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Do You Have to be Rich to be a Philosopher?

“Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” These were the last words of Socrates, as recorded in Phaedo, Plato’s famous dialogue.

According to legend, Socrates was sentenced to death by hemlock, on the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato relates that Socrates spent his last moments in jail, surrounded by friends, who wept with sorrow and pleaded with him to escape to Megara—something they could easily arrange for him. But Socrates did not want to leave Athens and stop being what he was: a philosopher, a gadfly. The jailer brought the hemlock and Socrates drank it peacefully, after offering a short prayer to the gods. A few minutes before he fell silent forever, he lifted his head and told Crito his final wish: that he should sacrifice a rooster to Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing.

There is disagreement about the meaning of Socrates’ final words. Nietzsche, famously, in Gay Science, argues that Socrates basically says O Crito, life is a disease. In other words, Socrates was a pessimist, and merely kept up a cheerful appearance, forever concealing life’s existential pain and suffering.

However, other philosophers disagree. Emily Wilson thinks that Socrates was comparing death to childbirth and thus thanking Asclepius for helping facilitate the birth of his soul in the afterlife. Reading Phaedo, in which Socrates lays out his theory of the soul, might corroborate this view. In this dialogue, we learn that Socrates was a mind-body dualist. He believed that the soul existed independently of the body and that the death of the latter did not mean the end of the former.

Whatever the true meaning of Socrates’ last words, the themes of pain and suffering permeate these understandings of his life and death. Philosophy involves suffering, and being a philosopher means that one must become accustomed to pain.

There are different kinds of philosophical pain, however. Socrates experienced the one most often acknowledged by philosophers, namely the pain of being ostracized from the community. The degree of communal hostility towards a philosopher was extreme in his case—but there are various ways in which societies can ostracize philosophers, without murdering them. For example, Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo was jailed for several months in 2006, on a false accusation of spying and attempting to overthrow the regime.

A philosopher may suffer under the firm hand of an illiberal regime, but she can also suffer under the soft hand of the liberal market. For example, in advanced capitalism, where the pragmatics of economic production trump constant reflection and reexamination of social norms, philosophers are an unnecessary annoyance. We need more welders and fewer philosophers is a rallying cry for those who subscribe to this contemporary dislike of philosophy.

In such circumstances, philosophers are pushed to the margins. They are not only seldom listened to, but also bypassed in the distribution of social wealth. University budgets for humanities in general and philosophy, in particular, are shrinking. Funding for philosophy projects is scarce, philosophy professors are being laid off, and there are few jobs available.

This produces a particular kind of philosopher’s pain, which goes largely unacknowledged: the pain of philosophers who are unable to find jobs as philosophers.

Given the current state of the philosophy job market, there are a significant number of such people. For example, according to some statistics, in 2014 there were 451 new philosophy PhDs in the US and only 110 tenure-track job positions. In the period between 2012 and 2014, only 53% of philosophy PhD graduates found full-time academic positions.

This indicates several things. First, at least half of those who complete a PhD in philosophy don’t succeed in what they set out to do: become professional philosophers. This may not sound too tragic— many of us are forced to change career paths due to economic conditions—but young philosophers are faced with this challenge at the very outset of their professional lives. Imagine spending six or seven years of your life (the average time needed to complete a PhD in philosophy in the US) preparing for a career you already know you may never have: the likelihood of landing a professorial job is no better than that of winning a coin toss. Many young philosophers are forced to make an existential choice: they must either give up philosophy or try to make a living as adjuncts on the margins of academia, earning barely enough to survive.

I was one of the latter. After graduating in political philosophy from Central European University, an American-style graduate institution in Budapest, I hopped from one adjunct position to another, landing a tenure-track job two years later, through sheer luck, at a public university in New York. I managed to survive those two years of commuting to different city boroughs and relentlessly applying for jobs only because my wife had a full-time job, which enabled us to make enough money to cover rent, health insurance and bi-weekly visits to Costco. Had I been alone, I would probably have been living in poverty.

