All of philosophy originates from two things – burning curiosity and uncompromising honesty. All the other rudiments of good philosophy like eagle-eyed insightfulness, logical rigor and exacting intellectual standards, passionate skepticism, a deep moral and existential concern for matters of life and death and, of course, a teary-eyed wonder, spring from these two wellsprings, these two cardinal virtues.
Curiosity, because philosophy is naught without deep reflection, and reflection is impossible without curiosity. But being reflective is not enough. Many people spend all their intellectual energies reflecting on deep questions, but they end up holding on to their comforting beliefs. But such comfort-beliefs are like comfort pillows, nice to hug and cuddle; however, they’re mostly air and won’t stand against a moment of honest scrutiny. So why are they held on to dearly, and not only by the all-too-many, but also by those who are intelligent and reflective?
The reason is that the other pillar of good philosophy, intellectual honesty, is all too often lacking. Intellectual honesty is a requirement of any philosophical search, and when philosophizing is done without honesty – and uncompromising honesty at that – personal predispositions, the irrational desires of our animal selves and that dreaded monster called public prejudice infiltrate our thinking. These infiltrators combine in the end to make up our comfort-beliefs. Comfort-beliefs are, well, comfortable, and people cherish and hold on to them because they supposedly make life bearable. But I can’t see how one could bear living a life centered on a comforting lie.
“The unexamined life is no life for a man at all.” While often ascribed to Socrates, it is in fact only quoted by Socrates from the great tragedian Sophocles, author of what Aristotle called the perfect tragedy, Oedipus the King. It should be no surprise that such a deep truth should come from the mouth of a tragedian. After all, Oedipus, the uncommonly good man, was also uncommonly honest, and all his woes were caused by his attempt to know himself. But what Sophocles says in Oedipus is not that all acts of soul-searching lead to high tragedy; rather, his message is that when one seeks to know oneself, one needs nothing less than the tragic virtues. The tragic virtues are those which make the tragic hero shine even in his darkest moments, those that elevated him even when he is most downtrodden, and those that imbue his life with the utmost beauty even after he has suffered the ugliest of evils. The tragic virtues are virtues that lend life a tragic dimension. It is this tragic dimension that gives dignity and beauty to Oedipus, to Hamlet, to Madam Bovary.
But why the tragic virtues? This leads us back to the question of honesty, specifically intellectual honesty or what Nietzsche calls the intellectual conscience. Many brilliant minds lack this most important of virtues. As a result, when a line of reasoning leads them to dangerous grounds, they start to falter. Truth, they might reason with their brilliant minds, can’t be so heart-wrenching. Reality, they might argue using high-worded arguments, can’t be as cold as it seems. The masses ought to be right after all because the great majority of mankind can’t be so deluded and mistaken, they might write in big heavy tomes. All these of course to silence that painful whisper of conscience that keeps them awake in the wee hours of the night. They lull themselves back to sleep using philosophy. Oh, how they would rather slumber than face the truth! Truth, after all, is a dreaded monster. Better run away from it rather than face it.
To be able to face this dreaded monster called truth, the thinker must embody the first tragic virtue – a sense of nobility. What I mean here is not the outmoded nobility that can be inherited from one’s parents. I am talking about nobility that is gained through discipline: a nobility of the spirit. By sense of nobility I mean that desire to distinguish oneself from the common, that determination to rise above the putrid mediocrity of the masses, that sense that mere existence is painfully not enough. The nobility of the spirit is not something that stays with you once you have it – you have to constantly work hard to hold on to it, for it is effortlessly brushed away by the dilly-dally of everyday life and is quickly eroded by the littlest concessions to comfort. To retain this sense of nobility, one has to demand highly of oneself. As a result, one who embodies a sense of nobility will always find herself excelling in one area or another, and in seeking more areas in which to excel. Such is her internal drive towards distinction and merit. And even better, one who embodies a sense of nobility will always find herself in the company of truth, no matter how disconcerting truth is. She is too elevated to tolerate the presence of untruth, no matter how comforting it may seem.
From a sense of nobility comes out the second tragic virtue – courage. A member of the spiritual nobility will not allow himself to be seen acting in a cowardly manner. And courage is certainly needed in facing the truth, for the most brilliant of minds cower behind comfortable beliefs, established dogma or public opinion for want of it. And since the comfort-loving majority will not tolerate those who question their source of comfort, one who seeks the truth will also need courage to face the terrifying tyranny of public opinion; he should be prepared for isolation.
But a human person, no matter how noble, cannot survive in complete isolation. For this, the truth-seeker needs the third tragic virtue – deep love and true friendship. The truth-seeker can enjoy the hatred of those whom she hates only if she basks in the passionate love of those whom she loves. And she loves promiscuously; she does not love merely those whom she has met. Her lovers include the great heroes of the past and the great hopes of the future. And for the sake of these loved ones, she will strive to become stronger; she will do her best to deserve their love. And for the sake of her loved ones, she will not tolerate a lie. Brutal honesty is the foundation of her love. Self-knowledge is at the heart of all her relationships. And because of her loved ones, the truth-seeker loves life with a deep kind of love, a love that will not falter no matter what life throws her way.
This is the thinker’s fourth tragic virtue – love of life. Nietzsche found its best expression in Latin: amor fati, the love of fate. The true thinker, the freethinker, loves life too much to be contented with seeing it through a veil. And he is prepared to love truth and life no matter how they will look; reality can never be too beastly for his love. In the face of all the ugliness that comes his way, he will sing odes to life, and he will sing them with all the joy and exuberance of a free songbird. It is in this way more than in any other that his thinking is free; this is why he calls himself a freethinker.
Rare are those who posses the tragic virtues. And hence rare are those who are honest enough to engage in true philosophy. Many will of course think deeply, some will even engage in academic philosophy. But true philosophy is not just logic and deep thought. True philosophy is also musing and mulling over, even wrestling against a problem. And like the songbird he seeks to emulate, the freethinker knows that philosophy is a lot more like singing than those uptight academic philosophers might make it look. True philosophy is an ode to life.