Coffee on 10th Avenue

Coffee on 10th Avenue

Some Characterisations of Philosophy

How I understand the philosopher — as a terrible explosive, endangering everything … my concept of the philosopher is worlds removed from any concept that would include even a Kant, not to speak of academic “ruminants” and other professors of philosophy…   (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo)

To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.   (Thoreau, Walden)

Philosophising is learning to die.   (Montaigne, Essays)

All definite knowledge — so I should contend–belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy.
   (Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy)

What am I? What ought I to do? What may I hope and believe? To this everything in philosophy may be reduced.
   (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Reflections of Lichtenberg)

Since philosophy is the art of living, it should not be kept apart from any pastime.   (Plutarch, Table-talk)

Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.    (
Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”)

Philosophy is knowledge of the highest degree of generality. 
   (Herbert Spencer, Supreme Knowledge)

Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. 
(Plato, Theaetetus)

All men suppose that wisdom is concerned with the first causes and principles of things.
   (Aristotle, Metaphysics)

Philosophy [is] nothing but the study of wisdom and truth.
   (Bishop Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge)

The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.
   (Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)

Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
   (Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”)

What is it to be a philosopher? Is it not to be prepared against events?   (
Epictetus, Discourses)

Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.
   (Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought)

Let not the young delay the study of philosophy, and let not the old become weary of it; for it is never too early nor too late to care for the well-being of the soul.
   (Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”)


The following brief interview is based on the author’s responses to questions asked by readers of the pre-publication manuscript of Stargazers: Stories of the first philosophers.

Question: Why did you write Stargazers?

Paul Rossetti Bjarnason: I wanted to attempt to answer my daughter’s question, “What is philosophy?” After discussing it with her briefly, I promised to write for her a little book of stories depicting the first philosophers in the very act of being philosophers. This, I thought, might be an unconventionally interesting way of working toward an answer.

Q: You preferred not to give a simple definition?
PRB: There are almost as many definitions of philosophy as there are “philosophers”. I wanted to let the ancient philosophers — those who invented philosophy — act and speak for themselves, thereby allowing readers, on the basis of their experience of reading the book, to arrive at their own conclusions with respect to the nature of philosophy, or at least philosophy as it was in the beginning.

Q: Do philosophers so remote from us in time and setting still have anything of value to say to us?
PRB: Each of the ancient philosophers portrayed in Stargazers has something important to tell us about the same fundamental problems that concern us today. Even though their surviving works are often fragmentary and highly subject to interpretation — some wrote nothing at all — they nonetheless exert a continuing influence and remain of great interest. There is much we can learn from them, both in terms of background to our own condition and in terms of lessons on how to live well.

Q: I was surprised to discover that ancient philosophy was as much a “way of living” as anything else, that it was not something purely rational.
PRB: When I first read the French scholar Pierre Hadot’s collection of essays entitled Philosophy as a Way of Life and his more recent What Is Ancient Philosophy?, I encountered a view of ancient philosophy that not only takes account of the existential dimension of philosophy, but actually accords it a primary status. The question “How should one live?” was of fundamental importance to all the ancient philosophers; it was bound up with their way of living and with the rational discourse connected with their existential choice. The recent resurgence of scholarly interest in the Hellenistic philosophers is particularly oriented toward their responses to this question.
Given the current precarious state of the human world, it is possible — some would say necessary — to take even more seriously such a question. Thus, one of the main purposes of Stargazers is to encourage readers to continue the philosophical quest through further inquiry — perhaps even to embrace the ancient love of wisdom, philosophia, as a way of living.

Q: I got the distinct feeling while reading Stargazers that philosophy is in some sense “dangerous”.
PRB: Academic institutions, as well as parties of polite folk, prefer “safe” philosophy and “safe” philosophers. Nietzsche, however, characterises the philosopher as “a terrible explosive, endangering everything”. And one can easily see in ancient philosophy this dangerous strain. One sees it, among other places, in Xenophanes’ radical theology, in Heraclitus’ rejection of the ridiculous conventions of the Ephesians, in Protagoras’ scepticism regarding the gods, in Socrates’ calm intransigence even in the face of impending execution by the state, in Diogenes’ self-sufficiency and utter scorn for convention, and in Epicurus’ thoroughly radical materialism (in Epicurus we have the founder of the most reviled of all ancient philosophical schools — particularly by early Christians). None of the ancient philosophers was completely at one with conventional society; hence none was “safe” and all had to be watched. Even Aristotle took care not to allow the Athenian state to “sin a second time against philosophy” (Socrates’ execution being the first such sin).
In more recent times there have also been philosophers who threaten the stability of established power. Bertrand Russell was imprisoned twice for his audacious anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons protests. (Incidentally, it was in prison that he wrote his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919.) Jean-Paul Sartre joined the underground resistance during World War II, criticised French colonial policy in Africa, and alloyed his intellectual powers with the struggle against proliferation of nuclear weapons. Gandhi took on the British Empire, going to jail many times before India finally achieved home rule; Noam Chomsky, who has also been arrested for engaging in anti-war protests, continues indefatigably to challenge the foreign policy of Britain’s imperial successor. For these and other such philosophers, philosophy is no mere abstract exercise to be left in the academic tower at the end of each day: rather, it goes wherever the philosopher goes.

