What is a philosopher? Nowadays, we imagine an older guy with a pipe in his hand, saying “mYes, mmmYeeessss,” very often. A guy who’s never done anything practical in his life, and only learned stuff from books, and likes to talk about old dead people like Plato and Socrates.
Who would want to be that? Who even is that, nowadays? Nah brah, I don’t relate.
My take is that a philosopher should be what the word actually means, a lover of wisdom.
‘Philosopher’ comes from the ancient Greek Philia, which means love, and Sofia, which means wisdom — and to my mind, that’s exactly what a philosopher should be, a lover of wisdom.
And being a philosopher is very practical stuff, if you recognize that wisdom can be about anything — including the very down-to-Earth stuff that you are dealing with day to day, and that it can come from anywhere — including those 86 billion neurons in your brain, or more generally, the 37.5 trillion cells in your body.
I see wisdom as the ‘good ideas’ about what I am doing, what I should do, what other people are doing, why I’m here…about anything that interests me.
Now, everyone gets good ideas, they come up constantly in everyone’s life.
You may hear a voice in the back of your head that says that you should not start a fight with your girlfriend about where she left the bread in the morning because it wouldn’t lead to anything good, even though you feel you want to. You may have daily ideas about quitting your current job and finding something more fulfilling. You may constantly think that it may be much better to read that book on snails (you love snails) than to watch that Netflix series. But to most of us, these ideas leave our minds as soon as they come in, and not a second goes by before we’re back to where we were: You start that fight with your girlfriend anyway, you keep your current job, and somehow you’ve reached the fifth season of Grace and Frankie and you’re no closer to understanding the amazing life of snails.
If you’re a lover of wisdom though, having one of these wise ideas come into your mind sticks out like a ray of sun on a cloudy day. Why? Because by this definition, if you’re a philosopher you LOVE wisdom, and when you love something or someone, everything that that they say or do can’t help but get your attention. You are drawn to it like a fly to honey, and your senses just pick it up, committing it to memory. Just like you’ll remember whatever the person that you love says and you’ll possibly turn their words over 10.000 times in your mind to extract their meaning, when you love wisdom, whatever wise idea comes to mind will stick with you, including the practical ones. You will cherish every wise idea, just like you cherish a hug from the person you love, and you won’t want to forget it. And that includes practical ideas.
By this definition, a lot of people are philosophers without ever being aware of it!
Many people appreciate or love good ideas without ever dreaming of calling themselves philosophers, since they imagine philosophers to be like that stuffy guy I mentioned above. I, however, think that that’s exactly what they are, and also, it’s what those stuffy guys precisely aren’t. Someone may call themselves a philosopher because they’ve memorized the ideas of dead people, but without love and deep appreciation for spontaneous wise ideas, including those practical ones that their minds produce and that apply to their own lives, they are not actual lovers of wisdom, they are not philosophers.
Also a good mark for a philosopher, recognized or unrecognized: Losing a wise idea that their minds uncovered is painful. It’s like losing the memory of your lover’s kiss. So you’ll oftentimes find philosophers scribbling down notes, or finding other ways to immortalize the memory of the wisdom that they gather, lest they endure the pain of forgetting it.
So, does this mean that being a philosopher gives you an easier time applying the more practical wise ideas that you get every day? Well, not necessarily. When it comes to easy-to-apply ideas, like not arguing with your significant other or reading a book rather than watching Netflix, maybe. But when it comes to ideas that require more commitment and effort, like finding a new job, maybe not, since philosophers may face the same obstacles as the rest of us: procrastination, desire to be comfortable, fear of the unknown, etc. It’s one thing to recognize good ideas, and it’s a totally different thing to apply the practical ones that require effort. To do so requires a different set of skills, like diligence, consistency, bravery — skills that any one philosopher may lack, however much they love wise ideas and recognize their value.
That being said, what you will see in philosophers is the suffering caused by not making such practical bits of wisdom a reality, since they cannot help but know that they’ve betrayed the object of their affection somehow by not applying them — like knowing that going away for a time to run some task would make your lover happy, but you don’t leave her side because you love her too much.
Viewing a philosopher as a lover of wisdom divorces the philosopher from those that study philosophy.
I mean, great snippets of wisdom can be found from studying Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. But they can also be found from reading Playboy, or from not studying anything at all and just experiencing new things, and in fact, the snippets of wisdom that come from that may even be more “wow!” and transformative.
This view also divorces the philosopher from any expectations, like being a great leader.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that the best rulers of a society would be philosophers. But being able to rule well requires a completely different skill set than just loving the wise ideas that you uncover as you move through life, even if that includes the ideas about what it means to rule well. Skills like having the resilience to apply them, to resist temptation, to withstand peer pressure and so on. Ultimately, being a philosopher is a key that can unlock many doors, whether it be self-improvement or being a good leader, but to have the force to push those doors open and face what is on the other side requires more than just that; To love wisdom does help, but what also helps is to live it, as much as you can — and we may need a different word for referring to people like that. ‘Philosopher’ seems to be already taken.