For a while I wanted to be a history major. This was entirely due to a professor I had, Jack McGovern. He had a great mind, and a real passion for his subject, and was a true mensch. Then I realized that studying history didn’t just mean listening to McGovern lecture, and it meant figuring out the real causal chains that brought about changes long past, about which I do not care a fig, so I devoted all my attention to philosophy.
But, nevertheless, I gravitated toward the history of philosophy, and for a long time I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any talent for “real” philosophy — e.g., figuring out whether we really have free will, or there is some objective moral duty, or so on. I find I have to adopt a kind of “let’s pretend there is a fact to the matter” attitude when I enter into such debates. For a while I thought that perhaps I was attracted to the history of philosophy because it enabled me to hang around the philosophical arena without being expected to compete.
I no longer think that’s the whole story, though it may be part of it. I find now that when I read the Great Dead, I am interested in seeing how their philosophy meshed with their lives, and trying to learn lessons about the connections between lives and thoughts. In a way, I suppose I’m doing a Bennett-like “collegial philosophy” (see previous post), but I’m interested less in metaphysical questions than in existential questions. I would like to learn from the GDs how to philosophize while being stuck in the middle of a haphazard life.
This has become clear to me only after studying Nietzsche, since that is, I think, the most fascinating aspect of his philosophy: the way he used ideas to come to grips with the conditions of his miserable life. I was heartened, then, to find these words in the preface to his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks:
I am going to tell the story — simplified — of certain philosophers. I am going to emphasize only that point of each of their systems which constitutes a slice of personality and hence belongs to that incontrovertible, non-debatable evidence which it is the task of history to preserve…. The task is to bring to light what we must ever love and honor and what no subsequent enlightenment can take away: great individual human beings.
Now that‘s what I’m talking about!