What good are philosophy books? Can they make us any the wiser? There’s a funny story about reading philosophy books by the Irish writer Robert Wilson Lynd, an essay titled “On Not Being a Philosopher: Epictetus and the Average Man” (1930). Lynd wonders whether you can get wisdom from kicking back with a philosophy book. He gives it a try. He recounts his efforts in a light-hearted piece that ribs the error of assuming books can impart ready wisdom. The essay is a delight to read. Through its waggish play it raises questions about what readers want and what writers can give.
Lynd plays the funny man from the start, posing as an avid fan. He says he has tried various philosophers to no avail, yet kept his “faith that wisdom is to be found somewhere in a book—to be picked up as easily as a shell from the sand.” What has been the trouble? Well, he admits that he ardently desires wisdom only on the condition of ease. It must be able to obtained with very little effort on his part. His is not the “laborious quest of philosophy,” he says. He wants the philosophers to do the hard work and then give him the results. This leads him to remark:
[J]ust as I get eggs from the farmer, apples from the fruit grower, medicines from the chemist, so do I expect the philosopher to provide me with wisdom at the cost of a few shillings.
This is splendidly daft, for wisdom is not of a kind with eggs, apples, or medicines. Like love, it can’t be bought and sold.
Kant is biting about this in his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” which is about people putting themselves under a self-imposed guardianship that makes them unfree. He writes of having “a book that thinks for me,” and urges people to think for themselves instead. Philosophy books are not life hacks. Turning to them for ready solutions to life’s big questions will only disappoint. However, this should not discourage philosophical authors or their readers. To seek wisdom by reading philosophy books you have to read them philosophically. This is to read them in a philosophical way. Not all books invite this. Those that do require the would-be wise to think for themselves. Their authors are putting arguments for readers to engage with, ones that readers should not agree with lightly. Authors like that are inviting the reader to do some philosophy. The inauspicious start from Lynd sets up a very funny mock bildungsroman, the tale of a failed philosopher:
Even so, I have never lost faith in books, believing that somewhere one exists from which one can absorb philosophy and strength of character while sitting smoking in an armchair.
So Lynd excitedly picks up Epictetus, intent on giving it another go. He tells us that he enjoys reading this philosopher, who discusses “how men should behave in the affairs of ordinary life.” So far, so good. He has got what Epictetus is at in general, his general project or purpose. His concern was with practical wisdom, how best to live. He enjoys reading Epictetus. Now, his principal understanding is that Epictetus advises “not to be troubled about anything over which one has no control.” Lynd lurches straight into taking it literally, instead of philosophically. There is a great deal of humor over this in the Lynd and it is most enjoyable to laugh along with him.
To see this in all its brilliant humor, a glimpse into Epictetus’s project, what he is trying to do, may help. Epictetus is interested in how we live good lives. He thinks that this comes down to living out well the various roles we have to play, and that the possibility of this depends on us striving for self-knowledge. His fundamental principle for living well is this: knowing what is under our control and what is not. His main contention is that all things external to me are not in my power, “not up to me,” and so indifferent per se. I should try to make the best of what is in my power. My beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and actions are mine in a way that nothing else is. I can, for example, choose how to react to obstacles that arise in my life. Epictetus likes a shocker. One of these goes something like: “So what if a tyrant orders my execution. I alone can decide how I approach that death!” I love the high camp of that one. If I regard things outside my power as my own, I get weighed down, become unfree and fall prey to moral errors. This is far from a philosophy of quietly resigned acceptance, however. It is one of social criticism and personal responsibility. Epictetus thinks that we are by nature deeply social beings. To live well as the kind of social beings that we are is to act properly in all the roles we play in everyday life as human beings, as parents, teachers, employers, or citizens. To do so we can’t just disregard or neglect external things, or just do as everybody else does. Indeed, Epictetus asks how to treat external things “so far as not to act thoughtlessly about them.” He is challenging readers to make the best use of what is in their power by exercising their reason in grasping what their roles require of them. So Epictetus is not issuing simple, palatable self-help mantras. Rather, he is inviting us to rethink our own decisions and actions.
Having set himself up for ridicule as an idler, Lynd then acts the part of one who shirks controversy. He says he finds himself agreeing with the philosophers he reads, although he finds this unsatisfactory. He is prey to an unthinking dependency on social opinion. This is an impediment because to read philosophically is to withhold ready assent. Lynd agrees only superficially, by extracting what he deems commonsensical and concurring with it. This is not to rise to the challenge of what is said, to acknowledge its controversial character. By this ready assent only to what is commonsensical, Lynd misses the opportunity to rethink.
