Before we get to your choices of life-changing philosophy books, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your new book. It’s an engaging account of what we can learn about living from thinkers as diverse as Epicurus, Gandhi, and Simone de Beauvoir. I loved it. You call this The Socrates Express. Why?
‘Socrates’ is a stand-in for the kind of philosophy that I was interested in, that I write about, which is a practical, therapeutic, accessible philosophy. It was Cicero who famously said of him that he called philosophy down from the heavens and introduced it into people’s homes. That’s what I’m trying to do. Even though there’s only one of 14 chapters about Socrates, it just had a better ring than calling it the Schopenhauer Express, which would attract about 10 people. The ‘express’ part is because, as you know, I’m part travel writer, part philosopher and I use the train as the vehicle for the journey.
The subtitle is ‘in search of life lessons from dead philosophers.’ Some people might be skeptical about the idea that philosophers could teach us anything about life, not least because, in caricature and sometimes in reality, philosophers are rather removed from life…
The key word you just used there is ‘caricature’, because no one is really removed from life. It’s in fact the exception, not the rule, that philosophers were solitary, isolated figures. Even Epicurus, who taught outside the city of Athens, wasn’t removed from his commune colleagues, the people who lived in the garden and studied with him there. And even grumpy Schopenhauer lived in the thriving city of Frankfurt for most of his life. He went to the opera, he went to the Englischer Hof restaurant every day. So I think philosophers get a bad rap. We picture them almost as these brains floating in the ether that have no physicality to them, but these were very physical people. They were, at least intermittently, social people—I think David Hume in particular vacillated between great sociability and great solitude. So they’re people, like all of us. I’m trying to resurrect that notion of the philosopher in some small way.
You’ve obviously selected the philosophers who are the most amenable to this treatment, but it’s interesting to me that just about all of them were outside the university system of philosophy. They were all independent thinkers, in the sense of being independent of academia.
Absolutely, and if they were in there they didn’t last very long, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. They either were expelled or they expelled themselves from academia.
Is that a coincidence?
I didn’t do that on purpose, but I looked at it in retrospect and said, ‘Huh. I don’t really focus very much on Immanuel Kant who was a professor.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think—how do I say this without pissing off academics?—that the academy is a wonderful place to educate people and to be educated. It’s not a wonderful place for breakthrough thinkers, because it is an institution. Philosophers are rocking the boat of society and the captain of the ship rarely rocks the boat. So, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most innovative philosophers—not 100 per cent, but many of them—were outside of the university system.
Your book is written autobiographically. What part has philosophy played for you in life?
It’s complicated my life in some ways, not unlike the way Socrates complicated the life of the people of Athens. You’re humming along and you’ve got a set of assumptions and this makes it easy to get through the day, but if you stop and question those assumptions, your life ceases to be simple. There’s a civil rights icon here in the US who just passed away named John Lewis. He wrote about the need to get into ‘good trouble, necessary trouble’. I think that’s what philosophy is: it’s good trouble, necessary trouble. On the one hand, philosophy made me start to question things. ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing writing these books? Do I really love my wife and daughter or do I just think I do?’ Asking all these questions – that complicates my life; but I think in a good way. I love a quote from Daniel Klein, who wrote about Epicurus and some other philosophers. He said: don’t think of philosophy as science or analytical, think of it as life-enhancing poetry. I really like that, and that’s what philosophy is to me: life-enhancing poetry. The philosopher Bryan Magee hints at this too, he says that philosophy allows you to see the world the way a novelist does. You know when you read a good novel and afterwards, when you put it down, the world just seems brighter, the colours are more vibrant, everything seems a bit different? When you read a good piece of philosophy, the world seems different to you after you put it down. You put on a different pair of spectacles.
Two things I really love about your book. First of all, that you managed to give succinct accounts of major philosophers without undue distortion. There’s always a tendency, when trying to summarize or give a flavour of a philosopher, just to compromise. It strikes me that, first of all, you’ve taken very seriously the content of those philosophical thinkers and not reduced them, despite not having very many words to deal with each of them. The other aspect of the book I love is that it’s beautifully written, which is comparatively rare, oddly, in introductory books. I read a lot of books about philosophy as well as philosophical books and it’s surprising how little attention some bestselling writers pay to the words in a sentence. I’d love to know a little bit about how you went about writing The Socrates Express. I’m assuming that your work as a journalist has fed into the way that you’ve approached book writing as well.
