‘Why be gentle?’

‘Why be gentle?’ my philosophical friend asked me. ‘That is a good question,’ I said.


At the beginning of Theaetetus, Socrates asks Theodorus whether there are any good young men whom he knows. Theodorus replies,

Yes, Socrates, I have become acquainted with one very remarkable Athenian youth, whom I commend to you as well worthy of your attention. If he had been a beauty I should have been afraid to praise him, lest you should suppose that I was in love with him; but he is no beauty, and you must not be offended if I say that he is very like you; for he has a snub nose and projecting eyes, although these features are less marked in him than in you. Seeing, then, that he has no personal attractions, I may freely say, that in all my acquaintance, which is very large, I never knew anyone who was his equal in natural gifts: for he has a quickness of apprehension which is almost unrivalled, and he is exceedingly gentle, and also the most courageous of men; there is a union of qualities in him such as I have never seen in any other, and should scarcely have thought possible; for those who, like him, have quick and ready and retentive wits, have generally also quick tempers; they are ships without ballast, and go darting about, and are mad rather than courageous; and the steadier sort, when they have to face study, prove stupid and cannot remember. Whereas he moves surely and smoothly and successfully in the path of knowledge and enquiry; and he is full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil; at his age, it is wonderful.

The young man Theodorus is referring to, Theaetetus, is exceptional in that he combines a ‘union of qualities’ such as intelligence with a mild temper, courage with composure, sureness with evenness. The crescendo: he is ‘full of gentleness.’

The adverbs–‘surely and smoothly,’ also ‘silently’–signal what is at stake. When I go gently, I do not go roughly or coarsely, harshly or in a shrill way, abruptly or violently or brusquely. I go slowly, softly, tenderly. According to the OED, I can be gentle-minded, gentle-natured, gentle-voiced.

Arguably, gentleness is the beautiful splendor expressive of the life of the virtues. I may relate news to someone, share an opinion, tell a story, approach an angry man, say farewell, carry a tune, touch a lover’s forehead, greet a neighbor whose car has broken down, introduce myself to a stranger, schedule something with a tentative soul, and so on. How do I go about this? To begin with, I exercise the salient virtue or virtues: attention, compassion, courage, temperance, kindness, composure, or whatever. But my success in this endeavor stands or falls, in many cases, based on the way in which this virtue is displayed. When I approach an angry man or say goodbye to a former friend, I want my compassion to be shown in a gentle way. The gentleness is beauty shining forth, softening the virtue or virtues in question. Courage too–a great power–can be gentle.


‘Why be gentle?’

First, because gentleness is the contrary of arrogance.

Second, because it is ‘world-encompassing’: to be gently courageous is to act in view of the other and at the same time to shape my character. My character is becoming gentler as I am gentle to him. My gentle courage enfolds self with other in a shared world.

Third, because it demonstrates the elevation of some virtue P beyond its ‘infancy’ to the level of beauty. No longer do I go hastily or clumsily.

Fourth, because it lets one act, speak, and demean in such a way that would go beyond withdrawal into silence on the one hand and beyond forcefulness on the other.

Fifth, because it maintains the harmony between my character and the world. Not only am I not in conflict, my soul thrown into discordance with itself; but also my soul still continues to stand in accordance with the world even though something difficult has been put before me.


Provisionally, I might argue that gentleness implies a unity of the virtues. (As Vlastos puts the unity of the virtues thesis in connection with Socrates, whoever has one virtue has them all.) About this, however, I am not sure.

A reminder to be ‘full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil.’

Tenderness of tenderness

‘Tenderness,’ said one philosophical friend, ‘is a way that love expresses itself for oneself or another.’ We have been searching for an accurate way of understanding how one takes care of oneself properly. ‘Taking care of oneself properly’ lacks of certain ‘intimacy’ in the offing. (One may take care of one’s business affairs properly, but there is a lack of affect in all that.) Or one could not be taking care of oneself, as is evident when one is sternly cold with oneself. Or, we said, one could indulge oneself.

By being tender with myself, I am neither cold with myself nor lukewarm toward myself nor warm in the pleasures of excess. Coldness is not love but hate; lukewarmness is not love but a certain lack of partiality (I could just as well be someone else); indulgence is not love but, he said, a symbol that seeks to show that I’m worth it. Born of suspicion, selfindulgence never carries enough prove that I am worth it.

Only out of loving myself am I tender with myself.

We said that there is first-order tenderness, which has to do with how I take things in the course, say, of a day. And there is a second-order tenderness, which is concerned with how I take myself, over time, in the things that come to pass. A tenderness of tenderness involves not only taking this or that with a quality of light touch but also taking myself, over time and even when a number of things go awry, with a light-humoredness. Without second-order tenderness, one could insist upon a coldness of tenderness, and that, though comical, would also be harmful. So that I am not simply tender, when I am tender, here and there or now and again; I am becoming a tender person, a person with a tender demeanor. This is the meaning of tenderness of tenderness.

