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The Protreptic Dilemma

Do you ever feel that philosophy is under attack? That it could be taken over by another enterprise? That it could be forgotten? Aristotle says, “don’t worry”.

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt.

Aristotle was a prolific writer. He wrote approximately 400 works out of which still many have survived and constitute what is known to be the Corpus Aristotelicum. One of his less widely known but still sometimes quoted piece is his Protrepticus, essentially an invitation to engage with philosophy (the ancient Greek verb “προτρέπω” from which Protrepticus originates means “to urge” or “to motivate”). It is believed that it was written when Aristotle was still in Athens as one of Plato’s students at the Academy. What we now recognize as the Protrepticus had quite a troublesome history. The text did not survive in its entirety; instead, various of its fragments were found in the work of Iamblichus of Chalcis who was a neo-Pythagorian thinker of the third century A.D. (1). The fragments were reconstructed in order to form the scaffold of Aristotle’s ideas. This process was rather intricate and required strenuous philological effort. Nevertheless, we were lucky that this particular text has reached us.

The Protreptic Dilemma, as it is known, is the young philosophy student’s solace as well as motivation for professionals of the field; it shows that it is impossible for philosophy to lose its use and ultimate value. Upon deciding to enter the field of academic philosophy, one may hear that pursuing philosophy is not worth the while, it is too abstract, too detached from real life, and it won’t get you a job anyway. Some may even feel that philosophy has been under attack for the past decade, just as the humanities in general. It seems, however, that Aristotle has already offered us an ingenious response that cures all doubt that philosophy is essential to our life. The writer of the Protrepticus suggests that

“If you ought to philosophize you ought to philosophize; and if you ought not to philosophize you ought to philosophize: therefore, in any case you ought to philosophize.”

And he continues to elaborate it as follows:

“For if philosophy exists, we certainly ought to philosophize, since it exists; and if it does not exist, in that case too we ought to inquire why philosophy does not exist — and by inquiring we philosophize; for inquiry is the cause of philosophy.” (2)

It is inevitable that we philosophize. It is embedded in human nature to wonder and question, to doubt and examine. And it is not merely a value judgment to say that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. The Socratic dictum “ὁ δέ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτός ἀνθρώπῳ” implies that the un-philosophical life is not fully experienced. Another translation, more literal, is that the unexamined life is not viable. (3) Humans by natural inclination are prone to thinking and reasoning. How could they really live without it?

Philosophy will never lose its worth; during different times and contexts, it may seem that people underestimate it, mock it, or even resent it. There are also philosophers who have notably abandoned philosophy and turned to literature and art for instance (a famous case is that of Richard Rorty). But every time a human mind ponders upon anything (from the most trivial question to the deepest and most enigmatic one) it is proof that “all human beings by nature desire to know” a statement famous as the beginning of Aristotle’s Metaphysics Book I. (4) It is proof that philosophy is deeply rooted in our lives and in our nature.

Notes

(1) For biographical information: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Iamblichus.

(2) The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 2:2416–17.

(3) The quote “ὁ δέ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτός ἀνθρώπῳ” is uttered by Socrates in Plato’s Apology, 38a.

(4)In the original: “Πάντες ἄνθρωποι τοῦ εἰδέναι ὀρέγονται φύσει”, Metaphysics Book I.


The Protreptic Dilemma was originally published in ILLUMINATION on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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