in each camp. It is also appropriate, though, at least in my view, to feel an incomprehension at the way the two camps keep so carefully and rigorously separate from one another. Each does already have great intellectual riches such that it can sustain itself for a lifetime of happy study without any need for the other — but the two together, in my experience, combine to open up an even more magnificent world of possibilities.
I see a faulty way of reasoning as being what divides the two sides. The dividing line seems to be the question of whether we think Plato may have been using his public teaching for political purposes or not. If we think the public appearance of his teachings was fundamentally rhetorical and prudential and thus not fully sincere, then we are Straussians. If we think it was truly metaphysical and moral in aim and therefore could not have been merely political or prudent, we fit in more with the Neoplatonists.
However, these two sides are easily made one by a simple realization: Plato’s teachings do not need to have been fictitious for them to have been presented in a way that had a political motivation. If Plato’s teachings were true, this does not in any way prevent them from having been formulated in their context to encourage certain political ends.
And indeed, when we read the dialogues this seems to be precisely what Socrates is doing. He adapts some one or another part of his thinking to a particular situation and presents it in a way intended to make his hearers change their way of thinking and acting.
We could hypothetically imitate him today by using the true insights of Neoplatonism in the sorts of social stratagems that absorb the studies of Straussians. Neoplatonism’s account of the world is extremely flexible and adaptable and would be well-suited to it.
And if we ever were to see a joining of that sort, I believe we’d also soon notice what we might call a temperamental compatibility. This brings us back to what I was saying about parallels.
Straussians and Neoplatonists today are alike in having to love Plato’s thought far more than it is fashionable to do. They are also alike in needing to care more about truth and wisdom than they care about social pressures, respect, advancement, conventional opinion.
And of course, there are also in each group many less intelligent representatives, who are pugnacious without an intellectual foundation, who are, let’s be honest, kind of weird, who love to make inside jokes and sneer at all who aren’t part of the in-group, and who can always be held up as a perfect example of why “I’d never want to be part of that group!”
But let’s not be distracted by that sort of thing.
If we are able to be open, it may be that when we listen to each other, we will find we have something to learn, and even more, will appreciate the mysterious and enchanting beauty that infuses the other of these two streams of thought. It might help stir some of the excitement that we first felt in reading Plato himself.
We can be allies. We were not born enemies — if anything, we were born siblings. The two legacies can be joined. Together, we hold a view of reality that could hardly, in my view, be surpassed.
PS — I realize that I haven’t here convinced any Straussians that Plotinus got it right, nor any Neoplatonists that Strauss did. That wasn’t my goal. I’m only saying that the two options aren’t at all exclusive, and that someone who is attracted by one approach should not be too surprised to discover that the other one might turn out to be similarly agreeable.
Reference works are way cooler than we’d generally assume.
Reference works give us details about history and biography and context and internal coherence that can be challenging to find otherwise. It’s the sorts of details we’re supposed to get when taking a college class on a subject.
In my experience, reading through a single good encyclopedia article once or twice will easily impart as much knowledge as I would take away from even a very good college class (and considerably more than I would get from a poor class). And it’s so much cheaper, and easier to access!
Let’s keep in mind, furthermore, that even if a person is reading for only a few minutes a day, it’s hard not to get through an encyclopedia article within a couple weeks. If I’m right about how much knowledge we gain from each article relative to a college class, think how much knowledge could accumulate after just a couple years of reading like this.
(Of course, there can be other benefits to learning in the classroom that aren’t found in an encyclopedia, such as getting experience writing, reading primary sources, and receiving feedback on one’s work. I don’t mean to downplay those factors.)
Speaking of primary sources, what about the Great Books approach to education? Why rely on all these lesser intellectuals to summarize when it is possible to get into the original texts in full and in detail?
I love the Great Books approach. It’s what I was recommended at the time when I first became truly interested in philosophy. I spent the first several years of my philosophical journey reading complete books by the great minds of philosophical history, and I’m glad I did so, since the experience taught me a lot about how to think and about what is worth thinking about.
So I believe that primary texts really are a good place to start, and I recommend always continuing to keep a habit of reading them. But I think that supplementing with reference works can add to the process of self-instruction immeasurably, in a way that even monographs and journal articles cannot.
