Clancy Martin recently published an article in the Atlantic titled “Playing with Plato,” in which he both reviews Rebecca Goldstein’s new book Plato at the Googleplex (which I have not read) and argues that the philosophical questions confronted by the historical philosophers are still relevant to modern day life (a point for which I have great sympathy). To me, however, the most interesting part of his article was the first sentence:
“When I was 21, I was trying to decide whether to become a doctor or a philosophy professor.”
He goes on to explain that, during this process, he got two conflicting pieces of advice. From his business-minded brother: “Be practical. Books are dangerous things. Just because it’s on paper, you think it’s true.” And from his “New Age guru” father: “Be a professor. You’ll never be rich, but you’ll be doing what you love: reading and writing. You get summers off. It’s a good life.” In the end, Martin followed his father’s advice and, by all accounts, has achieved a far bit of professional success.
Understanding why I was fascinated by this brief introduction to Martin’s article requires a little background: when I was 22, I walked away from four years of undergraduate study (read: obsession) and an offer to attend a Ph.D. program in Boston to return to school and become a physician. It wasn’t an easy choice. I suffered through more than one sleepless night. I sought a lot of advice. Much of it was in line with what Martin relays: “You’ll never find a job” versus “Do what makes you happy.” In the end, I found that, unlike Martin, neither of these lines of reasoning was, well, reasonable.
What eventually caused me to I walk away from academic philosophy was, ironically, philosophy itself. For me, books were indeed dangerous. But they didn’t ruin my sense of practicality and worldliness, as Martin’s brother feared. Rather, they shattered the idyllic vision I had of my career, lounging in the quad reading Spinoza and taking research trips to Greece. I imagined that what drove me was the possibility of changing young minds via the lectern and the pen. But the more I thought and the more I struggled, the more I realized that my motivation to enter academic philosophy was exactly as Martin’s father suggested: I wanted to spend my life reading and writing and I wanted someone to pay me for it. Instead of being a noble pursuit, entering academic philosophy was the most selfish thing I could imagine doing.
Why did this bother me so much? Most careers are chosen for selfish reasons; they offer money or power or respect or some other end. Time and time again, however, I returned Plato’s allegory of the cave and its enduring mystery: why, after climbing to the surface and seeing the beauty of the sun, would the philosopher return to the darkness of the cave and the danger of trying to free others? To me, this is similar to the great paradox of Buddhism: the quest for detachment from the worldly cycle of desire and suffering requires us to be moved with compassion for those around us.
My mentor, Frank Harrison, helped me see that the answer, first, last and always, is love. The kind of love that drives us upwards towards Martin’s “eternal idea” should also drive us outwards towards our fellow man, who, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, “participate in the same intelligence and same portion of divinity” as we do.
So why couldn’t my work with students and colleagues be my expression of this philosophical love? Because, by and large, they would be exactly like me: upper-middle class Caucasian males. Instead of practicing love for the other, I’d be practicing self-love under another name. Further, a long, hard look at academic philosophy lead me to conclude that being a philosophy professor and being a philosopher were distinct enterprises. Often, they can even be opposed. Recent events at the University of Colorado, Northwestern and Miami have only reinforced my belief that modern academic philosophy is a troubled system.
All this being said, I will not pretend for a moment that leaving philosophy for medicine was an act of self-immolation. The decision was difficult, but the human body is fascinating and medicine is challenging. I find the work fulfilling and am consequently no martyr. But this, I would argue, is the great genius of the Greeks and, perhaps, the idea we should most strive to reclaim: serving yourself and serving others are not mutually exclusive, but rather walk together like two feet. In the end, I left academic philosophy because I believed that I would not be happy there. I believed that becoming a physician would make me a better, wiser person. And, trying my best to love wisdom, what other choice could I make?