What is it to be wise? (readings)

The modern conception of philosophy

Wisdom … is no doubt too much to demand of human beings. But also not even the slightest degree of wisdom can be poured into a man by others; rather he must bring it forth from himself. The precept for reaching it contains three leading maxims: 1) Think for yourself, 2) think into the place of the other (in communication with human beings), 3) always think consistently with oneself.

Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view (1798).

 

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)

 

The Ancient conception of philosophy

From the preceding examples, we may get some idea of the change in perspective that may occur in our reading and interpretation of the philosophical works of antiquity when we consider them from the point of view of the practice of spiritual exercises. Philosophy then appears in its original aspect: not as a theoretical construct, but as a method for training people to live and to look at the world in a new way. It is an attempt to transform mankind. Contemporary historians of philosophy are today scarcely inclined to pay attention to this aspect, although it is an essential one. The reason for this is that, in conformity with a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages … they consider philosophy to be purely abstract-theoretical activity.

(…) With the advent of medieval Scholasticism … we find a clear distinction between theologia and philosophia. Theology became conscious of its autonomy qua supreme science, which philosophy was emptied of its spiritual exercises, which, from now on, were relegated to Christian mysticism and ethics. Reduced to the rank of a “handmaid of theology,” philosophy’s role was henceforth to furnish theology with conceptual—and hence purely theoretical—material. When, in the modern age, philosophy regained its autonomy, it still retained many features inherited from this medieval conception. In particular, it maintained its purely theoretical character, which even evolved in the direction of a more and more thorough systemization. Not until Nietzsche, Bergson, and existentialism does philosophy consciously return to being a concrete attitude, a way of life and of seeing the world.

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (1995), p. 107

 

Socrates on philosophy as the practice of dying

SOCRATES: Never mind him, said Socrates. Now for you, my jury. I want to explain to you how it seems to me natural that a man who has really devoted his life to philosophy should be cheerful in the face of death, and confident of finding the greatest blessing in the next world when his life is finished. I will try to make clear to you, Simmias and Cebes, how this can be so.

Ordinary people seem not to realize that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death. If this is true, and they have actually been looking forward to death all their lives, it would of course be absurd to be troubled when the thing comes for which they have so long been preparing and looking forward.

SIMMIAS: Simmias laughed and said, Upon my word, Socrates, you have made me laugh, though I was not at all in the mood for it. I am sure that if they heard what you said, most people would think–and our fellow countrymen would heartily agree–that it was a very good hit at the philosophers to say that they are half dead already, and that they, the normal people, are quite aware that death would serve the philosophers right.

SOCRATES: And they would be quite correct, Simmias–except in thinking that they are ‘quite aware.’ They are not at all aware in what sense true philosophers are half dead, or in what sense they deserve death, or what sort of death they deserve. But let us dismiss them and talk among ourselves. Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?

SIMMIAS: Most certainly, said Simmias, taking up the role of answering.

SOCRATES: Is it simply the release of the soul from the body? Is death nothing more or less than this, the separate condition of the body by itself when it is released from the soul, and the separate condition by itself of the soul when released from the body? Is death anything else than this?

SIMMIAS: No, just that.

SOCRATES: Well then, my boy, see whether you agree with me. I fancy that this will help us to find out the answer to our problem. Do you think that it is right for a philosopher to concern himself with the so-called pleasures connected with food and drink?

SIMMIAS: Certainly not, Socrates, said Simmias.

SOCRATES: What about sexual pleasures?

SIMMIAS: No, not at all.

SOCRAES: And what about the other attentions that we pay to our bodies? Do you think that a philosopher attaches any importance to them? I mean things like providing himself with smart clothes and shoes and other bodily ornaments; do you think that he values them or despises them–in so far as there is no real necessity for him to go in for that sort of thing?

SIMMIAS: I think the true philosopher despises them, he said.

SOCRATES: Then it is your opinion in general that a man of this kind is not concerned with the body, but keeps his attention directed as much as he can away from it and toward the soul?

SIMMIAS: Yes, it is.

SOCRATES: So it is clear first of all in the case of physical pleasures that the philosopher frees his soul from association with the body, so far as is possible, to a greater extent than other men?

SIMMIAS: It seems so.

SOCRATES: And most people think, do they not, Simmias, that a man who finds no pleasure and takes no part in these things does not deserve to live, and that anyone who thinks nothing of physical pleasures has one foot in the grave?

SIMMIAS: That is perfectly true

Plato, Phaedo 63e-65a.

 

The allegory of the cave

SOCRATES: And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! Human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

GLAUCON: I see.

SOCRATES: And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

GLAUCON: You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

SOCRATES: Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

GLAUCON: True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

SOCRATES: And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

GLAUCON: Yes, he said.

SOCRATES: And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

GLAUCON: Very true.

SOCRATES: And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

GLAUCON: No question, he replied.

SOCRATES: To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

GLAUCON: That is certain.

SOCRATES: And now look again, and see what will naturally follow it’ the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

GLAUCON: Far truer.

SOCRATES: And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

GLAUCON: True, he now

SOCRATES: And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

GLAUCON: Not all in a moment, he said.

SOCRATES: He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

GLAUCON: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

GLAUCON: Certainly.

SOCRATES: He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

GLAUCON: Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.

SOCRATES: And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

GLAUCON: Certainly, he would.

SOCRATES: And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer: “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”

GLAUCON: Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.

SOCRATES: Imagine once more, I said, such man coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

GLAUCON: To be sure, he said.

SOCRATES: And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

Plato, The Republic, Book VI.

 

Axial Age and Oriental Philosophy

 

An axis of world history, if such a thing exists, would have to be discovered empirically, as a fact capable of being accepted as such by all men, Christians included. This axis would be situated at the point in history which gave birth to everything which, since then, man has been able to be, the point most overwhelmingly fruitful in fashioning humanity. (…) It would seem that this axis of history is to be found around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. (…) The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao Tse were living China … India produced the Upanishads and Buddha … In Iran, Zarathustra taught … In Palestine, the prophets made their appearance … Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers (Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato) of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes.

Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (1949).

 

In Ancient India each department of learning was associated with a highly specialized skill and corresponding way of life. The knowledge was not to be culled from books primarily, or from lectures, discussions, and conversation, but to be mastered through apprenticeship to a competent teacher. It required the wholehearted surrender of a malleable pupil to the authority of the guru, its elementary prerequisites being obedience (śuśrūṣa) and implicit faith (śraddhā).

(…) As for the life and morals of the guru himself: it is required that there should be an identity—an absolute, point-for-point correspondence—between his teachings and his way of life; the sort of identity that we should expect to find in the West only in a monk or priest.

(…) Precisely in this way, Oriental philosophy is accompanied and supported by the practice of a way of life—monastic seclusion, asceticism, meditation, prayer, yoga-exercises, and daily devotional hours of worship.

(…) This Indian view of the identity of personality and conduct with teaching is well rendered in the apt comment of a Hindu friend of mine in criticism of a certain popular book on Oriental philosophy. “After all,” said he, “real attainment is only what finds confirmation in one’s own life. The worth of a man’s writing depends on the degree to which his life is itself an example of his teaching.”

Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (1951).

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One Response to What is it to be wise? (readings)

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Ancient and Modern Western Thought | A post-secular age

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