Yes and no. I worked as a journalist for a number of years and I still retain that curiosity of a journalist and that ability to dig; but I also had to unlearn a lot of journalism. I had to learn to be more personal and to state what I think and what I don’t think. It’s very liberating, but a lot of journalists have trouble making that leap. What really helped me as a writer was working in radio, for NPR here in the US, which is much like the BBC in the UK. It’s quality radio, and there’s something about writing scripts for radio that forces you to write in an accessible way, because unlike with a book the reader can’t go back and say, ‘what was that on page 27?’ Oral storytelling, of course, predates written storytelling by tens of thousands of years and so having written a lot for radio made me a better writer, I think.
“When you read a good piece of philosophy, the world seems different to you after you put it down”
I really dislike pompous writing. I make an attempt to read a lot of pompous writing and then translate it into non-pompous writing. And so my book sometimes, to an outsider, might seem – I don’t want to say superficial – but not academic. I take that as a compliment. I read lots of academic books, and I’ve read an awful lot, and I try to distil the essence of each philosopher. So there’s a lot that you don’t see that’s going on. I think that’s the way writing should be. You shouldn’t see everything, except perhaps in the endnotes.
I thought that had to be so, because you couldn’t have done it otherwise. Some people think ‘I’m writing 5,000 words about Nietzsche so I can just mug up by Googling what Nietzsche said and then paraphrase that’, but your writing isn’t like that at all.
You have to read several biographies of Nietzsche and you have to read Nietzsche and then the frustrating part is that you have to throw so much of it away. You have to be willing to throw it away to give the reader the benefit. Basically, I’ve read all those academic books so the reader doesn’t have to.
So this activity of choosing five books of life-changing philosophy seems to me completely complementary to your book, because as well as being a book to read for its own sake, it will also take people to the original texts. That’s one of the great things about your book: it makes you want to read more of the philosopher’s work.
I hope so.
Let’s move on to your first choice, which is Epictetus’s The Enchiridion. First of all, who was Epictetus?
Epictetus was mainly a teacher. We think of him as a philosopher, but he was mainly a teacher of Stoic philosophy around the first century AD. He was born a slave in what is now Turkey, was eventually liberated, moved to Rome, taught there for a while and was banished to a city in Greece called Nicopolis.
It’s hard to tell if he had many original ideas about Stoic philosophy. There were other Stoics—Rufus and Zeno, Chrysippus and others—who came before him, but he was for the most part a popularizer. In that way he was doing what I’m doing. So, he popularized Stoic philosophy and he was admirable: he went from being a slave to becoming a revered teacher. He was lame for most of his life, so he couldn’t walk very well and he was no nonsense. He was tough love. Lots of tough love. ‘Stop crying for your mommy’ was one of his lines.
Most people know Stoic philosophy for its ethics, in particular the focus on changing the things you can change and not worrying about the things you can’t. That is certainly something Epictetus emphasizes.
It’s become a t-shirt here in the US. It’s been picked up by Alcoholics Anonymous and all sorts of people. ‘Some things are up to us, and some things aren’t. Focus on the ones that are.’
So for me, that’s the core of Epictetus’s teaching. Unlike some Stoic philosophers, he was very primarily concerned with how we should live, that was the main thrust of his writings, as I understand it.
Yes. The term ‘ethics’ is tricky because today people hear that word and they think of morality and ethical behaviour. In ancient times, ethics was more a question of how to lead a good life. It’s no coincidence that Stoicism is enjoying a revival today and Epictetus’s thought in particular, because it’s helpful in life. It’s the philosophy of hard knocks, the philosophy for people who have lived for a while and suffered for a while. It’s largely about coping with difficult situations. I find it’s been a very helpful philosophy during this time we’re living in, in a pandemic; that simple first line of The Enchiridion (The Handbook): ‘some things are up to us and some things aren’t.’ It’s so incredibly obvious, but good philosophy, like a lot of things, is incredibly obvious and we need to be reminded of it.
