January/February 2011


Written by Rob Mason

I read an article recently in the Oct/Nov 2010 Philosophy Now magazine. The article was entitled, ‘How to be a Philosopher’ and was written by Dr. Ian Ravenscroft.

The article listed 9 points about How to be a Philosopher.

In item 1, under the heading ‘What to Wear’ Ian talks about the clothes that philosophers prefer. He says that; ‘clothes can be a source of aesthetic pleasure and few philosophers are adamantly against pleasure.’ (although it should be a disinterested pleasure).

He goes on to say that, ‘philosophy is essentially an anti-authoritarian business,’ and because authoritarian regimes have a fascination for uniforms, philosophers that are tempted to wear a uniform would need to reconsider their philosophical credentials.’ 

But why would someone interested in philosophy choose to wear a uniform?

In items 2 and 3, we are told what philosophers eat and drink and in item 2 that; ‘there is a strong tendency towards vegetarianism, at least in contemporary English-speaking philosophy.” But he does not provide any evidence to support this statement.

In item 3 under the heading of ‘What to Drink’ he says that; ‘there’s an overwhelming preference amongst philosophers for red wine and coffee.’ Once again he does not say how he knows that philosophers prefer red wine except by quoting the ancient Roman writer, Pliny the Elder and adding a famous Latin phrase ‘in vino veritas’ which means ‘in wine there is truth,’ although the full quote is ‘in wine there is truth, in water there is health.’ The Chinese also have a similar quotation; ("After wine blurts truthful speech"). The Babylonian Talmud ( :also contains the passage )בבלי תלמוד ,i.e., "In came wine ,"סוד יצא יין נכנס" out went a secret."

To drink wine or any alcoholic substance,Iwouldthink,iscontraryto the spirit of philosophy because alcohol affects one’s reason and ability to think clearly. It has been described (alcohol) by the German philosopher F. W. Nietzsche as a European poison because taken excessively it can damage almost every organ in the body, but is probably most famous for damaging the liver and brain. Alcohol is also largely responsible for many social problems. However, we could also say that many people drink alcohol and suffer no social/health problems. But should drinking be advocated for philosophers?

Socrates states in the Phaedo, (64d) “a philosopher must not be overly concerned with food, drink or love.”

One thing I believe Ian has missed in his article is to explain or describe the core meaning of the word "philosophy," which incidentally comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means "love of wisdom", but was originally a word referring to the special way of life of the ancient Greek philosophers. I think ‘special way of life’ is significant and to illustrate this I’d like to refer to a few points made about this ‘special way of life’ by F. W. Nietzsche detailed in his book; On The Genealogy of Morals.
Nietzsche mentions two aspects of human life that distinguish a philosopher;

  2. AN AFFECTION FOR ASCETICISM. (self- denial and austerity).

Nietzsche states that; ‘if both are lacking in a philosopher, then – one can be sure of it – he is only a “so- called” philosopher.’ He then goes on to explain what he means; ‘every animal—therefore a philosophical animal—strives for an optimum of favorable conditions under which it can expend all its strength and abhors every kind of hindrance that could obstruct this path.’ He cites marriage as being one such hindrance and says; ‘a married philosopher belongs in comedy.’ Nietzsche mentions Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz and Schopenhauer as great philosophers who never married. Nietzschehimselfwasalsonevermarried. When describing the ascetic ideal in the case of a philosopher Nietzsche sees it as, ‘an optimum condition for the highest and boldest spirituality – not to deny existence but rather to affirm his existence.’ He then lists the sorts of things that the philosopher can do without in terms of the ascetic ideal; freedom from compulsion, disturbance, noise, freedom from tasks, duties and worries.’ He sees these ascetic ideals as so many bridges to independence.

Nietzsche then goes on to describe the three great slogans of the ascetic ideal; poverty, humility and chastity. He recognizes these three virtues as restraining an irritable pride or wanton sensuality. He also remarks on the difficulty of maintaining a will to the ‘desert’ against a love of luxury and refinement. His description of the ‘desert’ is rather poetic and is described as follows; “The desert incidentally, that I mentioned, where the strong, independent spirits withdraw and become lonely – oh, how different it looks from the way educated people imagine a desert! – for in some cases they themselves are this desert, these educated people. And it is certain that no actor of the spirit could possibly endure life in it – for them it is not nearly romantic or Syrian enough, not nearly enough of a stage desert! A voluntary obscurity perhaps; an avoidance of oneself; a dislike of noise, honour, newspapers, influence; a modest job, an everyday job, something that conceals rather than exposes one; an occasional association with harmless, cheerful beasts and birds whose sight is refreshing; mountains for company, but not dead ones, mountains with eyes (that is with lakes); perhaps even a room in a full, utterly commonplace hotel, where one is certain to go unrecognized and can talk to anyone with impunity. – that is what desert means here.”

One final thing I’d like to mention is that the lives of the great philosophers (how they lived their lives) is an integral part of their philosophy, the part that attests to what they’ve proclaimed