Philosophers have been accosting, irritating, hounding and persecuting innocents for two-and-a-half thousand years
There’s a story from late antiquity that the Athenians would give a good thrashing to anyone who wanted to be seen as a philosopher. If the poor fellow kept his cries to himself during the ordeal, well and good, he would thereafter be considered such; if he bleated at all, he would be laughed out of his ambition. Such are the perils of philosophy. If you consider this story too parochial to be exemplary, we could also cite those Eastern sages who, in response to the earnest questions of their students, would kick, beat, bite or otherwise assault their idiot questioners.
I begin with these remarks in order to suggest that the pursuit of philosophy has not only been traditionally bad for your health in East and West, North and South, but often downright dangerous—to the point where right-thinking persons make becoming a philosopher a publicly humiliating and painful task. Unfortunately, this has hardly stopped people from making the attempt. Take the ecstatic Sufi mystic Mansur al-Hallaj, who, having incautiously declared ‘I am the Truth’, was slung into a Baghdad jail for nearly a decade before being tried and condemned in 922 CE. Al-Hallaj was whipped, mutilated, strung up and decapitated, and his remains burned, before his ashes were scattered in the Tigris. This is not even to mention the iniquities of the Spanish Inquisition, the immolation of such heretics as the Renaissance thinker Giordano Bruno, or, as we shall see, the unhappy fates of a disturbingly large number of famous philosophers, from Socrates on.
One should then pose the question: how does one become a philosopher? Who or what authorises someone as a philosopher? What sort of person wants to become, or at least be seen, as a philosopher? What is philosophy, anyway? We can at once suggest that the true answers to these questions will not be the sort of thing usually provided by books of philosophy. Philosophy is not a rational, reasonable, progressive, enlightening, virtuous or enjoyable pursuit; and nor, it appears, can those claims be made for philosophers themselves. Quite the contrary. Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how such misleading opinions emerge and whose interests they serve. Any philosopher who writes about philosophy justifying its use and powers in mysterious terms is not someone who can, on the face of it, be entirely believed.
It is, however, an entirely philosophical idea that philosophy might be improved by getting rid of philosophers. As the well-known drug addict, short-man and Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey put it in his classic‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’,
In the assassinations of princes and statesmen, there is nothing to excite our wonder. But there is another class of assassinations, which has prevailed from an early period of the seventeenth century, that really does surprise me; I mean the assassination of philosophers. For, gentlemen, it is a fact, that every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it. [After Descartes], the next great philosopher of Europe undoubtedly was murdered. This was Spinosa. Hobbes—but why, or on what principle, I never could understand—was not murdered. This was a capital oversight of the professional men in the seventeenth century.
Unfortunately De Quincey’s exercise in murderous wish fulfilment, however admirably phrased or politically desirable, doesn’t help us identify who a philosopher may be. We don’t know who or what philosophers are, how to recognise them, or what they think. Nor is it an easy task to find out how one might go about finding out about these things. Saying, as Judge Potter Stewart famously did of pornography, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it’, simply begs the question. The familiar etymology of ‘philosopher’ as a ‘lover of wisdom’ doesn’t much help either, especially when the words ‘lover’ and ‘wisdom’ remain utterly vague and open-ended; indeed, they demand further explanation in their turn.
So who is a philosopher? Is a philosopher someone who goes to philosophy congresses, reads books shelved under ‘philosophy’, or pontificates shamelessly in public (in the pub or on the job) upon a range of matters? If you call yourself a philosopher, is that enough to make you a philosopher? Is a philosopher anyone who appears in histories of philosophy? After all, many of the ancient thinkers we now call ‘philosophers’ would never have denominated themselves such; indeed, some of them flourished before the name had even been invented; yet others would strenuously resist such a nomination. Yet it seems eminently possible that one might do philosophy and have genuinely philosophical thoughts without being oneself a philosopher. A religious guru, for instance, or a successful techbro entrepreneur. Or, to return to my opening parables, perhaps a philosopher is someone who, given the opportunity, enjoys being beaten in public without complaint?