It strikes me that we can recognize that things are outside our control but still worry about them. Recognizing the fact isn’t enough to remove the destructive power of being depressed about a state of affairs.
I don’t think we do recognize it. I think Socrates would jump in here and say, ‘Okay, you say that you know that some things are under your control and some things aren’t, but let’s interrogate that. Do you act that way?’ I go through my life acting like everything is under my control. I go through life acting like I can control whether my books are bestsellers or not, whether I’ll lose those 30 pounds I want to lose or not, whether I’ll be in good health, all those things.
“It’s no coincidence that Stoicism is enjoying a revival today and Epictetus’s thought in particular, because it’s helpful in life”
When you look at it from a Stoic point of view, you start to realize how little is actually under your control. I could get hit by a bus on the way to the fitness centre to exercise. You start to realize that where we draw that line is not where we thought it was. So that’s the first step, I think, in Stoic ethics. That’s a reason why this is a life-changing philosophy book. Then, once you realise what is under your control, you realize that 90 per cent of it is internal. That’s the starting point. Then you have to do something about controlling the internal aspects, which is hard.
But what about the idea that our ability to change how we feel about our thoughts, how we feel about the things that happen to us, is itself beyond our control? We’re either lucky and the kind of person who can seize control, or we’re not.
Only a philosopher would ask that question! I’ve thought about this a lot and I’ve written about happiness before. I think that we all operate within a range of possibility, and I’m going to say internal possibility. I’m only capable of being so happy. But it’s a range, and whether I’m operating at the top of that range or the bottom of that range I think is under my control. I don’t think I could ever be as happy as the Dalai Lama, but I could be more at peace and have more Stoic contentment than I currently do, if I more rigorously practised the precepts of Stoicism and work, like for example Marcus Aurelius, to control what I can control, which is internal. I don’t know when this pandemic is going to be over. I can’t control whether the vaccine will be coming along or not. All I can control is how I cope internally with a difficult situation.
It strikes me that there are strong similarities—and probably causal connections—between Stoicism and existentialism, or at least Sartre’s existentialism and the idea of ‘bad faith.’ According to Sartre, most of the time most of us are in this position of not recognizing the degree of our freedom, at least in the attitudes we can take to things that happen to us, the things he calls our ‘facticity.’ There are things we can’t change, but we can still change our attitude to those things.
I had not made that connection before, but I think you’re right. I think the existentialists were a little more outwardly oriented: they talked a lot about projects and they thought you were what you did, that there was no love, only acts of love, no charity, only acts of charity. I’m not sure Stoics would agree with that. I think they might say that you are your internal mechanism and your internal equilibrium as much as you are your external. I think the existentialists were busy beavers: in fact Simone de Beauvoir’s nickname was castor. The Stoics were certainly involved in public life, but, you know, ‘Stoic calm’ is a phrase I would use easily; I don’t know if ‘existentialist calm’ falls off the lips.
The Stoics seemed to be in the business of training themselves. It’s not just a matter of understanding things intellectually, it’s finding a good mechanism for living that philosophy sincerely. You have to devise techniques for thinking about your life and which bits you can control and then eliminating irrational thoughts.
And in this way Stoicism joins hands with Buddhism, I think, in that it is a practice. The Buddhists have meditation, the Stoics have their own meditations or spiritual exercises, as Pierre Hadot calls them. It’s not quite as spelt out as Buddhism, partly I think because in Stoicism our record is not as complete. Buddhism is a whole technology of spirituality, essentially. I think the modern Stoics are trying to put together a Buddhist-style program for Stoicism, this idea of premeditated adversity—think of the worst thing that is going to happen to you, as Seneca suggested, and imagine it. So I see commonalities there.
I found throughout writing my book, as I was reading about one philosophy, I would be like, ‘oh, that’s like this one.’ There were overlaps and parallels. Buddhism came up a fair amount actually because one theme in my book is that of acceptance—radical acceptance I’d call it—and that certainly is within Buddhism, Stoicism and Epicureanism.
