Abbot Theodore and Thoreau

Another brother asked the same elder, Abbot Theodore, and began to question him and to inquire about things he had never yet put into practice himself.  The elder said to him:  As yet you have not found a ship, and you have not put your baggage aboard, and you have not started to cross the sea:  can you talk as if you had already arrived in that city to which you planned to go?  When you have put into practice the things you are talking about, then speak from knowledge of the thing itself!

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

5 responses

  1. “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it IS admirable to profess because it WAS ONCE admirable to live.”

    Does this mean that it IS admirable for us today to profess EARLIER lives that were lived philosophically, in the absence of any persuasive examples of our own? The second sentence’s shift from present to past tense is something I had missed in my previous readings of it. Interesting… Ah, but then there’s the hopeful shift back to the present: “To BE a philosopher IS…”, which seems to reassure us that the admirable philosophical life is still possible, even for us, who up to now, perhaps, have been admirable only for what we admire.

    • Bill–yes, the tense shift is of real interest here, although I do think what you suggest in your final comment (about reassurance) trends in the right direction. Thanks!

    • Apropos this subject of philosophy as a way of life, I offer a couple of Kierkegaard’s remarks about Schopenhauer. “S. … is no ethical character, not a Greek philosopher living his philosophy….” “After reading A.S.’s [ascetic] ethics through, one discovers – he is, of course, that honest – that he is not such an ascetic himself. Consequently he does not himself represent the contemplation that is attained through asceticism, but a contemplation that relates contemplatively to that asceticism. This is extremely suspect…”

      If we substitute ‘wise’ for ‘ascetic’ and condense the phrasing a bit, we have essentially Thoreau’s contrast: the wise contemplative (the philosopher) on the one hand, and the one who contemplates the wise contemplative (the professor of philosophy) on the other. The difference, perhaps, between Thoreau and Kierkegaard on this point is that Thoreau seems disinclined to find the professor “extremely suspect.”

      Whoever said Concord and Copenhagen have nothing in common?

      • Thanks for this. I don’t recall having run across those remarks of K’s before. –I once taught a course in which we read Emerson and Kierkegaard side-by-side. It was a fascinating challenge.

      • When I first discovered that SK, in the last year of his life, read Schopenhauer, I was astounded and broke out in literal goosebumps. He said of him: “he has interested me a great deal and I have been surprised to find an author who, despite a total disagreement, touches me so much.” More goosebumps! The quotations are from Hanny’s SK: Papers and Journals (Penguin), 581-85. I recommend all four pages; they’re wonderfully enlightening about both authors.

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