At this point I have read every major philosopher. And, often when reading some of the more modern or abstruse ones, like Heidegger, Sartre, or Hegel, I feel that the discipline has become too broad, has gotten off track, and has become too poorly defined.
If I had to choose a favorite it would certainly be Socrates – followed closely behind by Plato. These two were the progenitors of the discipline, and in my opinion clearly defined what its goals are. So, if I were to define philosophy in a few words I would have to say it is something like the following.
1. Philosophy is the preparation for death
This is a great line of Socrates and the whole purpose of the discipline. The philosopher is aware of the reality of his end, and seeks wisdom, knowledge, and self-transcendence in anticipation of the death of the body.
2. The philosopher seeks wisdom
The word itself means philos (love) + sophos (wisdom), the love of wisdom. The philosopher seeks what is the most difficult and elusive virtue to obtain. The world we live in is corrupt, morally complex, and complicated and that is why wisdom is so central to acquire. Wisdom takes on many different forms, and one can have wisdom in one area but lack it in another. The general lack of wisdom in man (and the difficulty we face in acquiring wisdom) is certainly one of the reasons why the world is such a dysfunctional place to live in.
3. The philosopher seeks the true, good, and beautiful
A philosopher seeks wisdom and virtue, along with the goods of truth, beauty, bravery, justice, humility, kindness, and excellence. He strives to embody the goods he values.
4. The philosopher seeks the perfect; he seeks the higher forms of things
Socrates goes through this line of reasoning in one of the dialogues: First, the philosopher sees a beautiful woman and loves her. Then, he contemplates the concept of “beauty” itself. He realizes that he values beauty itself as an idea (eidos). Then, he questions where it arises from. This line of reasoning leads him to realize that all the concepts used to organize the physical world derive from a higher place. For example, we have womanhood, manhood, truth, beauty, and so forth. All these ideas exist in specific instances in the physical world, but the concepts in an absolute sense exist elsewhere. Thus, the physical world is like a shadow version of a higher world. The world we inhabit is a corrupt, imperfect, imitation world created by emanations from a higher plane. Thus, the philosopher seeks to transcend the physical world, where he can never find perfect truth or beauty, and return to the nonphysical, where such things are in fact possible to attain.
5. The cave and the quest
The Allegory of the Cave is the central work of Plato’s writing and communicates the goal of the philosopher. Man is imprisoned in a state of darkness or ignorance, and through the philosophic life he can break free. He can break his chains – perhaps the views of mass belief and delusion – and escape. First by seeing the light of truth, and then by following a hidden path, he can reach the outside world – true reality, the realm of the higher forms, the realm of liberation, the nonphysical domain.
6. Asceticism is a key part of philosophy
Socrates is very clear about this in the dialogues: that the work of the philosopher is to purify the soul. If we are fettered to the physical world by our selfishness, desires, and weaknesses, we must work diligently to perfect ourselves as much as possible for our deaths. By purifying the soul, we remove the fetters that bind us to the corrupt physical world and allow ourselves to rise to the higher, more noble domains.
7. Philosophy is the answer to life’s central problems
The key problems to human life are suffering and death. It is impossible to avoid misfortune, pain, tragedy, and failure. It is also impossible to overcome death. We call these elements, along with the general fallibility of man, the “human condition.” Socrates is clear that the philosophic life is the heroic life; it is the path to self-conquest, redemption, and transcendence – to liberation and enlightenment.
8. Philosophy does possess a major esoteric element to it
Socrates and Plato were likely inspired by the mystery schools that existed around their time, for example the schools of Orpheus and Dionysus. In fact, the Eleusinian mysteries, which were contemporary to them, taught a cycle of “descent,” “search,” and “ascent,” which is fascinating as it parallels the mystic’s steps of purgation, illumination, and union. Socrates himself speculated on the practices of these schools in one of the dialogues. Plato was likely familiar with the school of Pythagoras in Magna Graecia and used it as a model when he founded his Academy in Athens.