Q: Is there an intrinsic danger also to the philosopher himself or herself?
PRB: Absolutely. When all one’s beliefs are subjected to the eye of reason, there is always the possibility of a re-evaluation of everything one lives by. This can be rather unsettling, since philosophy threatens to overturn ingrained beliefs and modes of perceiving the world. Of course, from a philosophical point of view this is not a bad thing. Critical examination of one’s own beliefs and actions is part of what it means to philosophise.

Q: You seem to imply in Stargazers that philosophy has power to change the world and that readers have an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to engage in this process.
PRB: Philosophy certainly has the power to change individuals — in fact, the ancient concept of philosophy, as Hadot has pointed out, was intrinsically bound to self-transformation, normally within a community or school of fellow-philosophers, lovers of wisdom. The transformative power of philosophy does indeed change the world, however minutely in a given individual case. But when such transformations are also directed outward in sufficient numbers, the consequences may become potentially world-transforming.
Given that the human world is currently in need of fundamental change on a massive scale merely in order that it survive, it becomes clear that those who regard the biosphere as worthy of preservation are bound by necessity to become engaged, at least to some extent.

Q: Why did you choose the title Stargazers?
PRB: There are many threads in the book, themes that run through it, common to and intrinsic to the lives of the philosophers. Thales, the first known philosopher of the western world, has become known to us largely through some colourful anecdotes, one of which involves his habit of stargazing. Anaxagoras declared his true home to be the star-filled cosmos. Stoics such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius regarded the stars as divine. The stargazer strikes me as an appropriate emblem for those bold thinkers from the past whose “homeland” stretched infinitely beyond the confines of the polis, or city-state (and equally far beyond the mythical world outlook out of which the philosophers emerged). Diogenes apparently coined the word cosmopolitan (literally a citizen of the “cosmic city-state” or “world-city”) to indicate precisely this attitude.

Q: Why did you decide to write in narrative form?
PRB: There are already numerous accounts of ancient philosophy written in an expository mode by experts who have spent their lives studying the classical world. Yet it is worth noting that people do enjoy stories, including those which are ostensibly instructive. The success of books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Sophie’s World is evidence of this. The stories in Stargazers are immediate, can be read independently or as a whole, and, as stories, they tend to make the characters more memorable than they would otherwise be. A friend informed me that, after having read many accounts of the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophers, he found that of all his readings Stargazers had provided him with the clearest distinction among the philosophers: it had made them all memorable to him because each was the protagonist of a memorable narrative. Needless to say I was very much pleased about this, since that sort of clarification, or mnemonic function, is one the main goals of the book.

Q: Stargazers is categorised as “Philosophy/Fiction”. To what extent are the stories true?
PRB: The stories have been built up on the basis of a substantial tradition surrounding the lives of the early philosophers, including many colourful anecdotes, some of which are of dubious truth-value. I have tried to avoid contradicting anything significant in this tradition, at the same time taking whatever liberties seemed necessary to create stories both informative and attractive.

Q: You say that your original impulse was to write the book for your daughter. Who else can profitably read Stargazers?
PRB: When I began the book, my daughter was still in high school. So you might say that I had a very capable high school reader in mind when I started writing the book. I kept this reader in mind throughout the process, and therefore I hope that Stargazers can indeed be enjoyed by anyone from young adult to senior.

Q: Are you working on anything else at present, either fiction or non-fiction?
PRB: I hope to begin working on another book soon, but for the present I’m enjoying being a grandparent: among many other things, it grants me an opportunity to see the world anew from the perspective of childhood, with its boundless curiosity, unbridled imagination, and ingenuous magnanimity and trust.


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