Busts of the Greek philosophers Socrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippus, and Epicurus
This is an edited version of a conversation recorded in March 2019. You can listen to the full podcast here.
Hamza Yusuf: We’re really fortunate today to have with us, I think, one of the treasures of our civilization, of what’s left of it anyway—Dr. Eva Brann, who was originally an archaeologist, but for over sixty years has been teaching at one of our great institutions for the preservation of Western tradition, culture, and civilization, at St. John’s College in Annapolis. Welcome, Dr. Brann.
Eva Brann: Oh, it’s good to be with you, Hamza.
HY: Thank you. Just to open up, philo-sophia, the love of wisdom: Why does it matter?
EB: Well, I begin right away with making a distinction. It seems to me that there is a profession called philosophy. It’s carried on in academic settings by people who make their living at it, and it’s a perfectly useful thing, like, well, other competencies. But that’s not what you’re asking about. Am I right in thinking that?
HY: Well, I think Kierkegaard said it best when he said that the emperors had such a great fear of philosophers that in order to defang them, they gave them jobs and called them professors.
EB: Yeah, that’s about what I’m thinking. But then there’s the other activity, which is not a profession but a way of life. It seems to me that it’s really not different from being all there. That is, people may not call it philosophy, but everyone does it, in so far as they want to know what they’re doing, what the point of it all is, what the meaning of their life is. All these questions that people ask themselves are philosophical questions, and the importance of it is that if you don’t do it, you’re somehow not quite alive. That seems to me to be true of the sort of philosophy we’re both talking about, the kind that isn’t carried on necessarily as a profession.
Actually, some professional philosophers are also real philosophers. I don’t want to short-change them. But it’s not a money-making, career-advancing activity, but a way of being. And it isn’t necessarily carried on in school, it’s carried on by anyone who wants to be aware of him- or herself, and of the world around them.
HY: One of the things I tell my students is that if you don’t philosophize, somebody is going to do it for you.
EB: That is very true, and then it’s called ideology. Ideology—or sophistry, for that matter—differs from philosophy in being something that’s done to you rather than something you do for yourself, among other things. There are other differences. Philo is an adjective, and philia is a noun. One means being friendly, being in a relation of friendship; the other one means the friendship itself. Sophia is, I think, rightly translated as “wisdom,” and it is different from being smart. In fact, I have grave doubts about smart people ever being wise, but that’s a personal prejudice of mine.
Philosophia is a friendly and open and affectionate attitude toward wisdom, understood not as a way of being highly intellectual or highly rational or highly competent, but as a way of musing, thinking, wondering. So that instead of letting things go by unquestioned and not unpacked, one wonders and then one thinks. It is an activity, to my mind, that has two aspects. One is that you have to do it by yourself when you’re by yourself; the other is you have to do it when you’re talking to people. In other words, you need friends to be friendly to wisdom, and you also need to be alone on occasions. That exchange between being together and being alone seems to make an important part of philosophia, and if you can’t stand to be alone by yourself, you’re very apt not to be in a philosophical frame of mind.
HY: Yes. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle goes through the virtues, the intellectual virtues—the highest one being sophia, and his understanding of that. How do you see that, and do you think it’s an accurate understanding?