(in the clip above you’ll find an audio version of the post below)


Ever since I moved to the Monastery of One I’ve been revisiting the topic of what philosophy means, and decided to write a new series of posts about it, this being the first one. I tend to agree with Nietzsche when he reminds us that “only something which has no history can be defined”,1 so my quest is neither to recreate the complete historical record nor to provide a timeless definition to something that exists in time but rather to interpret and weave together pieces of the historical record and what stirs my soul to give a sense of scope as to what I understand and choose to aspire to when it comes to philosophy.

Philosophical activity being something alive and ongoing, interpreting both the world and itself in its path, chances are I’ll be revising and updating my view of philosophy as time goes by or new information comes to light. Besides I’ve already touched upon this issue a number of times in the past.2

I’ll be drawing heavily from the excellent work of Pierre Hadot, whose books on philosophy as it was practiced in antiquity have been a tremendous source of inspiration and fulfillment. Perhaps the latter adjective requires a few words of explanation, and can serve as the beginning of this exposition.

The Yearning for Philosophy

The yearning for philosophy is as old, if not older, than philosophy itself. When you discover it within yourself nowadays the typical path is to study philosophy in college. However, you soon discover that this path does not honor the yearning, satisfying only parts of it, in ways that are sometimes foreign to its nature. The love of wisdom ought to be channeled to a path that pursues her, if it is to strengthen and bear fruit. That is not the path that contemporary philosophy degrees set you on. As a result, with your love not in sight of the object, nor on a path that gets you closer to it, your love remains unrequited and you slowly lose faith both to the object and to any chance of consummation.

At that point you might resign yourself to tenure track and simply shift your perspective to the requirements of contemporary society. If you don’t, and rebel against inertia by following the yearning, it might lead you outside the academic environment. In solitude or with a few friends you might slowly rediscover the path to wisdom and what it really takes to approach her. Or you can take a shortcut and read Hadot’s work, starting with What is Ancient Philosophy?

There you’ll discover that you’ve been led astray. Philosophy as it is done today in the academic world is just a shadow of what it used to be. The first philosophers did find ways to properly honor the yearning. Their love of wisdom did not go unrequited. They gave birth to masterpieces of philosophy that withstood the test of time, and at the heart of it all, stood the archetypical philosopher who never wrote a single line but whose life was his greatest work: Socrates.

But before we get to Socrates and the birth of philosophy proper, let’s go back in history to understand the ground from which philosophy came to be.

Sophia before Philo-sophia

Philosophy etymologically comes from the Greek word philosophia, which can be broken into two parts: philo- which can be said to mean “the love of” and -sophia which is traditionally translated as “wisdom”. But what did sophia really mean in ancient Greece?

It actually had multiple meanings which overlapped to create a complex concept. Let’s break them down.

The word in Homer is used to “designate activities or practices which are subject to measures and rules…presuppose instruction and apprenticeship but also demand the help of a god or divine grace which reveals the secrets…to the artist or artisan and helps them exercise their art.”3 The artisan used his sophia to transform matter into artifacts that were useful, the artist/poet used his sophia to transform the listener’s soul.

In Herodotus the sophia of Solon is correlated with the good judgment in matters of human life that results from broad experience and acquaintance, through traveling, of different lands, customs and men.4

It also meant a type of worldly wisdom correlated with how one behaves when dealing with different kinds of people and adapting to each one of them, going so far as ruses and dissimulation.5

A glance at The Seven Sages (sophoi in Greek, therefore exhibiting sophia) of ancient Greece reveals that sophia was also a quality of those who exhibited mastery over the social, artistic and natural realms whether it concerned legislation, poetry, prediction and understanding of natural phenomena or governance. For example, Solon was a famous legislator and poet while Thales: “pos­sessed what we could call encyclopedic knowledge: he predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585, and affirmed that the earth rested on water; yet he also possessed technical knowledge, since it was claimed that he diverted the course of a river. He also displayed political farsightedness: he tried to save the Ionian Greeks by pro­posing that they form a federation.”6

Despite the Greeks talking about sophia with reference to the Seven Sages, the ancient Greek term for philosophy, philosophia, only made its appearance around the 5th century B.C. and got defined by Plato in the 4th century B.C.7 The so-called Pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales being one of them, did not call themselves philosophers, nor their activity philosophy. It was Aristotle who applied the term philosopher to Thales and the rest of the Pre-Socratics.8 Why did he do that?

