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Philosophers are often thought of as hopelessly inept in the “real” world, the theoretical counterparts of the 90-pound weakling on the beach of the material world. Nothing could be more mistaken.
As mentioned, Alexander the Great studied with Aristotle and then went on to conquer the world (well, the parts of the world the Greeks knew). Coincidence? Perhaps, but the extent to which other ancient figures were influenced by philosophy is far less ambiguous. To take the most obvious example, Socrates was committed to a life of social criticism and public debate, so much so that he was tried and executed by Athenian officials who felt threatened by his influence over the young.
Consider also the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (the guy Richard Harris played in the movie Gladiator). As a young man, Aurelius was so motivated by his love of truth (the Emperor Hadrian nicknamed him “Verissimus”) that he turned from studying rhetoric to philosophy. Conscientious to his subjects and magnanimous to his enemies, Aurelius sold off personal items rather than raise taxes to fund the imperial expansion into Eastern Europe. Despite his dislike of violence (he made gladiators fight with blunt tips), Aurelius spend much of his reign on the battlefield fighting German tribes on the Danube front; The Meditations was written down as notes, sometimes in military camp at the end of a weary and bloody day. Like many other ancients, Aurelius took the philosophical life to be one lived in the world according to philosophical principles and values, drawing on Epictetus’ admonition:
Eat like a man, drink like a man, get dressed, get married, have children, lead the life of a citizen … Show us all this, so that we can see whether or not you have really learned something from the philosophers. (Discourses III, 21, 5)
One important thinker who exemplified Epictetus’ ideal was John Locke. Bored with the scholastic curriculum during his studies at Christ Church, Oxford, he spent much of his time as an undergraduate reading French literature. After receiving his B.A. in 1656, Locke plunged into the study of medicine and chemistry, later supervising a surgery to drain an abscess on Lord Ashley’s liver (the operation probably saved Ashley’s life). Locke saw his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the locus classicus for modern empiricist philosophy, as providing part of the conceptual framework for the new scientific advances of Boyle, Huygens, “and the incomparable Mr.
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The founding fathers of American government certainly were engaged in worldly matters (you can’t build a country while locked in an ivory tower), yet Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams and many others were schooled in the philosophical, political and legal writings of Greek, Roman and Medieval scholars. More importantly, they thought that such schooling was essential training for public life!
Benjamin Franklin, born into a poor working class family, dropped out of school at the age of 10, but he read widely through his teen years. At the age of 16 he read John Locke’s Essay. On discovering Plato’s dialogues, he became so taken with the Socratic method of argumentation that in conversation with others, he consciously put on the mask of “the humble inquirer and doubter.”
The following quotation from James Madison: A Biography, by Ralph Ketcham, is eye-opening (Madison was a primary architect of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, the Bill of Rights, and the 4th US President):
In Madison’s day the towering figures of Greece and Rome and the priceless books of the ancient sages and historians were very nearly sanctified as an incomparable source of insight into human affairs. To understand Madison’s mind, it is necessary to sense in some way the broad and primordial impact upon it of the Greek and Latin authors. Though, like most of his contemporaries, he did not often “footnote” the ideas he took from this classical studies, it is apparent that again and again he accepted many of them as axiomatic when he considered public problems in Williamsburg, Philadelphia, and Washington. For Madison’s generation the wisdom of Greece and Rome furnished, so to speak, the folklore, the “morality plays”, and the schoolboy texts on fundamental concepts of human nature and society. (p. 46)
To illustrate the point being made here, take a look at the following exchange on the subject of education and the youth, between Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, and John Adams, 2nd President of the United States (the date is about 5 years after the end of Jefferson’s term as President). Note Jefferson’s disgruntled tone over what he perceives to be superficiality in the education of the youth of his day (from The Adams-Jefferson Letters (1959), edited by Lester Cappon; spelling idiosyncrasies are in the original):
Jefferson to Adams, July 5, 1814:
But why am I dosing you with these Ante-diluvian topics? [Jefferson had just made some brief comments on Plato.] Because I am glad to have some one to whom they are familiar, and who will not receive them as if dropped from the moon. Our post-revolutionary youth are born under happier stars than you and I were. They acquire all learning from their mother’s womb, and bring it into the world ready-made. The information of books is no longer necessary; and all knolege which is not innate, is in contempt, or neglect at least. Every folly must run it’s round; and so, I suppose, must that of self-learning, and self-sufficiency; of rejecting the knolege acquired in past ages, and starting on the new ground of intuition. When sobered by experience I hope our successors will turn to the advantages of education. I mean of education on the broad scale, and not that of the petty academies, as they call themselves, which are starting up in every neighborhood, and where one or two men, possessing Latin, and sometimes Greek, a knolege of the globes, and the first six books of Euclid, imagine and communicate this as the sum of science. They commit their pupils to the theatre of the world with just taste enough of learning to be alienated from industrious pursuits, and not enough to do service in the ranks of science. …. I hope the necessity will at length be seen of establishing institutions, here as in Europe, where every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in it’s highest degree. Have you ever turned your thoughts to the plan of such an institution? I mean to a specification of the particular sciences of real use in human affairs…?
