The Lost Scholarchs

I’m about halfway through reading Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller. For those unfamiliar with the book, it’s a set of profiles of 12 philosophers over the last 2000 years, focusing in particular on the relationship between their philosophy and the way they lived their own lives.

As I’ve moved through time from the ancient times of Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, and Seneca up through the classical period of Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, and Rousseau, the thing that has struck me most is the change in the position of a philosopher within society. Early philosophers of the Greek and Roman era cultivated, for lack of a better phrase, a cult of personality around themselves, where they were seen as figures to emulate in one’s life, behavior, and even thought.

The ancients had a term for this – the “scholarch.” Plato was the first to have the official title, as head of his Academy, but the term is certainly suitable for earlier philosophers like Socrates as well, whose academy was the public square, where bystanders “were invited to join in the ongoing argument he was holding, with himself and with others, over the best conceivable way to live.” Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurious, and others also had official titles as Scholarchs of their own respective schools, and even Seneca was known as “the most famous orator in the empire” (back when orators could be famous) and eventually a “friend of the emperor” to Nero, “one of the three most powerful people in the Roman Empire.”

This high place in society seems to be a far cry from the position held by later philosophers such as Montaigne, who was a nobleman by birth but became “a master of oblique criticism” in order to hide his philosophy from the warring Catholic and Protestant factions who seemed to care little for seeking deeper truths as opposed to arguing religious dogma. Descartes “tried to conceal his work and whereabouts, instructing [mathematician Marin] Mersenne on more than one occasion to lie about his activities” because it was considered heretical to hold “‘any public debate other than those approved by the doctors of the Theology Faculty’ of the Sorbonne.” Not only were these philosophers no longer seen as the epitome of scholarship and fine examples of how to live one’s life – they were actively persecuted for their work.

I’ve not yet completed the book (Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche are yet to come), but I’m hard-pressed to find examples of figures similar to the ancient scholarchs in modern society. Certainly we have systems of apprenticeship in areas like academia, where students are bound to a particular advisor for a period of time as they learn their discipline. But (at least in most cases), students only look to their advisors for advice in academic matters – it is not expected that the student will emulate their professor’s actions and way of life in as deep a way as Plato followed Socrates around the streets of Athens, for example.

In another vein, there are certainly thought leaders among politicians (e.g. Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck) or the technorati (Steve Jobs, Paul Graham), and many of followers formulate their own views based on these leaders. But again, the dedication seems almost superficial when compared to the way someone like Plato or Alcibiades hung on Socrates’ every word (at least until the latter decided he preferred being a tyrant to being a philosopher).

Is there still a place in today’s world for scholarchs? These learned, if imperfect, men who dedicated their lives to introspection and cultivate a following of others interested in the same goal had an important role the intellectual underpinnings of the entire western world. Is our world too fragmented and our echo chamber too loud for someone similar to exist today?

Book: Einstein’s Dreams

1905, known as Albert Einstein’s “annus mirablis,” saw him produce some of the most inspired work in the history of natural philosophy. From the outside, it is easy to see the import of this work – in a single year, Einstein established whole new fields of study, including fundamental discoveries in quantum physics and the special theory of relativity.

But what was it like on the *inside*? What was it like to *be* Albert during that year, the Swiss patent clerk discerning the true nature of the universe in his spare time? What is the essence of scientific discovery, of seeing so deeply into fundamental truths, of “Eureka!”?

Alan Lightman’s beautiful novel Einstein’s Dreams brings us inside the thoughts of this most famous of scientists through a series of meditations on the nature of time. Imagine time as a stream, “occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze,” or time flowing backwards, or a single place where time stands still. Imagine a world where time flows more slowly for those at higher altitudes, where everyone lives in the mountains on houses built on stilts.

In “a world in which people live just one day… [where] a man or a woman sees only one sunrise, one sunset.” December babies live a cold life, while June babies only know warm. Those born at night tend to be insular, not venturing outdoors even when daylight finally breaks, while those born during the day become depressed in the literal twilight of their lives.

Written in short chapters with brief sentences like brushstrokes on a painting, Einstein’s Dreams is an exercise in “What if?” – much like scientific thought itself. Each chapter takes as its premise some new truth about time, using it as the basis for a meditation on love, loss, relationships, life, and death. In the world without memory, lovers find that every night is the first night of passion. At the point where time stands still, mothers refuse to let go of their children, staying where “the beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blonde hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this soft pink glow on her cheeks… will never think thoghts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil.”

But beyond the meditations on time, I found the interludes, describing Einstein in the Zurich of 1905, to be even more fascinating. Here is Einstein walking slowly down Speichergasse with his friend Besso; here is Einstein absentmindedly staring off into space during dinner; here is Einstein sitting in a fishing boat, looking for shapes in the clouds.

I’ve been fascinated by biographies and portraits of great scientists since I first read Genius, James Glieck’s fabulous portrait of Richard Feynman. What is it that makes these great thinkers tick? Why do they see deeper or farther into the truth of the universe than the rest of humanity? How do they discern this truth, and how do they manage to convey it to the rest of us? Einstein’s Dreams is another fantastic portrait of a great thinker in his prime, seeing what no one else has seen.