In reading the Phaedo one finds in Plato a mystical divorce from the world both in regards to Realism and to how we are to live. He tells us the world we see is merely appearance (he is a skeptic when it suits him, and though he doubts this reality, he does not doubt other minds as Descartes did; ultimately Plato’s conception is based on the logical mistake of believing that for something to exist it must be eternal and without qualification) and that what really exists is what philosophers think about. He also says that the world is not something to be attached to, for in pursuing the pleasures of this life, our soul becomes weighed down by the body and is unable to escape it after death.
This mystical explanation does not properly explain to us why we should value the life of the philosopher. If we bought into the premise that an afterlife exists, and can be attained only through philosopher, then it would seem that philosophy had its value but not necessarily in order to live wisely – which is the Pragmatist argument for philosophy that seems for more credible. We who are skeptical and sane however of course doubt Plato’s claims which he provides shaky at-best reasoning for. I will not argue against his claims here, for that was not the intention of this paper; instead, I will examine the claims for need of solitude in philosophy.
Schopenhauer finds his strongest attachment to Plato in his asceticism and mysticism. Though Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of Will, though shaky at-best as well, is far-better argued for it is based on our experience and is uniform, so while having the same “two-fold” nature of Plato’s Forms (the world both is and is not and the Will is the “true” thing that our world is simply a manifestation of, just like we use our world for Plato to see past it and see the Forms that our world is merely a shadow-image of) it does not have the logical confoundedness of what forms exist and which do not, and how I am sure other minds exist while I doubt the realness of things generally.
Schopenhauer in his Wisdom of Life finds that a person’s happiness is largely determined by his or her own nature; the possession of property and fame bring only minor forms of happiness and if anything can bring more misery through dependency. Those who are of the right disposition should pursue philosophy in solitude, but the majority of the human race are driven too much by the irrational Will, and are for him too stupid and egotistical to pursue the finer things in life. This is to be seen as a distinction from Plato and Epicurus, who despite their own radical disagreements (Plato’s spiritualism and Epicurus’ pragmatism and materialism) agree largely of a uniformity in approach. That is to say, for Epicurus, to be happy one must live away from the city, not be involved in politics, and have friends with you often. Your own personal disposition or temperament is given little if any weight. For Plato, all people regardless of disposition should pursue philosophy in hopes of achieving an afterlife and depart from this world; similar to the Buddhist conception of through proper state of being one can break free from this constant and senseless repetition of Being and achieve the bliss of Nirvana. The distinction here however is Plato reasons there is an afterlife, but it is only in this afterlife (in death) does absolute knowledge become possible.
It becomes problematic then how we are to know about this afterlife and how we know it to be so good, so much so that it is worth shunning the pleasures of this world which seem to be in place then by a malevolent and cunning God who places the tree before us only so we are tempted to sin and suffer. Not only this, but supposedly in this afterlife we have knowledge we cannot know here – but how are we to know this fact? He reasons that because knowledge is known in the soul, and through reason, when the soul is separate from the body is when we can know the most.
Once again, we find a clear lack of reference to experience (in fact a shunning of it) that even Descartes does not attempt to confound us with. For Descartes doubts everything (except that he is doubting) and then says God must exist, and because God is good he wouldn’t deceive us. Therefore what we see is real. This reasoning is poor of course but at-least it has some valid points of reasoning if their premises were true. Plato says that what we see is a falsehood (kind-of) and fails to give any convincing argumentation of why all things are known in the afterlife and why it must be good there. In Buddhism there is no knowledge in Nirvana because Nirvana is in-effect nonexistence. In this way Buddhism shares more with Schopenhauer through an enlightened state of Pessimism, realizing it is better not to be and if followed from there properly therefore better never to have been.
For Plato, the philosopher is to rule the city (or the ruler is to be philosophical), so while he is to legislate the world of man, he is not to participate in it as a man. That is to say, to pursue the sensual delights that weigh one’s soul. Epicurus too promotes asceticism, but it is a far-more sober and less religious or mystical asceticism, having to do with not being in pain in this life (the concern for Schopenhauer) rather than not being a ghoul after death or a wolf in the next life.
