If you ask most people to describe a philosopher, they end up painting a picture of somebody who works at Harvard and wears a lot of wool and tweed and corduroy. Maybe they’ll describe somebody from ancient history, dressed in a toga, talking about big ideas, oblivious to the everyday happenings around them. It’s an understandable impulse, because philosophy can seem so distant and the people who practice it somehow above or apart from the rest of us.
This is a mistake. It’s not only not what philosophy is supposed to be, but it’s also historically inaccurate. As Blaise Pascal explains, writing some five hundred years ago, "We always picture Plato and Aristotle wearing long academic gowns, but they were ordinary decent people like everyone else, who enjoyed a laugh with their friends.” Pascal took pains to point out that the books they wrote were written for pleasure and enjoyment—they were not stuffy, pretentious documents meant to intimidate people. On the contrary, Aristotle and Plato and Socrates were writing to help people, to pass along what they had learned.
The same was true for the Stoics. Why is Meditations so straightforward and easy to read? It’s because Marcus was writing to help himself. Why does Epictetus seem so conversational? It’s because that’s literally what he was doing. He didn’t “write” anything—what survives to us are essentially transcripts of conversations he had with students. Think about Seneca writing his letters. There was a real person on both sides of that communique, a writer and a recipient. True friends trying to help each other by being clear, not confusing.
Philosophers aren’t different from us or better than us. They are us.
The best philosophers are regular people with a passion for self-improvement, with a love for their fellow human beings struggling in the real world. There might be Harvard professors who fit that bill, but too many of them don’t. It’s critical that you ignore them and don’t let them lead you astray (or intimidate you). Philosophy isn’t about books and big words and theories and complicated metaphysics. It’s about getting better, in a real practical sense. It’s about realizing your potential—intellectually, morally, spiritually.
As Blaise Pascal concluded, the writing that Aristotle and Plato did was actually the “least philosophical and least serious part of their lives: the most philosophical was living simply and without fuss."
Beautiful. Let that inspire you. And try to follow in its example today and always.