On Why The Best Philosophers Are Men Of Action

The Roman writer Aelian, in his Varia Historia (III.44), conveys the following anecdote. Three young friends, he says, were traveling to Delphi in order to consult the oracle.  Along the way, they lucklessly encountered some bandits.  In the melee that followed, some of the robbers were killed. 

One of the friends fled from the robbers, and a second friend was locked into personal combat with one of the bandits.  The third friend tried to help his comrade who was fighting the robber.  But in this he was unsuccessful; while trying to run his blade through the bandit, he accidentally wounded his friend.  The wound turned out to be a fatal one.  When the two surviving friends arrived at Delphi and consulted the Pythia (for this is the name of the priestess at the temple of Apollo at Delphi), the oracle said this to them:  “You, who ran away in your comrades’ hour of need, I will not speak to.  You must leave the sanctuary of Apollo immediately.”  The cowardly youth slinked away in shame, never to be heard from again.  To the remaining youth, the one who had accidentally killed his friend, the Pythia spoke thus:

Although you slew your friend, you acted in his defense.  You are stained, my brother, with neither blood nor shame.  In fact, your hands are more clean now than they were before. 

By this the oracle meant that the youth’s intentions had sanctified him, washing the blood from his hands, and leaving them cleaner than they had been previously.  And this is so because the oracle focused on the intentions and actions of the youth, instead of the results.  Although in this life we cannot always control the results of worldly actions, we can control our own intents and desires:  and this is what is decisive.  The youth took remedial action in a crisis; he did not hesitate in his comrades’ hour of need. 

A corollary lesson from this tale is that action is usually preferable to inaction.  Aelian relates a relevant anecdote in this regard, again in his Varia Historia (I.32) about the Persian king Artaxerxes.  When the king was traveling through Persia he was approached by a man named Omises, who presented him with a very large and juicy pomegranate in a straw basket.  The king was shocked by its size and enticing appearance, and asked Omises where he had acquired the fruit.  The man responded, “I grew it at my own farm.”  Artaxerxes then said, “By Mithras, look at how successful this man has become.  With the level of attention and care he has devoted to raising his fruits, I can see that he would be successful in almost any enterprise, including the leadership over an entire city.”  What had impressed Artaxerxes was the attention to detail he saw manifested in the fruit that was before him:  the care that Omises had devoted to cultivating, watering, pruning, and protecting his plants.  He had taken action, and the results were there for all the world to see.    

It is a mistake on our part, I think, to believe there is little connection between physical action and mental thought.  The best thinkers are those who take action.  No man who never leaves the interior of his house can be expected to have a healthy view of the world.  Philosophy is not about thinking in an armchair:  it is about testing the worldly utility of theories crafted by that reason which has been gifted to us by Nature.  If there is no practical utility to a philosopher’s ideas, it is difficult to attach any value to them.  As I see it, the greatest and most distinguished branch of philosophy is moral and ethical philosophy, because it concerns that subject which is of timeless interest to all:  what is the meaning of a good life, and how may it be lived?  What are the disorders of the soul, and how may they be cured?  One cannot speculate on such matters unless one has lived a life characterized by action and involvement in the affairs of man. 

So we find, for example, that Rene Descartes entered upon a period of soldiering in 1618, when he enlisted in the service of the Protestant Prince Maurice at Breda.  Thucydides, that early historian who can also be called a philosopher of history, was a general during the Peloponnesian War.  “Philosophers too have engaged in politics rather than confining themselves to intellectual excellence and living a sheltered life,” says Aelian (III.17), writing around 210 A.D.  As examples he cites Thales of Miletus, who performed great services for Ionia; Anaximander, who led colonists from Miletus to Apollonia; Xenophon, who was a die-hard soldier as well as a first-rate thinker; Plato, who involved himself in politics in Sicily; and Socrates, who was both a soldier and a meddler in politics throughout his life.  Cicero, certainly a philosopher himself as well as a popularizer of philosophy, had a long and passionate career in both the law and politics.

What good can come from the minds of those whose bodies never leave their armchairs? It is not just a matter of inaction. I tend to think so many of these “thinkers” of today are so benumbed from excess intake of food, that they are hardly able to construct a coherent line of reasoning. I sometimes wonder if our society would benefit from some modernization of the old sumptuary laws, of the kind described by Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights (II.24). Corpulence, gourmandizing, and wasteful intake of food was seen as an offense against the public good. Knowing what we now know about the harms of obesity, and how it affects everyone, we cannot say these old laws had no basis in reason.

And yet such people are frequently considered “experts” of one stripe or another by our modern obsession with credentialism over actual ability. I recently read that the average age of the technicians in the command and control rooms of NASA’s “Apollo” missions in the 1960s and 1970s was twenty-six. Twenty six years old! To have man’s first extra-planetary steps guided by youths, is this not a great thing? In today’s world, a youth of twenty-six would not be allowed anywhere near such momentous happenings. He would be chided for not having enough “experience,” as if experience were only a matter of having passed through the approved doorways.  

To these ancient examples cited above we could easily add the modern one of Friedrich Nietzsche, who volunteered to serve in a cavalry unit in the late 1860s.  We are told that he was regarded as one of his unit’s finest horsemen.  It is only in our modern era, with its numerous misplaced priorities and misjudgments, have some people come to believe that sound ideas can originate from sheltered technocrats sitting in sterile cubicles within tombs of concrete and metal.  “So if anyone says that philosophers are inactive,” says Aelian once again, “his comment is naïve and stupid.” 

The best philosophers are those who combine the possibilities of speculative thought with the hard, timeworn lessons learned from participative action in the arenas of life.  A stagnant pond produces little more than gases of putrefaction; but a running stream cuts through the landscape, delivering aqueous sustenance to the parched land.  It is the gift of life itself. 




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