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The Consolation of Philosophy

[1]

Rembrandt, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer

3,550 words

Even so the clouds of my melancholy were broken up. I saw the clear sky, and regained the power to recognize the face of my physician. Accordingly, when I had lifted my eyes and fixed my gaze upon her, I beheld my nurse, Philosophy, whose halls I had frequented from my youth up.
— Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

I have only one last resource — philosophy: and to make her plead for me, as though I doubted the efficacy of a mere request: philosophy, the best ever friend I had in all my life, the greatest gift which has been bestowed by the gods upon mankind.
— Cicero, Letter to M. Portius Cato

Almost exactly 40 years ago, when I was 20, my father drove me from London to the famous English coastal resort of Brighton, as featured in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. There were a few of my belongings in the car with us, including a cardboard box full of books. Dad treated me to a full steakhouse dinner — the first I ever had — and then we drove on out of town to the beautiful and rustic little village of Falmer, whose neighbor is the English redbrick University of Sussex. I was about to begin — two years later than most freshmen — a degree in Philosophy with Literature.

Intellectually, philosophy was my salvation, which is why it saddens me to see it wither on the vine, a victim of “woke” culture, aided and abetted by an increasingly Islamized Europe which does not wish to see intellectual enquiry, and the general cretinization of the public by corporate culture. It is my belief that philosophy needs to disappear for a while, hopefully to return stronger.

Thirteen years after my freshman week I wandered out of Sussex with a BA, an MA, and a PhD, the latter pair both in philosophy, with which I had appropriately enough fallen in love. The word “philosophy” can quite uncontroversially be rendered from the Ancient Greek as “the love of wisdom.” Philēin is a verb meaning “to love,” Sophōs is a noun meaning wisdom. And so philosophy is a love of wisdom, with all the betrayals, secret affairs, and elopements love can bring with it.

Diogenes Laertes, the third-century Roman biographer of the preceding Greek philosophers, gives us a charming lesson in etymology accessible to the modern layman:

For formerly what is now called philosophy (philosophia) was called wisdom (sophia), and they who professed it were called wise men (sophoi), as being endowed with great acuteness and accuracy of mind; but now he who embraces wisdom is called a philosopher (philosophos).

Another vignette concerning the classical definition of philosophy can be found in George Stuart Fullerton’s 1906 primer, An Introduction to Philosophy:

The Greek historian Herodotus (484-424BC) appears to have been the first to use the verb “to philosophize.” He makes Croesus tell Solon how he has heard that he “from a desire for knowledge has, philosophizing, journeyed through many lands.” The word “philosophizing” seems to indicate that Solon pursued knowledge for its own sake, and was what we call an investigator. As for the word “philosopher” (etymologically a lover of wisdom), a certain somewhat unreliable tradition traces it back to Pythagoras (about 582–500BC). As told by Cicero, the story is that, in conversation with Leon, the ruler of Phlius, in the Peloponnesus, he described himself as a philosopher, and said that his business was an investigation into the nature of things.

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You can buy Greg Johnson’s Graduate School with Heidegger here [3]

My decision to study philosophy was the result of a chance meeting in a pub close to my mother’s flat. My old English Literature teacher from sixth-form college (which would be the last two years of high school in the States), Michael Oakes, was drinking there one evening as I walked in, and we got to talking. Why, he asked, had I not gone to university? I replied that I didn’t much want to spend three years studying Beowulf and what have you. I was very fond of Michael, and he must have seen an ability in me that I had failed to notice myself, because he proposed to write a letter commending me to a friend of his who was a professor at Sussex. I had the necessary grades. Michael it was who suggested Philosophy with Literature. Now, I realize that was one of the most important evenings of my life.

Philosophy with Literature was the perfect degree for me. It is one of the insights of the much-maligned Jacques Derrida that philosophy can be sought in works of fiction just as much as in the more recognized, technical works within the discipline. Later, I dropped the literature component, and my Master’s degree was a shaky affair as I opted to take on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, still to me an extraordinary and haunting book.