We see the comical results of this in two examples he pokes fun at. In them Epictetus is challenging us to see how social institutions bring powerful temptations to irrational and immoral attitudes. The first is to do with slavery. In Chapter XIII of the Discourses Epictetus says:
When you have asked for warm water and the slave does not heed you; or if he does heed you but brings tepid water; or if he is not even to be found in the house, then to refrain from anger and not to explode, is not this acceptable to the Gods… Do you not remember over whom you rule—that they are kinsmen, that they are brothers by nature, and they are the offspring of Zeus.
Lynd translates this case into the modern scenario of getting bad service in a restaurant. Much is lost in translation. He gets angry with shoddy waiters. The idea that the waiter is a fellow human being doesn’t occur to him and anyway it wouldn’t help because waiters should wait well. This is a beautifully silly response to the Epictetus. In disregarding the controversial nature of this case as put forward by Epictetus, Lynd blindly repeats convention. The students in Epictetus’s audience would likely have thought, “Blimey, this guy is suggesting we see our slaves as our brothers!” That jolt would afford the opportunity to challenge the preconceptions that might make a person treat their slaves angrily. Epictetus has already anticipated Lynd’s response. Someone says about tardy slaves: “But I have purchased them and they have not purchased me.” This interlocutor is objecting that the legal relation of slavery permits a master to do what he will with his slaves. Epictetus replies that it is an error to look to social institutions like laws rather than to moral truths. The interlocutor has missed his mark, and so has the hapless Lynd.
The other case that Lynd jibes at also involves getting angry. In Chapter XVIII of the Discourses Epictetus says:
Stop admiring your clothes and you are not angry at the man who steals them. He does not know wherein the true good of man consists, but fancies that it consists in having fine clothes, the very same fancy that you also entertain. Shall he not come, then, and carry them off?
Once again Lynd tries to translate this controversial passage into an innocuous modern setting. Somebody at a party takes his new hat, leaving an old one in its place. Lynd says he would be irritated. Having called Epictetus’s words on the folly of the thief, his ignorance of the good, “persuasive,” Lynd just says they give cold comfort. Here he has again missed the opportunity to read Epictetus philosophically. Epictetus is not issuing consolation. The passage is from a chapter about how our anger at the errors of others is itself an error. Epictetus is talking about criminals and says, “drop this readiness to be offended and to hate.” He deems calls for severe punishment of criminals inhuman. An appropriate response would be to pity someone who is blind in the faculty of distinguishing good and bad, and to seek to re-educate him. Our anger comes because we too make a mistake, also valuing things that are not of value. I think this passage raises questions about one’s role as a citizen. How can we take our proper part in the community that censures the criminal when we too covet possessions? But for Lynd this is another missed opportunity. He wants to parrot the conventional ire toward offenders instead of reflecting on its follies.
The challenge Epictetus mounts in these two cases goes something like this: Your anger is getting in the way of your seeing things for what they are. Take a good look at yourself.
Lynd doesn’t go with this. Instead his responses appeal to a “we,” to the “average man” of the subtitle. This is the man who, like him, wants to cleave to the conventional beliefs and just do as others do. The problem is not that Epictetus is too difficult for ordinary or “average” people to understand, that he is “laborious” in that sense. The problem is rather that philosophy requires you to think for yourself, to not let conventions, which are arbitrary, count the wrong way in one’s thinking.
The irony is that Lynd craves philosophy but chooses to stick with the commonsense he has not found wise. He cuts a very funny figure, scoffing at Epictetus from his chair, fuming at the waiters and fretting over whether his hat is okay in the coat check. His joking tale of the failure to become a philosopher comes down to this: philosophy books can do little if the reader doesn’t want to think. There are, and can be, no books of wisdom.
Claire Grant is a Cambridge philosopher. She was educated at one of England's cathedral schools before matriculating at Queens' College Cambridge. She began her academic career there as Munro Fellow. Subsequently she worked mostly in Cambridge and London, achieving her goal of having both a Professorial Chair and a baby before the age of forty. Claire loves philosophy and hopes to bring its pleasures to as many people as possible. She tweets at @cantabclaire.