According to Hadot, that was because:

“All these thinkers proposed a rational explanation of the world – and this was a milestone in the history of thought. To be sure, there had been cosmogonies before them, in the Near East and elsewhere in Archaic Greece as well. Yet those had been mythical – that is to say, they described the history of the world as a battle among personified entities…whereas they proposed a [rational] theory to explain the origins of the world, of mankind, and of the city…by positing not a battle among personified elements but a battle among “physical” realities, and the predominance of one of these over the others. This radical transformation is summed up in the Greek word physis, which originally meant the beginning, the development, and the result of the process by which a thing constitutes itself. The object of this intellectual undertaking, which they called historia [the ancient Greek word for inquiry], was universal physis.9

So a person was sophos either because he “knew and had seen many things, had traveled a great deal, and was broadly cultured” or because he “knew how to conduct himself in life and…lived in happiness” without those two notions being mutually exclusive.10

It was said that these Seven Sages offered their fruits of their wisdom as an offering to Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi in the form of maxims and admonitions: “Moderation in all things” and “Know thyself” being two of the most famous ones.11

Such maxims, together with moral precepts, myths and poems, formed an unofficial curriculum that together with the cultivation of other qualities like physical strength, courage, a sense of duty and honor, made out an education (what the Greeks called paideia) aiming at excellence (arete) that the class of nobles attempted to instill in their children.12

With the rise of democracy in the 5th century B.C.,

“the city-states showed the same concern for forming [all] their future citizens by physical exercises, gymnastics, music, and mental exercises. Yet democratic life engendered struggles for power; it was necessary to know how to persuade the people, and how to induce them to make specific decisions in the Assembly. If one wanted to become a leader of the people, one thus had to acquire a mastery of language – and it was to this need that the Sophistic movement would respond.”13

The Sophists

With the flourishing of Athenian democracy in the 5th century, political advancement required that young men be more than just brave warriors; violence was not an acceptable way of having one’s opinion become law among citizens who were equals. One had to use reason to persuade their fellow citizens instead. Hence, it became all the more necessary to be versed in all the different aspects of sophia.

This need attracted a variety of thinkers and intellectuals to Athens from all over the Greek world who would offer to teach sophia, in return for a salary, to young people vying for political advancement14. For that reason this professional class of teachers ended up being called the sophists.

“They taught their students the formulas which would en­able them to persuade their audience, and to defend both the pro and the contra sides of an argument (antilogia) with equal skill.[…] They taught not only the technique of persuasive discourse, but also everything which could help an individual attain that loftiness of vision which always seduces an audience – in other words, overall cul­ture. This entailed just as much science, geometry, and astronomy as it did history, sociology, and legal theory. They did not found permanent schools; rather, in exchange for payment, they offered series of courses. In order to attract audiences, they advertised their services by giving public lectures, at which they showed off their knowledge and skill.”15

It is in this environment that Socrates, an Athenian citizen born circa 469 B.C., makes his appearance.

Socrates, the oracle and the birth of the philosopher.

Perhaps the best way to introduce Socrates is to relate the story told by Plato about him in the Apology accompanied by Hadot’s commentary:

“Chaerephon, one of Socrates’ friends, had asked the Delphic oracle if there was anyone wiser (sophos) than Socrates. The oracle had replied that no one was wiser than Socrates. Socrates wondered what the oracle could possibly have meant, and began a long search among politicians, poets, and artisans – people who, according to the Greek tradition…possessed wisdom or know­-how – in order to find someone wiser than he. He noticed that all these people thought they knew everything, whereas in fact they knew nothing. Socrates then concluded that if in fact he was the wisest person, it was because he did not think he knew that which he did not know. What the oracle meant, therefore, was that the wisest human being was “he who knows that he is worth nothing as far as knowledge is concerned.” This is precisely the Platonic definition of the philosopher in the dialogue entitled the Sympo­sium: the philosopher knows nothing, but he is conscious of his ignorance.
Socrates’ task – entrusted to him, says the Apology, by the Delphic oracle (in other words, the god Apollo) – was therefore to make other people recognize their lack of knowledge and of wisdom. In order to accomplish this mission, Socrates himself adopted the attitude of someone who knew nothing – an attitude of naivete. This is the well-known Socratic irony: the feigned ignorance and candid air with which, for instance, he asked questions in order to find out whether someone was wiser than he.”16

This fascinating story sets the stage for the association of certain aspects that become fundamental to philosophy.

First of all, notice the continuity with some aspects of sophia. Just like poetry required both practice in certain methods and rules and the help of the gods, so did philosophy. It acquired different methods e.g. dialectic, and the god Apollo through the oracle helped Socrates come to know the only thing he claims we can know: the awareness of our ignorance.

This position had a profound impact and influence. For if that is the only thing we can know, then the whole edifice upon which the activities of the sophists depended on, namely the transmission and selling of knowledge, is fatally compromised. A direct consequence of the Socratic worldview is that it makes the sophist a trader of counterfeit goods, thus a form of fraudster or charlatan, selling ignorance claiming it was knowledge, and profiting from it.

In contrast and opposition to the activity and role of the sophist emerges something new: the philosopher. Not motivated by money but love for something he can never fully achieve: wisdom. Lacking knowledge yet entrusted with a sacred mission to reveal our own ignorance.

Read more about who the philosopher is in the second part of this series.