Real Life and the Philosophic Life
Is there any connection between the two? The book I recently fell in love with, John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story, was heartening to me on two fronts.
First, the American philosophers, whose papers he discovers in a ruined estate in New Hampshire, were struggling to keep their 19th century New World optimism alive and they were using the tools offered by philosophy. Kaag shows how urgent and earnest was their struggle, how it impacted their love lives and their struggles to live meaningfully.
Meanwhile, Kaag’s story unfolds simultaneously on his own personal track. He’s cataloguing manuscripts on the freezing premises of the now-vacant estate, and at the same time he’s engaged in a personal struggle to lift himself free of despair and take important romantic risks. And one of the American philosophers, William James, turns out a big help! Kaag’s courage in opening the inner side of his life to unknown future readers nerves me to continue working for the publication of my book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher. Because it does the same thing.
But how does philosophy help the fight to live meaningfully? Does philosophy come into it at all?
People have been studying and celebrating Plato for 2,400 years. In antiquity they called him “the divine Plato.” The complete works of Plato consist in dialogues that Socrates, his great teacher, held with people often accosted on the Athenian street. These conversation partners were drawn into discussions where Socrates was trying to get at the nub or heart of some topic.
Take the topic of “justice,” for example. In the dialogue on political justice, The Republic, a retired businessman suggests the starting definition. The businessman knows that customers won’t want to do business with a crook, so he defines justice as telling the truth and paying your debts. It’s keeping your credit good.
Is this adequate? Has the businessman settled the question? He’s a busy man, so he’d like to get it settled.
Well, Socrates asks, what if you’ve borrowed an axe from a guy when he was sane and he comes back to reclaim it when he’s in a mad frenzy? Would it be fair (to other citizens, to him, to yourself) to surrender it promptly just because you promised and you cannot break a promise or tell a lie?
Evidently, the first definition doesn’t hold up. At this point, the discussion partner faces a telling decision: he can stay in the conversation till he and Socrates get closer to the true view or – he can walk away.
For Plato, the most telling difference between one person and the next turns on this decision. Unsurprisingly, the businessman walks away. His brief interest in a search for truth takes second place to the preservation of his self-image as a confident fellow who has life figured out.
To take the other path, the road less traveled, is to live philosophically: putting the search for truth front and center.
What was the most pressing topic for late nineteenth-century American philosophers? As John Kaag finds, in the papers and letters he discovers, it’s a problem that hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years — how to keep a personal space for creative freedom while staying in tune with the latest scientific developments. Darwin was the latest thing then, as he still seems to be. (There are intelligent diggers for anomalies in the Darwinian worldview, such the late Australian materialist David Stove in his witty collection, Against the Idols of the Tribe, or the secular satirist Tom Wolfe in his hilarious new little book, The Kingdom of Speech. But these do not dent the prevailing model of how the world is.)
The challenge of Darwin for these American philosophers was that, in the Darwinian story, every particular happening was the result of chance while the big picture was ruled by the iron determinism of laws of nature. In such a scenario, how could a person find meaning or a good reason to go on? How could one take on the risks of true love — which almost everyone secretly wants, whether or not he or she is a philosopher?
It was also a question for John Kaag. It’s still a question for us all, isn’t it?
Now suppose you put God into the picture, which neither the American philosophers, nor John Kaag, nor Plato did explicitly — calling the divine dimension by that Name? However, it’s what I did, in the autobiographical story I tell in Confessions of a Young Philosopher. Would that tie up the whole life package with a pretty pink ribbon?
What it did, in my own case, was make the personal search for truth vivid and consequential, because now it had a Witness who wanted the best for me but knew me, top to bottom, inside and out. That made my struggles — to know myself and find the natural grain or pathway for my life – more urgent and important. Why? Because – best not to bore God with a lie. If I was lying, He’d know that even before I found it out.
It meant I couldn’t just “go along to get along.” I couldn’t be satisfied with a hard-shell identity – whether conventional or counter-cultural – that swept anomalies under the rug.
The whole tale couldn’t be a made up tale. Whatever else it achieved or didn’t achieve:
it had to ring true.