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Tuesday, February 28, 2017


When you conjure the word philosopher, what comes to mind? Likely the great thinkers of Greece (the triad of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle that every schoolchild learns), or perhaps some other beacon of European Civilization - the Nietzsches and the Kants and the Descartes and the Lockes and the Marxes and the Humes; and lest we forget America, the Huxleys and Camus too. Every western nation seems to have its philosophic treasure. The key word being west. 

And when you think of the word sage, perhaps you recall certain mystics of the Orient, such as Buddha, or the three wise men (Magi) who came from the east to visit the baby Jesus shortly after his birth. 

But the east/west dichotomy, which separates these two groups of individuals, breaks down on further inspection.

For philosophers actually have a lot in common with sages. After all philosophy means "love of wisdom" (philo is the Greek word for love and sofia means wisdom) and sage derives from the Latin verb sapere which means "be wise." A philosopher's highest aim is the sage's traditional terrain, which is wisdom. Both types, the philosopher and the sage, tend to be celibate men. What often distinguishes these noble professions (although profession may here be a misnomer: where today a university professor of philosophy can expect to earn a salary, a sage is never paid), so let us say what often separates these noble pursuits is the volume of written work. A philosopher writes volumes. Whereas a sage can live his entire life hardly setting anything down on the page. Both individuals are committed to the search for truth. Whereas the philosopher seeks truth in the manifest Universe, or in a God who is other than we are in his glorious transcendence, the sage has found truth in the silence of his own heart. 

But there are individuals who have broken the mold.

The Indian nationalist Sri Aurobindo was considered a sage by his disciples, though his literary output classified him as more of a scholar. His book on metaphysics, The Life Divine, runs 1113 pages. Thomas Aquinas was a 13th century philosopher of immense influence. His Summa Theologiae, which treats the nature of the world, man's place in it and God's loving purpose, exceeds 5000 pages in length. For this and his other works, Mr. Aquinas, who was also a friar, was made a Christian saint, a term often used interchangeably (at least by me) with sage.

Sages often meditate. But Gottfried Liebniz, a German philosopher, often arrived at the highest truths not by reading the works of others but by meditating. He realized that with the origin of thought arose matter, and that matter is dependent on duration and extent. That is, matter depends on time and space, which are themselves concepts, or thoughts. How did he arrive at this startling revelation (which the Eastern mystics before him had also averred)? It is "one of the results of my meditations," he says (in his Theodicy Essays). 

While it is true that both scholars and saints have traditionally been unmarried men, there have been rule breakers. Most notably Socrates, already notable for being a philosopher who wrote nothing down (his teachings were transcribed and dramatized by Plato, his foremost pupil). Socrates was married. His wife, Xanthippe, was 40 years younger than Socrates and the mother of his three sons. She was also purported to be a virago. Indeed Socrates agreed that his wife was "the hardest to get along with of all the women there are."A lover of debate himself, Socrates chose this precious woman to be his precisely because of her contentious nature. It seems that a thin line separates love and war.

Historically both types, philosophers and sages, have been saints. Whether the individuals have been formally recognized as such is incidental. Pure thoughts translate into kind words and benevolent actions. But nowadays those who call themselves philosophers earn a PhD studying the works of those who came before rather than forging truth in the workshop of introspection and original thought, and these have as their highest aim tenure and a pension. Because a PhD is not cheap and student loans carry back-breaking interest rates. Modern philosophers may not even write that much, because books on Thomas Aquinas just don't pay. 

But deviation from the norm can be a good thing. Many modern females have joined the exalted ranks once reserved exclusively for men.  Mary Wollstonecraft was a philosopher whose Vindication for the Rights of Women fascinated me as a college student. Ayn Rand was not only a woman philosopher but also a remarkably successful novelist. Her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are among my all-time favorite reads. And Ayn was also married. 

Speaking of women writers, it was recently said about Ariel Levy, author of the recently-published memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, that she "has the rare gift of seeing herself with fierce, unforgiving clarity." Levy is neither saint nor sage. And yet it is this quality - more than word counts and books written or marital status or gender or profession or time or place - which best distinguishes the lovers of wisdom and the wise, who are one and the same, from the rest of us. That immensely rare gift of seeing yourself in the stark light of clarity; that is, as you really are. 

Whether you gain this self-insight by writing books or essays or blogs like mine, whether meditating cross-legged in front of a candle or while seated in traffic, whether in the kind attention you devote to your relationships with friend and foe alike, or in your work, or in the world, or whatever, wherever - then you, my fine friend, are a sage, a saint, a lover of sofia yourself. It's all the same. Whoever you are, you can do it. Old or young, guy or gal, rich or poor. DeNiro did it as both in the movie Cape Fear. So to all the Max Cadys everywhere, I salute you!

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