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Philosophers Behaving Badly by Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson

Stephen Juan reviews the bad behaviour reported by Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson.

Philosophers may lead us in terms of profound ideas, but their personal lives can be quite another matter entirely. As historian Nigel Rodgers and philosopher Mel Thompson write in their marvelous little book, Philosophers Behaving Badly, “a life of reason does not necessarily lead to a reasonable life.” Their portraits of eight philosophers bring home this point again and again. Although monumental in their insights, these philosophers were screwed up!

When not too self-obsessed, greedy, proud and incredibly lacking in any semblance of a conscience, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) succeeded in setting out principles of society, democracy, education and humanity ’s place in nature which greatly helped to form the foundation for intellectual, social and political revolutions in at least three nations. The impact of his ideas upon our world today is enormous. Yet Rousseau treated people terribly – particularly women – even those who showed him kindness for many years, of whom there were several. He dealt with the people closest to him as if their sole reason for existence was to serve him and stroke his massive ego. If alive today, he would come perilously close to being diagnosed as a sociopath.

Rousseau’s life was a disastrous mass of contradictions and inconsistencies. Praising conjugal love, he never properly married, but displayed a callous neglect of Therese, his lifelong partner. Adoring children, he readily abandoned his own. Believing that intellectual hatreds were the worst, he engaged in endless battles of ideas. Deploring the advent of printing, he was a prolific writer. A hater of privilege and wealth, he always relied on the rich and the great for support.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) developed a profound awareness of the extent to which our understanding shapes our experience. He rediscovered and championed the philosophies of the East, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. This helped energize Western thought when it was in dire need of it. He presented a cogent and influential analysis of the way in which we relate to our world. Yet Schopenhauer was continually sunk into a pessimism that today could be diagnosed as bipolar disease. His depression, self-loathing, multiple phobias (agoraphobia, cholerophobia, nosophobia, to name a few) and paranoia gave birth to extreme right-wing political beliefs, misanthropy and misogyny. Schopenhauer never married, had no affairs with women of his own class, and was incapable of establishing what might be considered a normal relationship with a woman. Yet he was ready to exploit maids and other women in lesser roles who could gratify his baser will.

The origin of Schopenhauer’s personality traits, as with all of us, was in his childhood and youth, which was traumatic. His father was a wealthy, cosmopolitan, cultured but very gloomy merchant, who was emotionally distant from the young Arthur. His mother was worse. She strongly disliked her own children. Both Arthur and his younger sister Adele would today be classified as victims of emotional and perhaps physical child abuse.

We can hardly even start to describe Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) influence on thought. His aphoristic insights have inspired the modern view of humanity. As Rodgers and Thompson write, “in a world loosed from the bonds of pre-determined values, his is a challenge to say ‘Yes’ to a freely chosen future.” Nietzsche’s steady drift into personal isolation and madness was possibly caused by untreated syphilis [this diagnosis is attacked in this issue ’s letters page by psychiatrist Eva Cybulska]. His megalomania and strident declaration that he was the embodiment of philosophical greatness drove everyone away. His legendary personal betrayal and subsequent hatred of composer Richard Wagner, a father figure, is typical of his disastrous personal life. At times he believed he was possessed by spirits. His sabotaging of all relationships and the distancing of himself from friends resulted in him receiving only one Christmas card for his last Christmas. His famous line about women speaks volumes: “Are you visiting women? Do not forget the whip!”

In addition to his brilliant analysis of logic and contribution to the modern understanding of mathematics, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) brought philosophy out of its academic closet and broadcast it far and wide in a popular engagement with the issues of his day. Despite his periodic bouts of depression, continual relationship upheavals and frequent domestic disasters, he was a superb publicist for the process of thinking. Although referred to as “the Voltaire of the 20th century”, Rodgers and Thompson write:

