Morris: A Time to Wax Philosophic

August 17, 2020

by Leo Morris

Here’s a thought for the day:

The planet is a hot mess right now because of the indefensible stupidity of the politicians and professors, journalists and generals and preachers, administrators and artists, in fact the entire leadership class to whom we have entrusted our fragile civilization.

So, let’s give the philosophers a chance. What have we got to lose?

That line of thought got started a few days ago when I tried unsuccessfully to care about the tiresome negotiations over whether the latest federal bailout should be $1 trillion or $2 trillion, a bailout required because those debating it were the very same people who deliberately crashed the economy they are now trying to fix.

Then I read about Gov. Eric Holcomb and other Indiana pooh bahs vowing to move heaven and earth to ensure that public education gets full funding despite the fact that teacher union flaks and public health functionaries are doing everything they can to keep actual classroom instruction to a bare minimum.

All these people, I concluded, federal and state alike, are like curious but backward children who take their toys apart then start pitching a fit because they can’t figure out how the pieces go back together.

About the same time, my Indiana Policy Review colleague Craig and I were talking about books we might suggest for people seeking a little common sense in an insane world. My chief contribution was to recommend the works of Will Durant, that prolific and most eloquent historian.

That made me nostalgic for the spirited debates of my college years, when bold and even lunatic ideas could be tossed about with impunity, and for the dense, cryptic tomes that provided our fodder. Yes, heaven help me, I read Hesse and Sartre and Camus and discussed them with pompous glee, though today I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of them.

I considered dragging out my set of “The Story of Civilization,” started by Durant and finished with his wife, Ariel, as collaborator, but that thing is nearly 14,000 pages long, and my attention span isn’t what it used to be. So, I pulled down the much shorter but still insightful “The Story of Philosophy” on my Kindle.

And rediscovered, in the very first chapter, on Plato, an interesting bit of historical context some might find useful today.

From 490-470 B.S., Durant writes, Sparta and Athens forgot their jealousies and joined forces to battle the Persians seeking to turn Greece into a colony of its Asian empire. Sparta provided the army and Athens the navy.

The war over with the Persians thwarted, Sparta demobilized its troops “and suffered the economic disturbances natural to that process; while Athens turned her navy into a merchant fleet, and became one of the greatest trading cities of the ancient world.”

Sparta relapsed into agricultural seclusion and stagnation, “while Athens became a busy mart and port, the meeting place of many races of men and of diverse cults and customs, whose contact and rivalry begat comparisons, analysis and thought.”

Traditions and dogmas began to wear down, mathematics grew and science developed, and the “growth of wealth brought the leisure and security which are the prerequisites of research and speculation” and people “took all knowledge for their province and sought ever wider studies.” Magic and ritual “slowly gave way to science and control, and philosophy began.”

So, with commerce there is prosperity and the march of civilization; without it, stagnation. A simple lesson from nearly 2,500 years ago we could wish our lockdown overlords had given a passing thought to.

The philosophers have been giving us ideas ever since, which have been chewed over endlessly by other philosophers and ignored by everybody else. A pity.

Philosophy, should the subject be of more than mild interest to you, has five disciplines.

The human race has been and forever be will be stuck in one of them – politics, which is in theory is a search for how best to govern ourselves but in practice is merely a study in power without moral considerations, who has it and who wants it. Read the headlines on any day and tell me I’m wrong.

We might improve our practice of that discipline if we spent more effort exploring the other four: logic, which guides us in arguing our passions; aesthetics, which helps us separate the gold from the dross and hear the music in the noise; ethics, which can show us how to treat each other with decency; and metaphysics, which ponders our connection to the mysteries of eternity and infinity.

Perhaps we should have a philosopher in residence for every seat of power from the smallest council chamber to the halls of Congress, skeptics who can advise our tinkerers-with-toys that they don’t know everything and should stop pretending that they do.

People forget that about Socrates, the teacher of Plato and arguably the seminal figure in philosophy. The Socratic method was not about pounding wisdom into followers, but about removing the false certainty of unexamined dogmas, not about answers but always moving on to deeper questions with clearer thinking.

“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing,” he said. Doubt is the first step on the road to wisdom.

Which is the thought for the day, but perhaps not this day. Not too many out there willing to admit what they do not know, I suspect.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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