(Borrowed from “The little book of philosophy” by Andre Comte-sponville – Chapter 12)
‘Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own’ Montaigne
THE ETYMOLOGY IS straightforward: philosophia, in Greek, is the love of – or the search for – wisdom. But what is wisdom? Is it knowledge? Certainly this is the usual meaning of the word – sophia in Greek, sapientia in Latin – as confirmed by most philosophers since Heraclitus. For Plato as for Spinoza, for the Stoics as for Descartes and Kant, for Epicurus as for Montaigne or Alain, wisdom has much to do with thought, with intelligence and with learning; it is, therefore, a kind of knowledge. But a very specific kind, which no science can confirm, no proof substantiate, which no laboratory can test or attest and which cannot be conferred by any diploma. Wisdom is practical rather than theoretical, it deals not in proofs but in tests, not in experiment but in action, not in science but in life.
The Greeks sometimes distinguished between theoretical or contemplative wisdom (sophia) and practical wisdom (phronesis). But one cannot exist without the other and true wisdom would be a synthesis of the two. In French we barely distinguish between them. ‘Judge well in order to act well,’ as Descartes rightly put it. Clearly some people are more capable of contemplation and others of action. But no single gift can confer wisdom: some may have to learn to judge, others to act. Neither intelligence, nor culture, nor skill is sufficient in itself. ‘Wisdom cannot be a science nor a skill,’ Aristotle emphasized: it is less about what is true or efficient and more about what is good for oneself and for others. It is a kind of knowledge – the knowledge of how to live.
This is what distinguishes wisdom from philosophy, which is the knowledge of how to think. But philosophy has meaning only if it brings us closer to wisdom: the only true philosophy is that which helps us to think better in order to live better. ‘Philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live,’ writes Montaigne. Does this mean that we don’t know how to live? Of course: it is because we are not wise that we need philosophy. Wisdom is the goal, philosophy the path.
I’m reminded of a line from Aragon: ‘Time to learn how to live, it is already too late …’ Montaigne says something similar (‘ They teach us to live when our life is over’), though he is more optimistic, seeing this less as a fatal flaw in the human condition than a fault of education which can and should be corrected. Why wait to philosophize when life does not wait? ‘A hundred students have got the pox before they have come to read Aristotle’s lecture on temperance …’ What does the pox have to do with philosophy? Nothing, as far as treatment or prevention goes. But getting the pox concerns sexuality, prudence and pleasure, love and death … How could medicine or prophylaxis be sufficient in themselves? How could they take the place of wisdom? ‘You are not dying because you are ill,’ Montaigne writes elsewhere in the Essays; ‘you are dying because you are alive.’ We must therefore learn to die, learn to live, that is what philosophy means. ‘It is a great mistake,’ Montaigne continues, ‘to portray Philosophy with a haughty, frowning, terrifying face, or as inaccessible to the young. Whoever clapped that wan and frightening mask on her face! There is nothing more lovely, more happy and gay – I almost said more amorously playful.’ Too bad for those who confuse philosophy with erudition, discipline with boredom, wisdom with dusty books. The very fact that life is as difficult, as fragile, as dangerous and as precious as it undoubtedly is is all the more reason to begin philosophy as early as possible (‘ children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages’), in other words, to learn how to live, while we still can, before it is too late.
This is the purpose of philosophy and the reason why it is appropriate to all ages, at least as soon as one has begun to master thought and language. Why should children who study maths, physics, history, music, not study philosophy? All the more so those who are studying to become doctors or engineers? And when do adults, overwhelmed with work and worries, find the time to begin or to continue to study it? Of course we have to earn a living; but that does not exempt us from living. How can we live intelligently without taking the time to think about life, by ourselves or with others, without questioning, without reasoning, without discussing life in the most radical and rigorous way possible, without concerning ourselves with what others who are more knowledgeable or more talented than the average thought about it? When discussing art, I quoted Malraux: ‘It is in museums that we learn to paint.’ I would contend that it is in books of philosophy that we learn how to philosophize. But the goal is not philosophy itself, still less the books.
