9 Bad Boys of Philosophy

You’d think that a philosopher could reason out the best way to behave, right? But you’d be wrong, very wrong.

1. Socrates, the Barefoot Bum

Notoriously ugly, clad in one coat long beyond its years, and always shoeless, yet possessed of charisma that made the youth swoon, Socrates was a fixture in the marketplace of Athens.

There he would engage people with the Socratic method, beginning with a question that seemed straightforward and easy enough to answer, such as, What is virtue? Never content with the first answer, his irony and follow-up questions would inevitably lead to contradictions or admissions of ignorance on the part of his interlocutors.

Socrates rubbed some people the wrong way, though, and was brought to trial on trumpeted charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. Defiant to the end, Socrates suggested that the proper sentence for his “crimes” would be free meals at the public expense, as he had done the city good. The jury gave him a hemlock cocktail instead.

2. Diogenes, a Cynic’s Cynic

Always suspicious of society and philosophers, Diogenes (died ca. 320 BCE) would stop at nothing to make a point. He once ripped the feathers out of a live chicken to disprove Plato’s account of human beings as the only featherless biped. Asked once what wine he liked best, his cynical response was “other peoples’.”

Alexander the Great, intrigued by stories about Diogenes, sought him out and announced, “I am Alexander the Great. What can I do for you?” “Stand back – you block my light” was Diogenes’ response. While the ordinary person would have lost his head after such an insult, Diogenes was admired all the more, as the great conqueror said, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

3. Peter Abelard (1079-1144), the Castrated Cleric

Sex scandals are nothing new to the Catholic Church. Take the case of Abelard, the influential medieval philosopher who, ironically, did important work in ethics and logic. The young cleric fell in love with a beautiful young girl named Héloïse, whom he was supposed to be tutoring, and they married secretly, though they lived apart.

Héloïse’s uncle, however, mistakenly thought Abelard had discarded Héloïse by placing her in a convent, and he took revenge by having servants castrate Abelard in his sleep. Abelard woke up and things were never the same between him and Héloïse (needless to say, things were never the same between his legs either).

The ill-fated pair were, however, reunited in death, buried together at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris and immortalized in song by Cole Porter: “As Abelard said to Eloise, ‘Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please’” (from “Just One of Those Things”).

4. Marx: Big Heart, Skinny Wallet

Unable to find work as philosophy professor, Karl Marx (1818-1883) plotted a revolution. Working intermittently as journalist and largely relying on the charity of friends, Marx lost many apartments and even some children for lack of financial resources.

Declaring religion “the opiate of the masses,” Marx found no solace in a better world to come, but instead sought to change the one he inhabited. “A specter is haunting Europe,“ he said, “the specter of communism. The workers of the world have nothing to lose but their chains.”

History revealed Marx didn’t adequately anticipate capitalism’s ability to shift and change to avoid the revolution, as later workers’ movement won concessions in the form of labor laws, the welfare state, and five-day work week. So, the next time you sleep late on a Saturday, make sure to give props to the man who made the dream of the weekend off a reality.

5. Arthur Schopenhauer, Poodle-Loving Pessimist

The ultimate pessimist, Schopenhauer (1788-1860) viewed reality as a malicious trap, believing we live in the worst of all possible worlds. A notorious misogynist, Schopenhauer once pushed a woman down a flight of stairs. Grudgingly, he paid her regular restitution for her injuries until her death, when he recorded in his journal, “The old woman dies, the burden is lifted.”

Schopenhauer despised noise but inexplicably had a fondness for something more odious, poodles. A series of disposable poodles were his constant companions for most of his life.

Not a pleasant academic colleague, Schopenhauer resented the success of Hegel, whose philosophy he thought was the worst kind of nonsense. Perhaps planning to undo Hegel, Schopenhauer scheduled his course lectures at the same time as Hegel’s. The result, however, was an early retirement for Arthur.