The goal of a reference work is to summarize fairly, where the goal of a monograph or journal article is rather to say something novel. This means that looking at even a considerable number of books and articles making good arguments is liable to leave the reader with less of a grasp of the overall topic than a person will have who’s read just one or two encyclopedia articles on the subject. Argumentative works still certainly have their place, but they cannot fully replace reference works, as I once assumed they might.
Someone who embraces a Great Books approach, furthermore, is at least early on under the sway of a lesser intellect, but in a less obvious way: it is not a great philosopher who told us which books are worth reading first, but a scholar or educator who applied some principle of selection which must inevitably ignore many great works from the history of philosophy in favour of those judged to be the greatest. That may sound like a small point, but as someone who began in that way, I know just how challenging this can make things. While reading Hegel, for instance, there are many other important aspects of Hegel’s intellectual and political context which cannot be learned, or can hardly be learned, by a strict focus on primary texts, making it difficult to understand much about what he is replying to or whom he is trying to convince.
Reference works support primary source reading in a wonderful way. After years of drowning in the great books, learning so much and yet also having difficulty seeing how each thought fits into the conversations of the day, or how the words used in one author are being used differently in another, finally reference works allowed me to get some perspective. I don’t think reference works can replace great books, but I also don’t think great books should entirely displace reference works in our quest for knowledge.
As I said, the person who’s writing an encyclopedia article is striving to write something that will capture the main relevant lines of scholarly discussion on the subject, to summarize those ideas and their detractors clearly and somewhat impartially, and to provide the beginner with a solid grasp of the broad outlines of the topic. The writers have motivation to do a good job; if they succeed at these goals consistently then over time there will be praise and celebration and respect and ultimately advancement, and if they fail there will be derision and public shame. Those are some powerful motivators working to produce this sort of writing at a high level of excellence.
Since writings like this already exist out there, just waiting to be read, how foolish are we to pass them over without consideration?
PS: I am compelled to note that something like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is obviously immeasurably superior to something like Wikipedia. Only read the best.
If we truly want to pursue virtue, we will eventually need to embrace the philosophical life, to whatever degree we are able.
We can hope to be good people, virtuous. We can try our hardest without having knowledge. And we might succeed. But to pursue virtue without studying philosophy can be like walking out the front door, picking a random direction, and setting out with the hope of arriving at city hall. It might work, but there’s a good chance we’ll end up further off than when we first began.
The philosopher is the person who asks others for directions, maybe looks at a map or two, and then, upon receiving contradictory accounts, tries to find the reason for the discrepancies, and seeks the truth.
In other words, the philosopher too might not arrive, but the philosopher has a much better chance.
If we care about virtue, then, we will do well to turn at some point to learning philosophy. (And if we don’t care much about virtue, all the more reason to run to philosophy!)
Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Plotinus. These are some of the first places we should look. They were philosophers, and their work is today still barely comprehended. If all that a person ever does is read those thinkers and seek to understand, then the work that person is doing really deserves to be called philosophy, and I can hardly doubt that the people who make the effort will know more about virtue than almost anyone else in their area code. They will thus be as well equipped to become virtuous as they can be, and will have developed a corresponding desire for such virtue as well.
When I speak of philosophy, here, I’m not speaking of anything that is out of reach. We don’t need to take classes. We don’t need to buy textbooks. We don’t need to publish original thoughts. As I said, reading that small list of authors — indeed, even reading Plato alone and no one else! — is all it needs to take, as long as we work hard to read sympathetically and understand what we can.
What do you really want? And, a question that might or might not be related: when you look at the ways you spend your time on a given day, what does it tell you about what you really want?
In a book I read several years ago, I think by Dr Kelly McGonigal, I encountered the fun suggestion that willpower is actually composed of three parts: the “I will,” the “I won’t,” and the “I want.” I like that a lot.
In other words, willpower might mean being able to do what we committed to doing (the “I will” — I will do some daily push-ups, let’s say), or being able to forego what we committed to foregoing (the “I won’t” — eg, I won’t eat any candy today). That’s all familiar enough.
But there’s a third part of willpower that is essential: the ability to remember why we’re doing or avoiding those things. What do we want to get or achieve at the other end of all this effort?
