Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What philosophy is

Whenever someone rolls his eyes (either literally or figuratively) at the mention of philosophy, I cannot help but sympathize. After two years of graduate coursework, I think I could write a pretty funny satire simply by recording the conversations we had around the seminar table: "What is it like to be a bat? Could I ever be a bat? If you were a bat, could I empathize with you? Can I empathize with you anyway? Can we even know if we are or are not bats?" On and on. Such a story would, however, rapidly become a sin against charity, so we'll have to forgo such giggles.

But the sort of philosophy that gets the eyeballs rolling is not what Aristotle thought of as philosophy. And my heart breaks when I think that philosophy has become something that only a very few twenty-somethings pursue around a seminar table.

To do philosophy, Joseph Pieper says, we must first ask what is the nature of man? Philosophy is intrinsic to human nature. (He's referring, in part, back to Aristotle's "all men by nature desire to know.") To philosophize is to step out of the everyday world, where everything we do must be useful. It is to simply stop and contemplate what is true and good and beautiful for its own sake.

This seems to most of us most of the time a waste. Philosophy appears to be a luxury and useless--which, in terms of dollars and clean diapers, it is. It appears to the working man to be subversive, because it is a disturbance. It is a space where the work-a-day world is not respected and made absolute. But this space is essential to our happiness, and here's why.

The human person has both a body that needs feeding and a more-than-physical soul, its intellect and will, which also need "feeding." The intellect, in order to be satisfied, needs the truth. The will, in order to be happy, needs to be free. The human soul, then, is most itself when it contemplates the true, the good, and the beautiful for its own sake. That is, philosophy can be a radical act of freedom--we don't do it to feed the kids, to keep the house clean, to get a promotion. We simply do it because it is a good thing for us to do.

And what are we doing? We are doing what the wise man does: we wonder at all that is and ask why it is so. We allow the world to impress us simply in order to know the truth of things better.
That sort of philosophy does not roll the eyeballs. That is the kind of thinking for which we were made.

1 comment:

Layla said...

I've just stumbled across your blog, and I'm terribly excited to read more of it.

As one of those 20-somethings at the seminar table who has very little time for the more modern manifestations of our discipline, I appreciate this post very much. Thank you!