Saturday, February 6, 2010

Philosophy and Freedom

It's been a long time since I've visited the blog of the Maverick Philosopher; I like the redesign Bill has done since I last visited. One thing that hasn't changed is his motto:

"Study everything, join nothing."

My latest visit reminded me that I've always instinctively recoiled from the motto. What Bill precisely means by it is explored more fully in this post. For my part, the motto seems to exclude from philosophy exactly that which I hope to get from it and, perhaps, what is crucial to philosophy as classically conceived. This post is an exploration of this theme.

In the dialog Crito, Socrates is waiting in prison for his execution and is offered a chance to escape. Crito agrees with him that the question of escape is ultimately one of justice, so they must consider the question of whether it is just for Socrates to escape. Socrates, briefly attempting to justify escape, considers the question in terms we would probably find natural:

"Or shall I answer the Laws, 'The reason is that the state wronged me, and did not judge the case right?'"

Socrates replies in the voice of the Laws, and his response is essentially this: It is not the prerogative of Socrates and Crito to judge whether the state has decided the case correctly. The Law and the State exist prior to Socrates, in many senses of the term, and the decision to even consider the possibility that escape might be justified betrays a misunderstanding of human existence. Socrates "joined" the City by the fact of his birth, and existence comes with duties and obligations that bind the philosopher as much as anyone else:

"First of all, did we not bring you into life, and through us your father took your mother, and begat you? ... Well, the laws about feeding the child and education in which you were brought up. Did not those which had that duty do well in directing your father to educate you in mind and body?... When you had been born and brought up and educated, could you say in the first place that your were not our offspring and our slave, you and your ancestors also? And if this is so, do you think you have equal rights with us, and whatever we try to do to you, do you think you also have a right to do to us?"

The response Socrates gives in the voice of the Laws is not merely a legal response. It is a philosophical one. If the vocation of the philosopher is to know and live the truth, then that vocation is betrayed when the philosopher does not acknowledge the duties and obligations that human existence necessarily involves. But it is more than this. We are by nature social animals; the obligations of country, family and religion are not arbitrary or heteronomous impositions on human nature. They are essential components to any human existence. It is natural for us to be joined to others and under the obligations of state, family and religion (among others). For the philosopher to know and live the truth about himself, he must know and live the truth about the social nature of human existence. In other words, "joining" is not something the philosopher should flee but something he should embrace, for it is only in "joining" that he can experience, or even know, the full truth about human being.

This doesn't say it quite right, because "joining" implies some prior state of human existence, absent obligation, and from which the person chooses or not to "join." The philosophical point I am making is that there is no such prior, obligation-free state of existence. Our existence is that of one already joined. This is why Socrates, even though he philosophically challenged the religion of Athens, nonetheless fulfilled its obligations. He understood that the philosophical vocation is not a free pass to ignore duty and obligation; more deeply, since duty and obligation are natural to human existence, the philosophical vocation can only be fulfilled by experiencing duty and obligation in its depths, not avoiding it wherever possible. The Socratic challenge to religion occurred from within religion and was itself an expression of religion purifying itself. Indeed, this is the only way true reform can happen, and was the path later followed by St. Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard has this to say about the difference between the classical and the modern philosopher:

"In Greece, as in the youth of philosophy generally, it was found difficult to win through to the abstract and to leave existence, which always gives the particular; in modern times, on the other hand, it has become difficult to reach existence. The process of abstraction is easy enough for us, but we also desert existence more and more, and the realm of pure thought is the extreme limit of such desertion.

In Greece, philosophizing was a mode of action, and the philosopher was therefore an existing individual. He may not have possessed a great amount of knowledge, but what he did know he knew to some profit, because he busied himself early and late with the same thing." [Concluding Unscientific Postscript, The Subjective Thinker 2.]

