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Philosophy as Consolation Philosophy as Consolation
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-04-27 08:48:41
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Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy was required reading for intellectuals of the Middle Ages. In that book, written in the 6th century AD during a one year imprisonment, Boethius gives instructions for the life of the thinker. At the moment of his greatest misfortune, betrayed and imprisoned, falling out of favor at the court of King Theodoric awaiting for his trial and execution (Socrates comes to mind here, although Socrates never wrote anything), Lady Philosophy appears to him to converse with him and console him by reminding him that as a philosopher he ought not to despair about the loss of worldly goods. She reminds him that he is a spiritual being destined for higher things; for the ultimate superiority of the things of the mind; that happiness comes from within and virtue is the one true good which is enduring and not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune and temporal power. Also, throughout the book Boethius reflects on how evil can exist in a universe governed by God.

It is worth mentioning here that the book is not strictly speaking religious. No references are made to Jesus Christ and Christianity or any other religion, for that matter. He merely engages questions such as the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men prosper and good men fall into ruin, human nature, virtue, justice; speaks about the nature of free will versus determinism, then he asks if God knows and sees all, or does man have free will. On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to “wickedness” do they “sink to the level of being an animal.” On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between prosecutor and criminal. Although the questions appear to be religious, the reliance throughout the book is not so much or religious Christian doctrine but on natural philosophy and the classical Greek tradition. Like Aquinas later on, he saw a correspondence, even an harmony, between faith and reason. The book in fact contains nothing distinctly Christian, but neither does it contain anything distinctly pagan. It can be read by anyone, no matter his beliefs. The work, in fact, is that of a Platonist who just happens to be a Christian. As such, it can be profitably read by anybody with or without faith.

Keeping the above preface in mind as regards the consolations of philosophy, let us now ask this question: how would a modern practitioner of philosophy, say a college professor of philosophy, interpret such work nowadays? Would it literally be a consolation for her/him? A consolation for something that is missing? What is missing?

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The picture above of a professor of philosophy teaching his class may be helpful in supplying an answer to the question. Notice his attire. It does not convey the image we might have had of a philosophy professor only a couple of generations ago (the 50s and the 60s), suit, shirt, and tie being a sine qua non. Things must have changed in materialistic Marxist terms, and indeed they have. But then again, universities have existed in post-Greco-Roman times since the 11th century. The word academy actually goes back to the school established by Plato in ancient Greece. What was Plato’s attire then? Did he receive a salary? How well did he pay his faculty? Were the salaries commensurate to that of middle-class worker, or was it much higher befitting the intelligentsia of the times? The questions as applied to Plato look impertinent and ludicrous and yet they need to be asked if we are to interpret correctly Boethius’ work.

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An imagined symposium among faculty at a Greek Academy

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A Philosophy class at a Renaissance University

Viewing both teachers and pupils’ attire in the above renditions one can safely state that at the very least the professor was enjoying middle class wages. But it would be a mistake to assume that this was always the case. If we take the long view, that has rarely been the case.

For example, in colonial America when colleges such as Harvard and Yale were established, most faculty members worked as adjuncts and more often than not held second jobs. Meaning that their salary was sub-standard, less than that of a worker. Teaching was considered a vocation or a noble calling of sort. Even in the 19th century, when the modern research university was born, things didn’t change much. The rewards of the profession were not materialistic but remained spiritual and intellectual. Now, one may consider such a state of affairs an ideal rarely attained, but in fact it was the reality for most of the history of academia since Plato. Being poor and being paid sub-standard wages has for the most part remained part of the spiritual-ethical tradition of academia. So one consoles oneself with the exalted title of  “Professor,” and with Boethius’ consolations of philosophy, of course.

The only exception so far might have come about in the 50s and 60, now considered the golden age of the American academy, when newly minted Ph.D.s were practically guaranteed employment and tenure in a university and professors suddenly found themselves propelled to the top of the social hierarchy. Naturally good salaries also guaranteed increase prestige to the profession as a whole. But that did not last very long. By the late sixties the relationship between government grants generously dispersed and academia soured over the protests to the Vietnam war. Public funds for higher education were slashed and so we have slowly but surely returned to the previous normal conditions of almost forced poverty accruing to being a college professor. The teaching attire of the current college professor above is now more the norm than the exception.

So what is one left with? Well, one may not be getting rich but one still expects that one engaged in imparting higher education ought to be getting wiser and nobler as one continues to instruct new generations of students of philosophy. The newly arrived entrepreneur professor in his fifties who has amassed his millions and now plays at being “professor,” is not exactly the norm nor the correct model of the classical college professor. Ordinarily, what prevails is that one is left with the consolations of philosophy and the consciousness of the nobility of one’s calling. One could do worse than that. One could be a veteran standing at a street corner with a poster hung on his neck which declares “imagine what it is to be homeless.” One could, on the other hand, be amassing capital and enriching oneself by exploitation of the workers and evasion of  taxes within a savagely capitalistic materialistic world by depositing the wealth in the Caiman Islands bank created for the purpose. Which is to say, Boethius’s book could be interpreted as an allegory for the current social status of professors: respected but not well remunerated, except for the consolations of philosophy. It’s a sort of cruel job, no doubt, but demanding more may mean jeopardizing the very nobility of the call. Marx may not fully agree here, but I think Socrates would.


    
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