What is a Philosopher?

Unknown.jpegWhat is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word philosophy or philosopher? No doubt an image of a man in robes stroking his long beard knowingly whilst deep in thought comes up. To the common eye, the philosopher is an elusive figure shrouded in an eerily esoteric, all-knowing, and intimidating obscurity. We tend to distance ourselves from the practice because of the immediate impressions and stereotypes we form and impute to the ancient philosopher. When we hear Plato, for example, we often dread his confusing and abstract dialogues that leave us scratching our heads. Our image of the Ancient Greeks is pervasive, and yet philosophy has been in use everywhere including, but not limited to, Ancient Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and even religion, its nemesis! And while yes, philosophy is one of the most complex and demanding subjects, it’s usefulness cannot be debated.  

Philosophia literally means the love (philos) of wisdom (sophia). With this definition, we now know that the philosopher is a lover of wisdom. This brings us to another question, though: What is wisdom? The most prominent of epistemologists–those who study knowledge–have fought over the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. To save us the whole argument of knowledge, let us settle with it being the state of acquiring or learning new information. Knowledge can therefore be readily gained. Wisdom, on the other hand, is commonly defined as a sort of “life experience.” In this sense, wisdom is harder to obtain and is based on one’s ability to make good decisions by recalling prior instances. In his What is Ancient Philosophy?, Pierre Hadot examines Plato’s symposium and the parallels that are drawn between the philosopher and the essence of loving, Eros himself. Hadot claims, “The ‘philosopher’ is tortured and torn by the desire to attain this wisdom which escapes him, yet which he loves” (Hadot, 47). Love, Eros, lacks beauty because he cannot want what he already has. If Love was beautiful, there would be no need for it to want beauty, thus it is on a never-ending quest for it. Likewise, the philosopher cannot be wise, for he is always seeking the wisdom that constantly evades him. Therefore, we arrive at the conclusion that philosophy is not merely asking deep questions, rather it is a life journey with no clear end. Hadot relates philosophy to a way of life.

Now that we know what a philosopher is, we need to know what a philosopher does. Personally, I do not particularly like contemporary philosophy and the analytical course it has taken. This said, I will be discussing the general idea of the paragon philosopher primarily from the Ancients in the West. Back in the Greco-Roman times, becoming a philosopher was in many ways like an initiation; it opened up a new chapter in one’s life. As many scholars have remarked, philosophy took a considerable turn from theory to therapy in this period. I wish now to describe how the aspect of a therapeutic philosophy was taken up by the ideal philosopher. Professor Luke Johnson creatively analyzes how the philosopher likens his cause to that of a physician’s. After Rome conquered the Hellenistic empire, a sudden loss of identity and cause plagued the Greek citizens. In response to this “epidemic,” the philosophers dawned the morality of a physician. To the philosophers, they were doctors who, with philosophy, could cure the sick patients of their illnesses. This is very much like today’s world; instances of depression and anxiety are growing tremendously, partly due to a lack of purpose or, like the Greeks, a loss of identity and direction. With this analogy, we can thus conclude that philosophers today are not in fact obsolete.

Finally, having a definition of the philosopher and what his intentions are, we can now find out how a philosopher philosophizes. As I mentioned in the opening sentences, we humorously depict philosophers as old men stroking their graying beards as they contemplate the mysteries of life. This could not be farther from the truth! However, it would be a lie to say that they did not spend a majority of their time silently contemplating or meditating. Socrates was said to meditate for hours upon hours all the while standing in the snow! The philosophers of ancient times were surprisingly very active. Philosophers would have daily lectures in their schools with the goal of attracting potential students. These were known as protreptic discourses. Mentioned in the previous paragraph, choosing a school of philosophy (hairesis) was incredibly important and marked the start of a new life. Many of the philosophers taught their teachings with the utmost seriousness. For the philosopher, living according to their own teachings and principles was of paramount importance. Indeed, in order to attract more students, the philosopher would strive to live strictly within his own moral code. This, to the philosopher, was the most virtuous act. Speaking of virtue, good habits were the key to a philosopher’s doctrines. Pretty much every philosophy adhered to the following equation: virtues equal good, vices equal bad. During ancient times, an individual’s reputation was their most important driving force. Every action was done to accord to virtue and stay away from vice. Public image was thus very powerful. With the introduction of philosophy, the focus was then placed not on how one was perceived, but how they acted according to their own values. Hypocrisy was denounced, for the philosophers said that the greatest good was to act according to their word. It was thus up to the philosopher to live life in accordance with his own teachings to attract followers. To accomplish such a feat, the lover of wisdom had to cleanse himself of all vices: the love of pleasure (philedonia), the love of wealth (philargyria), and the love of honor/glory (philodoxia). Because the philosopher sought to challenge the status quo, he was often met with much opposition. During Roman times, philosophers were criticized, satirized, and even exiled by emperors! Being a philosopher meant being able to deal with hardship and endure suffering. But to the philosopher, spreading the love of wisdom was a divine cause. Many of the philosophers thought that their teachings were either as a message from the Gods or because they received some sort of inner calling; Epictetus thought himself to be a messenger of Zeus! Not only were philosophers expected to lead an exemplary life, but they should also be trained in the art of language: rhetoric. The sophists were skilled rhetoricians who, although they could hardly be considered true philosophers, offered lessons in speaking for a price. The philosophers needed to be orators for they would give numerous live speeches. During classes, the philosopher would engage in diatribes–live discussions between the teacher and the pupil.

Jay Stevenson, an English professor, once remarked, “Traditional literature has been found to have been written by ‘dead white males.’” And while that may be a satisfactory overview of philosophy, philosophy has certainly not died along with its dead white writers. Philosophy has existed for over two and a half millennia and it still continues to be studied, taught, and expanded upon today! Just recently I have discovered a new concept called philosophical counseling. It is increasingly common for us to hire psychologists and therapists to help correct our lives, but moral philosophers, too, can give us guidance on how to reach wisdom. Pierre Hadot wrote a favorite book of mine titled Philosophy as a Way of Life. As philosophy continues to flourish, we can all look to the philosophy as a way of life, indeed.


For further information: The Great Courses: Practical Philosophy : The Greco-Roman Moralists by Luke Timothy Johnson
What is Ancient Philosophy? by Pierre Hadot (2002)


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