Perhaps we can clarify here with a nod, not merely to etymology, but to the name’s inventor? Unlike most words, its origins are well attested: it was Pythagoras who purportedly coined both ‘philosopher’ and ‘mathematics’ (note that the word was born designating a person, not a field of inquiry). As it turns out, however, Pythagoras was himself hardly an outstanding example of the benefits of philosophical inquiry. In fact, he’s an excellent example of the sort of paranoiac sociopath who staffs secret American governmental agencies. His entire life was dedicated to information gathering, sorting, and deployment, and when he wasn’t busy expelling subordinates for treachery, he made demented claims for the supreme value of his enterprise. He detested beans, and one story—undoubtedly disseminated by one enemy or another—has him preferring immolation rather than flee across a field of beans.
Of course, you can’t leave it to the fraternity of philosophers (so-called) to answer the question, either. For the most part, philosophers don’t merely quibble with, they abominate other philosophers. Heraclitus slagged off, among others, Pythagoras and Xenophanes. Plato never mentions Democritus, but it’s said that he wanted to buy up and burn all his predecessor’s works. And what of Diogenes the Cynic, who, in his peregrinations about Athens in the fourth century BC, was censured for masturbating in public? Like so many others, Diogenes detested Plato with an undying passion. Plato returned the favour, denouncing Diogenes as a ‘Socrates gone mad’. The word ‘cynic’, moreover, derives from a word meaning ‘dog-like’ (dogs were considered by the ancient Greeks to be particularly shameless animals). After Plato, of course, it became de rigueur to denounce one’s enemies as ‘sophists’. In George Grote’s words, ‘the title Sophist also carried with it or connoted a certain invidious feeling’.
So one essential criterion for becoming a philosopher involves denying the name to other people and reserving it for oneself, in a kind of conceptual droit de seigneur or jus primis noctis. You say philosopher; I say pretentious and undeserving buffoon. This tendency is particularly pronounced today amongst that bizarre sect known as ‘analytic philosophers’, whose animadversions against what they call ‘continental philosophy’ or ‘literary philosophy’ or ‘metaphysical claptrap’ clearly show that they are so narrow in their opinions, so frustrated in their style, so uninformed and so unreflective about their own discipline, that, in line with the practices of their venerable predecessors, they must be genuinely deserving of the appellation ‘philosophers’.
Yet denouncing your rivals as sophists, anti-philosophers, non-philosophers—or, at least, not real philosophers—isn’t always enough to assure oneself of the title. One could suspect a certain destructive envy of the other might be queering such a judgement. Even if one is assured of the title, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that one is a philosopher. The philosophes of the Enlightenment, often credited with bringing anti-clerical humanism to the world, are often considered not really philosophers at all. At least according to Bertrand Russell, who proved sniffy about this in regards to Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, though they got to keep the name philosophe as a kind of booby prize. Philosophy good, philosophie bad. After all, what had they contributed to logic or ontology or mathematics?
Rousseau would be an exemplary case of how philosophy can ruin your life (although Voltaire did get beaten up by the hired goons of a nobleman he’d insulted, was incarcerated by the authorities, and had to flee persecution). Possibly the most paranoid man in eighteenth-century Europe, Rousseau lurched from one disaster to the next, exacerbated by his uncanny inability to get on with anyone for very long. Apart, of course, from Thérèse and Sultan: Rousseau was famously at the mercy of his mistress and his dog. Both were absurdly difficult in their own ways. If even Rousseau was prepared to confess that Thérèse wasn’t the brightest person ever, ‘everyone else thought her not only stupid but malevolent’, in Ernest Mossner’s words. They had five children together, all of whom they dumped in an orphanage, allegedly for their own good. Aside from the evident human callousness of such an act, this was considered especially hypocritical given Rousseau’s expressed philosophical tenderness towards infants and unsullied natural humanity.