Adams to Jefferson , July 16, 1814:
Education! Oh Education! The greatest Grief of my heart, and the greatest Affliction of my Life! … If I venture to give my thoughts at all, they must be very crude. I have turned over Locke, Milton, Condilac, Rousseau and even Miss. Edgeworth as a bird flies through the Air. … Grammar, Rhetorick, Logic, Ethicks, mathematicks, cannot be neglected; Classicks, in spight of our Friend Rush [Benjamin Rush advocated dropping Greek and Latin from the school curriculum], I must think indispensable. Natural History, Mechanicks, and experimental Philosophy, Chymistry, etc. (at least their Rudiments) can not be forgotten. Geography, Astronomy, and even History and Chronology, tho’ I am myself afflicted with a kind of Pyrrhonism in the two latter, I presume cannot be omitted. Theology I would leave to Ray, Derham, Nicueuteyt and Payley, rather than to Luther, Zinzindorph, Sweedenborg, Westley, or Whitefield, or Thomas Aquinas or Wollebius [in other words, Adams would leave theology to proponents of “natural” theology rather than to “revealed” theology]. Metaphysics I would leave in the Clouds with the Materialists and Spiritualists, with Leibnits, Berkley, Priestley and Edwards, and I might add Hume and Reid ….
(It hardly needs saying, but it is difficult to imagine any two Presidents in recent years having such a conversation!)
Karl Marx is, arguably, the thinker whose ideas have most influenced the twentieth century. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Jena for a dissertation on the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus. Denied an academic post because of his leftist politics, he became an editor for a paper in Cologne that was shut down after a year. In his “Theses on Feuerbach’, Marx wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; what matters is to change it.” Though Marx’s theories of historical change were a key stimulus for the socialist and communist revolutions of the 20th century, it would be a mistake to identify Marxist philosophy with any of the state-sanctioned political philosophies of communist and socialist governments of the last (and this) century. History appears to have ruled the communist experiment (Marxism-so-called, as distorted by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others) a failure, but Marx’s critique of classical “idealist” philosophies, and of capitalist economic systems, remains broadly influential today.
We needn’t restrict our attention to politics to see philosophy at work in the lives of influential people:
Albert Schweitzer earned a doctorate in philosophy before becoming the world-renowned, Bach-playing, Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian missionary doctor in French Equatorial Africa (present-day Gabon).
T. S. Eliot wrote a doctoral dissertation on the development of Leibniz’s monadism before becoming one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature along the way (he never returned for Harvard to defend the dissertation).
Iris Murdoch did graduate work with Wittgenstein before becoming a tutor at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Resigning this position later to devote all of her time to writing, she produced a host of philosophical and critical studies in addition to 26 novels, including The Sea, The Sea, for which she received the Booker Prize.
Others writers who majored (but did not always graduate) or did graduate work in philosophy include: Mary Higgins Clark (The Cradle Will Fall), Philip K. Dick (whose novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was adapted into the film “Blade Runner”), Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), Ken Follett (The Eye of the Needle), Rebecca Goldstein (MacArthur prize-winning author of The Mind-Body Problem), James Michener (Pulitzer Prize winning author of the novel that was adopted to the musical “South Pacific” and Centennial), Kate Millett (Sexual Politics), Chaim Potok (The Chosen), Susan Sontag (Illness and Metaphor and The Volcano Lover), David Foster Wallace (MacArthur prize winning author of Infinite Jest), Elie Wiesel (Nobel Prize winning author of Night ), and Yann Martel (Booker award winning author of Life of Pi.)
Robert Motherwell got a B.A. in philosophy, went for a year of graduate school, then took a break to travel in Europe. While abroad he began to paint seriously, later becoming one of the great American Abstract Expressionists.
A short, skinny 18-year old arrived from Hong Kong to study philosophy at the University of Washington in the early 1960s. (He even wore glasses.) Bruce Lee turned the stereotype of the philosophy student as geeky dweeb on its head and spinning-side-kicked it into the next room.
Banjo-picking comedic genius Steve Martin studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and for a while wanted to go on and teach it. He later said in “Wild and Crazy Guy”, “if you’re studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all… but philosophy, you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life”.
Woody Allen: “I went to NYU myself, I was a philo-major there, too. I took all the abstract philosophy courses in college, like truth and beauty, advanced truth and beauty, intermediate truth, introduction to God, Death 101. I was thrown out of NYU my freshman year, I cheated on my metaphysics final in college, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me”.
Other comedians and arts celebrities who majored or did graduate work in philosophy: Wes Craven (director of “Nightmare on Elm Street”), actor Harrison Ford, journalist and TV newsmagazine host Stone Phillips, director Patricia Rozema ( “Mansfield Park” and “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing”), movie critic Gene Siskel, and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. Actor David Duchovny deserves honorable mention since he was interested and took classes in philosophy while majoring in English at Princeton.
Hard-core environmentalist, vegan, New York D.J., rave artist and house music innovator Moby on his studies:
My favorite memories from college were long, heated debates in philosophy class…. Perhaps my choice of major has given me a slightly detached perspective on the circumstances of my professional life. It’s hard to take the professional minutiae of the music business too seriously when you recognize the collective subjectivism that informs our understanding of the things that seemingly fill our lives. And if you go to cocktail parties and say you were a philosophy major in college, then people think you’re probably smarter than you actually are, which is nice.
Other musicians who majored in philosophy include the composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies, and Kim Thayill of Soundgarden.
Philosophy majors are well-represented among business leaders as well. A list would include Mark Hulbert (financial columnist, FORBES magazine), Carl Icahn (CEO, TWA Airlines), Gerald Levin (CEO, Time-Warner, Inc.), Carleton Fiorina (CEO Hewlett-Packard), and Moses Znaimer (owner of CITY-TV and MUCH-MUSIC, Toronto).
(It’s worth noting that less than 15% of CEOs in the United States have undergraduate degrees in business fields, and that of people in business management making above the median income, people with undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts make more money than people with undergraduate degrees in business (USA Today).)
To sum up, Plato is right that “philosophy begins in wonder”, but it is a gross mistake to think that the study of philosophy is irrelevant to the problems of living in the real world. Indeed, the “real world” is unimaginable without the contributions of people who have been inspired by the philosophical life.