The Philosopher’s Apprentice

Intellectually, we all start off as apprentices. We know that. But I suspect the period of apprenticeship lasts a lot longer than most of us realize. Indeed, most of us never finish our term as intellectual apprentices during our lifetime.

The surest way to get stuck in a period of intellectual apprenticeship is to pretend to be free of it sooner than we’re really able. True intellectual apprenticeship, that can lead to intellectual progress, requires deliberate, self-aware, determined effort; as soon as we deliberately end that effort, no matter our reason, we cease progress, no matter how far along we happen to be at the time.

To exit that process too soon, is to be forever bound to accepting unexamined the thoughts and prejudices of others. In a way, it is to exchange apprenticeship for servitude, though only under the illusion of freedom and mastery.

Does that mean apprenticeship is really always endless? Are we consigned to having only the thoughts of others no matter how long we study?

Some people think so. This corresponds closely to what the Straussians call historicism — the belief that our beliefs are determined by our time and place in history and are beyond our own control.

I don’t think that is necessarily true. But I do think it’s true in the vast, vast majority of cases. The only to make it false in one’s own case is through plenty of hard work (and no small measure of luck).

So willingly apprentice yourself to the greatest thinkers who have ever thought, and settle in for the long haul. Graduation is a possibility, but at best it is years and decades off in the distance.

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