On the Work of Philosophy

Philosophy is the love of wisdom. But what precisely is wisdom? To answer this question is to realize the great work of philosophy.

A large swathe of the modern – or more precisely, Enlightenment-born – discipline called philosophy is the love of facts. It concerns itself variously with analytics, empirical observation, and axioms. Some of its adherents enjoy talking about how they are fans of Science. I got taught about Science in school. It’s a rather effective methodology for engaging in physical, empirical research.

However, its ability to develop wisdom seems debatable. Depending whose hands it is in, Science can be put to use building rockets, prison camps, atom bombs, telescopes, sex change surgeries, coal mines, or restored forests. Chances are you find some of the items in that list unwise. “Science” has never governed any polity nor ever will; men alone govern. Philosophy, it seems, is something more than fact collection. Prior to any application of facts, there is a mind engaged in judgement of how to apply them. Knowing how to make dynamite does not tell me what it should be used for.

The postmodern discipline going by the same name is the love of critique. It no longer concerns itself with either wisdom or facts, but rather with power. To it belongs the language of deconstruction. It holds to Marx’s statement that the central task of the philosopher is to change the world. As our concern is wisdom and not political revolt, we will pass over it too.

The understanding of wisdom given by Socrates is the clearest proof that the Sophia (wisdom) of the Greeks differs from the empirical knowledge of the analyst or scientist. He declares repeatedly that he only knows that he knows nothing, and thus the Delphic Oracle declared him the wisest man in Greece. He is wise precisely because he doubts his senses and human level of reason. The wisdom of Socrates is a form of humility. It is a type of understanding; and if the work of philosophy is to attain understanding, then it operates as much on the philosopher as on the objects of its contemplation.

But this understanding ought not to be taken as skepticism for its own sake. If anything, the word skepticism is too tainted by ideology to be of much use. Orthodox Christian theology makes wonderful use of the term nepsis, which translates into “watchfulness”. Specifically, watchfulness over thought and passion. Socrates clearly has great powers of reasoning; unlike the self-proclaimed rationalists of our day who succeeded the Sophists of his, Socrates realizes that men of powerful intellect can reason themselves into a great many illusions and falsehoods. Only those with humility can reach understanding. But understanding of what?

Socrates answers in Phaedrus, explaining why he does not study mythology:

“But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things. And so I dismiss these matters and accepting the customary belief about them, as I was saying just now, I investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.”

Ergo, the wisdom of philosophy demands self-understanding. In fact, self-understanding comes before all else. Nor does self-understanding occur with the knower as isolated observer. Self-knowledge is itself a change in the knower. Therefore, such knowledge becomes a great work with one’s own self as both subject and object. This means that reason is a means of philosophy and not an end. The philosopher is not being used by reason; reason is being used by the philosopher. If this is so, then the philosopher’s position is super-rational: he stands prior to it.

Socrates (or Plato through him) hints that this means that the Philosopher might access other means of self-knowledge. Socrates, the arch-reasoner, heeds the signs of a “divine something” (daimonion) which warns him when he is about to make a mistake. Whether this is an aspect of Socrates’ own self or an external guide is left to the reader’s consideration.

To understand oneself is to know what one is. And there is no isolated individual. The great myth of the Enlightenment philosophers – the lone ego, the sovereign individual, the state of nature, the blank slate – is just that, a myth. Unlike the great myths of gods and heroes, this myth has not given us wisdom. It has obscured the fundamental truth which Aristotle propounded millennia ago: that we all take part in a common life.

“Man is by nature a social animal…Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

Not just an expression of human order, man is an expression of the order of the cosmos. Thus, to know the order of one’s own self is to know the truth and nature of this fundamental order: its motion and form, its becoming and being.

A challenge was recently laid down to at last seize philosophy from its abstract, rationalist captors and return it to its cause: self-knowledge. Such a task is impossible in the trappings of academia, the great work of such thinkers as Alasdair MacIntyre notwithstanding. As the challenger points out, the philosopher of the future must likely work alongside priests and prophets for his work to bear fruit. Something more like Plato’s academy is probably required. Or perhaps Pythagoras’ cult.



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