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On Being a Philosopher

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Robert Lynd wrote an essay 'On Not Being a Philosopher', a humorous account of how difficult it is to become one. How difficult it is to be a philosopher has merited less attention - unmeritedly so, I believe - for obvious reasons. The ratio of non-philosopher to philosophers skews the attention to the tribulations of the many away from the travails of the few, especially in a democratic age. Now, the philosopher is - what? Etymologically he's a lover of knowledge (phileein, to love, sophia wisdom). "We love what we do not have', affirms the grand old man of philosophy, Socrates, and none of us  is an Encyclopaedia Britannica.

A few of us, goes on the revered hemlock-bibber, desire naught else in life but to become the Encyclopaedia Britannica - and sit complete, bound in ebony, on a shelf. Not his vision to be a mere entry in the Micropaedia, nor even a whole article in the Macro, but a lust, a passion, a beatific ambition to be the Index volume constitutes our man.

As a rule the more queer our aspirations, the more perverse the world. And in the very capital of philistinism here, the world appears not only perverted, but inverted. For the educated citizen is not a lover of knowledge, but a philo­dollar - a sufficiently unattractive neologism that captures the international nature of his grosser appetite. He will descant at length on his rummagings through second­hand bookstores - "when I was your age, you know" - and how he used to forget his meals hunched ever a volume at Nilkhet. He prefers to hunch over the more gastronomic diet, now.

The protestations of love - of knowledge - sit uncomfortably next to the pursuit of lucre for which that knowledge is bartered. These people would break bricks or carry coal, discarding their books like offal, should the scarcity of brick-breaker and coal-carrier transform those objects into gold. Yet the brick-breaker is more honest than the local scholar. He does not eulogize his calling ("brick-breaking is a noble profession, without which not even the foundations of assembly buildings would be laid"); he sweats, and in the sweat of his brow, eats his bread.

He calls a spade a spade because he's made to use one, or an instrument of a collateral line, at any rate.

The pressure of honesty is seldom endured by our pundits - unless it is endured with Herculean heroism and with equal success! How conveniently they toss aside a doctrine that no longer pays its way! How skillfully they pirouette away from the passé! In the war between the eternally useless and the eternally useful, our forces are ranged solidly on the utilitarian side. Yet when Armageddon comes, they'll as surely hang fire until the victor begins to emerge from the smoke!

The philosopher, however, is taxed in the highest bracket on the progressive scale of honesty - he must render unto the Caesar of his soul an account of his consistency. Here, too, his intellectual fortress comes under assault; the barbarians at the gate are philo-inconsistencies Along with the philo-dollars, these operate their battering-rams, like the benighted mediaeval barons against the enlightened cities.

Inconsistency is a useful servant; it will serve any master. Logically, we should be forced to conclude that inconsistency must be the most useless of servants precisely because it will serve any master, but when dealing with inconsistency, logic must be damned. It examines no tenet, takes no premiss to its logical conclusion, discards none that disagrees with the others, never subsumes thought or action under a principle - simply because it never intends to domicile permanently, and so examines cursorily.

Consistency is like love. Constancy is its nature. Dog-like it will ferret into every nook and corner of its home that its master may be safe. And like love, sometimes, when it is betrayed, humbly will it say, "I was wrong", and look for a new home, always intending to rest forever.

To rest forever, before death - that, like the alchemist's paradox, spurs the philosopher's curiosity. Only, he calls the magic coherence, not alchemy: "to look at life steadily and to see it as a whole". Anyone who has, at any time, been confused by the maddening diversity of anything, will appreciate the quest for unity. An engineer experiences unity within the confines of his subject; but those very confines are the philosopher's confinement. He seeks knowledge wholesale, not retail.

The aphorism of one man's food being another's poison rings truest with the philosopher and, say, the engineer. To the latter, his knowledge is his meal ticket; to the former, an invitation to starve. For the intellectual life of man is so varied, that to gorge on only one dish for the rest of one's terrestrial span presents the prospect of a spiritual famine.

What if, by repudiating specialization, he risks actual starvation? What does it matter if he loses the world and gains the spirit? Has he not received richer recompense from each insight, greater affluence from every observation, augmented opulence from incremental discoveries, weightier carats from squeezed carbon of conclusions, accumulated savings in the cache of dead men's thoughts? Verily

There is

One great Society alone on earth:

The Noble Living and the Noble Dead.

To be paid to study, and to be paid to make love, or to eat, or to drink - are on a par with our philosopher. He learns because he must, to be consistent, to be coherent. And at this point our society takes up arms against him, for our time-honoured maxim is not the lines quoted, but the following (a trifle modernized, for the last time I saw a horse being used was by a wedding-party during the recent hartals);

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ├ éČ┼ŻBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ├ éČ┼ŻTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ├ éČ┼ŻHe (more...)
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