‘The Greatest Fool That Ever Lived’
“It is easier to believe that one’s self is a fool than that Socrates was a fool; and yet, if he was not right, he must have been the greatest fool that ever lived.” —Robert Lynd, “On Not Being a Philosopher.”
In book six of the Republic, the question arises about why philosophers have a bad name in the city. The common view in Athens was that the only reason Socrates lived till he was seventy was that the common folks could not tell the difference between a fool and a philosopher. They seemed indistinguishable. Both fools and philosophers spoke of equally outlandish things. Thus, the philosopher was perfectly safe so long as most city-dwellers took him to be merely mad, deranged, or babbling.
Robert Lynd (1879–1949) was an Irishman who lived much of his life in England. He wrote an amusing essay, “On Not Being a Philosopher,” in It’s a Fine World (1930). I found it reprinted in a collection called Great English and American Essays (1960). The essay is charming. It begins when the author overhears someone in a hotel restaurant ask another patron whether he had “read Epictetus lately.” On reflection, Lynd realizes that, in fact, though he had Epictetus on his book shelves at home, he had never read the famous slave philosopher (d. 135 A.D.).
Lynd, curious man that he was, decides to make up for lost time. He figured that “wisdom was found in books.” If you found a book and read it, you would become wise. Reading was a shortcut or bypass to living the experience of becoming wise. But it did not seem to work that way in practice. He read Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic philosophers. He still found that he did not much follow their advice.
Now the Stoics did not like to be disturbed in their souls. They longed for a peaceful life, tranquility. They showed their mastery of fate, chance, and pain by remaining imperturbable before them. This indifference allowed them, it is said, to be calm even in the worst of conditions—storms, robberies, sufferings, earthquakes, or betrayals.
But, as Lynd observed, it is rather human to be annoyed at little things. The Stoic philosopher tells us to be patient when you have to ask a waiter “for a wine-list three times.” Lynd thinks the purpose of the waiter is to wait on table. The unperturbed and uncomplaining philosopher may wait there all night for the waiter to show up. But the ordinary bloke begins raising his voice after ten minutes and calls the manager after fifteen. Which is the superior philosophy—the one that notices little things (or big things) or the one who doesn’t notice much of anything?
“Nearly everybody is agreed that such men as Socrates and Epictetus were right in their indifference to external things,” Lynd writes. “Even men earning £10,000 a year and working for more would admit it. Yet, while admitting it, most of us would be alarmed if one of their dearest friends began to put the philosophy of Epictetus into practice too literally. What we regard as wisdom in Epictetus we should look on as insanity in an acquaintance.” Philosophy, in other words, is not too practical.
Lynd, like Machiavelli, is worried that all the noble ideas are but “dreams,” impossible to put into effect—admirable perhaps, but of no real purpose. Lynd at least thought the problem is that we wanted to be wise without making any effort to be so. We could just read something and, lo, we would become wise, sort of effortlessly.
If Socrates was not right, Lynd observes, he was the “greatest fool that ever existed.” And if he was right? Do we really mean that little things should not bother us? The trouble with the Stoics of whatever era, including our own, is that their indifference to pleasure and pain is a species of pride. The idea that a human being cannot or should not be affected by what happens to him from chance or with pain is the suspicion that our bodies are not real, not part of us or of the universe. We are to be temperate, to be sure, to rule our pleasures and pains. Aristotle, as usual, had it right. The problem is not the existence of pleasure or pains itself.
Our senses are avenues to reality for us to know. We are to know, and yes, enjoy, everything that is according to its own proper being. There can be no rejection of the world that is not, at the same time, a loving of the world.
The Christian view of the Incarnation does not mean that we love the world by escaping from it or denying it. We keep the world by loving it and living in it in an order that sees the good of things even in their limitations. We meet the goods of our universe by knowing their limits. Thus we know what they are, what they are not; what we are and what we are not. This understanding too was called “foolishness,” as Paul tells us in one of his letters.
In the end, it is not really such a good idea not to be a philosopher. The real issue is what kind of philosophy we embrace. If we embrace one that makes us totally immune to the events of the world, we are hardly worthy to live in this world. Still Socrates was right: “It is better to suffer evil than to do it.” Before we can do this suffering, we must first know what is evil and what is good. If we do not make the effort to know this difference, it really does mot make much difference what we suffer or what we enjoy.
James V. Schall, S.J. is professor of government at Georgetown University.
Posted: December 28, 2011 in On Letters and Essays.