You mentioned Pierre Hadot. Let’s move on to your next book choice, his Philosophy as a Way of Life. Could you tell us a bit about this book and why it is a life-changing one?
This is one of the first books I read that got me rolling on board The Socrates Express and started me off on the project: I just found it a great introduction to this idea that philosophy can be useful. As I like to say, only in the dictionary do the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘practical’ appear in any proximity, but this book changed my mind. Hadot was a French academic focused on ancient and Hellenistic philosophies. Looking at the chapters now, there’s one on “Ancient Spiritual Exercises” and one called “Only the Present is our Happiness.” There’s “The View from Above.” These are the chapter headings that draw you in and don’t repel you. He was my inspiration for someone who wrote about mainly ancient philosophy, but in a way that made it useful and practical without oversimplifying it. He was a serious academic and I admire people, like you, to be honest, who are grounded in the academic work but are able to convey it to others. That’s what Pierre Hadot does.
It’s interesting that it’s a book about the practical aspects of ancient Greek philosophy and has been a life-changing philosophy book for you, partly because it opened up the possibility of writing about life-changing philosophy…
The ancient part is not a coincidence. I think philosophy is one of the few fields where the further back you go, the easier it gets. The further back you go, the more accessible it gets. I would say that the heyday for therapeutic philosophy was the Hellenistic age, so roughly 300, 200 BC, when you’ve got the Stoics and the Epicureans in particular thriving in Athens, and then around the Greek world. The writing is clear and accessible and practical. Then I feel like philosophy took a millennia-long detour into scholasticism and analytical philosophy and became sort of unrecognizable from the way it started. So, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that a book called Philosophy as a Way of Life focuses almost exclusively on an ancient philosophy.
And you recommend it for a general reader?
I would. It is accessible. You’re going to learn about Socrates, you’re going to learn about Marcus Aurelius and you’re going to want to read more about both after this book. It’s a little more rigorous than some of the purely pop philosophy books out there, but I would definitely recommend it.
The next book you’ve chosen is by somebody who didn’t separate her life from her philosophy in the sense that she used her body to express her philosophy as well as her pen. This is Simone Weil.
You’ve put that in an awfully interesting way. Do you want to expound? I think I know what you mean, but it’s not how I thought of her.
If we believe the explanation of her death, she died in England, actually, of starvation.
I went to her cemetery, the Bybrook Cemetery in Ashford, Kent. There’s a little tombstone for her and it’s nothing special. It’s the way she would have wanted it. One prevailing theory about how Simone Weil died is that she starved herself to death, that she suffered from anorexia throughout her life, and that that is what killed her. Others say it was the tuberculosis that she contracted that killed her. I’m not too hung up on that.
The usual story is that she died because she refused to eat more than her compatriots were eating in occupied France.
Throughout her life she had what I would call extreme empathy for sufferers. When she was young and World War I had broken out, she refused to eat sugar because the French troops at the front didn’t have sugar. She slept on unheated, hard floors. She had what some might call a masochistic streak or others would look at as just a very, very empathetic tendency. She probably also had some psychological issues that explain so much of anorexia.
“I think we’re all born philosophers, but we have it beaten out of us as we grow older”
She grew up in a hyper intellectual, very secularized Jewish family in France. She had an older brother whose shadow she spent most of her childhood in, André Weil, who went on to be one of the great mathematicians of 20th century Europe. As someone who also grew up in a hyper intellectual, very secular Jewish family I can relate to her but, you know, she was reading Blaise Pascal by the time she was 10 and speaking Assyro-Babylonian—which she called a ridiculously easy language—and Sanskrit. She bested Simone de Beauvoir on the exams to get into the elite French universities. So she was really learned and highly intellectual, but it was not her head, but her heart that interested me.
Could you say something about the book you’ve chosen?
It’s an anthology of her writing called Waiting for God. It is the most accessible of her anthologies. It’s a slim book and it is, I think, the best of her writing, the most accessible of her writing, in particular what she writes about patience and about waiting, which are twin themes that run throughout her philosophy.
