Thursday, November 5, 2015

Philosophy and fame

Plato, keeping to himself
I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'The longing to be seen and heard'.

I discuss the seemingly reclusive nature of philosophy, and argue for the importance of public works. Along the way, I introduce ideas from Plato, Seneca, Arendt, Sloterdijk and Bradatan. Here's the introduction:
Are thinking and fame at odds? Philosophy certainly has a reputation for retreat: bristling men in dated suits, writing to one another from musty apartments or austere shacks. Martin Heidegger in his Black Forest skiing hut, Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Norwegian cabin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Saint Peter Island, David Hume in Anjou, working on his ‘very rigid frugality’—all exemplary philosophers, all avoiding the crowd. The archetypal modern philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose later sane years were lived in ‘wounded isolation’, as he put it in Ecce Homo. The herald of the Superman: stateless, often lonely and almost always ill.
This is no modern quirk. During pagan antiquity, we find Epicurus setting up shop in a bohemian commune, ‘The Garden’. He counselled ‘a quiet life and withdrawal from the many’. In Laws, Plato argued that fame helped keep communities obedient, but he himself was suspicious of glory-chasers. He believed that love of the good—even if prompted by a sexy youth—was more noble than adoration of popularity. The masses, from whom fame is granted, are superficial and fickle. Genuine thought and thinkers must be protected from hoi polloi.  
This asylum need not be physical. Part of Epicureanism was psychological defence against popular foolishness. The Stoic Roman philosopher and politician Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius from a bathhouse, providing tips on mental seclusion. ‘There can be absolute bedlam without,’ he wrote, as a man screamed while his armpit hairs were plucked, ‘so long as there is no commotion within.’  
The point is not that each of these thinkers treated society in the same way; that they had identical diagnoses and prescriptions. As doctors of culture, Plato and Nietzsche, for example, were at odds. The point is that philosophy seems aloof; that living philosophically means dying to one’s fellow citizens (first figuratively, then literally, in the case of Socrates).  
This otherworldliness often arose from political or psychological alienation. This is what Peter Sloterdijk, in The Art of Philosophy, calls a ‘romantic loser’ outlook. It grew out of helplessness in the face of tyranny or empire, and made a virtue out of flight from the fracas. ‘The spectator shall always be superior now,’ Sloterdijk writes, ‘while the players inevitably look ridiculous.’ Better to be unknown and unerring than famous and false.
Want to read more? Grab yourself a copy of The New Philosopher, now out in Australia, the UK, United States and Canada.

(Illustration: detail from 'The Death of Socrates', by Jacques-Louis David)

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