My interest in philosophy began very early on (my mum would say perhaps too early on). Before my age was granted double digits, I started asking questions about the nature of love, life and people in general that the adults around me didn’t know how to abate. They are not to be blamed; the questions I asked then are very much the same ones I struggle with today and for which I don’t believe answers exist.
But it is unsurprising, therefore, that I veered toward philosophy at an early age. In this branch of knowledge, I found comfort in knowing that other, more intelligent and experienced people (though, to be fair, they were mostly men) had asked themselves the same questions I did. If I read long and hard enough, I thought to myself, I’ll find my answers.
Spoiler alert: Dozens of books by dozens of authors and a nearly-completed philosophy degree later, I can confidently say, 15 years after embarking on my naive task, that my mission was unsuccessful. I’d even go a step further and claim that if the purpose of my expedition was to find answers, it has been more than unsuccessful. It has been a calamity! I have far more questions now than I did at the age of seven.
Don’t despair on my account just yet, for it has not been for nothing. My questioning has also endowed me a crippling doubt over how to live my life.
For most of my life, I have had an idea of what being an intellectual meant, curated by the impressions I had about the philosophers I read: Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche and Camus. Even the authors I enjoyed — Céline, Kundera, Rand — seemed to profess an all-encompassing unimportance to everything. For the longest time, everyone I admired appeared to be gloomy, suicidal or an intellectual snob. Therefore, I thought that to be an intellectual, I had to be all those things, too.
I thought I had to be sad, my lifestyle austere and my emotions tormented. That to truly be an intellectual meant always recognizing the faults in life so that they may be amended at the cost of my happiness. In short, to be an intellectual meant to not enjoy.
I have not succeeded in emulating my heroes.
I am very much not like what I have always envisioned intellectuals to be: I dye my hair because I think my natural color washes me out; I buy clothes to feel and look pretty; I curate my Instagram feed so it looks aesthetically pleasing and I get facials every now and then because the blackheads on my top and bottom lips make me self-conscious. Does doing these things and, even worse, caring about them, make me vain? And does being vain automatically cancel the possibility of being an intellectual?
These questions have haunted my life. Bridging philosophy with daily life is what I aspire to do in this column, and it’s what I want to dedicate my life to. But I fail to do this responsibly and successfully in my own life. I’ve thought myself to be weak or even dumb for having these interests, which has resulted in feeling guilty when I engage in, well, guilty pleasures and experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out) when I don’t.
When I first came face-to-face with the realization that my ideals and my reality were at odds, I turned to Socrates. The Greek philosopher is known for his renunciation of the physical pleasures for a life led in harmony with his philosophical beliefs. To people like me, he is the model. He believed the integrity of philosophy as a vocation and the question of how to live one’s life were the same thing.
However, the older I get, the more evident it is to me that the responsibilities and temptations of being a human in society are terribly hard to escape. To not engage in social media today is the equivalent of living in the middle of the desert. But in an age characterized by virtual interactions, where appearances play such an important role in our lives, how should philosophy intervene, especially when so many of its pillars seem to be at odds with modern reality? Is it possible that my heroes were not perfect after all? Or, even more life-changing, is it possible that I’ve crowned the wrong people with my admiration?
Seeking some solace and an expert’s view on the issue, I spoke with philosophy professor Daniel Herwitz, who focuses a large part of his research on aesthetics. I was interested in seeing what a person who has dedicated a large portion of his life to recognizing the existence of beauty as a philosophical concept and analyzing it in detail understood intellectuality to be. To answer my question, he first took me on a trip through the ages, spanning three different philosophers: Socrates (470 BC), Hume (1711) and Nietzsche (1844).
“Socrates is the model in many ways,” Herwitz told me. “He argues with all of his Greek comrades who think they all know what the virtues are and they don’t feel that they have any need to reflect on them. ‘What’s the problem?’ they say. ‘I know how to live.’ And Socrates says, ‘Well, no. You don’t.’”
Socrates, who was famously unattractive (sources claim he resembled a satyr more than a man), believed that constant questioning was required to sustain a democracy. Not just about policy or political candidates, but about what was right and wrong. He believed the pleasures of the flesh were secondary to this philosophical quest. Hume, on the other hand, was less of an extreme.
“Hume is certainly a fine and rigorous philosopher, but he was also fond of people, entertainment, food, drink and enjoyment,” Herwitz said. “He was apparently the most amiable man in the world. Fiercely intellectual, but completely amiable. His views on philosophy were that the bottom line of morals is what our passions are. What gives us pleasure.”
Hume was a realist. He believed that human beings are what they are and that philosophy should reflect that, not the image of some perfect ideal. Our efforts should be focused on organizing the best form of life around them.
And then you have Nietzsche! Who, despite being one of the greatest philosophers of all time, believed Socrates to be daft.
“Socrates said three things: First, he asked ‘can I know the good?’ Second, he declared ‘I will never know the good.’ Finally, he decided ‘I will dedicate my whole life to finding the good.’ Nietzsche says that there’s something psychologically inept about that,” Herwitz said.
It shouldn’t be ignored that beauty has been traditionally and historically counted among the ultimate values alongside goodness, truth and justice. It is the symbol for harmony, posed against the ugliness of chaos. “Beauty… is fitted to give a pleasure and satisfaction to the soul. … Pleasure and pain, therefore, are not only necessary attendants of beauty and deformity, but constitute their very essence,” Hume wrote. And yet beauty has more power than mere attractiveness: it has empowered resistance movements, such as “Black is beautiful” and “Body positivity.”
My takeaway? Choosing how to live your life is the greatest philosophical decision. But resigning yourself to living an Aristotelian ideal of longanimity hardly seems brave. Making sense of the multiple interwoven and contradictory aspects of life often feels impossible, but that shouldn’t deter us from trying. People are many things. They are social creatures and lonely wolves; deep thinkers and great partiers; modest and vain. (Un)fortunately, vanity and intellectualism don’t cancel out one another.
“When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there,” wrote Wittgenstein in 1948. The chaos of attempting to make sense of both my philosophical and vain pursuits and their coexistence in the matter of my identity is part of the deal. There’s no escaping it. But the belief that these two are incompatible may go contrary to philosophy’s goal. As a Humean, I believe that philosophy was meant to help us understand, improve and deal with everyday life. In my case, that includes worrying about blackheads and reasonably caring about what I wear. And I’m no less of an intellectual for it.
Azul Blaquier is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.