Obstacles And Pitfalls For The Youthful Student Of Philosophy

I was recently asked in correspondence to provide some thoughts on the pitfalls and obstacles to the study of philosophy.  I have to admit that it was something of a relief to get this request, as it offers me a pretext to describe my own ideas on this subject.  All of us seek a greater level of understanding of things; but perhaps few of us give much thought to avoiding the obstacles to understanding.  A horse and its equestrian rider, however, cannot clear a hurdle until they have had experience in judging its height and length.  Here, then, are some of the most commonly encountered pitfalls of the student of philosophy. 

The first obstacle is overreliance on one source.  Pliny tells us, in his Natural History (XXXV.64), that when the painter Zeuxis was composing a work at the temple of Lacinian Hera for the city of Girgenti, he was unable to find one female model that could unite all the features he desired to portray; he therefore collected five models, and took the very best features from each.  Cicero himself, in his De Inventione (II.1.4) takes up this point, and advises students of rhetoric to learn from a variety of role models, instead of just one.  How can any one master, no matter how erudite or eloquent, provide all the answers?  He cannot; and we must not expect him to.  Even Quintilian (X.2.24) thought that the student should not imitate any one person too much:

Sed non qui maxime imitandus, et solus imitandus est.

[He who should be imitated the most, is not the only one who should be imitated] 

In philosophy, Cicero took the eclectic approach.  He studied carefully the doctrines of the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Academics, and the Peripatetics, and in general gravitated to the Academics (Platonists); but he was always careful to give the other schools credit where he felt it was deserved.  He did not rigidly confine himself to one school.  And yet we see so many students today who believe they have found the “truth” after reading a few books.  They seize upon one doctrine or another, as a hungry dog clamps his jaws down on something that entices him; and in so doing, they close their minds out to other possibilities and interpretations.  This, it seems to me, is a hallmark of the unformed mind, a mind that still requires time and seasoning to mature.

The second obstacle is somewhat related—although not always—to my first point.  It is the adoption of doctrinaire theories and rigid modes of thinking.  What do I mean by this?  I am speaking of this tendency some have, to interpret the ideas of the philosophers through the filter of one’s pet theory.  The student’s preexisting belief becomes this set of tinted spectacles through which he or she sees the world; and all the light that passes through these spectacles is refracted in the same predictable way.  There is no boilerplate solution to the problem of life. The philosophers say what they say; they do not way what you wished they would say.  It is an intellectual crime of a very destructive nature, to attempt to impose one’s own doctrinaire thinking on the views of thinkers from very different time periods, cultures, and societies.  So the first lesson of philosophy must be humility.  Let the thinker speak through his own words.  Do not speak for him; do not think for him.  He has survived for many centuries without your help, and he will continue to do so.

The third pitfall, it seems to me, is this modern tendency to take everything literally.  As our educational system has grown ever more distanced from the study of poetry and theology, this problem has become alarmingly common.  Many cannot recognize the literary device of hyperbole, and the oratorical device of auxesis.  For some students, everything rigidly means what the word printed in front of their faces says it means.  And yet this is not always so.  Ancient societies placed more emphasis on poetic or rhetorical forms of expression than we do now; medieval literature, both Christian and Islamic, is often steeped in theological expressions, images, and allegorical constructs that were never intended to be taken literally.  We must be sensitive, and, above all, we must be attuned to context; for only context will guide us through the miasmas of literary fog, and the thickets of interpretive error.   


The fourth pitfall is a student’s limited range of experience.  For this he cannot really be faulted.  A young student is still in the stage of maturation; often he has not worked for many years alongside different groups, organizations, or people; and his travel experiences may be limited.  He has not been knocked around by the world’s cruelties and inequities, experiences that tend to soften a young mind’s intolerance and rigidity.  There is no remedy for this except time and experience.  And this is another reason why a philosophic classic will mean one thing to a man in his younger years, and will mean something very different to him as an older man. 

The fifth pitfall is a lack of proper instruction or guidance.  It is true that some can become self-taught in philosophy; we find the occasional Robinson Crusoes, the Hayy Ibn Yaqthans, who seem to attain enlightenment on their own.  But they are rare.  Philosophy was meant to be debated and discussed; this is why the dialogue form is the most enchanting of all ways of presenting philosophic ideas.  Concepts need to be argued, tested, chopped up, and diced with cleavers; only then can we make some sense of them.  Students need to be berated, hectored, badgered, and challenged.  They benefit greatly from these little maelstroms.  Everyone, even the best minds, benefits from some degree of guidance and direction.  If you cannot find your magister, do the best you can with the tools you have. 

The sixth pitfall is (or are) one’s own psychological traits.  What I mean by this is that every student has his or her own psychological characteristics.  And when confronted by ideas that cut to the core of our self-identity or self-esteem, we tend to react irrationally.  You often see a startling level of hypersensitivity and defensiveness among some students today.  This causes them to make mountains out of molehills; or, as Cicero says in his oration Pro Plancio (XL.95), “an arch out of a sewer,”

Arcum facere ex cloaca.

Everything is an opportunity for histrionics, drama, and overreaction. They cannot seem to grasp that the world is not their Construct.  We are apt to close out our minds to things that threaten deeply cherished beliefs or comforting delusions.  The timid student will avoid things that make him feel uncomfortable; but the brave one will brace himself against these uncomfortable headwinds, and continue his forward march.

The seventh obstacle is a lack of sufficient or adequate resources.  To do a job, one must have the right tools.  If one has only outdated books, obsolete translations, and a terrible environment for study, it is unlikely that good progress is ever going to be made.  It is often said that the modern world offers much improved access to good materials, and this is true.  But it is also true that the volume of trash has multiplied at geometric rates, while our ability to sift through it has increased only arithmetically.  The young student is bombarded with irrelevancies, stupidities, and nonsense, which distract and deflect him from the right path.  If he is not careful, he will find himself swirling around helplessly in some eddy on the side of the river, and being excluded from the general flow of the current. 

The eighth, and final, obstacle is a poor external environment for learning.  A great many students have been defeated by this. The modern world presents the student with so many distractions, and so much noise, that it takes a focused effort to apply one’s attention.  One cannot hope to learn anything in an environment of chaos, where trash is strewn everywhere, where people are intrusively coming and going, and where one’s ears are constantly polluted with insolent noise.  You must create an environment, a sanctum, that is conducive to quiet and calm reflection.  You must banish irritating or upsetting noises and people. 

I truly believe that many good students have failed to achieve their true potential only because the environments they were living in were hopelessly chaotic and undisciplined, and thus hostile to learning.  Epicurus, for example, believed that our minds had certain “innate notions,” or preconceptions, of certain ideas; he meant that we all had an intuitive grasp of certain things in life.  The Greek word he used for this concept was prolepsis, which Cicero in Latin rendered as praenotio.  In On the Nature of the Gods (I.16), Cicero explains:

In naming this preconception, Epicurus uses the word prolepsis:  that is, a kind of mentally preformed awareness of something, without which nothing can be known, questioned, or debated.

There is a good deal of truth to this, I think.  But innate ideas will remain only innate–and inchoate–unless they are mined, extracted, polished, and developed. To extract these innate ideas from our subconscious, and to develop them to higher levels of sophistication, we need a proper environment, as well as good instruction, good books, and good translations. These, then, are some thoughts on obstacles to the youthful student of philosophy. 



Read more in the new translation of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations: