What is philosophy and why should I care?

It happened again. This time in a public place. I was walking with the crowd into Central Station when I stopped to talk to one of the charity workers who hover like butterflies about the station entrance. These guys usually freak me out a bit – with their friendly handshake that holds you in place and their sales patter cloaked as bonhomie – but I was feeling playful on the day, and so I went along with it, waiting for my chance to explain how I was already donating to a handful of charities and would rather keep my credit card details to myself, thank you very much.

The spruiker must have picked me for a tough sell because he played the long game. Instead of diving straight into an account of his employer’s good works, he decided to inquire into mine.

‘That’s an interesting set of sideburns you’re sporting, mate’, he said. ‘I bet you have an interesting job. What do you do?’

Did I groan aloud? I’m pretty sure I swallowed it. But I knew what was coming.

‘Well, I write’, I said. My interlocutor beamed expectantly. ‘Philosophy’, I added, after a pause. ‘I am a philosopher’.

That killed it. It always does. I’ve never had a hostile reaction from anyone. But the response is rarely what I’d consider positive. Usually, you see a glazed look appear in the other’s eyes. I imagine cogs and wheels turning in their brain as they try to slot you into some recognizable social role. Philosophers don’t fit – that’s the problem. A philosophy academic passes muster because he or she has an office, working hours, a salary and tax bracket – all the things that go to comprise a recognizable social function. But philosophers per se have no function. It confuses people.

‘Philosophy’, the spuiker replied, recovering himself. ‘That’s great! So … what is your philosophy?’ [Read more…]

Socrates as social entrepreneur: what is poetic truth?


The story of Socrates is a kind of fiction. This is not to say it is untrue. The story represents one of the great half-truths of Western civilization. It is a story that is recounted time and time again in undergraduate classrooms and introductory texts – the self-congratulatory tale of a simple man with a sharp mind and an aversion to nonsense, made all the more poignant for the fact that Socrates was condemned to die for his activities. Socrates is the Christ of philosophers. As with Jesus Christ, there is a tendency among the faithful to see Socrates in an apolitical light as a humble teacher and sage. Yet Socrates, like Christ, was a revolutionary of his time. Through his way of living and speaking to his fellow citizens, and through his constant quest to test the truth of the oracle’s statement and to settle the matter for himself, Socrates dealt hammer-blows to the cultural cement that had grounded Greek society for centuries.

This is the story that I want to unearth. My aim is to bring Socrates down to earth, so to understand him, as he was, as an innovative thinker at war with his society and time. [Read more…]

Socrates as social entrepreneur: who is Socrates?


He was not pretty and he was not well bred. Socrates was a plebeian, of common stock, which set him at a disadvantage in the aristocratic world of ancient Greece. Socrates was a muscular, thick-set man, with a snub nose and heavy brow. He had served, at some point, in the hoplite infantry, but whatever physical presence he possessed was diminished by his self-depreciating sense of humour and unmanly instinct for philosophical discussion. Socrates would make a practice of wandering barefoot about the marketplace, chatting to the people that he met. When he was alone, he’d stand for hours lost in thought. People thought he was very strange. He was polite, for the most part. But he didn’t seem to fit in.

Socrates did not charge a fee for his services, unlike the Sophists, the professional thinkers of the time. Unlike the philosophers who came after him, he did not establish a school or training institute. Socrates wrote nothing and he claimed that he had nothing to teach. Yet Socrates, more than any other ancient philosopher, is responsible for creating philosophy as we know it today. [Read more…]

Philosophy and courage

Courage is an ancient philosophical virtue. Some people are surprised by this fact. Philosophers, in the public mind, are forever associated with petty debates far removed from the hot-blooded concerns of life. When we think of philosophers, we imagine fusty academics puzzling over questions like: ‘How long is a piece of string?’ – not stalwart, heroic, types brimming over with courage and forbearance. Yet courage was an essential philosophical virtue in ancient times. Socrates and Aristotle affirmed this virtue, and other philosophers echoed the idea. Philosophers were made of sterner stuff in the ancient world. Philosophy wasn’t just an education in ideas. It involved a rigorous personal training aimed to free us from false ideas, and to prepare us for whatever hardships life could throw our way. [Read more…]