Life in the Middle
The word philosophy comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία, which means “love (φιλία, philia) of wisdom (σοφία, sophia)”.
But what, exactly, does it mean to love wisdom?
In a passage from Plato’s Symposium (easily on my list of top 5 all-time best philosophical works), Socrates is hanging out with his friends at a party when the conversation turns to the meaning of love.
After the others share their opinions on the matter, Socrates relates a conversation he once had with a mysterious priestess named Diotima while he was but a young and impressionable Socrates.
To be a lover of wisdom, Diotima told Socrates, is to live a life stretched out in the middle of things.
We—like Socrates—might be forgiven for not quite grasping what Diotima means by this enigmatic phrase. But the teacher patiently goes on to explain that the love in “love of wisdom” should be understood not just as a warm feeling, but as desire (in Greek, ἔρως, eros)—a kind of passionate longing and seeking (not at all dissimilar to the burning desire lovers feel for one another).
In other words, to love wisdom, Diotima tells us, is to seek wisdom. And—here’s the crucial point—we only seek if we ourselves occupy a position in the middle of two extremes.
On the one hand, if we already possessed wisdom, we wouldn’t seek for it. We usually don’t go around looking for what we already have.
On the other hand, if we utterly lacked wisdom, we wouldn’t seek for it either, because, being wholly ignorant, we wouldn’t even know what we are missing. If we don’t know that we lack something, we don’t have any reason to start looking. Or as Diotima puts it:
“What’s especially difficult about being ignorant is that you are content with yourself, even though you’re neither beautiful and good nor intelligent. If you don’t think you need anything, of course you won’t want what you don’t think you need.”
So: philosophers are lovers, and this amounts to the same as saying that philosophers are seekers. And this, in turn, means two things.
First, philosophers do not possess wisdom, but rather they are passionately searching for wisdom. (Notice how different a description this is from many of today’s “professional” philosophers—I’ve known a few—who act as though they have everything figured out, and who speak to us from a place of certainty rather than one of humble seeking!).
Second, to be a philosopher is to be already somehow in a kind of intimate and secret relationship to wisdom—to be stretched out in the soul, so to speak. We muddle around in the middle, it’s true, looking for wisdom—but not from a place of utter emptiness: wisdom beckons, tantalizes, flashes here and there, draws us out of ourselves. If we were wholly ignorant, our hearts would not feel the pull of something higher when it calls on us.
This might seem rather abstract, all this talk about seeking and middles and soul-stretching. But in fact nothing could be more commonplace: to “live a life stretched out in the midst of things” is to be curious about reality, to wonder why things are the way they are, to ask questions. It is so fundamental to being a human being that a child can do it. So fundamental, in fact, that children seem to do it spontaneously and inevitably, asking with breathless and indefatigable wonder that one-word question which contains multitudes: Why?
Each of us finds ourselves already in the midst of things. Philosophy is not some abstract and specialized field of study. It is simply the art of paying attention, of passionately seeking, of never ceasing to ask: Why?.
Eros, Attention, Acceptance
How can it be that I am just now discovering the work of Gillian Rose? All my friends (okay, all the contemporary philosophers and theologians I admire, and even some I don’t admire all that much) seem to be in love with her.
Here’s a passage from her posthumously published Paradiso:
What do you need to be a philosopher? You discover that you are a philosopher: it is not something you ever become.
Not a logical mind, not argumentative brio: philosophy is a passion. Discover this passion as a lover and witness of Socrates. Read the Platonic dialogues, Phaedrus, Phaedo, and the Apology, and you will fall in love with Socrates. You imbibe his frenzy, the madness of love inspired by Aphrodite and Eros. You feel you can reach out and touch the feathers that grow again from the roots all over the surface of the soul to ascend to divine beauty.
To be a philosopher you need only three things. First, infinite intellectual eros: endless curiosity about everything. Second, the ability to pay attention: to be rapt by what is in front of you without seizing it yourself, the care of concentration—in the way you might look closely, without touching, at the green lacewing fly, overwintering silently on the kitchen wall. Third, acceptance of pathlessness (aporia): that there may be no solutions to questions, only the clarification of their statement. Eros, attention, acceptance.
Gillian Rose, Paradiso (2015), 45.
Why Beauty Matters
To continue the unapologetically Platonic theme of this week’s On the Exam?, I recommend finding an hour to watch Roger Scruton’s 2009 video-essay on the enduring importance of beauty.
So much of our contemporary world finds itself bereft of beauty, giving preference to function over form in the commercial and architectural spheres, and to “self-expression” in large swaths of the art scene. This self-conscious rejection of beauty, argues Scruton, is not an act of courageous “realism,” as it sometimes purports to be, but rather a failure of courage and imagination, and ultimately a nihilistic exercise in despair.
He invites us to recover traditional views of beauty—running from Plato through Kant and beyond—in order to “liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the useful.”
To be sure, this is a controversial argument. I would love to hear your thoughts: is this a vital recovery? knee-jerk conservatism? idealism run amok? Feel free to hit reply and let me know what you think.
(By the way, this video pairs well with the phenomenal Beauty for Truth’s Sake by Stratford Caldecott. Thanks to On the Exam? reader Dave for the recommendation.)
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