Is there an essay within the book that you would pull out, then?
Yes, it’s the essay with an unwieldy title “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” I don’t know what it is about philosophers and titles, but they have a tendency to give their books just terrible titles. The World as Will and Representation – don’t get me started on that terrible title. But in this awkwardly titled—and if you’re not a religious person you might find it off-putting—essay; I’m looking at my copy now and it’s just highlighted and underscored everywhere, because it’s really not about school studies and it’s not about God, it’s about paying attention, but in a very different way than the way most of us conceive of it.
Could you say a little bit more about that?
Yes. When we think of paying attention, we think it is synonymous with concentration. So if I were to say, ‘Nigel, I want you to pay attention to what I’m saying’ you’ll probably just instinctively furrow your brow, you might tense up your jaw, you would contract, in a way, and think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to pay attention, I wasn’t paying attention.’ She thought this sort of concentration is ridiculous, that when you tense your body like that, when you tense your mind like that, when you narrow your focus to that pinpoint prick of whatever it is, you are not paying attention the way she envisions, which is a more expansive way of being, where you’re relaxed and you’re receptive. It’s a kind of active passivity, which sounds like a contradiction, but philosophers are known for making contradictory statements like that. You are alert and you are receptive to what might enter into your mind, but you have no expectations of what that might be and you’ve enlarged yourself. You’ve not shrunk yourself. She says it better than I can: “Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive, in its naked truth, the object that is to penetrate it.” Too often, she says, “thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth. The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active, we have wanted to carry out a search.”
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This blew me away because it’s the opposite to the way I’ve lived my life. I’ve wanted to be active. I’ve been seeking all my life. What she’s suggesting is a kind of radical, active passivity where you are not seeking but waiting. It’s called “Waiting for God,” but you could call it ‘Waiting for the Truth. You could just call it ‘Waiting’. I would have preferred the title simply ‘Waiting’, which is really what it’s about. Her spiritual religious life gets very complicated, we don’t have time to get into it, but she had Catholic leanings. She never became a Catholic, she was not baptized. It’s complicated, but I think of her as a spiritual more than a religious figure, and a philosopher by any account.
I know where to come for titles now.
I am pretty good at titles.
It strikes me that her argument is consistent with a lot of views about predictive processing. Perceptual consciousness is about detecting change in relation to what we expected to find anyway and it’s very easy to slip into a pattern of assuming that things are just as you expect them to be.
You’re speaking of confirmation bias, as psychologists call it?
That’s an aspect of it, possibly, but I’m talking about a theory of neural processing that the way that we work as perceptual animals is that we more or less assume a certain kind of constancy. We project onto the world our expectations and when we detect a change, we modify those expectations and keep predictive processes going in that way. That is very effective, but it also allows us to be duped completely by reality, because we don’t always detect what’s really there.
Absolutely, and this is why we get stuck. I write about it a bit in the Thoreau chapter, about seeing and the different theories of seeing and how we see. We tend to think of vision as like a photograph, your eyes are taking a photograph of me. In fact, you’re not. It’s more like a conversation that you’re having with your brain. Like I see a person and I think it’s Eric and this gets us through probably 90 per cent of the day and totally fucks us over for the other 10 per cent. Seriously. I agree.
This is the gorilla in the room phenomenon: things that you’re not expecting to see—and when you’re focusing on something else—don’t actually appear in your consciousness if you’re not open enough for them to be visible.
I would condense that to the following: we only see what we expect to see. Otherwise, we literally do not see it. We only see what we’ve seen before in a large way, which is why, I think, all innovation has to be incremental—because if you take too big of a leap and you were to invent a theory or a device that had no connection to what people had seen or experienced before, they’d be like, ‘I don’t know what do with it.’ I’ve given that a lot of thought.
Okay, let’s move on to your next choice. This is a book I don’t know: The Heart of Philosophy by Jacob Needleman.