The subject of my doctoral thesis was suggested by my tutor, Professor Geoff Bennington, a translator and personal friend of Derrida’s. We had a discussion about philosophy and agreed that it was largely concerned with the mind, or spirit, or psyche, or any of the other elements of what I called the “soul matrix.” What about the body? And so my thesis became The Body of the Text; The Text of the Body, a history of the body from Plato to post-structuralism. I was under the spell of deconstruction, and my thesis betrays this, but it is in the British Library, should you ever need to pass a rainy afternoon in London.

As a matter of fact and in passing, if I am ever able to visit England again in the wake of the manufactured COVID hysteria, I intend to go the British Library, request the copy of my thesis they hold (as they do all British doctoral theses), and take it away with me. It is mine, I paid for the (very classy) binding, and I don’t want it kept in a building whose chief librarian, Liz Jolly, recently stated that racism was “a creation of white people,” and threatened to cancel writers such as George Orwell, Lord Byron, Ted Hughes, and Oscar Wilde, whose manuscripts are held in the British Library archives (and the BL is the largest library in the world), because of their slave-owning ancestors. This type of neurotic, so-called “woke” response, usually prompted in public bodies as with the universities by the threat of withheld funding, is being used to hobble white intellectual history, and philosophy has been one of its first victims. And as another evil white writer, William Shakespeare, wrote, thereby hangs a tale.

“Woke,” the new and cretinous hobby of the English academic class, has already cut a terrible swathe through both literature and philosophy. It is enough now for a raucous and puritanical pack of lobbyists-cum-activists who have the government-sanctioned power to circumscribe intellectual endeavor and disqualify thought and writing of a certain stripe merely by calling this or that discipline “white.”

I first became aware of what is now called, in the argot, the “decolonization of the curriculum” in 2015, when I came across Occupy the Syllabus, a curious document by Rodrigo Kazuo and Meg Perret, students at the University of California, Berkeley (ironically famous for student demonstrations in favor of free speech in the 1960s). Perret was also an intern at something called the “Gender Equity Resource Center.” This call to academic arms has as its mission statement its second paragraph, reproduced here in full:

We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity — economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) — are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardized canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 per cent of humanity.

The whole document repays inspection, and may be read here [4].

The co-authors lament that a course on “classical social theory . . . did not include a single woman or person of color.” (This is an imbecilic phrase. All people are, of course, people of color; we would be invisible otherwise.) What the authors mean is that the syllabus does not contain any writers of one of the academically-approved colors. Students are no longer in their ivory tower, but occupy a less phallocentric structure — and preferably in ebony.

Although Occupy the Syllabus begins as intellectual pap before going sharply downhill, its importance is not in its credibility but in what it symptomatizes: Students are now increasingly setting the curricular agenda, an agenda that in fact holds no genuine feeling for women, “people of color,” or any other vogueish victim group, but is predicated on the Leftist, progressivist need to control thought and language and to stifle intellectual endeavor. In the same way that measles presents as red spots, progressivist yearning for control presents as the self-hating politics of grievance, identity, and victimhood.

Students are able to impose this type of garbled pushiness because they are increasingly realizing that what they want to get away with, they can. They resemble criminals in inner-city areas, realizing that no matter what outrages they commit, the police are not going to come and stop them. In fact, the police are more likely to persecute their victims. Thus, American professor Edward Schlosser, in an article entitled “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me [5],” flags up the self-preservation society that American teaching has become:

I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to “offensive” texts . . . That was enough to get me to comb through my syllabi and cut out anything I could see upsetting a coddled undergrad . . . (Vox, June 3, 2015)

Occupy the Syllabus is a similar rap sheet of inappropriate texts and oppressive readings. “We were required to read Hegel on the ‘Oriental realm’ and Marx on the ‘Asiatic mode of production,’ but not a single author from Asia,” it simpers, as though a text on the Industrial Revolution would be invalid without including the comments of a riveter or loom operator.

For Kazuo and Perret, it is not merely racial quotas that are troubling; modeish causes célèbres are also shockingly omitted from the teacher’s art:

The professor even failed to mention the Ferguson events, even though he lectured about prisons, normalizing discourse and the carceral archipelago in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish the day after the grand jury decision on the murder of Michael Brown.