Rousseau’s own mother had died just after he’d been born, and his father had run away when he was ten. After a number of adventures, including as a live-in lover/servant of Madame de Warens, whom he famously called ‘Maman’ (much like the hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), Rousseau ended up in Paris, where his new system of musical notation was rejected by the Académie des Sciences as a kind of joke. After a kind of epiphany on the way to visit his friend Denis Diderot, a philosophe who had been incarcerated in Vincennes for his own toxic opinions, Rousseau began to write his mature works. In this, he proved very successful, managing to irritate inordinately an extraordinary range of people. To his many enemies, Rousseau seemed capable of anything, not least entertaining wildly inconsistent or opportunistic opinions. He composed music, wrote encyclopedia articles, and penned novels like Emile and political tracts like The Social Contract. In the last-named of these works he famously declares, ‘Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains’. Perhaps, then, it was Rousseau’s very love of freedom—and his acute consciousness of the insidious ruses of freedom’s enemies—that made him so twitchy?
Even the Scottish philosopher David Hume, the most lovable man of the eighteenth century, couldn’t stay on good terms with the fellow. Le bon David, as he was familiarly dubbed, initially thought the broad public consensus about Rousseau’s ‘oddities and absurdities’ mean-spirited, and boasted that he and Rousseau would be friends for life. Warned by pretty much everyone just how rancid Rousseau could be—Baron d’Holbach even declared that Hume was nurturing a viper in his bosom—Hume would have none of it. Rousseau was a highly sensitive man, true, but pure of heart. Had Rousseau not good reason to feel persecuted? Had the public executioner not torn apart and burnt his books in the Palais de Justice? Had he not been ceaselessly hounded by his enemies? It was time for Super-Hume to help rescue his innocent friend from the baying pack of blood-hungry pursuers. After a number of irritating delays, Hume managed to get Rousseau to London, where Rousseau immediately set about causing endless headaches for everybody. The odd couple was clearly due for a breakdown, and it wasn’t long in coming. As everyone had predicted, it was Rousseau who broke first, accusing Hume of malicious persecutions. Rousseau fled back to the Continent. Most people seemed to be on Hume’s side. As Kingsley Martin commented of Rousseau, ‘humour or wit might have saved him, but he had none’. Of course, a lack of humour and wit may well be among the better qualities of philosophers.
Still, philosophers don’t just hate other philosophers, and they don’t just deny them the title or wish for their murder (although all this is true). They won’t even be convinced by them, either. Take the famous early eighteenth-century ‘debate’ between Gottfried Leibniz and Dr Samuel Clarke, disciple of Sir Isaac Newton, over the nature of God and the Universe. For Leibniz, God is the supremely rational being who, having already created the best of all possible worlds, is thereafter left with nothing more to do than maintain this world’s existence; for the Newtonians, on the other hand, God is an absolute creator and wise intervenor, constantly tinkering with his creation.
The pair went at their correspondence with ‘hammer and tongs’, in Alexandre Koyré’s phrase (Koyré was the brother-in-law of Alexandre Kojève, also an extremely influential philosopher, primary architect of the European Union, and alleged Stalinist spy). From Leibniz’s and Clark’s unbudgably bizarre misunderstandings of each other’s position, Koyré concludes that philosophers ‘seldom, if ever, convince each other, and a discussion between two philosophers resembles as often as not a “dialogue de sourds”’. So much for philosophy understood as an open and rational discussion between well-meaning people guided by a genuine desire for truth. Philosophers often can’t even be bothered getting the other’s most basic opinions right in order to properly refute them, or if they do, they feel them too incompetent to bother doing so. Enthusiastic political figures don’t themselves invariably make these kinds of mistakes. Lenin himself proclaims the need to confront an enemy at their strongest point—otherwise you’re liable to be crushed by the very strengths you refused to acknowledge.
In philosophy, however, this just doesn’t seem to be the case. If you lose a dispute, it’s not because the other has proved him or herself right. In fact, the Leibniz–Clarke correspondence only came to an end with the latter’s fifth response. This wasn’t because he’d finally convinced his adversary, but because Leibniz died before receiving it. This sort of thing seems to happen surprisingly often in the history of philosophy. One interlocutor just gives up the ghost, possibly from old age, boredom, or simply sheer exhaustion.
Still, if no one can agree on who a philosopher is, or what a philosopher does, not to mention their meaning and value, perhaps we would do better to ask where the origins of philosophy lie. For Plato and Aristotle, philosophy begins in wonder. For the seventeenth-century Englishman Robert Burton, it begins in melancholy. Still others have suggested that philosophy begins in disappointment, boredom, anxiety or trauma. The modern phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s catchcry was ‘Back to the things themselves!’ This would all be well and good if the ‘things and problems’ he was thinking of hadn’t been crushed under the adumbrating weight of Teutonic polysyllabics.
So what to do? Where to look? Who to ask? Perhaps it’s at their beginning—or one of the many putative beginnings—that ‘the things themselves’ expose their essential traits?
Western philosophy properly begins with a hyperactive suicidal monomaniac, and goes on (and on) from there. Socrates was born in Athens in 469BC, the son of a stonemason and a midwife. From the moment of his entry into philosophy, Socrates was notorious for accosting innocent bystanders, forcing them to confess that they were living in ignorance about the meaning of their lives. Time after time, Socrates sidles up to some poor sap in the marketplace or backstreets and relentlessly interrogates him (it’s invariably a ‘him’) until the fellow finally breaks down, weepy and humiliated, crushed in the hammy fists of Socrates’s overbearing will.
Agorazein is a Greek verb that means ‘to betake oneself to the marketplace to see what people are saying’. Of course, you’d expect most people to be out in the marketplace of a morning, pursuing their own interests in a public commercial setting, selling, buying, hawking, haggling, investing, divesting, diversifying, dilating, bullying, preening and so on. Take the example of some early agorian advertising: Athenian prostitutes would have nails hammered into the soles of their sandals into a pattern, so that you would always know where to find them. Just follow the direction of the arrows in the sand… Certainly, ‘agora’ can also mean ‘assembly’, as well as ‘trial’; this only suggests that philosophers are prepared to persecute you absolutely anywhere.
Socrates, however, didn’t ask people to follow him or seduce them with promises of sex, money or power. On the contrary, he went out there and harried them mercilessly. Agorazeining should be understood here as aggressive public harassment of unsuspecting passers-by. Following Socrates’s example of agorazeining, philosophers have accordingly been accosting, importuning, irritating, stalking, hounding and persecuting innocents of all kinds for the subsequent two-and-a-half thousand years. In that time, they’ve learnt to expand their field of operations, diversify their tactics and refine their techniques—without ever giving way on this fundamental drive.
To my mind, then, this is the truest and deepest summation that can be given of philosophical ethics: agorazeining, which hopefully sounds enough like the English ‘agonising’ to get the point across. I would accordingly like to translate agorazeining as follows: getting out there and ruining people’s lives. Philosophy is not a theory or a process of understanding, of knowledge, of moral enlightenment, of exemplary behaviour. If it has historically had links with poetry, mythology, science, theology, religion, logic, mathematics, medicine, law and so on, these do not comprise its essential features nor exhaust the range of its operations. No, things are at once simpler and more complicated. Philosophy is the activity of ruining lives.
If a philosopher leaves you in peace, it’s not because they don’t think you wouldn’t benefit from their influence. It’s just because they’ve got other fish to fry that day, they’re waiting for the right moment, or they’ve tried before and have now given up, convinced you’re too indolent or immoral even to bother. If the philosopher concerned doesn’t believe in accumulative metaphysics—that theory of reincarnation according to which your future is determined by the amount of karmic capital acquired in the course of your life—or infernal torments without end for the wicked, they’ll probably console themselves with the thought that your (unpleasant) fate will be to continue as yourself.