It’s good. It’s more accessible than Hadot, even though he’s also a professor of philosophy with a strong spiritual bent. He has a chapter called “Nondepartmental Offering” in which he attempts to bring philosophy to the masses and hold philosophy jam sessions in San Francisco.
Could you give us a sense of what the book is about?
This is a nonlinear, visceral book about the philosophical impulse, I would say. It is not about any one philosophy. It is not comprehensive. It is about the impulse that causes us to philosophize and its usefulness to us and, as the title suggests, the heart of philosophy is emotive. I was struck by the title because I didn’t know philosophy had a heart, I thought it was all head. Needleman convinced me otherwise. It’s also again, like my book, somewhat autobiographical. He writes about a friend of his, Elias Barkhordian, and how they would sit in their neighborhood in Philadelphia—this is shortly after World War II—on a stone wall and ask the sort of questions that you probably asked as a kid and that anyone with a philosophical bent asked as a child: why is there something rather than nothing? What happens to you when you go to sleep? These sorts of basic, childlike questions that are filled with wonder. Then, sadly, his friend died at age 14 of leukaemia and that sent Jacob Needleman off on this quest to study philosophy. Being Jewish, his parents wanted him to become a doctor. He did become a doctor, but as his mother said, not the kind that does anyone any good, a PhD. He’s got some self-deprecating humour.
“I would say that the heyday for therapeutic philosophy was the Hellenistic age, so roughly 300, 200 BC”
There was one sentence in this book that drew me to his house in Oakland, California: I took a train across the country to see him. That sentence is, essentially, that we, as a society, tend to solve problems without experiencing questions or reach for pleasure without experiencing questions. It struck me as incredibly true, incredibly obvious, incredibly profound, incredibly Socratic and I went out to California and met with him and over tea we talked about it, this idea that we need to experience questions and not merely answer them.
Are you saying that unless we’ve genuinely puzzled over the question, the answers will be pretty irrelevant to us?
I think that we are not willing to sit with our own ignorance and doubt for very long. It makes us uncomfortable. We want to solve the problem. Even if it’s an imperfect solution, there’s something about us as human beings that needs to complete the task. There’s something called the Zeigarnik effect, from an early 20th century Soviet psychologist. She noted in restaurants that waiters, from the moment they took the order until they placed it with the kitchen, couldn’t allow anything else to enter their mind. This notion of unfinished business really bugs us. Maybe we’re wired that way, I don’t know, but what Needleman is suggesting, which is what Socrates was suggesting, is that we need to be able to sit with our ignorance for a while and experience the question. It’s a phrase that keeps coming back to me in my life. Am I solving a problem or experiencing a question? If I’m only solving a problem, I am less of a person than if I’m experiencing a question. Ultimately you want to get to answers, I’m not of the belief that philosophy is only about asking questions and not coming up with answers. That’s the rap, that’s why no one wants their child to major in philosophy at university. But you do want to reframe questions, that’s part of the experiencing part.
Can I ask you: what does ‘to not solve a problem but experience a question’ mean to you?
My initial thought was that answers are going to be useless if you don’t genuinely feel the question is important, if it’s not a living question for you, in William James’s sense. The second one might be what you’re talking about, of being able to cope with uncertainty, which is our basic human position, because we don’t actually know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So, we’re all uncertain about what’s going to happen tomorrow, but some of us act as if we really know for sure, because it makes life a lot easier. But maybe a more philosophical approach would be to recognize that it is, to some degree, uncertain what’s going to happen in the next 10 minutes and what’s going to happen in the next five years is very much uncertain. What’s more, we can know a lot about cause and effect and still be uncertain, because tiny differences in our starting position could result in radically different outcomes.
We spend most of our life trying to reduce perceived risk and perceived uncertainty through science or in various other ways, as opposed to increasing our tolerance for that uncertainty. And I think the Stoics and Needleman and probably every one of the philosophers I write about would say that we need to increase our tolerance for uncertainty. There’s nothing given that uncertainty must make us alcoholics/drug addicts/neurotics.
Science, as we see, reduces uncertainty in some areas, but increases it in others. Certainly, the pandemic is complicated by technology as much as it’s solved by it. Airplanes spread the virus, social media spreads disinformation about the virus. That has certainly made our life more complex, not less.
