Exile, Occupation, Persecution: The Birth of Philosophers

Bertrand Russell, Typical Philosopher

Time to pick up where I left off last time—why so many of The Greats come from less-than-ideal circumstances. While today’s philosopher is stereotyped as a rather comfortable man in his armchair complete with tweed, pipe, and beard, it seems that most philosophers, especially before Kant, spent some time on the run, hungry, alone, forsaken, and with the law at their heels. For a few of them, there was a jail cell and executioner rather than departmental office and publisher.

I’m all about historical narratives around here, so let’s whip up another one—how philosophers found themselves on the wrong end of The Man:

Socrates: Philosophy in the west, at least as we tend to view it today, starts with the trial and execution of Socrates. Is there a better candidate for the philosopher’s credo than the Apology? No, not really. Sham trials, a judicial apparatus run amok, and the executioner were right there at the beginning of philosophy.
Aristotle: Took to his heels when someone threatened to have him tried for impiety. No sinning twice against philosophy for Athens, it seems.
Cicero—Turns out that a principled opposition to unlimited state power and commitment to Stoic ethics can be hazardous to your health.
(We’re going to skip quite a few early Christian saints, starting with Paul, for the simple reason that I can’t remember all of them, their exact philosophical positions, or their usually pretty nasty deaths. Also, this list is going to be long enough, so…)
Boethius: A special case (more later!), but, once again, got himself caught in the kind of philosophical-religious-political power struggle that rarely ends well.
Aquinas: Was condemned by the church. Twice. So much for the exemplar of all true philosophy and theology…
Bonaventure: While I’m not too sure how reliable the claims he was assassinated by poison at the Council of Lyons by those who had a vested interest in the separation of the Eastern and Western churches are, I’m also not too sure how unreliable they are either.
Scotus: When forced to take a loyalty oath to Philip IV (Philip the Fair) of France over the Pope in order to remain in Paris, skipped town to Cologne. He hasn’t left.
Dante: Wrong end of an extension of the same political struggle that got Scotus run out of town. Leads to Monarchia, granted, but I get the impression he’d rather have just gone home.
Marsilius, Ockham, and John of Jandun: Turns out that telling John XXII that he’s a heretic with no claim to political power over anyone, much less Emperor Louis of Bavaria, is a good way to hack off a few people…like the pope’s allies in France. Louis may love you, but good luck getting back to the parts of Italy you called home that don’t like the emperor right now.
Galileo: While the real reasons for his condemnation are really misunderstood, the end results aren’t.
Giordano Bruno: If you can hack off the Catholics, the Calvinists, and the Venetians at a time when they all hate each other on general principle, you’re really not doing the whole “diplomacy” thing very well, are you?

And that about gets us up to the time when these things start getting well-documented, the Reformation enters full swing, and lots of erstwhile court philosophers have to take to their heels or find themselves out of work because of something they said to someone who didn’t much like it. Again, without having to think, that’d be Spinoza, Hume, Locke, and Voltaire, with Pascal and the Port-Royal school receiving no love from the Jesuits and Hobbes under a cloud of suspicion for his atheism. Really, it’s not until Kant that philosophers stop having to worry about what they say having Dire Consequences—and even then, the Prize Essay has lots of asides to keep the emperor from looking askance at some Prussian professor.

Sure, some of this is because of the wonderful ideas of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and the marketplace of ideas that earlier philosophers developed and often got in trouble for espousing. The fact is that the editorial collective of Radical Philosophy, as good a bunch of aging leftists as you could hope to find,* isn’t going to get deported, much less hauled off to the reeducation camps and summarily executed, despite living in countries that operate under opposing ideologies. Philosophers can shoot their mouths off all they want nowadays, and, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses, they’ll get through life without much more in the way of negative consequences than an occasional incredulous stare.**

Some of it is also that there’s less that’s truly shocking and offensive left to say. Anymore, most positions are either acceptable and noncontroversial, debatable (see your local newspaper’s opinion page), or just plain insane. To be honest, I’m having trouble thinking of an example of an opinion I could espouse that would be not only criminally offensive, but also one that people might actually believe me if I said that I held it. If I went about on street corners advocating pedophilia on the grounds that it would allow older people to teach and train younger ones in the mores and nuances of society, I don’t think I’d be locked up, so long as I never put my supposed ideals into practice—rather, I’d either attract a crowd of people out to shut me down, or I’d just get ignored as a nutter. It’s what Foucalut describes as madness—there are some things that are so far out of a society’s discursive field, of the ideas you could ever actually hold, that they aren’t even wrong or offensive; they just don’t exist! Sane people can’t hold them, ergo, if you go about espousing them, you must be insane. It may be a consequence of free speech and our liberal, pluralistic society that we’ve had to exchange so much of what was once offensive for either what is debatable or what is pure madness. I’m not sure how exactly—more to think about?—and less sure if this is a good or bad thing (it’s probably just a thing), but there it is.