This doesn’t mean that philosophers will leave it at arrogance, ignorance, pomposity or corruption. The instrumental callousness of philosophers can just as often mean that they are willing and able to lie to you without the slightest compunction. Since the end (ruining your life) justifies the means (ruining your life), don’t expect any quarter from their importunities. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, in a book revealingly titled by its editors (his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Peter Gast), The Will to Power, once philosophers ‘form the intention of taking in hand the direction of mankind’, they ‘also arrogate to themselves the right to tell lies’. This constitutional untrustworthiness of philosophers hardly precludes them from setting up unachievable goals for others—mere ordinary mortals—to fail.
Immanuel Kant was a chap so regular in his habits that the housewives of Königsberg were said to set their clocks by him (he allegedly only missed his daily constitutional twice, once because he’d been reading Rousseau, once because he’d just heard about the French Revolution). For Kant, if a murderer asks you where a proposed victim is hiding, it would be completely unethical to lie to him—even though you know he is going to kill. Your own and only duty in such a situation is to cleave to the truth, come what may. As De Quincey pointed out with some admiration, Kant was happy with his position, even when confronted on this point by the politician Benjamin Constant. Don’t lie to murderers, he reiterated. As shocked readers have often testified, this unforgiving injunction bears more than a passing resemblance to the worst sorts of psychopathology. No wonder the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was convinced that there was more than a passing relationship between Kant’s ethics and those of the Marquis de Sade.
Madame Anne Louise Germaine de Staël—the director or, I suppose, directress, of a well-known salon and wholesale French importer of wacky German thinkers—would have had cause to reflect on Kant’s lucubrations during the Revolution. At the time of the Terror, she was sheltering many of her friends in the extraterritorial building of the Swedish Embassy in Paris when a patrol turned up and demanded that she hand over her close friend Mathieu de Montmorency. She denied that he was there, thus saving his life but proving herself, by Kant’s standards, utterly immoral and corrupt (as it happens, she was a friend of Constant’s). Personal pathologies, including the bonds of friendship, are as nothing in the eyes of the Moral Law. Madame de Staël, however, repeatedly failed to understand either morality or tyrants. She despised Napoleon, and in the end, ‘the Corsican’ (as Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously nicknamed him) booted her out of France for her public criticisms of his imperialist policies.
The point I am making is that philosophy—or, more accurately, one or another of its representatives—will actively set out to unsettle and harangue you to within an inch of your life. A philosopher will stop at nothing to chase you into the back of beyond, most likely his beyond. Due to his efforts in this regard, the post-Socratic philosopher Hegesias was given the moniker peisithanatos, ‘he who persuades men to death’. Hegesias would leap out on unsuspecting passers-by, babbling that since reliable enjoyment is impossible and life is full of suffering, you might as well end it now. Happiness is unrealisable in this world. According to Cicero, Hegesias was so convincing that his lectures at Alexandria were banned by Ptolemy Lagi because they led to mass suicides. Contemporary death cults have hardly done better.
Why? you might exclaim, quite legitimately. Why do these philosophers do such things? What is it that philosophers want? Do they want to take you to hell, for your own good? And what’s in it for them? There are at least two problems with asking this question. First of all, Why? is the philosophical question par excellence. Why do I have to eat this spinach? Why is the sky blue? Why do you ask such stupid questions? To ask about the why? of philosophy is already to have been corrupted by philosophy itself. Second, philosophers themselves are often willing to admit that philosophy is not only of no use in one’s life, but indeed is downright harmful. Rousseau’s prize-winning essay written in response to the Academy of Dijon’s question ‘Have the arts and sciences conferred benefits on mankind?’ argued as follows: No. For Rousseau, on the contrary, the arts and sciences—of which philosophy is allegedly the queen—are in fact the enemies of morality. Any answer that philosophy may give is already thoroughly compromised by its life-ruining immorality.
