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Monday, June 9, 2008

"It is more important to want the good than it is to know the truth."

In the fourteenth century, Petrarch rejected the idea of a theoretical and descriptive ethics, noting that reading and commenting upon Aristotle's treatises on the subject had not made him a better person. He therefore refused to apply the term "philosophers" to "professors sitting in a chair," and reserved the word for those who confirmed their teachings by their acts. It is to Petrarch that we owe the following remark, which is essential to the perspective we are investigating: "It is more important to want the good than it is to know the truth." We find the same attitude in Erasmus when he repeatedly affirms that the only philosopher is the person who lives philosophically, as did Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, and Epictetus, but also like John the Baptist, Christ, and the Apostles. We must note that when Petrarch and Erasmus speak of the philosophical life, they, like some Church Fathers and some of the monks, have in mind a Christian philosophical life. As we have seen, moreover, they admitted that some pagan philosophers also realized the ideal of the philosopher.

During the Renaissance, we see the renewal not only of the doctrinal tendencies of ancient philosophy but also of its concrete attitudes: Epicureanism, Stoicism, Platonism, Skepticism. Montaigne's Essays, for example, show the philosopher trying to practice the various modes of life proposed by ancient philosophy: "My trade and my art is living." His spiritual itinerary led him from the Stoicism of Seneca to the probabilism of Plutarch, through Skepticism, and finally --definitively-- to Epicureanism: "'Today I did nothing.''What? Have you not lived? Not only is that the fundamental point, but it is the most illustrious of your occupations... Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. To know how to loyally delight in our being is a perfection which is absolute, and as if divine.'"

Michel Foucault held that the "theoreticizing" of philosophy began with Descartes, not in the Middle Ages. As I have said elsewhere, I agree with him when he says: "Before Descartes, a subject could have access to the truth only by carrying out beforehand a certain work upon himself which made him susceptible of knowing the truth." (emphasis mine)

Pierre Hadot What is Ancient Philosophy p. 262-263

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