I hate to confess the opposite of what I have always thought, but the thought is so spontaneous in my consciousness that I cannot wave it away. I have to say it: I don’t know if I recognize philosophy anymore.
Of course, I don’t know what I expected. One of the horrors of being twenty-six is realizing that any work, no matter how fulfilling or congenial it may be, is still work. And what it means to be “work” is not just being hard. Hard is not a surprise; hard is what they taught us to expect since we were children. Humans not only bear, but even crave, hard work. What we cannot stand is futile work, work tilling a soil that brings forth thorns.
Philosophy, like any science, is a mountain of paper. Behind any affirmation there are thousand articles written, or, worse, to be written, in order for that information to graduate from mere opinion to real scholarship. And in that thousand of articles you might find a thousand that disagree, even on something you thought was obvious. Someone will tell you Plato thinks matter is space. What kind of space? Three dimensional space? Maybe, but is it empty space? Maybe matter-filled space? Doesn’t that sound too much like Einstein? Maybe space doesn’t have dimensions, and form gives it shape. Doesn’t that sound too much like Aristotle? Someone else will tell you Plato doesn’t have an opinion on matter at all. Before you know it, your quest for truth has been lost in the million side-pathways of a thousand questions about who thinks what about what, and what argument implies what for whom. Forget about what the truth actually is, now you don’t even know what Plato thought it is.
None of this at all is meant to imply that this is bad work, that it isn’t worth doing, or that it isn’t being done competently. On the contrary, it is being done with a high degree of competence, and the arguments are made and progress is indeed had. I have appreciated many of the papers that I have alluded to, and if you ask in the right place at my university you could get your hands on my own foray into the question about what Plato thought about matter. It would be all too easy to dismiss this all as poorly done or frivolous, because then we could throw it all away and do it again the right way. It would be insulting and untruthful to tell generations of admirable researchers that they have not been doing their job well. They have done it well.
What terrifies me is not that we have not done our research well. What terrifies me is that all this research, what we have been working on for decades, for centuries, always adding to this library of literature, and what we have produced still does not give the student any clear indication of what Plato actually thought. Leave aside matter—what did Plato think about God? Is there any Plato at all, and not just John’s Plato and Jane’s Plato and the Plato that will come into vogue ten years from now? And yes, you will find the articles to tell you that Plato didn’t have an opinion on God, either. And the articles that will tell you that those articles have it all wrong. I thought I was being humble, refraining from asking questions about the Truth, and restricting myself to asking what thinkers greater than me had to say about it. Now I am made to feel that I cannot even get to the truth about Plato. And would I get anything different, if I went over to the biblical scholars, and asked them to tell me the truth about Jesus?
A literature full of complexity and disagreement is not evidence that good science is not being done. I am sure you will find quite enough to confuse a student in the literature on fluid mechanics or on reptile paleobiology, too. But perhaps I have lost my faith that good science should amount to good philosophy. Can it be that all this studying philosophy has not amounted to doing philosophy? Can we have studied so much and known so little, have so little that is solid, so little that does not get lost in a myriad of contradictions whenever we, as students, try to make a little bit of progress?
I am a scholar. I might pat myself on the back that they were priests, politicians, preachers and soldiers that crucified the Christ—not scholars! But we could argue his Cross into splinters.
I study Plato because I want to know about God and the soul, the only things I desire to know. I look into the chapters of Plato and I am filled with high-minded thoughts and mighty arguments about these fondest things that man can know. But when I look into the chapters of the literature on Plato I am not even sure that I am filled with thoughts about Plato. I am lost in the mix and the flow, and with all of the tumbling about I can grasp nothing. Wasn’t this the flow that Plato was to save me from? I despair, like some new Gorgias is insisting to me that there is nothing to be known, and that even if there were, there would be nothing to be communicated. What could one new argument be among many? What could I possibly add? One new close reading of the text, one new article…
I would rather be like Plato than be able to explain to other scholars why I think what I think about what Plato was like. That is a good work, which I have done before and hope to do again, but I am no longer as assured as I was that making an already vast literature somewhat vaster is the work that a philosopher is called to do. A professor of mine reminded me that there is no studying of philosophy that does not also involve doing philosophy, and I think that she was right. But philosophy has to be something more than the endless debates. Did a single one of us enter this profession wanting endless debate? I don’t just want to debate; I want to understand.
I don’t mean that we should do away with rigor. We need rigor now as much as ever. But it seems to me that we may also need some new attitude about philosophy. How that attitude is to be had, I am not fully sure to say. But we must be oriented to the truth, and to understanding the truth. We may find the truth at the end of intellectual reflection—authentic, rigorous intellectual reflection—but we will not find the truth at the end of debate. There never will be an end of debate.
This magazine has a mission, to give refreshment to the overstimulated. The world is full of so much noise. Where is the clarity and simplicity of Plato? Where is the clarity and simplicity of Jesus? We scholars talk so much, and not without listening; we listen so much, but what are we hearing? It seems like each one of us is hearing something else. I want to get away from the noise.
May the God who is clarity and unconfusion, perfect distinction in unspeakable unity, bless our undertaking and clarify our understanding. In him we hope, with the hope that we can only have in God. But I do allow myself to have a smaller, more human hope. In two hundred years, no one will still read what we have written about Plato. But they will still read Plato.