Apes do read philosophy

Posted By on January 6, 2007

Otto: Apes don’t read philosophy.
Wanda: Yes they do, Otto, they just don’t understand it.

The line, from “A Fish Called Wanda,” speaks my thoughts very well.

This morning I read a delightful post on Catholic Pillow Fight, in which Tony discusses his views on science fiction and literature. I read it to my charming and patient husband, and we had a chuckle over our own differences in reading styles. He likes science fiction, and I prefer literature. But I am selective in what sort of literature I enjoy. Just because it’s called “great” or “classical” doesn’t mean I necessarily enjoy it. I don’t, for example, like most philosophers. In fact, most of the philosophy I’ve read so far has seemed sneer-worthy, with the possible exceptions of Socrates and Kant. One of the main reasons I dislike the others is because they often make assertions based on little if any evidence or reasoning, and simply state them emphatically, as though that made it automatically, empirically true. The main argument seems to be “It’s true because I said so. You can trust that what I say is true, because I’m a philosopher. You can tell, because I say things with such certainty.” Socrates, the father of philosophy, leads his reader through a step-by-step exposition of his reasoning; and even though I sometimes find fault with the logic he uses, at least he is following a train of logic. Unfortunately many who followed him do not.

Part of my criticism of philosophy and philosophers, though, is less fair. Some of my frustration with philosophy lies in my frustration with many who study it today. It seems to me that there are three kinds of people who tend to study philosophy: the apes, the intellects, and the minority.

The apes are those Wanda mentions. They read it, but they don’t understand it. Alas, too many do not realize that they don’t understand it. They are people who tend to be above average intelligence, but not hyper-intelligent. They read what they consider the “highest” form of literature because they want to be more intelligent, or want to be thought more intelligent. They want to be intellectual, and they think that a certain brand of knowledge will ensure that niche. They are, in short, intelligent people who are educated beyond their intelligence.

The intellects, on the other hand, are not educated beyond their intelligence. They read, and they actually understand the material. They find insight, and thought-provoking suggestions in the material. They often come to revere what they read, leading them to the sad but common conclusion that intelligence is a thing to be rewarded. These are people who have an abundance of intelligence, but are educated beyond their wisdom. They allow themselves to become convinced that intellect is virtue, and that they are superior human beings because they have superior intellects. They forget that it is the soul, the conscience, and the heart that determine our quality and our worth in the world.

Then there are those in the minority of philosophy readers. They are the people who read it because they are searching for answers or an education, but they understand that even if they find the answers, having those answers will not make them better people, and will not make them superior to anyone else. They understand that any philosophy they read is no more infallible than the person who wrote it, and they do not attribute a special moral authority to the thinkers simply because of their fame or intellect.

When you think about it, life is a lot like philosophy. We are all given gifts, whether intellectual or otherwise; and our special abilities do not make us better or worse than others. It is how we use them that matters. And the moment we forget that, and think ourselves superior because we have an insight, an education, or an ability, we’ve lost the very wisdom we hoped to attain.

There is good news in all of this, though. Like the man who asked Jesus what must he do to attain eternal life… like the woman at the well… like the tax collector, we all have the opportunity to lay aside our mistakes and step with humility into the future. Then, and only then, we can be able to love others as we are called to love them.


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