The goal is a happier, freer, simpler – wiser – life. Which of us could claim that his life could not be better? In ‘On the education of children’ (Essays, I, 26) Montaigne cites the same line from Horace that Kant will later make the maxim of the Enlightenment: ‘Sapere aude, incipe: dare to know – dare to be wise – begin!’ Why wait any longer? Why put off happiness? It is never too early nor too late to philosophize, to paraphrase Epicurus, since it is never too early nor too late to be happy. So be it. But by the same logic, the earlier the better.
But what kind of wisdom? On this as on everything, philosophers disagree. The wisdom of pleasure proposed by Epicurus: the Stoics’ wisdom of the will; the Sceptics’ wisdom of silence; Spinoza’s wisdom of knowledge and love; Kant’s of duty and hope? We must each form our own opinion on the subject, which may borrow from several different schools of thought. This is why each person must philosophize for himself: because no one can think or live in your stead. But what all – or almost all – philosophers agree on is the sense of happiness, of serenity, which characterizes wisdom, it is a joyful yet lucid inner peace which accompanies the rigorous use of reason. It is the antithesis of anxiety, of madness, of unhappiness. This is why wisdom is necessary. This is why we must philosophize. Because we do not know how to live. Because we must learn. Because we are constantly threatened by anxiety, madness and unhappiness.
‘The evil most contrary to wisdom,’ writes Alain, ‘is foolishness.’ This also tells us what we should strive towards: towards the most intelligent life possible. But intelligence in itself is not enough; books are not enough. What is the point of thinking so much if one lives so little? How much knowledge is there in the sciences, in economics, in philosophy? And yet how much foolishness in the lives of scientists, businessmen and philosophers? Intelligence nurtures wisdom insofar as it transforms, or illuminates, or guides our lives. It is not enough to invent systems, to use concepts, or rather, concepts are merely a means to an end. The only goal is to think and to live a little better, or a little less badly.
Marcus Aurelius puts it well: ‘If the gods took counsel together about myself, and what should befall me, then their counsel was good … Yet even if it is true that they care nothing for our mortal concerns, I am still able to take care of myself and to look to my own interests …’ Wisdom is not saintliness. Philosophy is neither a religion nor a moral system. It is my life I am trying to save, not the lives of others;
my own interests I am fighting for, not those of God or of humanity. That, at least, is my starting point. It is possible that I shall encounter God along the way; probable that I shall encounter humanity. But even then I shall not renounce the life given to me, my freedom, my clarity of mind, nor my happiness.
How should we live? That is the question which philosophy has sought to tackle since its inception. The answer is wisdom, but wisdom made flesh, brought to life, put into action: it is up to each of us to create our own. This is where ethics – the art of living – distinguishes itself from morality, which concerns only our duties. That they can and should work in harmony is obvious. To ask how we should live is also to ask what role our duties should play. Nonetheless, the aims are very different. Morality answers the question: ‘What should I do?’; ethics, the question: ‘How should I live?’ The apotheosis of morality is virtue or saintliness; that of ethics, wisdom or happiness. Thou shalt not kill, steal, lie? Certainly, but would that be enough for anyone? Who would consider it happiness enough, freedom enough, salvation enough? A friend once said to me: ‘Not catching AIDS is not enough of a goal in life.’ He was right, obviously. But neither is not killing, not stealing, not lying. No ‘thou shalt not’ can be sufficient, this is why we need wisdom: because morality is not enough, because duty is not enough, because virtue is not enough. Morality commands, but who would be happy merely to obey? Morality says ‘no’, but who would be happy only with proscriptions? Love is more precious. Knowledge is more precious. Freedom is more precious. We must say ‘yes’: yes to ourselves, yes to others, yes to the world, yes to everything: that is the meaning of wisdom. ‘Amor fati,’ writes Nietzsche, alluding to the Stoics: ‘that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity … love.’
