So there you are, deadlocked in the men’s underwear section, torn between the solid and striped cotton boxer-briefs and wondering which one Chuck Norris would buy. And then you remember: Chuck Norris doesn’t wear underwear, just two pairs of pants.
Oh, how low we’ve fallen. Once upon a time, men called on their knowledge of the great, introspective minds of history to inform their decisions, not internet humor. These great men of the past made up an essential field for the man claiming any level of education or sophistication: philosophy.
In the heyday of American education, before schools became training centers for standardized tests, subjects like philosophy were indispensable parts of school curriculum. In fact, bachelor’s degrees until the 1950s meant a philosophy based curriculum, and it wasn’t until graduate school that an aspiring professional entered into his specific subject matter.
What Defines Philosophy?
The word philosophy comes from the Greek words for “love” and “wisdom” and generally refer to the pursuit of wisdom, moral discipline and knowledge through logic. Don’t be fooled, however, as philosophy is not just a place for high-minded, abstract thinking and hypothetical irrelevancy (though there’s certainly plenty of that, too).
Philosophy is the historical mother of all disciplines, the stomping grounds for exploring ideas too new for testing and observation until a whole new field breaks away dedicated to that particular subject; biology, physics, psychology, and even chemistry all originated as philosophy before becoming fields of their own. Isaac Newton and Sigmund Freud studied philosophy before moving on to their particular fields. Adam Smith and Karl Marx studied and became tenured professors of philosophy in England before pioneering the independent field of economics as we know it today.
Philosophy is the forward offensive line of human understanding; it is the highest calling of the thinking man, because his philosophy governs his every action. In short, philosophy is not just for bearded wisemen but a gentleman’s preoccupation, and I think its high time we brushed up on some of the great thinking men whose manly voices have come down to us as the baddest and burliest in history’s Great Conversation.
The ancient Greeks are the cornerstone of Western philosophy. If you were born in a country in Europe, a country settled by Europeans, or a country at any point ruled by a European power, the essence of Greek philosophy has found its way into your worldview in one way or the other, and that’s a fact. Capitalist or communist, liberal or conservative, Coke or Pepsi, the people who have had the greatest influence on the way we think and how we live in the Western world took their cues at some point from a Greek. Over 9 times out of 10 this Greek will be Plato or Aristotle of Athens, the city-state which was to philosophy in ancient Greece what Sparta was to kicking ass.
Plato the Greek was born in 428-429 BC, though Plato was not his real name. In fact, Plato is Greek for “broad” or “flat,” a nom de guerre he gave himself as a wrestler in the Isthmian Games due to his unusually broad shoulders. Really. This makes him first on the list of celebrities with one-word aliases, way before the likes of Prince and Sting. Alas, history had other plans for The Broad, as his failure to qualify for the Olympic Games necessitated an immediate career change.
Plato fell in with a wandering philosopher by the name of Socrates, of whom you may have heard, who encouraged his students to challenge conventional wisdom to the point that he was finally executed in 399 BC for corrupting the youth. This, Plato would say, was a major turning point in his life, and he fled Athens to avoid a similar fate by association. He wound up in Sicily, where he joined an order of Pythagoreans (something along the line of celibate math mystics), whose fixation with numbers would inspire the cosmology Plato would become famous for.
Truth with a capital T was abstract and eternal like numbers, which is to say it is immaterial and thus does not experience degeneration, and everything in the world was an expression of this abstract Truth. Plato effectively invented the word “perfection” as it is used today. A beer, for instance, was only a poor imitation of a beer; a mere knockoff of a more perfect beer that he called an ide (the Greek root of “idea”) that existed in the heavens. This is to say that these Ideas are literally up in the sky, among the stars, sun, and moon. In turn, that “more perfect” idea of a beer was a similarly cheap imitation of the even more perfect Idea of “Deliciousness.” Plato’s universe continues this way all the way up, up to the most perfect idea of “Goodness,” which was the common Idea in all things, including humans.
Plato also explains human existence in these terms, as humans are Good beings “fallen” from “the heavens” and trapped in the lowest, most imperfect level of the Universe, which is the world he and you and I and all of us live in. Plato believed that when a human being deduces or learns something they are in fact remembering something they already know by virtue of our eternal, divine nature, which is why we are attracted to certain things in this world; we recognize the Idea of “Goodness” in it from our time in the ether.
Thus, by denying our Passions with our Courage, which is governed by our Thinking (these three Plato believed to be the three levels of human nature), we could dust off all our Divine knowledge and return to the heavens upon death, avoiding another birth in the material world.
If all of this sounds strangely familiar to you, it ought to. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther are just some of the Neo-Platonists who borrowed from Plato when developing their worldview and theology. Another influential Neo-Platonist was the philosopher-psychologist Freud, who based his “Id, Ego, Superego” theory on Plato’s “Passion, Courage, Thinking” model.