The Pleasures of Philosophy

In an unpublished essay, “Philosophy as a Hobby,” written in 1936, philosopher Gordon H. Clark describes the philosopher as one, “who attempts to understand the relationships between any two human interests.” Aristotle, for example, “summed up in systematic form the guiding principles of a closing era,” when he defined, “the State as the partnership which includes all partnerships.” At other times philosophers impact the future, as did Hegel and Marx, philosophers who “have assumed principles which in later centuries become powerful directive forces.” Once in awhile a philosopher may even affect or be affected by his contemporaries.

Clark then crafts a humorous comparison between music as a hobby and philosophy as a hobby. Philosophy, he says, is preferable because, while musical proficiency requires daily attention for its development, philosophers with “any degree of facility” may have their ideas unconsciously nurtured to maturity through periods in which no philosophy is read. Moreover, whereas a novice musician’s confidence can be subjected to “exquisite torture” at the skill displayed with ease by the orchestra’s professional musicians, the philosopher’s most formidable comparisons are all dead, and the living, “are not, as a rule, so discouragingly formidable.”

Clark’s main point, however, is that the study of relationships which constitutes philosophy is at once as engrossing and legitimate as any other art or science, and, “as we come better to understand the scope of philosophy, we come to see also that a man never decides whether he will philosophize or not; he decides only to philosophize ill or well. The artist, the historian, the scientist, is driven irresistibly to consider the relation of his particular field to the next.”

Clark employs the image of chess to illustrate his point, that a reflective student in any field who begins to philosophize will encounter something like the following:

If he continues, and, if the vast scope of philosophy emerges in distinctness, he faces a magnificent panorama, including the harmony of an orchestra and the harmony of the spheres. The arts and sciences become pawns on the chess board of the universe. Well, call music a bishop if that be more honorable than a pawn, and zoology will be a knight; perhaps economics is a pawn. But the whole is a game not of our choosing; we play it because play we must and even resignation is a play. It is the game of existence, life, and civilization; we are the king struggling by our understanding of the factors of the universe, that is, by our philosophy to avoid a final check and mate.

The inescapable game of life requires the sort of thinking that philosophy represents, and though it is tempting to see such thinking as a daunting measure of toil, Clark offers a corrective:

If all this appears to be getting too serious for a hobby, if it is taking on the aspect of the main business in life, a philosopher would point out that making a life is more of a hobby than making a living and that the leisure ordinarily connected with hobbies is essential to philosophic progress. In professional life a certain amount of work must be completed in a given time or else we do not get paid. Often we are in a hurry to finish and when our work has risen above minimum requirements we let it pass. In a hobby and in philosophy, there can be no time limits; our thoughts are on the quality of the product and we are straining after perfection. Time has no hold on us. If we do not understand a certain factor tonight, we can restudy it tomorrow; there is no rush. We are neither deceived nor discouraged by the illusion of making no progress. Philosophic puzzles are in this respect similar to other puzzles. In solving them, we make many false starts, we encounter many dead ends, and experience a great deal of bewilderment. On the surface, this appears to be failure, but when, with a suddenness often amazing, the correct solution strikes, we see that our failures have constituted real progress. In scientific research and in philosophy results are demanded, but those who make such demands sometimes fail to see that a negative result is none the less a result, that the failure, in so far as at least one possibility is now eliminated, is progress in disguise. Like the negative results of experimentation, so too the blankness of our mind, the daze and apparent vacuity, are later found to be among our most fruitful moments. And without the leisure to make mistakes, without the liberty to disregard time limits, not much permanent progress can be expected.

The point for classical educators shall have emerged with undeniable clarity by now. The philosophic endeavor fans that fire by which man is educated into the form of excellence. It is the hobby for which work is a means, providing an opportunity for pursuit; philosophy is the newborn life for which labor pains are necessary preparation.

The task of life long learning requires the sort of puzzles that aren’t resolved in the completing of assignments, the bubbling in of tests, or the polishing off of papers or presentations. It requires an orientation toward discovery that is as thankful for realizing errors in one’s attempts as it is in finding a success; knowing that the former aids the latter and the latter will inevitably lead to new species of the former.

Clark concludes with a final comparison, a classical one:

The process of puzzling out a solution is in itself extremely pleasurable; the discovery of a solution eclipses totally the physical pleasures which content so many. Plutarch, in praising the intellectual enjoyments, compares Epicurus with Archimedes. Was any dinner which Epicurus ate, he asks, ever so enjoyable as to cause him to jump up from the table, run through the streets, and shout, “I have eaten?”

But when one has grappled with a problem for two years, five years, ten years, without apparent success, and then in a fraction of a second, the solution arrives, whether in a bath-tub as with Archimedes or, to mention the contemporary fashion, while shaving, it gives one a thrill unparalleled and an abiding satisfaction which bountifully repays the already delightful labor. Most of our pleasures are evanescent, but a philosophic solution is a joy forever.

It is true that 2015 is far removed from 1936 and people today frequently “shout” through social media, “I have eaten!” Alas, the joys of such social pleasures escape Clark. Even so, Clark’s point recalls the most satisfying pleasures of life: pleasure of the mind, of the soul; that indestructible, everlasting image of God through which we commune with Him in the gambol of Eternal Verities.

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