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The Philosopher as Lover

Continuing our series of personal interpretations of philosophy, Peter Rickman extols the passionate philosopher.

No, this is not about lovers in close embrace whispering metaphysics. A kind of Kinsey report on the sexual behaviour of philosophers is not only beyond my scope, but is likely to be fairly unproductive. Many philosophers such as Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche lived fairly austere and chaste lives and information about those who were not is inadequate. Socrates’ marriage was not, we gather, entirely happy and Mrs. Aristotle and Mrs. Hegel have been silent on their marital bliss. Instead this essay is about the love of wisdom, which is what the Greek term ‘philosophy’ means. The translation is familiar enough yet it is worth stressing as a challenge to some of what goes on under the name of philosophy. So we need to consider more closely the two key terms involved: ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’.

Through its history practitioners of philosophy have needed, from time to time, to be reminded that their concern was not an idle game, or an exercise of the mind like crossword puzzles, but a passionate pursuit. At the very dawn of systematic philosophy Plato made this point in his Symposium. At that drinking party love is the chosen subject and each guest contributes to the conversation from his own point of view, as poet, scientist or doctor. Aristophanes’ contribution is droll but projects an idea of love which has proved fatefully persistent. He tells us of four-legged, four-armed creatures who once inhabited the earth and because of their power and happiness became arrogant. The gods cut them in half to create what we know as human beings and ever since then the halves look for the lost happiness by being reunited to their other half and this is love. The insidious power of the story lies in the idea that we need to look for that one unique person who will perfectly match us and that failures in love relationships are due to our not having found that missing half.

Socrates’ contribution culminates in his account of the passion which is philosophy. This is the mind’s striving to ascend from bits of information or scraps of knowledge to universal truth, from attachment to particular beautiful objects to a science of beauty everywhere. This is the flight of the soul, which makes us most fully human. Philosophy, if it is of real significance, cannot be the passion of a few eccentrics as might be the passion for collecting old matchboxes. The philosophers’ concern merely reflects in a more sustained and systematic fashion a universal passion, though it may burn dimly in some, more brightly in others. Philosophers throughout the ages believed this. Nietzsche, though he rebelled in so many ways against the traditions of philosophy, was faithful to it in this respect. In Joyful Wisdom he wrote “Yet what is goodheartedness, refinement and genius to me, when … [in] the human being who has these virtues… the demand for certainty is not for him the inmost craving and the deepest need… not to question, not to tremble with the craving and the joy of questioning… that is what I feel to be contemptible… Some foolishness persuades me ever and again that every human being has this feeling, as a human being.”

When we turn to the object of the philosophers’ passion, the problem becomes more intricate, indeed the suspicion of polygamy creeps in. Sophia means, of course, ‘wisdom’ and it first makes its appearance as a negative virtue. In the Apology Socrates is depicted as testing the Delphic Oracle’s pronouncement that no one is wiser than Socrates. He checks on the supposed wisdom of politicians, poets and specialist experts, and dismissing their claims to superiority, concludes that people are only wise when, like Socrates himself, they know that they knows nothing. Wisdom here is recognition of one’s limitations.

There are other claimants to the title. Wisdom is sometimes conceived as a moral quality, which has little to do with intellectual insight, as a matter of balancing and controlling ones impulses and giving consideration to the claims of others. But wisdom can also be seen as the opposite of stupidity. In a memorable passage Immanuel Kant contrasts learning, that is knowledge of facts, principles and rules, to judgement, the capacity to apply one’s knowledge. The inability to apply one’s knowledge he calls stupidity. One can be learned but stupid. It is not far fetched to call therefore the capacity to use your knowledge wisdom.

The philosophers’ object of desire has even more faces. For the Greek philosophers and many of their successors, philosophy represented a comprehensive search for knowledge, not, of course, a mass of trivial bits of information as are required in such quiz shows as Mastermind or Brain of Britain but an understanding of life and of the world we live in, a common human aspiration to see connecting threads between fragments of daily experience. Thus Plato, long before most of these subjects existed as separate disciplines, embedded psychological and sociological theories, reflections on mathematics, cosmology, language and politics in his writing. As various disciplines attained autonomous status philosophers tended to define their subject more narrowly, yet the width of their interests continued to be striking. Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Kant were profoundly involved in disciplines such as mathematics, physics, cosmology and biology and in some cases made distinguished contributions to one or the other.

Of course, for some philosophers this was not a matter of keeping a harem or commuting between wife and mistresses. For Plato and Aristotle or for Spinoza – probably the last great philosopher in this tradition – knowledge of reality, a sense of the scope and limits of human power, the capacity for judgement and the search for the best way to live were all part of a single quest. Understanding the nature of the universe also illuminated our place in it and thereby our proper role. Modern philosophy has thrown a sword into this marital bed. There is no link between ‘is’ and ‘ought’. If being wise means having a sense of moral values it may have nothing to do with the passionate quest for knowledge, which may indeed encourage and condone cruelty; as do some scientific experiments on animals. Nor need it go with a capacity to apply one’s knowledge or with a sense of one’s limitations; a successful gangster may possess both.

So in his loving the modern philosopher needs to be a little promiscuous because what deserves his passion does not merge into a single beloved shape. He must surely approve of the forward march of science providing greater insights as well as healing the sick and feeding the starving, yet he must also preserve the sense of being on the way in this and other spheres, rather than arrogantly think himself at goals. Such tentativeness will help him to respect the views and interests of others. He will relentlessly seek clarity and yet be aware of the darkness of inaccessible depth. His passion will not come to rest on a single object or idea. His unceasing search makes him the eternal prototype of the philanderer, for the pursuit of knowledge without moral restraint will people the earth with monsters.

© Peter Rickman 1998

Peter Rickman is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at The City University, London

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