The speciesism of Plato must be briefly acknowledged here. He assumes that men are noble because they are capable of participating in the divine, and to live as s wolf or bird is awful. Schopenhauer shows that actually our plight is the least enviable of all, for we suffer more so than any other creature on Earth. Plato values reasoning as “divine” but fails to demonstrate why reasoning apart from how it affects our lives has any value, or why it somehow justifies the suffering of the human condition. Humans require reason to live well, but wolves and sheep do no – therefore it does not follow that deer and the like are lacking, or are somehow lower and inferior animals for lacking reason.
Schopenhauer’s main triumph here is his recognition of human individualization. That is, in writing to alleviate our plight, he writes with an understanding that different people might require different things, and might be hindered by different things more than the other. For example, in his Wisdom of Life, he talks about how there are in-effect only two different people; those who are more effected by boredom and those who are more capable of mental pain. The easily bored are the common, the boring stupid people who pursue sports and senseless activities to distract themselves from the senselessness of this existence – ironically it is in their struggles to alleviate the pain of boredom that they produce varying degrees of pain through varying degrees of stupid choices (Schopenhauer references gambling and drinking, ultimately being an extrovert and an idiot costs more than an introvert and an intellectual). Ultimately even though the common can escape the pains of boredom they often run into more pain in the external world which is why the Intellectual or Philosopher lives the best life through serenity and wisdom.
Those who are to be more wary of pain are neurotic intellectuals akin to Woody Allen. They feel things deeper than others and therefore (because pain is more unpleasant than pleasure is pleasant) should reject this world and live, if possible, like the Buddhist sages in contemplation and solitude. They do not necessarily are plagued with the existential crises that Woody Allen characters are famous for, in fact if anything, if they are truly wise in this area they will realize that existence has no intrinsic value or significance, so they will not be bothered by the coming-to-an-end of all things that Woody Allen is known for expressing contempt for.
It is the personal attribute of the intellectual to have a dispassionate view of reality and focus on his own philosophy or art. However, that is only personally. Ethically he of course realizes that other people (likely) suffer, and it is best if he acts in a way in which through his actions there is the least possible amount of suffering in existence. So, logically, if he could end the world he would. But since he cannot all he can do (but always will fall short of) is the possible actions of reducing suffering in this existence. The most immediate and everyday way for him and others simply through the practice of kindness and consideration of others.
Now, though I think what Schopenhauer describes is statistically true, obviously to say it is so as an absolute fact would be folly. That is to say, to say that all intelligent people are always more sensitive than dull and uninteresting people is not so. To say that all stupid people are extroverted and all intellectuals are introverted is not quite so. But when he says that we attempt to make an individual-world for us that best suits are psychological needs and disposition(s) I think he hits upon something in which one would have a harder time arguing with.
Schopenhauer’s emphasis on solitude has to do more with Epicurus’ concerns than with Plato’s. Schopenhauer shares Plato’s metaphysical mysticism but Epicurus’ pragmatism in relation to a focus on suffering and its significance over all other things. Solitude has value through freeing us from the desires and concerns of petty people, their problems and our own pettiness – those drastically reducing our own problems. For what problems are there in this life for a man who is wise and desires nothing? Only if he is suffering is he confronted with a problem, and if he wise he will know if it is problem with himself or the external world. If it is one with the external world he will try to solve or remedy it if possible, if it is not than he can control only how he feels towards it. If it is an internal problem (like lusting after a beautiful woman) than it is exactly like the external problem he cannot solve, he will attempt to accept what is and realize the emptiness and insignificance of all things (save pain). That it wouldn’t matter if he got what he wanted or not, if he received love and adoration or not, all that matters (personally, not ethically) is having a tranquil state of mind – and this only Man can provide himself through his own wisdom and temperance.