And yet another part of it is that, as philosophy and the academy professionalized over the last few centuries, people just stopped caring what the philosophers had to say, and the philosophers kinda stopped caring what everyone else had to thing about them. Academic journals and books gave philosophers a contained little playpen, a place to be provocative to the people they think matter without anyone else having to notice. Philosophy could carry on being, in its own eyes, revolutionary and insightful without anyone else outside the academy every having to take any notice. Not that this bothered a lot of philosophers, really; why should they care about what hoi polloi thought? Everyone who mattered was inside their little corner of the playpen, right? Why, we can even take our blocks and build little walls within the pen, keeping the other insignificant pseudo-philosophers out! Now, isn’t that better? Look at what I made for you, mommy! It’s a metaphysics paper! Put it on the fridge next to Sissy’s report card!***

I’m sorry, did I sound a bit sarcastic and bitter about the state of academic philosophy there? Apologies. So many brilliant minds, so much potential to make the world better, all channeled into debating the minutia of the mind-body problem. Really, the only reason people think philosophers are useless and don’t come up with anything new is that we’ve let ourselves become content to be useless and to talk with ourselves, occasionally releasing a dumbed-down and mildly condescending pop culture and philosophy tract. Of course, to actually act on our convictions, to enact the changes we know are needed in our society, to be the intellectual and moral force behind every effort to create a more just and flourishing society, one free from every sort of ignorance or evil—to do what the best philosophers of every age have always done—would require us to leave the confines of the academy, transgress the social rules by which we are bound, and walk the fine line between revolutionary genius and madness. If you live in a society that is not merely corrupt, but takes its corruption as part of the fabric of its being, the foundation of its ethos and the standard by which all truth is judged, then anyone struggling to be free of this corruption must abandon the social rules and mores of their society—yes, even the seemingly fundamental ones.

Really, when was the last time you were accosted in public by some ugly guy with a beard who kept asking you questions, implied the government was corrupt, and said he had a god that talked to him? Is there really that much of a difference in form, if not in substance, between the crazy Gallery Place hobos and Socrates? The only reason why we sympathize with Socrates over the Athenians who killed him is that we live in a society that was formed by his ideals and those of his successors; if you actually think about what a modern-day Socrates would do (hang around the Department of Justice offices asking deputy solicitors-general about justice, fairness, and the nature of law, perhaps?), it sounds exactly like what you’d expect from the bums you hurry up to get away from.

This gets to the heart of philosophical exile: judged by the standards of society, we’re all insane. We don’t belong. If you’re the person who has to evaluate and judge society and its systems, you have to work from somewhere on its margins, as an outsider, as an exile.

Nobody becomes a philosopher because they’re happy with the world, their life, and how things just make so much sense. There might be people who study philosophy to prove their points, to learn tricks and received opinions to bolster their own, but they’re dogmatists, not philosophers; if you’re trying to reinforce a system, rather than examine what is and change it for a better, you’re a lover of a system, not wisdom. Philosophers are born because nothing makes sense, because everything is so entirely strange and alien, and, no matter how often you point this startlingly obvious fact out to people, they just don’t get it. In fact, they don’t even seem to happy to hear it. Ask them why people do X, and you’ll get a received answer. Point out why that doesn’t actually work that well, and you’ll get some reference to an apocryphal study, to supposed common knowledge, or to some statement they heard last week. Point out that none of those are actually good evidence, and you find out That’s Just How It Is. This is horribly frustrating, really; it’s not that you wanted to be a jerk (though you do learn how to), you just wanted the answers that someone should know, but nobody actually does. Normal people don’t lay awake nights in terror of what would happen if God were to stop thinking about the world or how tragic it is that there is no way that unicorns can exist—and, just in case they do, they have the good sense not to admit it! Best to stick to practicalities, to money and power, the things fit for a man, and cultivate just enough interests in things to appear interesting, but only as a hobby.