This does not preclude revolt, nor does it preclude struggle. To say yes to the world is to say yes to our own revolt, which is a part of it; to our actions, which are a part of it. Consider Albert Camus or Cavaillès. To transform the real is to suppose that we accept it as it is. To bring about something that does not yet exist presupposes working with what is. No one can do otherwise. Wisdom is not a utopia. No utopia is wise. The world is not to be dreamed but to be transformed. Wisdom is, first and foremost, a certain relationship with truth and with action, an invigorating lucidity; it is knowledge which is active, in action. To see things as they are, to know what one wants. Not to delude oneself, not to pretend. ‘Not to play the tragic actor,’ says
Marcus Aurelius. To know and to accept. To understand and to transform. To resist and to overcome. For it is impossible to confront anything unless one accepts its existence. It is impossible to be healed unless we accept illness; impossible to fight injustice if we do not acknowledge it. We must accept reality as it is, for we cannot transform what we do not accept.
This is the approach of Stoicism: to accept those things for which we are not responsible; to act on those things for which we are. It is Spinoza’s approach: know, understand, act. It is also that of the sages of the Orient, Prajnânpad, for example: ‘See and accept that which is and then, if needs be, try to change it.’ The wise man acts where generally we simply hope and tremble. He confronts what is, where habitually all we can do is hope for that which is not yet or regret that which is no longer. Prajnânpad again: ‘What is done has become the past; it does not exist now. What will happen is in the future and does not exist now. So? What exists? What is here and now. Nothing more … Stay in the present: act, act, act!’ Wisdom is living your life rather than hoping to live, and creating your own salvation as far as is possible, rather than waiting for it.
Wisdom brings together the greatest possible happiness with the greatest possible lucidity. It is the good life, as the Greeks said, but a life which is humane; one which is responsible and dignified. Enjoy it, rejoice in it as much as possible. But not anyhow and not at any price. ‘Everything which brings joy is good,’ writes Spinoza; ‘but not all joys are of equal worth.’ ‘Every pleasure is good,’ writes Epicurus. That does not mean that all are worth seeking out, nor even that all are acceptable. We must choose, therefore, weigh the advantages and disadvantages, as Epicurus also said; in, other words we must judge. This is the purpose of wisdom. By the same token it is also the purpose of philosophy. One does not philosophize to pass the time, nor to be noticed, nor to tinker with ideas: one does so to save one’s skin and one’s soul.
Wisdom is that salvation, not in some other life, but in this one. Is it something we can attain? Probably not entirely. But that is not a reason not to try to move towards it. No one is absolutely wise; but who would resign himself to being completely mad?
If you wish to advance, said the Stoics, you must know where you are headed. Wisdom is the goal: life is the goal, but a life that is happier and more lucid; happiness is the goal, but one which is lived in the truth.
Be careful, however, not to make wisdom into another ideal, another hope, another utopia; to do so would be to cut yourself off from the real. Wisdom is not another life for which we should wait, towards which we should strive. It is this life lived in the truth which we must know and love. Because it is loveable? Not necessarily, nor always. But so that it might become so.
‘The most express sign of wisdom,’ says Montaigne, ‘is unruffled joy; like all in the realms above the moon, her state is ever serene.’ I could also quote Socrates, Epicurus (‘ one must laugh as one philosophizes’), Descartes, Spinoza, Diderot or Alain … All of them have argued that wisdom is on the side of pleasure, of joy, of action, of love. And that chance is not enough.
It is not because the wise man is happier than we that he loves life more. It is because he loves life more that he is happier.
As for us, who are not wise, who are mere apprentices of wisdom – philosophers, in other words – we must learn how to live, learn how to think, learn how to love. The task will never be completed, which is why we will always need to philosophize.
It is not without its struggles, but neither is it without its joys. ‘In all other occupations,’ writes Epicurus, ‘joy follows a task completed with difficulty; but in philosophy, pleasure walks side by side with knowledge: it is not after one has learned that one rejoices in what one knows; learning and rejoicing go hand in hand.’
Take heart: truth is not at the end of the road; it is the road itself.