Unmarried Philosophers

(A short reflection. Not too interesting. But it is depressing that so many philosophers have not married. Makes me worry about my own prospects, a lot)

Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, Voltaire, Hume, Adam Smith, Leibniz, Newton, Spinoza, Locke, Descartes, Bentham, Hobbes, Aquinas, Plato. Yes. None of them married. One can argue that the history of philosophy is a history of bachelors arguing across each other. (No wonder the most commonly used example for an analytic proposition is “All bachelors are unmarried.” The first philosophers were just thinking about themselves.)

This is pertinent on two fronts. First, there is the very famous passage from the Genealogy of Morals where Nietzsche pointed out this poignant fact, trying to make the point that asceticism is the most rudimentary form of our striving for the will-to-power—and that, although he opposed asceticism (for it is a denial of life), all great thought hitherto has been due to this practice. Does marriage impede one’s philosophical career? Perhaps. But there are many counterexamples: Aristotle, Heidegger, Arendt, Dostoevsky, Socrates (whose marriage was a total failure). What we may say, though, is that many philosophers are eccentric people with strange dispositions. They are perhaps too unstable for marriage. And this, as Nietzsche would have said, is a defect that people who like to think should overcome. (For thinking is naturally chaotic. And marriage is orderly.)

Second, how much moral authority do philosophers’ advices have over us, if they themselves did not live a terribly good life? (How much should we link a thinker’s thoughts with his/her biography?) This is a perennial question. Normally, people who like a certain philosophy would maintain that the philosopher’s wrongdoings do not affect their thought (e.g. Heidegger/Pound). And, of course, who dislike those philosophies would beat on the dead horse again and again.

What do I think? Certainly, if a thinker lives extremely admirably, it does but a sheen upon his words—for a genuine book comes from the deep recesses of the author’s soul. But if they’ve messed their lives up, we don’t necessarily have to reject their philosophy, but see the potential for error lying in the thinker (and those are often the most illuminating)—for Nietzsche and Heidegger, for example.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s