More than 50 years ago, the French historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot argued that we had radically distorted the ancient Greek traditions of philosophy. We treated philosophy as a set of propositions, or a set of arguments on which we could make other propositions and other arguments. It was a philosophical discourse, but in ancient Greece philosophy was something very different from words about words. Philosophy was a way of life, and the philosophical quest was to engage in spiritual exercises that would alter the way one lived.
Hadot’s view of philosophy as a way of life was unusual, but his scholarship regarding the ancient Greek schools was undeniable. In France, Michel Foucault was very seduced by the idea of spiritual exercises, which he integrated into his own writings as technologies of the self. How did we get to be the kind of people we are? How do formal and informal practices – from schools to prisons to therapies and drugs – create and limit our options? For Foucault, the essential question was “Can we live differently? Can we find ways of being different from those that contemporary regimes of selfhood have defined for us as natural, healthy, and acceptable?
Hadot’s and Foucault’s questions were radical when they were first posed, but they have now been incorporated into the American version of self-improvement. Self-help and its new narcissistic variant, self-care, isn’t what French thinkers aimed for, but now college philosophy departments will tell you how to live a good life, and psychology departments will tell you how to be happy. These courses are driving enrollment among undergraduates eager to get more results and less anxiety from their education.
In “The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us About Our Search for Good Leaders,” Massimo Pigliucci adopts this self-help version of the philosophy, exploring the history of the field to obtain valuable tips to help us build better characters. . The author comes to this subject from evolutionary biology, where he is an expert in phenotypic plasticity, the ability of an organism to adapt to better integrate into its environment. It’s not too much of a stretch to see his work on the character through this evolutionary lens. We can grow to better fit into the societies we belong to, and perhaps make those societies more hospitable to survive in the process.
But unlike his work in biology, Pigliucci’s work in philosophy is about ethics and politics — not just how we can survive but how well we can live together. This “sink” should be a subject of debate and critical examination. And so it was with Socrates, the hero of this book, who was told by the Oracle that he was the wisest of the Athenians. He realized it was because he knew he didn’t know much. Other Athenians were confident in their answers to important questions, but when pressed by Socrates they often left their conversations quite perplexed.
Pigliucci’s Socrates is a gentle teacher who guides students away from errors and towards more reliable opinions. Like a sculptor chipping away at a slab of marble, he carves out untruths to reveal something worth seeing. Given Socrates’ talents as an interlocutor, Pigliucci asks why he failed to educate the handsome, wealthy, and powerful Alcibiades to become a better statesman. Alcibiades, a controversial political and military leader, had all the advantages, and Socrates was his friend and mentor (and possibly his lover). But the youngster continued to show greed at every turn, was traitorous in his dealings with his friends and was essentially a poster child for bad behavior. The failure of Alcibiades’ education leads Pigliucci to a series of sketches on the difficulty and importance of trying to improve the character of political leaders. It considers Plato’s efforts with the tyrants of Syracuse, Aristotle’s influence on Alexander the Great, and Seneca’s failures with the perverse Nero before moving on to more general thoughts on character and power.
There are no big surprises here – just a reminder that character matters in political leadership. Given the state of the country right now, I wonder if we need such a reminder.
Is this the book for you?
The constant task of the philosopher has been to create opportunities to recognize what really matters – to teach oneself and others to turn their attention away from what should have little weight and to devote themselves (perhaps through spiritual exercises ) to the most important things or questions. Alcibiades loved wealth and power, which Pigliucci, following Socrates, does not consider the most important things. So why did Socrates remain so attached to Alcibiades? Socrates is quoted as saying that Athenian stardom was “married to stupidity”, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the handsome, rich and powerful young man. Perhaps the effort to develop a good character is not always in line with one’s desires? If so, are spiritual exercises supposed to change our affections? Who decides what are the appropriate things to desire? What happens when our desires conflict with each other or with the interests of those in authority? There is no easy way to approach these questions, and so they are not covered in “The Quest for Character”.
Pigliucci doesn’t want his readers to be perplexed. He wants us to realize that becoming aware of our own shortcomings and training to reduce them will make us “better human beings”. By “better,” he simply means more caring, kinder, more generous, and less prone to doing bad things because of the bad people around us. The Stoic Advice: Accept the things we owe, improve what you can.
These self-help bromides are, of course, beyond reproach, but they have little to do with Socrates, who was put to death by his fellow citizens because of his radical questioning. Pigliucci suggests that contemporary science and ancient stoicism can be combined to help us be kinder and gentler, avoiding bad people and finding role models that inspire us to act more consistently in accordance with our good nature.
We are lucky. We no longer have to worry about charismatic leaders like Alcibiades (or Nero!), nor the systems that spawned them. If you believe in it, this book is for you.
Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. His latest book is “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses”.