“Rational, enlightened ideas did not prevent Russell, who greatly wanted children, from being as disastrous a father and grandfather as he often was a husband or lover. How far his personal failures invalidate his ideas, and how far they merely reflect Russell ’s own troubled character, are far from academic questions. Dealing with other individuals, as opposed to pontificating about humanity, Russell could behave with cold callousness, suggesting ‘two fundamental traits... a deep-seated fear of madness and a quite colossal vanity ’.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), it is tempting to say, was able to take philosophy to a new level by sheer intellectual weight. He led it off in many extraordinary directions. Although economically very wealthy from his family’s steel mills, he was poverty-stricken psychologically. He was an intellectual and physical bully who did not shy away from brow-beating other philosophers, students, and even pushing around school children. Suicidal, death-obsessed, and probably homosexual when that life-style was a criminal offence, his problem-plagued personal life ranged from allegedly picking up tricks in a public park in Vienna to having to hurriedly leave his school teaching job in order to avoid the wrath of villagers concerned about his beating of their children. This was in rural Austria, which was then known for its unrestrained use of corporal punishment in schools. Wittgenstein’s short, violent, and frequently-expressed temper was infamous. He vented his spleen on numerous occasions, upon friends and foes without discrimination – even threatening Karl Popper with a fireplace poker during a debate; “but philosophy has since found its way out of the rather narrow alley down which he led it, and aspirants to serious thought are no longer required to wear open-necked white shirts, ” as Rodgers and Thompson write.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) produced a monumental analysis of how we can understand ourselves in terms of time and experience. Even his later thoughts on technology and ecology are highly relevant today given the spectre of global warming [see this issue]. Unfortunately, Heidegger’s thinking cannot entirely be disassociated from his great political folly of enthusiastically supporting Hitler ’s government and basically serving as a philosophical stooge of the Nazis.

In Heidegger, Rodgers and Thompson paint a portrait of an essentially selfish and ruthless man. He saw the Nazis as the political movement best expressing his basic concept of Dasein (‘there-being’). When it served his immediate purposes, he was quick to betray, among others, his mentor (Edmund Husserl), his lover (Hannah Arendt) and his friend (Karl Jaspers). Later he half-heartedly attempted to distance himself from his Nazi past.

In some ways, Heidegger emerges from the Rodgers and Thompson book as perhaps the philosopher who has the most to answer for. But there are seven other strong competitors.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) undoubtedly transported philosophy from the lecture hall to the café, while making existentialism a movement to be celebrated, even by those who understood little of it. Sartre produced literary gems which transcend and illustrate the limitations of the rational – obsessively writing himself into his works. Love him or hate him, he stands as a giant. Yet he was obsessed with incest towards his mother, hated children, hated animals, was famous for hypocrisy in his relationships and known for discarding lovers as if they were so much waste paper.

Due to his many excesses, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) is almost too easy a target for criticism. Certainly he deserves to be celebrated for the boldness of his works as well as their originality, and his unflinching eye for the truths embodied in life, society, and especially the power politics of social relationships. His analysis of patterns of thought, the nature of language, and his exploration of madness, sex and punishment, while certainly not standard fare for philosophers, brilliantly merges the study of philosophy with history, sociology, anthropology and psychology.

It is still debated whether Foucault knowingly transmitted AIDS to many men through unprotected sex. Sad too is his legacy at Berkeley, where he was known among students of the day as “that mad French leather queen who whips anyone who’ll let him at San Francisco gay bath houses.” Rodgers and Thompson write, “In the final year of his life, in discussing the risk of AIDS, he said, ‘Besides, to die for the love of boys: what could be more beautiful?’”

Philosophers Behaving Badly brilliantly attests to the fact that, indeed, “a life of reason does not necessarily lead to a reasonable life.” Here are eight giants as philosophers, but dwarfs as human beings. Rodgers and Thompson aptly conclude that the “appreciation of their fallibility may encourage us – however aware we may be of our own follies and limitations – to dare think beyond ourselves.”

© Dr Stephen Juan 2008

Stephen Juan is an anthropologist of human development and the Ashley Montague Fellow for the Public Understanding of Human Sciences at the University of Sydney. He is the author of the Odd Books series on the body, brain, and behaviour.

Philosophers Behaving Badly by Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson, Peter Owen Publishers 2005, pb, £13.95/$(US)22.41/$(Aus)24.95, 240 pages, ISBN 0720612195.

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