To Be a Philosopher

2011-07-13

In the ten minutes a day I have for reading something other than work-related emails and protocol specifications, I've been absorbing Pierre Hadot's book What Is Ancient Philosophy? There's so much to reflect on here that I'll need to read it again and then post further. However, I wanted to note one small point about the genesis of the term philosophy.

For the ancient Greeks, the "philo-" prefix meant to love a thing or activity, to take great interest in it, to find your highest pleasure in it. Thus a myriad of terms like φιλόγαιος (earth-lover), φιλογύνης (interested in women), φιλόθηρος (enjoying the hunt), φίλοινος (wine-lover), φιλότεχνος (loving or practicing an art), even φιλόφιλος (taking great pleasure in your friends). So a φιλόσοφος was someone who loved, took pleasure in, was intensely interested in, was fascinated by, or was otherwise engaged in σοφία.

But what was this σοφία? To be σοφός was to be skillful, clever, cunning, crafty, prudent, shrewd, wise in the sense of streetwise, but also well-taught, knowledgeable, learned, profound, subtle, abstruse. You could have σοφία -- know-how -- in practical activities like carpentry or shipbuilding or the playing of the lyre. You could also have it in language and discourse, like the Sophists, who would teach you (for a fee) the tricks of the rhetorical trade so that you could be skillful and successful in the public life of the city-state.

Yet merely to be fond of speaking (φιλόλογος) was not the same as being fond of wisdom (φιλόσοφος), because φιλοσοφία was a way of living -- especially a particular rule of life associated with a school (really a community of like-minded and similarly-instructed fellow seekers-after-wisdom) such as the Platonists or Stoics or Epicureans. To be a philosopher meant to live a philosophical life: not a life of theoretical hair-splitting, but a life of practical wisdom, active reason and reasoned action, deep reflection, true consciousness, vibrant awareness, moral ambition, never-ending spiritual practice, continual striving after self-improvement, the exercise of all your faculties, skillfulness in the great task of living a fully human life.

And that vision is not only ancient. As Thoreau said not so very long ago: "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not just theoretically, but practically."

Perhaps, too, there is still space for such a life in our modern society.


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