And, lest ye scoff, think of the harm this type of “exclusionary education” can do to today’s larval geniuses. Steel yourselves. “Sometimes,” the authors shockingly inform us, “we were so uncomfortable that we had to leave the classroom in the middle of lectures.”

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You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [7]

Of course, there is an added attraction to the ethnic- and gender-cleansing of the humanities curriculum in general and philosophy in particular: It makes it easier. I remember English undergraduates I knew catching the exotic aroma of philosophy and deciding to try a module or two before retreating back to their chosen subject once they realized that a feminist critique of Jane Austen or deconstructing soap operas cut into their social lives far less than did 600 pages of Spinoza. Ultimately, today’s “uni” students — for whom the word “university” is already as archaic as “manufactory” — wish to ban all white devils from their wish-list of gratificatory, lightweight, intellectual beach-reading because the alternative — intellectual endeavor — is too grueling a prospect.

Thus, when the authors of Occupy the Syllabus state their wish to “dismantle the tyranny of the white male syllabus [and] demand the inclusion of women, people of color and LGBTQ authors on our curriculum,” it may not be because they are social justice warriors, but because they find white culture — usually their own — too hard. Far easier to remove the difficulty by importing less demanding reading. One day, if the progressivists continue their long march, the curricular landscape of the universities will bring to mind Dorothy Parker’s decision to leave the New Yorker because every short story printed seemed to be about someone’s childhood in India.

At the end of a hateful document, however, love is all you need, and the authors of Occupy the Syllabus (surely coming as a set text to a university near you soon) finish with a challenge:

[I]f you have taken classes in the social sciences and humanities, we challenge you: Count the readings authored by white males and those authored by the majority of humanity. Then ask yourself: Are your identities and the identities of people you love reflected on these syllabi? [emphasis added]

For, along with the desire to control dissident thought, this is what is at issue. If the syllabus cannot be turned into a “Me Report” for a new, millennial generation of obtuse, ethnomasochistic, narcissistic praise junkies, then it must be consigned to the flames. Students today are cheerfully subverting the whole point of the university — free intellectual enquiry — in favor of bigoted, dogmatic orthodoxies to which the faculty will adhere if they wish to continue working. Today’s wobbly-lipped students resemble the Puritans, frightened lest someone, somewhere is dancing. Instead, this intolerant herd of simpletons will not and cannot feel safe in their learning environments if there is the remotest possibility that a fellow student is gaining intellectual sustenance from the oppressive tomes of dead white men. Black students and their self-hating white imperial guard can never rest easy as long as someone white, somewhere, might be enjoying Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or N-word of the Narcissus.

Now, philosophy is not civil engineering or epidemiology in that its theories cannot be tested in any meaningful sense in the real world. But philosophy, in my view, has a vital role to play in the life of both an individual and the society of which they form a part, and this is precisely why the new “woke” trophy-hunters want philosophy’s head on the wall.

Western philosophy (I have no interest in non-Western philosophy) is something of a litmus test of what is left of intellectuality in the West, a canary in a coal-mine. It is impossible to dumb it down, as it has core texts going back two and a half millennia and is not as malleable as, say, history or the social sciences. But I have noticed that the latest (dis)guise of post-modernism, “woke,” has made a point of diluting philosophy.

With this in mind, I thought it might be instructive to compare the philosophy curriculum of my first undergraduate year, 1981, with today’s. As I mentioned, my first degree was Philosophy with Literature, and so only a part of the 1981 curriculum shown would have been available to me barring a special request. However, after my BA, I dropped literature (and went back to enjoying novels rather than dissecting them), and my MA and PhD were both in philosophy, so I have stuck solely to that curriculum.

I admit to a pang of guilt. The library staff at Sussex who sent me the 1981 curriculum went out of their way to do so. The photograph shown was taken on a phone, there being no archival record online. To give atmosphere, you will note that it is written in the standard retro typewriter font, Courier. And now I am writing a feature essentially ridiculing what my subject, at least at redbrick university level, is becoming. Never trust a philosopher.

