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Jack Weinstein

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What is Philosophy?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “What is courage?” with guest Ryan Balot. Click here to listen to the episode. 

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, I took a class in which we discussed Plato’s account of the desire to learn. The Greek word for desire is eros, so philosophy for Plato is, literally, erotic, and so is the relationship between teacher and student. In response, someone in the class presented a paper asking whether he himself had ever felt any erotic attraction to his own teachers. He said that he didn’t and concluded that Plato was wrong; philosophy and eros had nothing to do with each other.

There were plenty of problems with his approach, but in the discussion that followed I argued that his paper was misplaced simply because no one ever really looked at the ancient philosophers for real life advice. The Greeks were historically interesting, I said, but largely irrelevant to our lives today. Others disagreed—including the professor—and it is one of the great ironies of my life that I have spent my entire career proving myself wrong. The whole purpose of this show is to illustrate that philosophy is essential to our day-to-day lives. But it is also true that today’s world would be incomprehensible to Plato. Changes in culture, technology, religion, and human knowledge have made the Greek life obsolete in almost every way. It is not unreasonable to be skeptical about their relevance.

If I were to argue for Plato’s continued relevance, I’d say two things. First, I would suggest that Plato’s questions are more important than his answers because we are still arguing about the same things he did. We don’t agree on what justice, virtue, or goodness are. I would also say that Plato tried to describe the universal human experience, not just his own culture, and that while values and technologies have changed, human beings haven’t. Both of these observations will be familiar to anyone who has taken a philosophy course in college. It’s how we all defend Plato.

But I won’t make those argument. Instead, I’d like to suggest that we learn, not just by focusing on what we have in common with others, but by examining what we don’t. Change is instructive. Understanding the evolution of ideas is important, in part because today’s beliefs may turn out to be as wrong as many of the Greeks’ were.

If I could go back in time to that seminar then, I would point out that Greek education was quite different than what we have today. Without getting into too much detail, in Plato’s time, men taught boys with the hope that they would become sexual partners. Advanced education was intertwined with courtship. Eros was institutionalized as a way of creating continuity between generations.

But our colleges and university are designed specifically to avoid teacher/student romantic entanglements, so much so that we’ve even stopped talking about the desire to learn. We use the phrase “the love of learning” instead. For students of Greek, we’ve replaced eros with philia and agape—we’ve rejected the idea that education is sexual and accepted that fact that learning is a joint project among equals, that knowledge itself should inspire, and that we should stand agape before the truth, if there is one. The student was never attracted to his professors in part because his universities didn’t want him to be.

I make these observations not because I want to talk about Plato per se, but because today’s topic demands that we attend to the effect culture has on words and their meanings. We’re going to examine the word courage and we are going to do so with a guest who focuses most of his attention on the classical Greeks. Our idea of courage comes from the Greeks, just like eros does, but it has also changed and today’s show is going to examine how.

Now, it is possible that our guest will suggest that we ought to reject what courage means to us and return to the original Greek idea. This show is unscripted and anything can happen. But I doubt he’ll do that. Instead, what I anticipate is that we will be introduced to someone who loves the fact that words, values, and concepts grow as cultures do, and who recognizes that there is pleasure in recounting this journey.

Pleasure….hedone, in Greek. And because Greek words were also, often, the names of their gods, Hedone is also the name of the Goddess of pleasure, the daughter, of, you guessed it, Eros, a god we know by his Roman name, Cupid. So even though the context is different, we’re back to Plato’s claim that philosophy is erotic. And while few people would consider education hedonistic in way that sex, drugs, and rock and roll are supposed to be, it is also true that scholars take great pleasure in learning. We lament how little time we get to do research. We want more opportunities to feel good in just that way.

All of this is to say that words do not exist in isolation. Concepts are cultural and they carry their histories with them. Courage and eros are not simply ideas, they are traditions, and if we want to really know what they mean when we reference them, we need much more information than a simple dictionary would provide. We need context, we need to know how they relate to other words, we need philosophy, and we need to compare.

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