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The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
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Friday, March 14, 2014

ANOTHER FAVORITE

Looking up those definitions of superstition and religion in Leviathan got me thinking about another passage, my all-time favorite from the entire corpus of the philosophy I have read.  It is on my mind because two days after returning from my safari I shall be teaching it in Duke University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a Learning-in-Retirement program in which I have participated gratis three or four times before.  The passage comes from the third section of Plato's great middle dialogue, the Gorgias, in which Socrates is talking with the excitable iconoclast, Callicles.  When we interpret the passage, it is important for us to recall that as Plato wrote it, he was facing an important life choice:  Whether to plunge into the public life of Athens, as would be appropriate for a man coming from one of the leading families, or to withdraw from that public sphere and gather around him a group of young men gifted in philosophical discourse.  Plato chose the latter course, as we know, and founded the Academy from which all modern universities descend.

Callicles is speaking.  I quote from the Humbold translation. 

"It is an excellent thing to grasp as much philosophy as one needs for an education, and it's no disgrace to play the philosopher while you're young; but if one grows up and becomes a man and still continues in the subject, why, the whole thing becomes ridiculous, Socrates.  My own feeling toward its practitioners is very much the same as the way I feel toward men who lisp and prattle like a child.  When I see a child, who ought to be talking that way, lisping and prattling, I'm pleased, it strikes me as a pleasant sign of good breeding and suitable to the child's age; and when I hear a little lad speaking distinctly, it seems to me disagreeable and offends my ears as a mark of servile origin.  So, too, when I hear a grown man prattling and lisping, it seems ridiculous and unmanly; one would like to strike him hard!  And this is exactly the feeling I have about students of philosophy.  When I perceive philosophical activity in a young lad, I am pleased; it suits him, I think, and shows that he has good breeding.  A boy who doesn't play with philosophy I regard as illiberal, a chap who will never raise himself to any fine or noble action.  Whereas when I see an older man still at his philosophy and showing no sign of giving it up, that one seems to me, Socrates, to be asking for some hard knocks!  For, as I said just now, such a man, even if he's well endowed by nature, must necessarily become unmanly by avoiding the center of the city where, as the Poet [Homer] says, 'men win distinction.'  Such a fellow must spend the rest of his life skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, never pronouncing any large, liberal, or meaningful utterance."

The description of Professors of Philosophy [for that is really what in our world he is talking about] as "skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads" is delicious.  I wonder how many of my many colleagues in our profession ever give this passage serious thought.  They have all read it, of course [or at least it used to be the case that we could assume that -- these days, one does not know], but have they thought about it?  And when they teach a Platonic dialogue, which at least in Introductory courses they probably do, does it occur to them that the Sophists, those cardboard figure bad guys of the Dialogues, are actually professional teachers who go from city to city earning money by coaching the children of the rich -- which is to say, are itinerant Professors of Philosophy? 

I wonder.

1 comment:

Lane said...

hi there: Thanks for this. As a grad student (of Socratic philosophy) I appreciate your take on this: you're diminishing the value of philosophy professors akin to how Callicles diminished Socrates...and you find the analogy compelling, yes? As a future academic I don't want to be the sort of naval-gazer Callicles describes...but, I'm also no fan of Callicles nor his view of virtuous agents.

food for thought. thank you.
ht