I would see the drive to embrace religion as a kind of compensation for uncertainty as well, because there may be uncertainty in this sublunary world, but ultimately it’s all certain and clear-cut, if you buy that sort of account.
Many of my atheist and agnostic friends see religion as a cop-out. That’s a whole other subject. I don’t see it as one, but yes. Some religions though, like Buddhism, provide certainty and uncertainty. In other words, they want you to realize all is flux, everything is changing, everything is impermanent. The Buddhists say—and I write about this a bit in The Socrates Express—that that’s a cause for celebration. The Japanese philosophers write a lot about impermanence. The Japanese celebrate the sakura or the cherry blossom. It only blooms for three days and then it’s gone and they find great beauty in that. They have taken something that we see as bad—it’s fleeting, it’s impermanent, just a form of uncertainty—and said, ‘No, that’s beautiful.’ Nietzsche was a bit like that as well.
Let’s move on to your final book, Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee.
Did you know him?
I had a long conversation with him on a train once. I was just sitting on a train up from Oxford to London and he got on and happened to sit next to me and we had a very interesting chat for that hour or so. We talked about his several TV series, which consisted of interviews with philosophers, and about how he went about preparing for those interviews, which were very, very thoroughly thought through. I was very interested because, as somebody who is an interviewer for a podcast based on conversations, Philosophy Bites, I was intrigued by his style of doing that. It turns out that because of the investment of TV and so on, they were able to fly out to America and have in-depth conversations with interviewees before they started the cameras rolling. In contrast, I tend not to prepare excessively for interviews, but try to react to what people are saying or encourage them to say it more clearly, or address possible counterarguments that might be in the minds of listeners.
My favourite episode of Philosophy Bites was a compilation, when you asked people, ‘What is philosophy?’ I think at the end of each interview you were asking people that, and you put it all together. And I was like, ‘oh my God, they can’t agree!’
There were literally 57 varieties of answer on that episode.
Yes, and I thought, ‘No wonder philosophy is not taken seriously.’ You know, I think if you asked physicists or psychologists they wouldn’t be so all over the place.
There were some overlapping answers. You could say ‘Philosophy’ is a family resemblance term: there were patterns of overlapping resemblance between answers. Plenty of the interviewees talked about argument and reflection and how we live, reflecting on concepts. Those sorts of things kept coming up. Somebody just laughed.
I thought it was brilliant.
I actually asked Bryan Magee to be on Philosophy Bites to talk about Schopenhauer, but he said he would have to re-read Schopenhauer and think carefully about how he answered the questions and he didn’t really have time, because he was quite elderly at that point. Sadly, he didn’t do it, because it would’ve been great.
I don’t think he needed to reread Schopenhauer.
Let’s get back to your book choice. Who was Bryan Magee and why did you choose this book?
Bryan Magee was a 20th century philosopher, scholar and Member of Parliament, an unusual combination. I first ran across him in his book, Confessions of a Philosopher, which I thought was a wonderful combination of the personal and the philosophical, the academic and the accessible. I realize it’s not any one thing he wrote, but the way he wrote it and who he was. My editor says—and I like this—that the reader will follow a good writer anywhere and that’s the way it is with Bryan Magee: I would follow him anywhere. I always found him thoughtful and even writing as an elderly man, he retained the curiosity of a child. It’s been said that a philosopher is a seven-year old with a bigger brain, and I think there’s something to that. I think Magee was a seven-year old with a very large brain. He never lost that sense of wonder, even as he rose the ranks of academia at Oxford, if I have that right?
He was always on the margins of academia, actually. He would have fellowships, but I don’t think he was ever a faculty member.
Maybe that’s why, then. He’s another feral philosopher.
He was extremely learned but extremely accessible. Ultimate Questions was, I believe, his last book before he passed away and it’s very slim, 127 pages. Again, it’s not at all methodical. I realize that my favourite philosophy books are the ones that are not methodical. It’s like Schopenhauer’s collection of essays. So here I found one of my favourite contemporary philosophers joining hands with one of my favourite 19th century philosophers, Schopenhauer. I liked that Magee loved this grumpy Schopenhauer and saw the bright side of Schopenhauer—the man who is often referred to as the philosopher of pessimism, including by Magee.
