To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter


The wise has no desires

One of the most common obstacles to philosophizing is desire, even though desire itself is found at the heart of the philosophical dynamic. For Plato, the perversion of philosophy is carried out in the reversal process of the erotic. When desire abandons its most legitimate object for a philosopher: truth, or beauty, in order to seek more immediate satisfactions, such as the pursuit of power and glory, accumulation of wealth or knowledge, lust, etc. It is not so much that he ceases all intellectual activity, but this vulgar purpose not being in the service of its natural vocation, its activity is perverted by earthly considerations. And if this philosopher, who has therefore become a sophist, obtains the agreement of the majority or becomes popular among his fellow citizens, it is only because the common of mortals does not know what a philosopher looks like. The layman gets impressed by mere appearance, by the simulacra of thinking, he is dumbfounded by the somersaults of he who for Plato is nothing but a buffoon or a juggler.

Life has a lot to do with desire, for life is composed of needs, and the pursuit of what ever object will satisfy those needs, and the anguish at not obtaining the objects that would satisfy the needs, and the pain that comes even when the needs are satisfied, through fear and worry. For it seems that life has an enormous capacity to create new needs and therefore new pains, in particular for man, whose scope of existence is much wider than any other species: he can even envisage the infinite, an exciting vision indeed, but as well one who can produce an endless list of unsatisfied desires, sometimes if not often simply because they are impossible. If most species are contented with the particular needs of their own species—the hen does not want to go underwater, the elephant does not want to fly—the human species knows no boundary to his pretensions, wills, ambitions, and therefore no boundary to his pains. One could hear argued that man satisfies more desires than any other species and therefore could feel more contented, but it seems that his imagination and lust far surpass his own capacities to be satisfied.

Even though philosophy has throughout history and geography threaded many paths, and proposed many different schemes, there is still a certain coherency in the different manners philosophers have used to solve the excessive capacity of man to make himself unhappy. We will call this common ground “reconciliation with oneself”. Be it with the epicurean “carpe diem”, which invites one to appreciate the present moment, with the idealist pure pleasure of thinking and reasoning, with the perspective of an extramundane world or reality that moderates, restrains or annihilates common desires, as we find in many religions as well, with the commitment to simply accepting reality, in spite of its harshness or due to it, with the love of transcendent concepts such as truth, good or beauty, who in themselves sublimate all pains and satisfy the soul, with the projection of one’s self in the future, with the enjoyment of pure action, physical or mental, freed from any expectation of reward, thus philosophers have attempted to provide men with many recipes to have what could be called a “better life”. Evidently, one will jump here and cry out : “You see, philosophy is life! You just said it yourself: philosophy helps us live a better life!”. But our critique forgets here something fundamental. Let us ask him the following questions. Why did those philosophers have so little following? Why were those philosophies so hard to follow? Were not philosophies offering propositions opposed to the common conception of life? For even the mass based religions have to realize that the messages they deliver, even though when recognized as the divine words, encounter very difficult times to be obeyed and followed to the letter.

Let us try to examine why philosophers are not so easily followed, to say the least. As a general answer to this question, we can propose the following hypothesis. Philosophers ask us to give up what is dearest to our heart, or rather to our guts. In what way do they ask this? Once again, the most general way to characterize their demand is to say they ask us to give up the obvious or the immediate in favor or something else which is rather distant, rather impalpable, rather imperceptible, and difficult to account for. Be it the median way, wisdom, autonomy, perfection, reality, love, consciousness, absolute, otherness, essence, they can all be mere words to pursue, compared to food, pleasure, dancing, working for a living, reproducing, appearance, popularity, etc. Even living in the present moment, which might seem something easy to do, since we don’t have to worry about anything else, is actually a very ascetic and demanding task, since man spends lots of his energy regretting a wonderful past, even mourning about it, or being anxious about the future and its unpredictability. Thus living the present moment can last for a very short while, but within a short delay other dimensions of time, including the desire for eternity, will knock at the door. So it is with love, that seems so popular: when we look closer at its manifestation, we identify all kinds of sordid calculations, resentments, jealousies, possessions and other gross and humanly perversions of the pure concept.

We get an interesting view of the problem as well when we look at the life of philosophers: the great genius Leibniz with no one at his burial, Kant living all his life alone with his servant, Wittgenstein giving up his inheritance and living like a pauper, Nietzsche going crazy, Socrates killed by his fellow citizens, Bruno burnt at the stake, although some, we must admit, got fame, glory and wealth, like Hume or Aristotle.

But let us now examine some other aspects of our claim that to philosophize is to cease living.


Page created: 16.03.09. Page last modified: 18.11.09 14:41.