It is a lovely spring day here in North Carolina and I have finished my morning walk. I diverted myself during the long slog by recalling some lovely one-liners from the philosophical literature and I thought I might amuse myself and perhaps even amuse you as well by putting them down in a blog post. Before I do that, however, I should like to offer my heartfelt thanks to those of you who have written truly generous compliments in response to my sometimes rather pathetic musing about the lifecycle and my current place in it. I do not think I could find words to tell you how much these comments meant to me. As I struggle, in Dylan Thomas’s beautiful words, not to go gentle into that good night but to rage, rage against the dying of the light, the thought that I have reached out and touched some of you warms me against the cold.
Now onto happier thoughts. Philosophers are by and large not known for their brevity but from time to time one of them gets off a line that stays in the mind, capturing in a few words a powerful and complex thought. I have some favorites, some of which I have quoted before but the very most favorite of all I think I have never actually quoted here. So let me get started.
I begin, as all philosophers must, with Plato. All of you will I am sure recall his great dialogue, the Gorgias, whose structure interestingly enough is exactly that of Book 1 of the Republic. After disposing easily enough of Gorgias and Polus, Socrates confronts Callicles, to whom Plato gives some of his strongest arguments and most telling lines. Here is my favorite, delivered by Callicles shortly after he enters the dialogue:
“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 does not play with philosophy I regard as illiberal, the chap 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 need a whipping!… 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.”
Skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, is surely the greatest description ever given of the profession to which I have devoted my life. Only a philosopher as great as Plato would have the courage to put those words in the mouth of the character who is defending everything that Plato hates.
My second example comes from a text that I have frequently made reference to, the Preface to Kierkegaard’s brilliant short work, Philosophical Fragments. Virtually every line of the brief Preface is worth quoting but I shall restrict myself simply to this passage in which Kierkegaard gives voice to the intense seriousness with which he approaches philosophy:
“But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be very sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine.”
To lighten this post a bit after that desperately serious text, let me just mention a delicious question that appeared many decades ago on the Moral Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University. A few words are required for those of you too young to remember what epistemologists were fussing about 70 years ago. The centuries – long debate between the rationalists and the empiricists had at long last come down to a question of the role in empirical knowledge of something called sense data reports, which were supposed to be descriptions of the sensory perceptions on which, according to the epistemologists, all knowledge is based. Because it was widely believed at that time that each of us is unable actually to know what is in another’s mind, a good deal of ink was spilled (this was before computers) on the question whether there could be a private language in which sense experience would be described by the person who actually had that experience but who could not successfully communicate the experience to others. Wittgenstein blew up that debate with the argument that there could not be a private language and so theorists of knowledge moved on to other questions. Roughly at that time, some wit making up the final examination for Cambridge University undergraduate philosophy students came up with an examination question that captured the whole complicated kerfuffle in four words. His question was: “What were sense data?”
That is the ultimate inside joke.
Now on to my all-time favorite. It comes from a work published 370 years ago, the Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Chapter VI of Part One has the rather elaborate title “Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; And the Speeches by Which They Are Expressed.” The entire nine page chapter is well worth quoting but I shall restrict myself to my favorite nineteen words, which in scarcely more than two lines dispose for all time of the endless debates about what should be considered genuine faith and what a mere cult. I conclude this post with these words, which I have loved since reading them almost 70 years ago:
“Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION.”