I have a degree in Philosophy. I usually keep that fact to myself because announcing it is like farting in church. It captures everyone's attention. And not in a good way. It often leads to eye-rolls and mocking: "Oh...Philosophy."
It wasn't always that way. Once upon a time philosophers were held in high enough esteem to be enemies of the state. Like Socrates (that's Sock-ra-tease and not So-crats please) who, in 399 B.C., was tried and sentenced to death. His crime? Asking questions of his students that caused them to doubt their state's religion.
Philosophers have always had a bad rep for destroying their students' belief in God (or gods). It is true that youngsters tend to emerge from Philo101 with dented faith. A newly-found understanding of the difference between knowledge and belief can be hard to take. My mom once blamed my lack of faith on my philo-education at the Lutheran-Church-affiliated Thiel College. But it wasn't true. If anything, what I learned illuminated how much I depended on faith to navigate my world.
Though, Mom didn't have it all wrong. Philosophers aren't always the best folks to hang with. Consider Alfred Rosenberg. He was a German philosopher who used his ideas on the relationship between the individual and the state to help legitimize the horrors wrought by Hitler's Nazis. Like Socrates, Rosenberg was executed for exercising his beliefs. Only in his case it was for the support of numerous atrocities severe enough to constitute "crimes against humanity." Genocide is bad. That's a tautology, y'know.
Herr Rosenberg might have saved his life, and perhaps not influenced the world in so terrible a manner had he learned one of the most important lesson of philosophy. It was taught to me by one of my Thiel professors on a day when I was struggling to reconcile people's actions with the way I thought the world should behave. "Don," he exclaimed, "you should never take any of this too seriously!"
Then what good is the study of philosophy? My pal, Gus Amolsch, who helped me graduate from college, called it "organized bullshit" and that's fair enough. Anyone can bullshit. It's the organization that's difficult and that's what you need to learn. Time has shown me that being able to study ideas is one of the most useful skills I possess. If nothing else, it helps light the flaws in my own way of thinking, allows me to appreciate more than one point of view, and enables me to understand more Monty Python jokes than just about anybody else I know.
My professor was right: The love of wisdom is a good thing, as long as you don't take it too seriously.
top of page
Questions, comments, suggestions? Please email me!