I remember the first and only time that one of my teachers ever used the word “meditate” to refer to the activity that I would need to undertake to complete an assignment. I was a newly arrived American student on scholarship at Oxford, and one of my first philosophy courses was with the late Bob Hargrave, who gave me the reading list and essay question for our first tutorial and explained that although Americans always wanted to know where to track down all the readings, that my primary concern should be to find the time to “cogitate and meditate” about the topic.
I confess that it took me another ten years or so to ever engage in anything resembling philosophical contemplation, and that it happened far beyond the walls of Balliol College or even academia. One day I found myself doodling on a digital reproduction of Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates and thinking about the moment it represents – not only in the life of philosophy’s greatest philosopher, but also in the life of philosophy itself. I probably spent twenty or thirty hours over the course of a week or so making hundreds of alterations to the original file – meditating about Socrates’ immortal final words and deeds as I did.
Lately, I have been impressed by a diatribe that Epictetus once gave in which he commanded his students:
Never call yourself a philosopher.
For Epictetus, the danger in attaching oneself to the label “philosopher” was that it invites the temptations of honor (~fame) into one’s cultivation of a philosophical way of life. Almost two thousand years later, Henry David Thoreau can be found beating the same drum in Walden:
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
The archetype of the philosopher championed by Epictetus and Thoreau is one that resonates with me. And yet I know that I “human, all too human,” a meditation which occasioned my first self-portrait:
Of course, Epictetus did not advise his students to call themselves non-philosophers – a harsher prescription, to be sure, than simply refraining from attaching oneself to the philosopher label – but here I am borrowing a page from Diogenes of Sinope:
He used to say that he followed the example of the trainers of choruses ; for they too set the note a little high, to ensure that the rest should hit the right note. DL VI.2.35