My spouse, the professional philosopher, startled me the other day while we were driving to Meijer’s by mentioning that Socrates had been a master stonecutter. That’s really the sort of thing you expect to hear on the way to Kroger’s. Up to that point I had never imagined that Socrates even had a profession. I’d assumed he had always made his living by committing acts of philosophy against the Athenian population. My mental model was that he probably had started out seeking wisdom and truth and maybe beauty around the holiday seasons. I had thought I was supported in this by Plato’s recording of Socrates’s discussion with Isocrates, which I had to read for an undergraduate history class about the Cold War, 1945 – 1963, because the professor was bored:
Isocrates: Good fellow Socrates! It has been an agora’s age. No, no, say nothing, I’ll not be engaging you in any conversations anymore. Everyone knows perfectly well how talking with you ends up.
Socrates: Everyone does? How does everyone come by such perfect knowledge?
Isocrates: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA [ continues for 26 scrolls of papyrus ] AAAAAAUGH!
Euryptolemus: Sorry to interrupt but the Spartans are invading Mytilene again.
So with a background like that you can see why I’m stunned to know Socrates ever had to do anything to pay the bills other than collect ransom for going off and talking to other people instead.
And if I weren’t amazed enough to learn Socrates had a day job then there’s that his job was such a blue-collar profession. I mean, I’m not stunned that a stonecutter would have deep thoughts about the ability to know things, since there are a lot of smart people with critical thinking skills who’ll go into jobs where they can smack things with hammers. It’s what it means about his relationship with Plato.
I mean, if I know anything about Plato it’s that he was the most devoted Socrates fanboy in all of history. A full quarter of the Symposium is devoted to the question of precisely how Socrates would beat Zeno in a fight. (Answer: eventually.) But look to Plato’s Republic: in his idealized nation-state, manual laborers are mostly there to daily receive condescending lectures about how to keep continuing to breathe, how to eat, and to for crying out loud stop accidentally worshipping Persian kings as gods already. Wasn’t he aware that his idol was one of those manual laborers Plato was so down on? Did he figure Socrates just had that hammer around for some rhetorical point? Was he afraid to ask because he’d been talking to Isocrates?
But this sort of stunning thing runs through the history of great thinkers. It turns out for instance that Voltaire supported his writing habit by working as a fry cook. Again, that’s a perfectly respectable profession, and he brought his innovative mind to it: he’s credited with coining the phrase “94” as slang for “dump this guy”. (It was reduced to 86 during the Napoleonic Wars to sneak past the British blockade.) Apparently he was able to go into writing full-time on the royalties from inventing scrambled eggs on a kaiser roll. And once you know that you understand why Candide has that scene where Doctor Pangloss spends four years as a galley slave making hash browns.
René Descartes spent fifteen years working as a longshoreman, and while that doesn’t seem to have directly informed his development of the ontological argument, it suddenly puts in context the part of the Second Meditation where he clearly anticipates the benefits of standardized cargo containers, speculates about what it says about God that Western Europe of that era knew of no styrofoam peanuts, and explains why he thought the mind interacted with the body by way of muscle strain. And Leibniz? He was a barrista from college through to his late 40s, all the while saying he was just finishing his History Of Stuff And Everything and getting lost in that spiral of doing ever-more-research. If someone hadn’t got him on calculus we might never have heard of him. Immanuel Kant? Road construction, which is why his posthumously-published letter referencing John Loudon McAdam as “the very noumenon of adequate drainage” is surely high praise, because otherwise it looks for all the world like a joke without being the slightest bit funny, only it doesn’t make sense real sense as praise either.
We got some vegetables, a new tablecloth, and no hemlock from the store.