Funnily enough, then, the proposition that philosophy will ruin your life turns out to be completely philosophical. In Plato’s Phaedo we find the metaphor of the swan who sings most sweetly just before it dies—not because it laments the life it is leaving behind but out of joyous anticipation of the invisible world to come. Philosophy is a preparation for dying well; it tries to have as little truck as possible with the things of this world. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it in his little pamphlet on anti-Semitism,
Recall the portrait of the philosopher that Plato sketches in the Phaedo: how the awakening to reason is for him death to the body, to particularities of character; how the disembodied philosopher, pure lover of abstract and universal truth, loses all his individual traits in order to become a universal look of inquiry.
Nietzsche, deploying a more militant rhetoric, wishes the worst torments upon his best friends — because they will only (have the chance to) become great when confronted with great challenges. Others have figured the best way to become a philosopher was simply to give away all their money.
In other words, philosophers don’t only ruin the lives of ordinary people and other philosophers; they’re just as keen to ruin their own lives as well. The one-time (disgraced) Lord Chancellor of England Francis Bacon died of pneumonia contracted as a result of leaving his coach in preternaturally chilly weather to buy a chicken from an old lady. He had planned to use the chicken in experiments on the preservative powers of snow. Heraclitus, disgusted with the common ruck of humankind, fled to the hills where, due to his exclusive diet of plants and herbs, he contracted dropsy. Returning to town for treatment, he refused to use plain language to communicate with his doctors. For good reason, they failed to understand his complaints until, from sheer frustration, he buried himself in a dung heap and died in a futile attempt to dry himself out with the warmth of the dung (another tradition has him being devoured by wild dogs while smeared with the healing excrement).
As a four-year-old child, my friend O. was at one point told by his mother, ‘Please move, you’re in my way’. Little O. pondered this utterance for a few moments, before replying ‘Where’s my way, then?’ (decades later, he’s still asking precisely the same question). So the rot begins. From the mere infantile failure to understand a mother’s simple request it’s a short step to questioning other people, then yourself, then any and all authorities whatsoever, before—in a flush of intellectual excitement—declaring yourself an immortal child of the gods and flinging yourself into a volcano. This, at least, was the fate of the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles, who before his final deluded plunge into the smoking mouth of Etna liked to gad about his native Sicily in aristocratic purple, sporting a gold crown with matching pumps. Not only a suicidal maniac, but a fashion disaster to boot, Empedocles would have undoubtedly recognised something of himself in Rousseau, who affected a purple fur-trimmed caftan and matching cap, allegedly for health reasons.
So philosophy can ruin your life in all kinds of ways—physically, financially, socially, and psychologically. It will not help you to earn money. It will not help you get on better with your boyfriend or girlfriend, your mother or father, siblings, extended family, friends, boss or co-workers. It will definitely not help you to dress well. In some ways, this essay is a kind of manual of ‘negative examples’ (as Chairman Mao might have put it). Bertrand Russell once claimed that the greatest influences upon his own writing style were Karl Baedeker, the publisher of a very successful sequence of travel books, and the radical English poet John Milton, author of the epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’. Although Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature, this confession perhaps betrays more than he thought. It suggests that his philosophy was in fact a guidebook to hell.
As their ship approached New York harbour in 1909, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, turned to his then-favourite disciple, the Swiss physician Carl Jung, who was travelling with him. ‘Now, Jung’, said Freud, indicating the New World with a sweep of his hand, ‘they don’t know we come bearing the plague’. The real secret of philosophy is not that it involves ‘the love of wisdom’ but that it is ‘a bearer of ruin’. I’m not wanting simply to reject philosophy. On the contrary, I want to suggest that, if philosophy is going to ruin your life, it’s best to know what it is in order to avoid it; that moreover, the best way to avoid being ruined by philosophy might be to pass through it and leave happily on the other side. Or, perhaps, that philosophy should pass through you, like a bunny through a boa-constrictor.
Note: A very long time ago—before smart phones, social media and the triumph of techbro surveillance culture—I found myself getting annoyed by the many popular introductions to philosophy that came across my desk. So I began writing a book titled How Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life, intended as a diverting corrective. Was I onto something? The publishers said no—and dumped the contract. This essay is extracted from what was to be the preface to that book, retrieved from the trash.