When the blank page is resolutely devoid of inspiration, can we remember why we wanted to start a writing habit? When the plate of deserts comes around, can we remember why we embarked on the diet?
Can we hold in our minds the dream of a completed book, published, sitting on someone’s shelf, underlined and dogeared and with little notes in the margin? Can we feel pleasure at the thought of a slimmer self, showing skin at the beach, a hint of musculature visible where before there was just flab?
The ability to stay focused on the goal, on the goal itself, over the months or years of hard work that it takes to get there, is a major, major factor in our success or failure.
And it also just makes the whole process far more enjoyable, to be focused not on the momentary pain but on future joy. It’s so much fun.
Don’t we normally assume that living in a fantasy world is a sort of escapism, a way of disconnecting from reality? Stop dreaming, we might hear, and start acting.
But the truth is, it’s time to start dreaming. It’s time to inhabit a fantasy world.
I find it so pleasant and motivating to think about the person I could be if I stick with my good habits.
Five years seems to be an especially good time frame to look ahead to. If you put five years into learning a language, how fluent could you be? Five years of spending a few minutes a day writing, and how many things could you have published?
What I like about the five year mark is that it seems pretty ideal for filling me with wonder. Five years of a good habit can accomplish some amazing things with relatively little effort. Five years isn’t unthinkable; if I can keep the habit going for a year or two, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to keep it for five years.
And most of all, five years is a great leaping off point. It entices the mind to think, if I could make all that happen in just five years with so little effort, how much more could I do in ten, or in twenty? Five years of accomplishments is amazing, but even more amazing is that five years could be just the beginning.
There was a time in my life when I believed I was uninterested in philosophy. In hindsight I would say that even then I showed evidence of a somewhat philosophical soul, and had all the same interests that have inspired me to study philosophy over the past decade or so, but at the time I would have said that philosophy was not good enough to merit my time and attention.
I believed this because I was exposed to the notion that philosophy was unrealistic, obscure, and generally just missing the point. This prejudice was communicated in a way that seemed persuasive to me. It feels good to think of oneself as towering intellectually over those who are seen as history’s great minds — and to have accomplished that feat so young as well, and with such little effort!
On the account I received, there are some things very similar to philosophy which are indeed part of the good life that we should choose for ourselves.
-We should be able to live a moral, self-controlled life.
-We should enjoy life in a community of friends.
-We should courageously seek to make the world a better place.
-We should learn how to persuade people, to change their minds, to bind them together with a common vision and a common story and a common vocabulary.
If we were able to do and to have all those sorts of things, after all, what else could we ever need philosophy for?
I would love to say that this approach to the world was itself what eventually convinced me to look beyond it to the study of philosophy, with its internal flaws and contradictions revealing themselves to my inquiring mind. I wish I had seen that the knowledge of personal morality, for instance, or of political justice, was not so obvious as it appeared on the surface and that it thus demanded a more disciplined study into the questions.
There’s a grain of truth there, but that’s not the whole story of how I came to philosophy. As a matter of fact, I began studying philosophy seriously mainly for a couple reasons, neither of which are so impressive in hindsight.
One path that led me from anti-philosophical prejudice to an appreciation for the philosophical was a sense I had that there was beauty to be found there. I had an intuition that philosophy could open up vistas of reality and possibility that were not visible to most of us, most of the time. To speak about being itself, of metaphysical entities, of the variety of sensible experience and the realities behind and beneath it; all these seemed like resources for poetry and rhetoric that were not available elsewhere, and which would be worth studying whether or not we initially believed they might be true.
I also set out toward philosophical study because I realized that, ceteris paribus, someone who’s sufficiently knowledge about philosophy and philosophical history can make the unphilosophical debater look like a bumbling fool. I saw this happen a handful of times (not infrequently with me playing the fool), and thus realized that I needed to be more familiar with philosophy whether I agreed with it or not, if I cared about learning how to be persuasive, as I did at the time.
It was not the most admirable of starting places, perhaps but it was sufficient. It got me moving the right direction, and I have never looked back. As time has passed, I’ve found my relationship to philosophy changing, but it all started with an intuition of its beauty and the manifestation of its strength.