6. Nietzsche: A Bad Boy Who Wasn’t

One might think he railed against the corrupting influence of Christianity and declared “God is dead,” because of his own misery (Nietzsche suffered from migraine headaches and poor digestion, topped off with bouts of insomnia). But the guy whose autobiographical Ecce Homo includes such chapters as “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” and “Why I Write Such Good Books” was actually an unassuming, mild-mannered man. His belief in “the will to power” as the most basic human drive finds little reflection in his own life outside his fantasies.

Though he fancied himself a warrior and a ladies’ man, Nietzsche’s military service was brief and unspectacular, and he never had a lover. As a bad boy in college, he may have visited a brothel or two, though. One theory suggests that the insanity that cut his career short and institutionalized him for the last 11 years of his life was the result of untreated syphilis.

7. Heidegger, Nazi Sympathizer

Though he originally planned to become a Catholic priest, this philosopher of being was far from holy. He carried on an extramarital affair with his gifted student Hannah Arendt, who later fled Germany to avoid persecution as a Jew. This might seem a peccadillo, except that Martin Heidegger was an anti-Semite who embraced the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Notoriously, Heidegger had his dictation dedication page in his Being and Time removed in subsequent printings of the book, as it paid homage to Edmund Husserl, his former teacher, a Jew. At a time when intellectuals should have risen up, Heidegger sank to the lowest common denominator. What’s worse, he never recanted or apologized.

8. Bertrand Russell, Cambridge Casanova

An innovator in mathematics and logic, and one of the founders of analytic philosophy, at first blush Russell sounds like a dry guy. Yet his life was anything but dull. Plagued by bouts of terrible depression as a young man, Russell learned to cultivate a zest for life. This heavy-drinking, pipe-smoking professor was notorious for having affairs with his friends’ wives. He rejected organized religion with his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Christian,” but nonetheless had a passion for social justice, flirting with runs for political office and doing jail time for political protest, that last time at age 94. Notably, Russell was a leading intellectual voice against the war in Vietnam.

9. Michel Foucault, the Marilyn Manson of Philosophy

Always the outsider, Foucault (1926-1984) was the voice of the marginalized and oppressed, notably as a supporter of an inspiration for the Paris student uprisings of 1968.

Making use of Nietzsche’s insights on the nature of power and the method of historical investigation and exposure known as genealogy, Foucault challenged the legitimacy of dominant cultural structures. Suspicious of institutions, in works such as Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and Discipline and Punish, Foucault called for the abolition of prisons and asylums.

Himself a homosexual, Foucault challenged our idea of what is normal in The History of Sexuality. As a visiting professor at Berkeley, Foucault frequented the San Francisco bathhouses and developed a passion for S&M. Though he kept his disease a private matter, he was the first (and to date only) major philosopher to die of AIDS.

Bonus: Pure Genius – Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus (ca. 624-546 BCE), the first Western philosopher, set the standard for absentminded professors to come. Lost in thought, gazing at the sky, Thales fell into a well.

Ridiculed as an impractical dreamer, Thales set out to show that philosophers could do anything they set their minds to, including amassing wealth. One winter, using his knowledge of meteorology and astronomy, Thales predicted a bumper olive crop for the coming season. He cornered the market on olive presses in Miletus and made a fortune when the olive harvest met his expectations.

Remarkably, Thales predicted the solar eclipse of 585 BCE. He also measured the height of the Egyptian pyramids using their shadows. Thales is perhaps best known for arguing that water is the basic source element, that ultimately all things are made of water. He also argued that “all things are full of gods and have a share of soul,” a poetic rendering of the insight confirmed by much later science that all matter is always in motion.

From mental_floss' book Condensed Knowledge: A deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again, published in Neatorama with permission. Original article "Behind the Philosophy: Bad Boys of Thought" written by William Irwin, associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

William Irwin is the editor of The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, Seinfeld and Philosophy, and The Death and Resurrection of the Author? He is the author of Intentionalist Interpretation and the coauthor of Critical Thinking.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!

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The suggestion that Heidegger dropped acknowledgment of Husserl from later editions of B & T _out of anti-semitism_ is just a complete lie. They had a personal and intellectual falling out. Husserl had issues with Heidegger's interpretation of the Lifeworld and of phenomenology, from what I recall.

Don't perpetuate garbage.
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