A Short Meditation on Philosophy

So, I started doing a graduate school application and ended up writing a short philosophy paper instead.

Any proper philosophical enquiry into any theme should start with an adequate definition of the terms in question, to avoid ambiguity. In the question at hand, namely why I, indeed why anyone, would desire to continue his or her studies in philosophy, defining this term is crucial to the whole question. From the word itself, philosophy is, as the Greek φιλοσοφία suggests, the love and subsequent pursuit of wisdom. It is, in other words, the search for the Logos in human existence, that overarching and underlying reason and structure which outlines the truths that are beneficial to the person. This definition commits one to certain other concepts, specifically the idea that, first of all, that truth exists. Those who seek wisdom had better believe that wisdom actually exists. Second, it commits the person to the Principle of Intelligibility, i.e. that we can know this truth.

This interpretive key in considering philosophy in the following manner immediately makes one aware to the fact that, going by the definition of those who coined the words, much of today’s philosophy is not, in fact, philosophy. Not only is there the question of objectivity and objective knowledge to consider, but the question of perspective. The ancient philosophers saw truth as the correspondence to ultimate reality, the objective judge to our own subjective thoughts and experiences, in accordance with which a thought is either correct and, therefore, true, or otherwise doomed to be incorrect and antithetical to the pursuit of wisdom.

Due to shifts in modern philosophy, of which Descartes seems to be the ultimate culprit, this definition has shifted. Whereas Plato and Aristotle judged themselves by the objective reality of the world, Descartes judged the whole world on the basis of his own experience in his famous cogito ergo sum in his Discourse on Method. Though seemingly unproblematic and in accordance to the teachings of Socrates, who instructed all his students to judge all things by reason, this idea departs its follower from the true pursuit of wisdom. After all, Socrates did also council to first have that same hermeneutic of suspicion toward the thinker himself. In the Meno, Plato reminds us to always question, before everything else, our own knowledge. Meno tells Socrates that he has mesmerized him and Socrates shows, through teaching his slave some basic geometry, that unless that first reaction of being lost is present, anyone would go on making speeches about how doubling the sides of a square makes its area double in size.

Under this frame lies a debate which has not much been explored, the question about which of the following two statements better describes one’s attitude toward philosophy and, perhaps, all things in life; Socrates’ γνώθι σαυτόν or Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. One asks for an initial introspection into the thinker, before one’s thoughts can be trusted. The other takes the existence of his thoughts as the hinge upon which all reality is hung.

Descartes teaches that all have privileged mental access to their own minds, saying that there could never be a thought that is hidden from the thinker. Socrates, on the other hand, presents a picture of the human soul that is shrouded in mystery. He goes so far as to say that all learning is, in fact, remembering. In short, he tells us that we are, deep inside, gifted with great wisdom, but that we have forgotten it and have sold ourselves short. This fits perfectly with the imagery of the cave in the Republic, where all men are brought into the world inside the cave, looking at shadows cast by puppets in front of a fireplace, not even able to see themselves.

Luckily, there is a way out of that initial darkness. When the prisoners realize that there must be more behind them, casting the shadows on the wall of the cave, there are able to see a way out, though it is long and difficult and, through the entrance to the cave, as a singe dart, pierce the pure rays of the Sun. Philosophy, then, requires the person to first climb out of the cave and into the plain which is illumined by that Sun, so the person may know first who he is and who the Sun is and then to go back into the cave and bring the others into the Sun as well.

However, this process comes with great risks, because one does not know what is outside the cave. Suppose, for example, that there are terrifying wild beasts roaming through the plain. Even worse, imagine if, upon coming out of the cave, the person discovers that they are themselves the terrifying beast. In yet another worst-case scenario, what if, upon coming out of the cave, they become the wild beast and seek to bring all that is out there under their own dominion. The aforementioned three worst-case scenarios are three attitudes that are antithetical to philosophy. The first is timidity and comfort, the view that what one has now is enough and that there is probably nothing more to discover. The second is the outlook of Machiavelli, who invites us to throw off the idea that our standard should be the God made Man of Christianity or even the half-man who has overcome the half-beast of Classical wisdom in Chiron, but the lion and the fox. The third is the outlook of Francis Bacon, Nietzsche, Sartre, et al., who invite us to bring nature and all that is in it under our dominion.

It is easy to accept that we must throw off the third view in order to develop philosophy, but the other two seem to be less relenting. What if there really are beasts roaming all but the cave? The answer to this view is love. Socrates first loves wisdom, then he can know it and his reward for this courageous jump is death. Yet, he is willing to continue in his path no matter what the consequences are, accepting as a lesser evil to die rather than to not keep onto the true path. However, what if we really are a beast, capable of nothing more than devouring? The answer to this view is self-control. For better or for worse, humankind can, always, though some times the struggle is of Herculean proportions, stop itself. Unless one exercises self-control, then they will never make it out of the cave. If they seek to voraciously charge into the unknown, they will probably bash themselves on the rocks or fall into a precipice.

All three attitudes can be refuted by one word, ethics. This is the one area of philosophy that no one can escape and, surprisingly, the one area of philosophy that, with the combined ideology of Machiavelli’s beastly teaching and Descartes’ internalistic picture of the world is most at peril in our culture. Nietzsche and Sartre strike at this very heart of philosophy and discover that, once it has been removed, philosophy itself becomes little more than mockery. Nietzsche advises his reader to go beyond good and evil into a new existence, which renders him limitless, but every attempt to put his work into practice has ended in horrific failure, even his own. Bacon invites his reader to put nature under the rack until she spits our all her secrets, but nature, that ever-cunning mistress, retreats only to entice him to pursue her further, ultimately ending in a horrific double-envelopment on her part which, on the contrary of forcing her to tell all her secrets, brings out the monstrosity of “men-without-chests.”

Instead, the Medieval Scholastic tradition of the West and the Eastern Patristic writings, in one breath, invite the person to have a sacramental and reverential view of the whole world. Some might be shocked to find out that this is also a Platonic teaching, to be found in the Symposium, in Eryximachus’ speech, who says that love occurs everywhere in the universe. It follows from that idea that love is the correct attitude toward all things. Ethics, therefore, maps out how that love is to be exhibited toward each thing. Only through this view can anyone ever reach true wisdom.

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