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The syllabus from 1981 is above, and is one side of A4, which should be referred to before continuing. What we note is that the syllabus consists of core writers and areas of philosophy, and nothing else. When we compare it with Sussex University’s philosophy curriculum today, we find a very different approach to the subject. The language is vague and aspirational, with less focus on individual writers and schools and a woolly prospectus that makes sure it does not tie itself to perceived whiteness, as well as being porous enough to allow politicization and — inevitably — racialization at seminar and lecture level, or “contact time,” as my alma mater phrases it. This is the description of the first-year “Reason and Argument” module:

The aim of this module is to help you become reflective about the way arguments work by looking at a number of paradoxes:

Paradoxes puzzle and perplex us. If you’re going to sort them out, you have to clearly lay out the arguments and assumptions . . . Understanding the reasons in favour of different solutions will help you see how arguments work, and how assumptions are often in play — ones that you may not have thought about before.

Compare this verbal candyfloss with the injunctions from 1981. If a student in my year had wanted to study Philosophy of Mathematics, they “may normally take this course only with the approval of the Dean. They will be assumed to have taken Formal Logic.” Students wishing to study Recent Analytic Philosophy “must also have taken Logic and Epistemology.” Imagine “telling” students what they can and can’t do today. Just as British jails are run by the prisoners, so too students now decide what is acceptable to them in the classroom.

And, as for the schools and individual writers making up the 1981 curriculum, apart from a handful of philosophers (Locke, Berkeley, Hume, etc.), the only “schools” mentioned in 2021 are those of feminist philosophy and “queer” theory. There is a module called “Race and Racialisation.” What have any of these faddish sideshows to do with philosophy — real philosophy, the type that rewards you with its study and was written by white men?

In the end, however, philosophy will have been “cancelled” precisely for its heretical whiteness, and this will have been achieved by white students. Just as there have been multiple instances of Muslim students disrupting teaching which is contrary to the Korana book which can only be described as mentally handicapped — so too kufr students have got the taste for censoring the syllabus to suit their asinine ideology. And so, gradually, philosophy is disappearing from the universities just as it has disappeared from modern culture. You have to go back to the 1970s to find the last time philosophy had a serious presence on British television, for example, with the wonderful Bryan Magee and his series of interviews with contemporary philosophers about the great figures of the past, The Great Philosophers.

Plato is a separate course in the syllabus I received from my old university, but is not mentioned today. However, the great Athenian (whose name means “the broad-shouldered one”) warned us about this role reversal whereby the noisiest and least intelligent students dictate what the others may and may not read while the faculty will do anything the students say because they fear for their tenure. Students can and do get professors fired for teaching “problematic” attitudes or texts.

Plato’s Republic is, of course, one of history’s most famous works of philosophy, best known for the allegory of the cave, and the following;

Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is until political power and philosophy entirely coincide . . . cities will have no . . . rest from evils nor, I think, will the human race.

The degree known in Britain as “PPE” (Politics, Philosophy, and Economics) has long been an accepted rite of passage for the political class (usually studied at Oxford or Cambridge), and it is not conceivable that our rulers have not read the Republic and the famous passages mentioned. Sadly, today’s political class are not lovers of wisdom, but are simply concerned with their careers and the rat-like cunning they must employ to keep themselves on the gravy train.

But there is another aside in the Republic, almost a jest on Plato’s part, which adequately sums up what happens to education — and society in general — when the masters abdicate their role and the students take charge:

[A] father accustoms himself to behave like a child and fear his sons, while a son behaves like a father, feeling neither shame nor fear in front of his parents, in order to be free. A resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen . . . A teacher in such a community is afraid of his students and flatters them, while the students despise their teachers . . . [T]he young imitate their elders and compete with them in word and deed, while the old stoop to the level of the young and are full of play and pleasantry, imitating the young for fear of appearing disagreeable and authoritarian.

Plato saw, over two millennia ago, what would happen to philosophy. I suppose that is some consolation.

Postscript

If you are absolutely a newcomer to philosophy or, better still, if you have or know a child who would like a beginner’s curriculum, here are my suggestions:

Meditations , Marcus Aurelius
Symposium, Plato
The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell
Letters to Lucilius, Seneca
The Discourse on the Method, René Descartes
Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche

These are all short works as it is best not to start with the major essayists. A thousand words of Hegel is not the greatest introduction to philosophy. And although there are good primers (and Magee wrote several), the core texts are really the only way to approach philosophy.

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