Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Students Prefer Plato

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Why Students Prefer Plato

Article excerpt

Alain de Botton argues that, in our self-help age, the ancient philosophers are inevitably more popular than Derrida, Baudrillard and the deconstructionists

From a distance, few areas of knowledge seem more enticing or more profound than philosophy. In a secular age, philosophy can look like the ultimate authority on life's great questions, the natural place to seek answers to the riddles of human unhappiness. Philosophers, like rocket scientists, look as if they have access to some very complex and important truths. But despite an enticing exterior, modern philosophy often disappoints those who study it more closely. Issues that seem so urgent to many contemporary theorists and philosophers (What is the signifier? What is the subject?) don't often echo our own priorities (Why am I so shy? How can I be happy?).

This may explain why, in universities across Britain, more students are now enrolling in the study of ancient philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, the Hellenistic schools) than in the study of theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and Deleuze. Ancient philosophy remains far more faithful to most people's idea of what philosophy should be about. The ancient philosophers believed quite simply that philosophy should in some way help to change one's life for the better - a beautiful ambition almost entirely absent from modern philosophy (and relegated instead to the problem pages of magazines and afternoon chat shows). "Any philosopher's argument which does not treat human suffering is worthless. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind." These are the words of Epicurus, born on the island of Samos, a few miles off the Ionian coast, in 341BC. They also happen to reflect the aspirations of most students preparing to study philosophy at university, aspirations sadly shared by almost none of their lecturers. In ancient philosophy, we find a repository of the therapeutic ideals which most of us still associate with the subject, but which have largely disappeared from the modern curriculum. To listen again to Epicurus's exhortations: "Let no one put off studying philosophy when he is young, nor when old grow weary of its study. For no one is too young or too far past his prime to achieve the health of his soul. The man who alleges that he is not yet ready for philosophy or that the time for it has passed him by, is like the man who says that he is either too young or too old for happiness."

Philosophy is best defined not so much by its subject matter, as by its method of inquiry: logical, syllogistic and axiomatic. Many scientific subjects which became independent disciplines began life as branches of philosophy (up until the 19th century, physics courses in universities were described as natural philosophy). Over the long history of philosophy, there have been five areas in which the majority of practitioners have done their thinking: epistemology, ethics, political theory, aesthetics and the philosophy of religion.

Though the first of these branches regularly puts most people off philosophy, it occupies the dominant position in the modern curriculum. Ethics interests the majority of people, and was of the greatest concern in ancient times. …

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