5 Famous Philosophers' Greatest Hypocrisies

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 31 2011 3:21 PM

5 Famous Philosophers' Greatest Hypocrisies

Modern philosophy is less interested in the lives great thinkers led than in the texts they produced. But once upon a time, writes James Miller, "philosophers were figures of wonder." These august men were "a source of shared inspiration, offering, through words and deeds, models of wisdom, patterns of conduct, and, for those who took them seriously, examples to be emulated."

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Or, sometimes, examples to be avoided.

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In his new book, Examined Lives , Miller offers biographical sketches of 12 great philosophers, each of whom "struggled to life his life according to a deliberately chosen set of precepts and beliefs" occasionally very unsuccessfully.

Brow Beat asked Miller, a professor of politics and director of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research, to offer five examples of times when famous philosophers utterly failed to put their theories into practice. Here's his list:


1.  Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) taught in his Politics that "man is by nature an animal intended to live in a polis ," an independent city-state that was small enough for citizens to know each other personally. However, he tutored Alexander the Great and was notorious in the Greek world for his unblinking support of the Macedonian Empire. After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., Greeks enraged by Aristotle's conduct tore down a plaque honoring him at Delphi and threw it into a well. (In the 20 th century, archeologists found fragments of the plaque.) Forced to flee for his safety from Athens, Aristotle died a year later in a city garrisoned by Macedonian troops.  

2.  In his essays, Seneca (4 B.C.-A.D. 65) praised a life of moderation devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, but as one of the Nero's highest-ranking associates he was a master of propaganda. For example, shortly after the emperor had poisoned a rival, Seneca drafted a speech, "On Mercy," praising the good ruler for "innocence of wrong" a fawning admonition. Four years later, he helped the emperor figure out how to finish up a botched murder of Agrippina, Nero's mother. When he admits such contradictions in his writing, Seneca is disarming: "I am not wise," he demurs, "Require me not to be equal to the best, but better than the worst." Nero eventually ordered Seneca to commit suicide which he did by slicing open his veins in a tub of steaming hot water. 

3.  Although Augustine (354-430) once declared that "there is more than one road to wisdom," he helped the early Roman Catholic Church turn persecution into an intellectual art form, as ruthlessly effective in theory as it could sometimes be in practice. As a bishop of his church in Northern Africa, he ordered the destruction of pagan temples and impassively watched while his denunciations provoked a rash of religious suicides, saying that God had allowed the heretics to "perish in their own flames" by "a hidden, though just, disposition."

4.  In his writings, René Descartes (1596-1650) claimed that he could secure an indubitable foundation for his philosophy by relying on the principles of pure mathematics. In reality, the inspiration for his scientific outlook was a series of dreams that he regarded, dubiously enough, as a revelation conveyed by a divine messenger. Years later, he attempted to prove in his Meditations that he had not fallen prey to "some malicious demon of the utmost cunning and power," because "it is impossible that God should ever deceive me" one of the least persuasive arguments in the history of philosophy.

5.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) devoted an entire treatise, Emile , to showing how to raise a perfectly virtuous child yet he abandoned all of his own children with his long-term mistress to a foundlings' home. He pleaded that poverty and poor health made him unfit to be a proper parent, while protesting that no one loved children more than he did. But at the end of his life, he had to concede that living an examined life had proved far harder than he had initially thought-and that "to dare to profess great virtues" without the courage needed to practice them "is to be arrogant and rash."

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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