Then you discover Plato as a college freshman, and find out that you aren’t the only one asking questions and fundamentally dissatisfied with the nonanswers. Sure, the answers in the dialogues may not be the best, they may not be the ones you ultimately accept as your own, but finally, someone else is taking this seriously! No more half-answers, no more evasions, no more obsessions with the transient seeming goods of money, sex, and power, here, at long last, might be where you find something to help it all make sense…and then they hemlock him. They caught on that he wasn’t joking, that he was serious, and that he did intend to overthrow the existing order, the one that promised to make them great and powerful in the eyes of their fellows, replacing it with one that would merely make them good. The choice is clear: accept the calling of the sovereign good, or live the respectable life society says you should.

Being an academic is a noble profession. It’s a good one, really. Cushy, even. Respectable. Nice work, if you can get it. But it’s no place for a philosopher. So long as philosophy remains content to stay within everyone else’s bounds,**** we’re doomed. There is hope for society, perhaps, but only if those who could challenge the received traditions and false ideals that bind us and hold humanity back cast off their chains of respectability and risk the “crazy philosopher” label. We’ve doomed ourselves as philosophers by allowing philosophy to be so easily dismissed as useless, pointless, and never-changing; the time has long since come for us to challenge these assumptions. It’s time to point out that it doesn’t make sense, and, if you only stop to think about it, it’s pretty obvious that it never has. It’s not a matter of intelligence or the enlightened pointing out mysterious truths to those who stumble in darkness; it’s only a trick of showing how false certain ingrained notions of what constitutes the good life are, in reality, just falsehood and mirages, an ingrained power structure that serves to benefit the few at the cost of the many.

And, at the risk of belaboring the point, it makes for better philosophy. Those for whom it all makes sense write self-assured and pompous papers claiming to either destroy or save David K. Lewis’s model of scientific laws. The exiles, those who have been denied power and glory, who have been shamed and humiliated, relegated to the margins, broken and laid low…those are the brilliant ones. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the schools that followed after them lived and taught in a conquered city, citizens not of their own land but subjects of a foreign power. The Spartans, the Macedonians, and the Romans all ruled the city that produced the glories of Greek philosophy. Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham were all mendicant friars, men who owned nothing, not even the clothes they wore, who swore to humbly obey the authorities above them in all things. In the modern age, the ascetic, lonely philosopher burning the midnight oil, forsaking all pleasures of the flesh, is something of a stereotype; really, who can see Pascal or Kierkegaard enjoying a good night out or Hegel following sports scores? Why, Hume even recommends a quick nip out to the pub and a game or two of backgammon with the mates as a defense against excessive philosophizing, the sort of “melancholy and delirium” that produced Pascal! Enjoy yourself, take in a bit of the world, or else you might actually start believing all this stuff you’re thinking!

So maybe it’s best for everyone that philosophers run the risk of being thought crazy and the wrath of those who are in power. Would Boethius have ever written his Consolation if he hadn’t needed it himself? Had he not found himself on Theodoric’s bad side, he would have spent his time as a state official and translator of Plato, but not as the author of one of the most influential and beautiful works of philosophy of all time. True, a translation Plato would have been nice, especially in retrospect, but, in even longer hindsight, we recovered Plato in the end. An unwritten Consolation would have been a still greater loss to humanity. And what of the other Last of the Romans, Augustine of Hippo, wandering in lonely exile here in the city of man, seeking to return home to the city of God? So much of Augustine’s writing is filled with a longing for home, for God, for mystical union with the Trinity, to cast off the limitations and humiliations of his sinful and fallen life and accept the true freedom and happiness found in humble submission to the divine will. Does it seem madness to abandon a career as a professor of rhetoric, as one who teaches the young how to gain power and wealth, for the poverty and hunger of an obscure episcopate? Yes, it truly does, but only from the viewpoint of a corrupt and wicked world, a viewpoint that, for Augustine, doesn’t really matter. Why serve the world and the crown when you could serve the Truth?

It’s a lonely place to be, granted, out on the margins, belonging nowhere and at no time, an outcast from all societies and their corruptions. For those who would try to change a broken world, though, it’s the only place to be.

