In a recent piece for NPR, Tania Lombrozo called for philosophers to be more engaged in public life.
I'm very much interested in philosophy, so why do I have a negative reaction to this NPR article? Perhaps it aroused the Epicurean in me. In ancient Greece, Stoic philosophers believed that the more fortunate members of society had a duty to serve society, while Epicurean philosophers thought that the wise thing to do was to enjoy life with a circle of close fiends and ignore the rest of the world as thoroughly as possible. Perhaps I have a Stoic approach to politics, except that I want to keep my Epicurean philosophy separate from it. Oscar Wilde loved art, including theatre, and he wanted to see society become more democratic and more responsive to the needs of those who needs were greatest, and yet he was opposed to the Realist plays which were in a great vogue during his lifetime, plays which sought to address social inequities. Wilde insisted: "All art is quite useless." Perhaps he felt that plays were the last thing which were suited to enacting great social change. And perhaps my involvement with philosophy boils down to something resembling Wilde's involvement with art -- it's something I dearly love, but I wouldn't recommend it as a cure for society's ills.
If we're going to involve philosophers in public life -- what kind of philosophers? Philosophers tend to constantly and sharply disagree with one another about just about everything imaginable, and have since ancient Greece. As far as I can tell, the most influential single philosopher in the politics of the US of the past 100 years has been Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind and instructor, at the University of Chicago, of a very nasty and powerful brood of Republican neocons.
My favorite philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was emphatically ivory-tower. He wanted no part of any political party. Epicurean all the way, he was. "Beneath him and behind him" was how, in his opinion, every true philosopher should regard politics. And given Nietzsche's views on women, perhaps it's very much for the best that he never involved himself in politics. (Saying that Nietzsche is my favorite philosopher is far from saying that I agree with him about everything. In fact, I disagree with just about every single thing Nietzsche says about women in his philosophical works. Turning directly from those works to the letters he wrote to actual individual women, it's hard to believe that the misogynistic philosopher and the downright nice letter-writer are one and the same.)
I know of only 2 philosopher-kings, both Roman Emperors, Marcus Aurelius and Julian. Neither one a bad Emperor -- Julian is admirable for his concerted although unsuccessful attempt to oppose Christianity's intolerance of all other religions -- but neither one a particularly interesting philosopher either. (I think a case can be made that both Alexander the Great and Napoleon were philosopher-kings, and quite interesting philosophers, but I mention that only as an aside in this post because the general consensus is that they were not philosophers.)
I must be honest and point out that one reason for my negative response to Lombrozo's article is that I have heard of none of the living philosophers mentioned in it. I read mostly philosophers from bygone eras. Peter Sloterdijk, and dead guys. For all I know, all the people Lombrozo mentioned are perfectly brilliant, and their participation in public life could be nothing but tremendously good, and I'm missing an incredible amount of top-notch philosophizing which puts Sloterdijk to shame. I doubt it, but it's possible.