Monday, February 14, 2005

Philosophers Within the Context of their Personal Lives

Nigel Rodgers and Mel Thompson offer a few details about the personal lives of some noted philosophers as a reminder that they didn't think in a vacuum.
It is sometimes assumed that the life of reason will lead to a reasonable life. Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, and tried to persuade his fellow Athenians to examine their lives and so change them. Plato expected the philosopher-ruler to concern himself with matters social and political, even though his mind might be on higher things, aware of the unreality of the shadows that most take for reality. Indeed, he argues in The Republic that only philosophers are fit to rule, since they alone are fully rational, capable of perceiving the good and controlling their baser passions. Stoics expect life to be lived in accordance with universal reason, and Epicureans may have made happiness the great motivator, but their idea of happiness entailed a life of simplicity. So we might expect philosophers to live well, in the broadest sense of that word.

This is not to say that philosophers are immune from the desires of the flesh. Among the ancients, Diogenes deliberately offends by masturbating in public places and even Plato acknowledges Socrates’ interest in contemplating the beauty of young men. Mediaeval misdemeanours include the extra-curricular interest that Abélard took in his young student Héloise, even if his resulting castration serves as a warning to libidinous teachers. In the modern period we know rather more about the lives and lusts of great thinkers. They are worth exploring, not just for tabloid entertainment, but because they raise questions about the role of rationality in human behaviour.

Artists, musicians, novelists or poets can behave outrageously badly and still be accepted as great exemplars of their art. Indeed, bad behaviour may enhance their reputations and give them a certain glamour. From philosophers, however, we expect nobler, wiser behaviour. Philosophers may not claim to lead lives of impeccable virtue, and their individual foibles do not automatically invalidate their arguments, but it is only fair to ask to what extent the lives of those committed to reason are shaped by that same faculty. Let us consider the behaviour of just a few philosophers of the modern period, with an eye to whether it has influenced, or been influenced by, their thought.
Rodgers and Thompson do just that, but they conclude with the reminder that "bad behaviour of philosophers does not invalidate their work, but sets it within a human context. It illustrates the way in which even the greatest thinkers find their lives governed by forces that are far from intellectual."

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