Philosophy is Not About Consolation

In reading some of the work of Pierre Hadot, who is largely responsible for the contemporary debate about philosophy as a way of life, it seems to me there is a fundamental tension between philosophy inspired by a sense of wonder with a commitment to pursue the truth come what may vs. philosophy as a form of “soul building” and paideia (the ideal education for a member of the Greek polis.)

A commitment to pursue the truth come what may purely for the sake of discovery is central to philosophy’s mission and that is independent of any usefulness that philosophy might have in making us better persons. Theory is worth pursuing in itself. Thus, if philosophy is a way of life, if it guides our actions and deeply informs our outlook on life, it must be because we are inspired and motivated by this pursuit of understanding for its own sake. Whether philosophy provides some additional benefit is another matter.

Both Socrates and Aristotle thought philosophy confers benefits on the person who practices it. For Socrates, philosophy is essential in caring for one’s soul, which he thinks of as the part of us that reasons and is the bearer of moral qualities. For Aristotle, philosophy is essential for acquiring intellectual and moral virtue. For both we become better persons, and more human, through the study of philosophy. Thus the goal of understanding and the goal of character building were mutually supporting aims. But they are not precisely the same goal. One can imagine pursuing understanding while caring little for one’s welfare or the welfare of others.

We see these two aims come apart even more forcefully in Hellenistic philosophy. The Stoics, Epicureans, and even the Skeptics were preoccupied with the pursuit of tranquility, a calming of the emotions and the avoidance of anything that would disturb the repose and composure necessary for a good life. They thought philosophy contributes to tranquility by reigning in excessive desire and emotion.

This is a peculiar idea. Why think the pursuit of truth issues in tranquility? One would think just the opposite. Some truths are hard and disturbing and we can fully acknowledge them only by being disturbed.

It seems to me philosophy is not best understood as a form of therapy and the benefit of conceptualizing philosophy as a way of life rather than an academic pursuit is not that it provides consolation. That misunderstands what philosophy is about.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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