Benedict or Cicero? Field philosophy or the monastic?

Day 1. A philosopher is neither a teller nor an adviser.

Day 2. What Dancy’s Late Late Show appearance has to say about the philosopher’s disappearance

Day 3. ‘Living’ philosophy: Field philosophy

Scholars of Aristotle have long been divided over the answer Aristotle gives to the question of how best to live. Much of the Nicomachean Ethics points in the direction of the active life. The best life, apparently, is the life of moral virtue, which is cultivated among one’s citizens. In Book 10, however, Aristotle suggests that pure contemplative activity may be best, and it is here that the Unmoved Mover is introduced. In the Ethics, it remains unclear, perhaps undecidable, whether one conception is best, the other second best; whether one conception is to be combined with the other; and, if the two are to be so combined, then how to combine them in working order.

This problem of scholarship needn’t detain us here, yet the subject may throw some light on a much larger problem concerning the figure of the philosopher. What I have in mind is what seems to me a ‘decision’ for anyone who wishes to become a philosopher today.

Is he to become a St. Benedict or a Cicero?

For the philosopher of today either follows Benedict’s example by removing himself from social conventions (success, status, wealth) and worldly affairs (for Benedict, the crumbling Empire) in order to lead a life devoted to self-cultivation. Or, like Cicero, he throws himself into worldly affairs in order to engage his fellows and in hopes of improving the republic. (Then, of course, there are ‘crossover’ figures like Seneca and Montaigne, figures who were involved in worldly affairs, only to retire from them later on in life.)

A few posts ago, I called these conceptions ‘religious’ and ‘public’, respectively, and I suggested that I have plumped for the first, my friends at The Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity (CSID) for the second. At CSID, the idea is to begin with real-world cases that pose problems for some community or another and to present the field philosopher as the one who helps this community sort things out. We read,

The field philosopher begins by looking for controversies where she can help mend or ‘ameliorate’ a problem. At some point she usually also develops a theory about her work. As a result, field philosophy has an alternative notion of rigor where timeliness and context sensitivity can override the epistemic standards of disciplinary expertise (see Frodeman 2010).

The objective, drawing from the tradition of social justice, is ‘societal betterment.’

In contrast with this public orientation, the monastic orientation is quietistic. One withdraws from the many in order to spend one’s time with the few, the few being those who are open to calling their lives into question and to following a path toward a higher form of life. The question has changed and, with this change in question, so also a change in orientation. ‘Is the world crumbling? Is the world to be saved?’ is not of the first concern to the one who lives in the light of St. Benedict. ‘What of the order of my soul?’ is.

I would not pronounce in favor of one conception or another. Both the public and the religious orientations are alive today, if only in corners of the Empire. I would only ask whether, when confronted with an ignoramus, the philosopher engages with him (Cicero) or smiles and travels undistractedly like the sparrow (Benedict). Is one insistent or quiet?

Suffice it to say, in neither case is he an academician, a Theoretician, an Expert. I am reminded of what Brian Magee writes in his memoir, Confessions of a Philosopher. For Magee, the professional philosopher has not been ‘called’ to philosophy because he has never been gripped by a philosophical problem; rather, he is in the business of constructing theories or of playing around with linguistic puzzles. Unlike the professional philosopher, the philosopher of life has indeed been called and has only to wonder from whence comes the voice.

Attached Note

The genre of this blog post is that of a confession, not that of a public treatise. Only in this be granted am I not eating my tail.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, ‘Review of Benedict’s Dharma