When he speaks of the individual and existence, Kierkegaard's meaning includes the duties and obligations specific to a person's individual existence. Socrates knew, "to his profit", that he was born and lived as a citizen of Athens and that his philosophical vocation could not entail a flight from Athens, but rather must involve an exploration of the mystery of obligation in his own specific, subjective context in Athens. We may, indeed, see Socrates' entire philosophical career as a fulfillment of his philosophical obligation to purify Athens from within; his willingness to die in Athens rather than escape, fully aware of the philosophical meaning of this submission, representing a "joining" to the city of unprecedented depth.

The monastic vocation of St. Thomas Aquinas, similarly, was not in tension with his philosophical vocation. St. Thomas, like Socrates, was one of those individuals born with the natural wisdom to "remain in existence" and embrace duty rather than "abstract" himself from it. It was only because he remained aware of the subjective truth of human existence in his monastic vocation, that his philosophical vocation had the effect it did. Like Socrates, St. Thomas offered a philosophical challenge to the religion of his day, offering a Christian interpretation of Aristotle that challenged the reigning Platonism. Although St. Thomas's doctrines were initially proscribed by the Bishop of Paris, his philosophy was later embraced by the universal Church, in no small part because of the manifest holiness of the man St. Thomas (see Etienne Gilson's the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas on this.) St. Thomas's reformation of Christian philosophy was more easily accepted because, coming from St. Thomas, a man who clearly fulfilled the meaning of Christian existence in his own life, it was easier to trust that his philosophy was authentically Christian as well.

Returning to the motto ("Study everything, join nothing"), we may ask what "everything" includes. Does it include the human things - friendship, love, faith, hope, duty, honor, responsibility, justice, among others? I submit that none of these things can be understood from the outside; from studying them without joining them. And joining them means joining some human community of which they are an aspect. Plato held that the young should not be taught philosophy because they do not have the experience to make it meaningful. They don't have the "data" of philosophy, as it were. The data only comes from life, and the more "joined" that life the better. Socrates was a military veteran and St. Thomas an avowed mendicant friar.

I think my last foray over to the Maverick Philosopher involved the book Into the Wild. If you don't recall, this is the story of Chris McCandless, a young man eventually found dead living on his own in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan countryside. McCandless was an intelligent and passionate young man, and his foray into the Alaskan wilderness was not his first adventure of this type. McCandless was clearly a man "looking for something" in the philosophical sense, and his extreme adventures were an attempt to break through to some philosophical or spiritual state of being. He was a young man of some virtue, and his story is reminiscent of medieval figures like St. Francis of Assisi, abandoning all in favor of a higher vocation. But the strongest impression I got from reading Into the Wild was the essential immaturity of what McCandless was attempting. What all his adventures had in common was that they strictly avoided any obligation or responsibility. This is what separates him from someone like St. Francis. Sometimes McCandless would take odd jobs (like mucking out cattle pens), and although he was always well-regarded in his work, he would never stay in the same job for long. My impression was that as soon as he began to develop some local ties, to become "rooted" in a community, he would see that as a signal to move on. This is the modern mistake of seeing the meaning of freedom in freedom from obligation and responsibility, of not being "joined" to anything. But such "freedom" involves a distortion of the meaning of human existence, Unfortunately, philosophers in the old mold of St. Thomas or Socrates are rare in the modern university, so McCandless never learned this lesson despite his formal philosophical education. Even more unfortunately, a passionate soul like McCandless will finally only find frustration in such a free-floating existence; instead of finding true meaning in the free submission to something greater than himself, he will seek it in ever more radical and dangerous individual experiences, experiences that may eventually become lethal.

The banner on my blog is not intended as a rejoinder to the Maverick Philosopher's motto, but it functions as one nonetheless. The subjective thinker does not wish to study without joining, but to understand himself in the context of his concrete existence, with its relationships, obligations and duties. He wishes to think philosophically, that is in terms of abstract universals like "justice", "friendship" and "love", but with reference to the specifics of his own existence - "to understand the abstract concretely."

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