Of course, a career change is an obvious option under these circumstances, and many young philosophers follow the call of their basic survival needs. This is no surprise, especially since possession of a philosophy degree correlates with a fairly high median income in non-academic professions. Young philosophy graduates have a greater chance of securing a decent living by giving up on their dreams of becoming professional philosophers and choosing software engineering, TV writing, entrepreneurship or consultancy instead.

However, to do this, they must often abandon philosophy as the main focus of their work. Philosophy equips one with a variety of practical methods that can be applied in different contexts, but a philosopher working as a software engineer can rarely continue the daily systematic philosophical reflections he was trained to undertake in grad school.

None of this is a problem if a person is rich enough to not have to choose between their livelihood and philosophy. Those who can afford to stay on the job market long enough are more likely to eventually succeed in becoming professional philosophers, while those who cannot are more likely to drift away towards alternative careers. This will inevitably attract wealthy people to career philosophy, and discourages those who simply can’t afford to compete. This is already happening, to some degree. A colleague of mine spent a graduate semester at a philosophy department at an Ivy League university in the US. He told me, “My classmates would debate social justice and inequality in class for two hours, and then go off to have an $80 brunch at a nearby restaurant.”

Notable exceptions notwithstanding, there is a palpable risk that academic philosophy will—or has already—become a playground for the rich. Judging by the current constellation of market forces in academic philosophy, the gamble of trying to become a professional philosopher could pay off—but only if you’re wealthy enough. Otherwise, you will either be extremely lucky and land a full-time academic position, or give up and do something else. This could have a profound influence on philosophy as a discipline. It could drive many talented individuals away; it could also affect the nature of the problems future philosophers deal with.

From a historical perspective, this may not be too surprising. Many famous philosophers were either rich themselves or enjoyed the support of wealthy patrons. Socrates did not come from a wealthy family—his father was a stonemason and his mother a midwife—but he managed to survive, with the help of rich Athenians and other supporters. Since his company was considered desirable, he was often treated to dinners and offered places to stay.

The career of a professional philosopher has always depended on external benefactors. But there are fewer and fewer of them in our day and age. There are fewer sources of funding for philosophy, and most of them are focused only on universities, where most philosophers work. We rarely, if ever, encounter a practicing philosopher who—like Socrates or Rousseau—is independent of any official educational institution.

This calls for a rethinking of how we as a society produce philosophers, and what we do with them afterwards. The social benefits of philosophy should not be measured merely in terms of the number of academic careers available. If graduate philosophy institutions produce philosophers only so that those philosophers can someday be employed at those same institutions, something is seriously amiss. If the value of philosophy transcends jobs in higher education, we must find more ways to put young philosophers to use by letting them do what they do best—philosophy—without forcing them to choose between their livelihoods and their calling. This would create a win-win situation: society would benefit from philosophical reflections on our daily problems, new solutions to old problems would be offered, and many young lives would be improved. If we don’t do anything, then philosophy will become a marginalized discipline, reserved mostly for the rich and for the lucky few who manage to pull through.

So, at the end of his life, was Socrates aware of his luck at having been able to live and thrive as a philosopher? Could he have wanted to thank Asclepius for living a life of philosophy?

Maybe. This may be a far-fetched interpretation of Socrates’ motivations during the last days of his life. However, if you’ve ever met a philosopher, you will know that they are less afraid of being on the margins of wealth than of being on the margins of philosophy. They would rather live a life poor in earthly comforts and rich in philosophy than the other way round. This is a disposition common to most—if not all—philosophers. The pain of living without philosophy is very hard to bear.

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2 comments

  1. It’s difficult for the average person to understand the value of philosophy for society on the whole, because they do such a poor job at communicating with them. Why care about something that you barely know exists and are not aware of any of its effects to one’s life?
    I don’t think that I am alone in viewing philosophy as something philosophers do with other philosophers

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