As we learnt last time, Socrates was the greatest know-nothing; and importantly, he knew it. Still, despite his genuine protestations, Socrates was actually brilliant. ‘The wisest of them all’ the Oracle of Delphi said; and everybody knew it.
Now it might occur to you that it is actually Socrates’ brilliance that affords him his philosophical ignorance. He had the right kind of smarts to come to grips with, and flourish from, knowing he knows nothing — the extraordinary natural talent to be a philosopher. He’s marked by the divine sign, for goodness sakes! Whereas, like those everyday thinkers who Socrates relentlessly questioned, someone like me (you think) does not have his sort of philosophical mind, just an ordinary mind confined to the usual ignorant.
Perhaps, resigning you to declare: ‘Yeah, it’s alright for Socrates, but I’m just not smart enough to be a philosopher.’
Such a sentiment corresponds with the notion that philosophy requires brilliance; some raw, given talent is prerequisite.(Here is some recent research.) This generally presupposes that there is some special philosophy brain; just like there is supposedly a special maths brain, and a special artistic one. In general I find all this talk of special brains extremely dubious.
Notwithstanding massive advances in neuroscience, it remains extremely difficult to explain any observable neurobiological brain differences, and claims that observed brain difference support alleged distinct sorts/types/groups of brains remain deeply contentious. Findings are often just misappropriated for perpetuating certain prejudices, like women can’t read maps of Venus and Martian men don’t listen (latest research actual debunks this particular bunkum).
Though, for argument’s sake, let us suppose neuroscience could eventually identify a special philosophy brain, one naturally brilliant at philosophy, it does not follow that the owner of that sort of brain will automatically be a philosopher. Nor that it is impossible to turn a thoroughly ordinary brain into a brilliant philosophical one.
No philosopher comes ready-made. Only as Plato’s conceit does Socrates land fully formed and eternally wise in Ancient Athens. We all realise that the real-life Socrates must have had to survive human scrapes in human ways. You know the sort of thing — unlike the smart kid, he always forgets which is the hypotenuse for the new-fangled Pythagorus’ Theorem, he’s picked last for the junior wrestling team down the gymnasium, he cries behind the latrines for being called ‘big nose.’ But our desire to deify brilliance means that even as the butt of Aristophanes’ comedy, Socrates floats amongst the clouds with the Gods, rather than sink in the earth with us mortals.
This deification of brilliance is so strong that even where we know a brilliant philosopher endured a long, faltering growth we paint this as their marks of natural exception, not exceptional effort. Kant is probably modern philosophy’s most influential thinker. But, unlike Socrates, much of Kant’s actual daily life and struggle is legendary. A promising start, yet, no bright lights; years of regimented long days including early morning writing sessions, teaching pretty much everything on the eighteenth-century university curriculum to make ends meet, a daily walk you could set your clock by, dining with every brilliant mind who was willing; a couple of glimmering early works; a decade without a publishing anything at all. Then, and only then, did that lifetime produce the works that out-shine all modern philosophy.
Undoubtedly, Kant is brilliant, and considering all we know of his life, it falls short, or seems back-to-front, to put it all down as the product of his given brilliance. He probably was born with a natural spark but his devoted effort to a philosophical life produced his shining brilliance.
‘Still,’ you protest, ‘I could put in the same effort and it all just come to nothing!’
Well, that depends on the ‘nothing.’ Now, if the ‘something’ that you are pitching your nothing against is that your brilliance will be declared from the rooftops and furnish you in glory, then yes you are pretty much guaranteed that it will come to nothing. Because it is really only posterity that judges anyone as brilliant and by that time you are DEAD.
Whereas, if the ‘something’ is a philosophical life, then, this never just comes to nothing. Remember it all started when ancient philosophy asked ‘how to live?’ the Oracle told us ‘know thyself.’ Following this aim of self-examination, I proposed that the guiding principle of philosophy is ‘what are we doing, and why are we doing it?’ Combined with philosophically ignorance, it is to truly understand our own limits, whatever they might be. NONE of this demands being good at it, being brilliant. Regardless of our capabilities, we can get something out of — flourish from — a philosophical life.
More importantly, I think, if we are going to live it we had better jolly well enjoy it! If there is a requirement, any demand, for a philosophical life, it is to love it. To have a deeply care for and sincere interest in philosophy, and embrace it with curiosity and wonder.
Even if you have a natural talent for philosophy, I suggest that this is the wrong, perhaps the worst, reason to be a philosopher. Without a whole hearted love for what you are doing you risk becoming what I previously described technically as ‘being a dick.’
And the truly wise realise this.
Next time: The Virtuous Change Their Mind.