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Why The Philosopher Limps


When I was in a deep despair a few years ago over what to say to my class as we were about to discuss the Apology of Socrates, the Teacher led me to this book In Praise of Philosophy by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. And the Teacher told me to develop the idea Merleau-Ponty discusses there which I could use to describe Socrates: the idea that the philosopher limps.

Upon reading it in a frenzy, I became more frustrated and I did not see how the idea or the book for that matter could help; I felt that instead of giving me bullets, I all the more felt defenseless and bad about myself because there I was unable to understand neither Socrates nor Merleau-Ponty. Why does the philosopher limp? and why Socrates?--I asked myself over and over again.

Well, I did get through that reading much in the same way that dogs fight for scraps or a runner wills himself to the finish line by extending his head; in other words, it wasn't a pretty sight. And since students cannot be lied to and can read through you, they saw and knew how I struggled. And I, too, knew that they let me pass on that one.

Years have passed and I still wonder why Merleau-Ponty said that the philosopher limps. And whenever I see a man with a broken leg or a sling on his arm, I remember my ignorance; but more importantly, whenever I look back to those difficult years of teaching, I remember how I, too--perhaps necessarily so--limped.

And that was it. I realize just now that I myself limped during those years when there I was, a young hopeful man who brought with him only a promise to keep and a heart which wanted to teach. I knew I loved philosophy like no other: but how could I impart that to my students? I knew how philosophy changed my life: but how do I tell this to them without sounding like a priest or looking like a fool--or both? I knew; they didn't--yet. Or better, they knew--knew what really mattered; I didn't--yet.

I had so much to say, so much to show, so much to give. But how?

Teaching philosophy is an oxymoron, that is to say, it cannot be done. No one can teach philosophy because philosophy is essentially the love of wisdom--and neither love nor wisdom can be taught. Knowledge, to be sure, can be imparted in the way that information can be disseminated or data can be transferred. But if there was any knowledge to be gained from philosophy, as Socrates showed, it was that we do not know anything--and he is wise who knows that he does not know. Hence philosophy takes its name and beginning from that searching and reaching for wisdom in the way that love suspends itself in the infinite and unquenchable desire to be with the beloved that it can never love enough or begin to love at all. This tension between ignorance and knowledge, this abyss between the lover and the beloved, this suspended state of being the the middle of a path: this is the modesty and at the same time the pride of the philosopher. And this cannot be taught as it waits to be experienced.

Well then, can philosophy be shown if it cannot be taught in the way that experiments and demonstrations are done in the sciences? Yes--but only to a certain extent. This I tried. I tried to show my students how passionate I am about what I say, how much I believed in what this philosopher said or how much faith I had in this endeavor. I did not plan it like an actor who reads his script and practices his gestures before the play; it came out naturally for me. Aside from the fact that I both loved and dreaded public speaking, speaking about something which mattered to me seemed to boost my confidence; and since students see this, they recognized it. But again, showing how passionate you are about something--say philosophy--will have its successes but also its failures. Failures because, as with all things personal, a passion can be shown but it does not necessarily make you more believable. Why? Is this a matter of belief already? Yes. Because like a secret that was imparted to you or a vision from God, such an intimate passion can and will always have to be yours and yours only. And to attempt to either say or show that secret to others is a two-edged sword: either they believe you with suspicion or they will think you a fool. And a teacher can no more ask his students to believe what he says than to ask them to have the same faith. To do so would be antithetical to being a teacher--much more a teacher of philosophy. You can hope that a student becomes "curious" as to your passion and would try it out for himself; but this, I discovered, is not something that you set upon yourself to do nor even hope for.

Whenever I go to church, I always envy those who exhibit a deep, strong faith that can only come with certainty; I feel I have been deprived of a secret they were privy to. And perhaps this is the difficulty of the philosopher: a truth was revealed to him which changes him like no other. But he cannot merely speak about it as if it were the good news or gather others to witness it because it presented itself to him--as if he were chosen--and to him alone. Like a lone witness or the problematic butterfly in an enchanted island, the philosopher's testimony will never be taken as true and no matter how much you show your rapture it does not make you more believable but even more suspicious. After all, Plato said that the love of wisdom was a kind of mania or rapture--the kind we see in the insane and their wacky visions. This is why I have kept silent. Like other teachers I know who have to bottle up all that love.

If philosophy cannot be taught or shown, how then does one go about imparting it? To be sure, one can keep it to himself: think for himself, write for himself, and die with it. I see no problem in this. But philosophy can also be given and perhaps philosophy essentially experienced cannot but be given. How? By merely becoming a philosopher on your own.

To become a philosopher: this means never giving up on speaking even if no one listens or never preventing yourself from exuding your happiness before a weary world. If a man loves the world, he becomes a businessman; if a man loves the God, he becomes a priest; so, too, with the man who loves wisdom--he wants to become a philosopher. But if the man of economy serves the economy and the man of God serves the God, what then does the philosopher serve? There are no riches or gods to be found in philosophy.

I venture a guess that the limping of the philosopher is precisely the ignorance of knowing what or who to serve but knowing it must serve. Like suffering a broken leg, the philosopher knows something is not right, he knows that something is lacking, something is missing. But unlike the limp, the philosopher does not yet know if time shall heal his brokenness or if he shall ever be complete at all. He cannot know these things--how could he? But he knows in his very bones that this cannot be all. He knows in his heart that there should be more than this. He suffers from a pain with no name--but it is this pain which ignites that very search for healing, it is that pain which makes him feel alive to the world.

Put positively, the philosopher can only become a philosopher by loving. Love what? Both what he knows and does not know, what he has and does not have, what he believes in and does not believe in. In other words, by loving everything: the unseen God, the mystery of the world, the man that he himself is. Since there is nothing decided for a philosopher as there is nothing decided for someone in the middle of a journey, he has to always stake himself on whatever shows itself to him. And there will always be danger in this.

Socrates limped in front of his Athenian brethren because he spoke about daimons, oracles, death and life. And all the accusers wanted to hear was his defense against impiety and corruption of the youth; all they wanted was an explanation. Now you can imagine what the citizens thought when they heard Socrates saying that the unexamined life is not worth living or that he was wiser than politicians, artists and craftsmen because unlike them he knows he does not know.

But the philosopher did not mind taking the chance to speak or show what he believed mattered and what he had faith in. He did not recant like Galileo nor did he flee like Aristotle. When he awaited judgment, he used that opportunity to teach those with him that there is nothing to fear in death. And as he drank the hemlock, he was still teaching about the immortality of the soul until his eyes inevitably closed. He remained being a philosopher even if he looked nuts already, even if he would eventually be given the judgment of martyrs, that is, punishment of death.

So why does the philosopher limp? It can also be asked why saints and the holy suffer the stigmata of Christ.



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