Real Life and the Philosophic Life


“Spinoza” Samuel Hirszenberg, 1907

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?


Not hardly.

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.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Real Life and the Philosophic Life

  1. Abigail says:

    For this portable (American?) precis of the classical philosophic ideal, I lift my phrygian cap in collegial appreciation. We’ve had some amazing good times, all told, counting the laughter & the tears. And it goes on!

  2. Elmer Sprague says:

    Dear Abigail, as philosophers we must do what we can for Cephalus, the retired business man. Paying your debts and keeping your promises are sub-departments of giving to others what they are owed. When our friend, now a madman, comes to reclaim the weapon that we promised to keep for him, what we owe him is not his weapon, but the care that the mad deserve until they are healed. (One of the unspoken assumptions here is that justice is a relationship between the equally competent, and our friend will not be equally competent with us until he is healed.) In Republic, Book I, the Socrates puppet is not allowed to see that justice is a social relationship because Plato has a different intrapersonal definition of justice that he wants to push. I think, and I hope others do too, that we can find the real Socrates in the Crito, where Socrates says that we must live to do no harm, for when we injure another, we injure our own souls too. Behind that injunction lies the basic point of Greek philosophy: Each of us must strive to be the best person that she or he can be. To do that, Socrates tells us, we must strive to do as little harm to others as we can. Or conversely we must do as much good to others as our means allow, in whatever role we find ourselves. For the Greeks, to live philosophically is to try to be the best person you can be. For them, philosophy and living do come together. This is but a brief response to your blog that calls for dialogue upon dialogue. Faithfully, Elmer

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