Against Amateur Philosophers – Socrates & Seneca

”For this reason, give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men.” Seneca

As amateur philosophers, we hope to gain understanding by examining the works of great philosophers especially the sound bites and their greatest works. Seneca is of the view that true knowledge will only come from examining the works of these philosophers in detail and taking in the big picture. Beyond this, he is of the view that we must have our own reflections and come up with our views. This is no different from what is taught in any standard educational institution, where learning by rote is discouraged and considered plagiarism or stealing; however if one assimilates, forms an opinion on the basis of someone else’s work which is acknowledged/referenced it is considered true learning.

Palm Trees

“She is not a beautiful woman whose ankle or arm is praised, but she whose general appearance makes you forget to admire her single attributes.” Seneca

We can look at the quote above in various ways, we can not simply pick a few quotes of Aristotle or Plato or anyone at all and form a judgement; we would need to take their full body of works into account. It is also telling us that, we would be wrong if we take into consideration only parts of any argument without having the full knowledge of things.

“Doubtless they would be of much benefit to those who are still novices and worshipping outside the shrine; for single maxims sink in more easily when they are marked off and bounded like a line of verse.” Seneca

The point is not whether short quotes or parts of the story are useful or not; but who is being targeted? At what level do you operate when you function like that, and should one remain at that level? We are encouraged to keep researching and growing rather than holding on to bits and pieces of haphazard information.

“This is what Zeno said.” But what have you yourself said? “This is the opinion of Cleanthes.” But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Seneca

We are meant explore and learn to the point that we see clearly enough to form our own definitive views, which we can articulate and defend clearly.

“What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road.” Seneca

This is by no means a call to attempt to do it alone, that is not even possible. It’s rather a call to acquire knowledge from the greats, and furthermore push at the borders of the knowledge to expand the space, and innovate where we see the possibilities.

“Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.” Seneca

There are lots of discoveries to be made, and no one has the monopoly of knowledge. Rather than wait for others to study and wait for what they say or do, we can study as they have done, and make our contributions. This we are doing, not just for fun, but for the reason that it sets one apart. It breeds extraordinary capacity, it helps you to see very easily what others cannot see. Plato describes this in his story of the cave dwellers, as seeing “ten thousand times better.” It would be helpful to pause and reflect on the literal meaning of this. Because others do not see what you see, does not mean it does not exist, as long as it is based on clear understanding and can be explained clearly and coherently. For example, we cannot see viruses, but they exist, and one who uses an electron microscope – some of which have magnifications of up to 10 million times – sees them easily.

An Electron Microscope

Those who see ten thousand times better than others have a very big challenge, how to communicate to others who cannot see as they do. Plato warns that they are at risk of being called mad, stripped of the honors awarded to men based on ignorance rather than reality, and could even loose their lives at the hands of the very persons they are trying to save. Nevertheless this is a duty that must be done, should we desire a better world. In the world as it is now, people may not loose their lives literally (although this could still happen), but reputations and more could be at stake.

“Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth.” Plato, The Republic

“I am not an amateur philosopher or any kind of philosopher” you may say. Well as long as you contribute to discourses, this applies to you. If you rush to believe social media stories, rather than researching to know enough to make informed decisions then this applies to you. If you crucify people based on narrow views rather than the whole story, this also applies to you. If you rush to google, cherry pick articles (which are no articles at all) to support your views; or even worse, simply select favorable headings or headlines this also applies to you.

It is a duty that discourses are well thought out, properly researched especially where one has no prior knowledge, and thought over soberly especially if the aim is to convince anyone for again Seneca said: “Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs.” It’s not how loud we scream, but the quality of what we say that matters.

Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher

The Cave Dwellers – Plato, Leadership Part 5

Excerpts from

Letters from a Stoic, Lucius Annaeus Seneca & The Republic, Plato