What Philosophers Do

If philosophy is a way of life, then what are the characteristic activities of philosophers? (I mean, of course, not professors of philosophy, but people who love and practice the minerval arts of wisdom.)

As far as I know, there is surprisingly little written on this topic, even by Pierre Hadot, who resurrected the ancient conception of philosophy as a way of life about 40 years ago. Sure, Socrates harangued his fellow Athenians in the agora, Confucius traveled around the fragmented states of ancient China encouraging various kings and princes to rule benevolently, the Buddha found enlightenment while mediating under the bodhi tree, Thoreau built a little house by the shores of Walden Pond and rambled around the Concord countryside, Spinoza got excommunicated for heretical thinking and ground lenses for a living, and so on.

Even right there we have quite the diversity in ways of life. As to more theoretical or academic activities, many philosophers wrote down their thoughts for future generations, but others, such as Socrates and Epictetus, wrote not a word. Some, like Plato, started a school where they gathered students and disciples; some, like Epicurus, formed intentional communities; but others, like Nietzsche and Spinoza, lived in relative solitude. Some, like Chu Hsi, were bookish scholars; others were more interested in directly fronting the essential facts of life, as Thoreau put it.

Yet underneath it all, I see this: a philosopher engages in deep and serious reflection about being human, and uses those reflections as the firm foundation for living deliberately and doing consistently what is beautifully right. Indeed, a philosopher takes life and wisdom so seriously that he or she holds as an ideal a lifetime of striving to become a great human being and a noble sage.

These formulations contain many concepts that are quite rarified, admittedly aspirational, and even untimely: reflection, deliberation, depth, seriousness, wisdom, beauty, rightness, greatness, humanity, nobility, sagehood. That strikes me as unavoidable, for, as Spinoza observed, all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

If this be idealism, make the most of it.

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