Cultivating Discipline Lightly: A Weeklong Course at Kaos Pilots

‘Cultivating Discipline Lightly’ is a weeklong course running during the second week of September 2013 at Kaos Pilots in Aarhus, Denmark. This course offering grew out of the need for Kaos Pilots students, who will be on their own during their final year as they work on their social business project, to learn how to respond well in the face of great uncertainty. Last year, Pete Sims asked me to come in and put on a workshop on the art of philosophical inquiry entitled ‘Confusion and Clarity: The Art of Inquiry in the Context of Social Enterprise.’ Learning to inquire proved helpful and necessary but not sufficient. What was wanting still was the cultivation of a kind of discipline–one requiring good guidance, one invoking the right set of virtues, yet one also honoring the lightness and humor of things–that would see them through the unsettledness. Hence this course: cultivating discipline lightly.

What follows is a layout of the guide I’m writing for Kaos Pilots students. Enjoy.


Rip Van Winkle: A Parable

Story: Rip Van Winkle falls asleep in one world and wakes up in another. What now? What does this mean for us?

Chapter 1. Raising and Lowering Our Eyes

Argument: I discuss the concept of authority, the structure of authority, types of authority, and–most importantly–our present need for legitimate authority.

Chapter 2. Acknowledging Our Unsettled Time

Argument: I ground my account of unsettled time on three related theses:

i. All claims to legitimate authority appear suspect in our eyes and have failed to gain our approval. ‘Who is to lead whom and by what right?’ seems impossible to answer wholeheartedly. (Halfhearted answers there are aplenty.)

ii. Skepticism has saturated our daily lives to such an extent that our words have become seeded with doubt and our attitude toward others has become starched and blanched with distrust, uncertainty, and reticence.

iii. Despite the crisis of authority and the near universality of our skepticism, we as socially dependent beings who need to act in concert with one another, to figure out what is unknown about ourselves, and to find a way to reach mutual understanding.

Chapter 3. Building a Sturdy Trellis

Argument: I draw from the work of St. Benedict to provide a beautiful vision of a different kind of organizational life. A trellis is the metaphor for the framework upon which an individual can grow by means of philosophical friends and a philosophical guide. A trellis, accordingly, is an answer to the question of good authority.

Chapter 4. Learning to Inquire

Argument:  How does one grow in and through good guidance? Inquiring, I argue, is the kind of activity that takes place between guide and conversation partner. Specifically, philosophical inquiry is an ‘unrehearsed genre whose chief aims are to reveal to us what we do not know but thought we did and to bring us a greater sense of clarity than we could have possibly imagined’ (definition from The Art of Inquiry). It is rather like saying, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out.’ Inquiring begins in some state of confusion (bewilderment, puzzlement, or bafflement); proceeds in a state of mind that is wholly dispassionate; requires the virtues of courage, patience, openness, and humility; and ends in a state of clarity (illumination, laughter, lightness).

Chapter 5. Becoming Lighthearted

Argument: The best form of education is one that cultivates one’s character. My philosophical guide Pierre Hadot suggests that character is cultivated by means of ongoing spiritual exercises (ascesis). What sorts of exercises, apart from and together with inquiring, will allow one to become lighthearted in the face of unsettledness?  In this chapter, I explore a handful of spiritual exercises whose purpose is to bring about the kind of character that is properly, energetically, and lightly responsive to ordinary surprises. It’s only an apparent paradox to say that inquiring teaches us to be prepared for responding well–lightheartedly rather than stoically or resiliently–to we know not what.

Appendix: Getting the Hang of Being Surprised

Argument: In Part 1, I discuss the importance of being surprised, arguing that philosophical inquiring presents us with two kinds of surprises: perplexities and illuminations. In Part 2, I discuss the cultivation of lightness in the presence of surprise. In the final part, I explore the difference between other states of mind and an inquiring state of mind.

Philosophical Improv no. 3: Attractiveness Thesis

In this video, I explore the thesis that the radiant figure is attractive. In my forthcoming book, Radiance: An Essay for Unsettled Time, I discuss the important connection between goodness and beauty.

To view other episodes in this series, you can visit my YouTube channel.

I’m a Ph.D.-trained philosophical counselor who teaches individuals and organizations throughout the US and Europe how to inquire into the things that matter most. A former resident of the Upper East Side in New York City, I now lead a simpler, more contemplative life amid the gentle mountains of rural Appalachia.

For more about me, you can visit andrewjamestaggart.com.

The necklace worn in the video was designed by Alexandra Marcella Lauro, a maker of meditation jewelry. To view her collection of meditative jewelry and to purchase a necklace, you can go to meditativejewelry.com.

Openness: The 5th virtue of philosophical life

There’s a certain sense of being open to what may come to pass that seems indispensable for living today. In The Guidebook to Philosophical Life, I had written only of four virtues–namely, of courage, patience, humility, and compassion. I had neglected the virtue of openness. Openness–the scourge of routine, an antidote to stubbornness, a lighthearted laughter opposed to needless fixation–notes that each day is no more like the last than each sparrow, when seen up close and with a reverent eye, is like his brother.