The Arrogance of Philosophy

“When the suitors could not corrupt Penelope,” the philosopher Bion once said, “they seduced her handmaidens.  So it is with philosophy.  When unworthy men cannot attain to the Queen, they settle for other disciplines.” 

He probably had in mind, as “handmaidens,” the study of rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, poetry, perhaps even dance, finance, generalship, music, … or anything besides the subject matter he professed to practice.

(Bion “of Borysthenes” was from Olbia, near modern Mykolaiv in Ukraine, on the Dnieper river.  Penelope was the faithful wife of the Greek hero Odysseus.)

Would any academic department today dare to suggest (such hubris!) that it represented the Queen of all disciplines? 

Probably not out loud…

But we find philosophers from antiquity and throughout many ages openly claiming this – though it is hard to find philosophers saying it today.

What justifies such arrogance?

Plutarch himself declares that students should encounter familiarity with all other subjects in passing, “as in the manner of a taste test,” but spend most of their energy on “philosophy.”

He explains: philosophy teaches us what is good and what is ugly, worth choosing or not, just or unjust, and “how we should behave towards the gods, and our elders, and the laws, etc. …namely, that we should revere the gods, honor our elders, obey the laws…”

But isn’t that all mostly obvious?  How could a discipline that professes knowledge of values that are (mostly) straightforward and conventional be so difficult, or so worth studying?

This only really makes sense if by “study” philosophy we are implying that we practice it, and that it really does change us in ways we can clearly perceive.

“Wisdom crieth out in the streets,” as King Solomon says.  The point is that just about everyone in the town hears her voice, but few listen, or do anything about it.

What if there were a discipline that made it enjoyable, pleasurable, or even interesting… to do what is actually good for us, and for others?

That might be something to brag about.