*Seriously, “editorial collective?” What respectable, right-thinking individual flies their Marxist freak flag like that these days?
**Doing it in the street and frightening the horses gets you a book deal. Sadly, it’s a bit hard to find horses in streets these days.
***Says the person writing blog posts. The irony of all this is not entirely lost on me.
****By the way, when did philosophers start taking orders from what were once subalternated disciplines, things that we invented and spun off later? When did we abandon our responsibility as philosophers to actually do philosophy and instead decided to blindly parrot whatever philosophical positions the scientists told us we were supposed to believe? That may be a good idea when it comes to science (which most philosophers have much less of a clue about than they’d like you to believe they do—I was really glad I had some background in a messy hands-on science like field ecology rather than merely how I thought theoretical physics worked, or at least should), but not when it comes to philosophy. If I hear one more physicist or neuroscientist claim philosophy is dead, science will solve all your problems, then immediately start making other philosophical claims…

2 thoughts on “Exile, Occupation, Persecution: The Birth of Philosophers

  1. I often find myself wondering how much of the “persecution” of philosophers was because they were philosophers and how much was simply the powers of the age not liking what they were saying. For all the eras you mention, there are countless numbers of people imprisoned or executed for saying the wrong things. Most of them were probably not philosophers. So one might might conjecture that the change between then and now has quite a bit to do with civil rights (particularly the freedom of speech) and not very much to do with being a philosopher.

    I also have to wonder about how much we’re cherry picking our philosopher heroes. Perhaps Marcus Aurelius wasn’t a ‘real’ philosopher, but he certainly didn’t have much to fear from the Roman empire. Or Plotinus, who won such favor with the Imperial court that he was going to afforded the opportunity to build Platonopolis. In other realms, Ibn Sina (along with many, but not all, Arabic philosophers) had no real fear of persecution. Nor did a number of the great Asian philosophers.

    Moreover, your examples are quite on target so long as one remains in the US or a limited number of other countries. Should one find oneself in Russia, Turkey, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, or a number of other countries, then one might find oneself facing the same sort of dilemma as venerable old Socrates should one happen to give voice to the wrong opinion. That perhaps understates the case, in some of those countries, Socrates treatment at the hands of ancient Athens might look positively compassionate in comparison.

    • Sorry about the delay in replying; too busy paying attention to Le Tour, not enough to Le Blogge. It happens when your other job is at a bike shop…

      While I agree that much of what gets philosophers in trouble is that the Powers That Be rarely like what many of them are saying, and that not everyone who shoots their mouth off is necessarily a philosopher, I do wonder if being a philosopher makes you more prone to having and espousing unpopular ideas. If you’re spending all day wondering if this is “how it really should be,” and you’re in a situation where the PTB have ways of making sure that people who don’t like the idea of disappearing in the middle of the night think out loud that yes, it really is, then you might be at risk of official censure. This gets to your last point as well; I can hardly imagine what would happen to a North Korean political philosopher who differed with the party line. Heck, a North Korean metaphysician could probably get in trouble somehow.

      As for philosophers being in power, I don’t see why you need to go as far as your examples, apt though they probably are; I think I gave you plenty! Cicero and Boethius were, before they were killed, some of the most powerful men in the Roman Empire; Voltaire has one of the most prominent tombs in the Pantheon (across from Rousseau’s, naturally); Aristotle tutored Alexander, Plato the tyrants of Syracuse, and Socrates Alcibiades; Aquinas was consulted by the Duchess of Brabant on issues of politics, and, along with Bonaventure, was summoned to the Council of Lyons; Galileo was employed by the Medici; and Marsilius, John, and William were great favorites of Ludwig of Bavaria, even if John XXII didn’t much care for any of them. Sure, they all had their troubles with the PTB, sometimes terminal ones, but someone liked them at one point, right?

      The key to philosophical exile, though, is at the end. It doesn’t matter how much worldly power you give a philosopher, there’s still some very important sense in which they’ll still be alienated from the world, exiles from where their ideal homeland. While I think it interesting that so many philosophers faced temporal persecution, I also think the theme of spiritual exile the more important one. Perhaps I buried the lede a bit, but that’s kind of where my thoughts were heading.

      After all, why would Marcus Aurelius, every bit a real philosopher, give up the imperial throne except for something better? As emperor, he was still removed from the spiritual home that, as a philosopher, he had at least the hope of glimpsing.

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