Magee also had this love of music that I’ve been trying to come around to, because I tend to have a tin ear and not be a musical person, even though, oddly, I love sounds because I worked in radio. I love ambient sounds and acoustic noises, but not music. There’s one line from Bryan’s Ultimate Questions where he’s describing listening to music, “when I listened to music I was the music.” That is philosophical. That’s spiritual, that’s religious. That’s personal. An academic philosopher would never write a line like that, even if they experienced it. I felt that especially toward the end of his life, Magee was like, ‘Screw it, I can write whatever I want.’ Ultimate Questions is a good title too.
And he was grappling with his imminent death as well. He was very aware of his mortality when he was writing the book.
Yes, and he acknowledged that he was scared, which I thought was courageous. He acknowledged that despite all his learnedness, he didn’t know what happens when you die. It’s his final attempt to grapple with these big questions. And that’s another thing I love about Magee and about philosophy in general, that when it’s done well it has no time for the trivial and the silly. It’s all about big questions and it can be conveyed in a fun way, but that doesn’t make the questions any smaller.
I think what shines through with Bryan Magee is that he’s completely sincere. You quoted that line about music, and I used to see him at concerts in Oxford. He seemed to go to everything on his own, it wasn’t a social event. He was going to listen to the music. There’s the sense that he was doing that with philosophy as well. Some people do it for a career. Some people do it for show. For him, it was a completely genuine activity in itself. He was perplexed by certain things that he wanted to understand better, and he talked to people, read and wrote and talked about his ideas. He was a proper philosopher, even though in the eyes of academia he was sometimes deemed more of a journalist—for me that would be a commendatory statement but for them it isn’t—there’s a sense in which he wasn’t the real thing for some of them, but (in the cruellest version) somebody who hung around with people who did the real thing. For me, he was the real thing because he cared and was genuinely personally grappling with the issues, and communicated honestly and clearly about what he thought.
He was passionate. Getting back to Socrates, all philosophy begins with wonder—he allegedly said—and that, to me, is important, that sense of wonder. I make a distinction in my book between wonder and curiosity, because we often conflate them, and I think they’re slightly different. Curiosity has a kind of restlessness to it and impatience. Your curiosity is always kind of moving along, ‘I’m curious about that, but wait, what’s that over there, that shiny object I’m curious about that.’ Wonder is more like curiosity with its feet up, with a drink in its hand, saying, ‘I’m going to wonder about this.’ It has a sense of expansiveness to it and it also has this childlike quality, to wonder like a child. I think all of the philosophers I write about and all these books I recommend as life-changing books of philosophy contain the childlike sense of wonder that real philosophers, as I see them, never lose. Which is not to say they should write like five-year olds. You use more complex sentences, but you don’t lose that sense of wonder that we all have as children. I think we’re all born philosophers, but we have it beaten out of us as we grow older. But a few of us—like you and like Brian Magee—don’t lose it. It isn’t fully beaten out of them.
Thanks. One thing to mention, picking up on something that we were talking about earlier as well: Bryan Magee was explicit in his desire that philosophy be communicated clearly. He annoyed some contemporary philosophers by the way he criticized them for being unnecessarily obscure and he was very much true to Schopenhauer in that. Schopenhauer was a brilliant writer, in translation in English his writing is a model of lucidity. Bryan Magee took him as a model. He argued that contemporary philosophy could be expressed more clearly than it has been by many academic philosophers. There is no need for it to be so obscure, so convoluted in its sentences and so ready to use technical terms. Not that he expected them all to agree.
Like all jargon, it’s meant to exclude others from your club. But why one would exclude people from the club of philosophy is beyond me. Einstein said that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t really know it well enough and I think that’s true. If you really understand something, you can explain it simply. It’s when you’re a little unsure in your understanding that you have to prop it up with a lot of fancy language.
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