Philosophy for Virtue

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.

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