Last week I stopped to pick up a pizza after a long day. When I entered the restaurant the young woman working the counter looked up at me and said “you have blue hair!” Hating such observations I responded, “yeah, I had an accident with some paint.” Knowing this was a joke, she responded “are you a rock star?” I smiled, flattered, even though I knew fun was being poked at me, and said “kinda.” “Oh”, she inquired? In a completely pompous moment, I responded “yeah, I’m a philosophy professor” (I never feel worthy of calling myself a philosopher, so I cringed inwardly). “What’s that”, she asked? “Well, we try to figure out the meaning of life, what the nature of reality is, how we should live our lives, what counts as knowledge. Things like that.” Immediately interest flashed across her face and I realized the mistake I’d made. “So what’s the meaning of life?” Walking out of the store with the pizza, I responded with a smile: “42”. “Wait, don’t leave”, she protested, “that makes no sense! What do you mean”? Flippantly, and with an utter sense of failure, I responded, “exactly”, and left. Rock star no more.
I’ve been troubled by this little encounter ever since. It seems to me that contemporary philosophy has utterly abandoned the question of wisdom, of sophia, of what it means to live well. We have given it over to the religious obscurantists, the new age, pop psychology gurus, and the advertising executives. Oh sure, we find nuggets of wisdom here and there in the works of philosophers; but largely we hide from the question and pretend that it is non-sensical. Perhaps what terrifies us is that the horizon under which the question must be posed today, in the anthropocene, has fundamentally transformed the nature of the question. Philosophy opens like a blooming flower, where the bloom (or is it the soil that allows the flower to bloom?) responds to historical conditions. The Greek begins with the question of wisdom, of what it is to live well and of what that special sort of knowledge would be that would deliver such a life. The flower unfolds: we must know something of the nature of reality to live well, so we get metaphysics or ontology. We must be able to distinguish between knowledge and opinion, because opinion or ungrounded belief leads to tragedy. Hence we get tragedy. We must know what is truly of value, what is truly of worth, so we get ethics and aesthetics. Ethics is not a set of rules to blame or condemn others, but is rather a map to flourishing. And we must recognize that we live among human, animal, and mineral others without whom we cannot live (metaphysics), and therefore we get political philosophy. A flower blooming. Yet somehow we’ve abandoned this and can only respond “42”.
The question for us today is antiquated and entirely new: what is wisdom today? Knowledge can no longer attain presence to consciousness or mastery. It is a collective enterprise that no one can master. Ontology must recognize the flowing and aleatory nature of reality. Ethics and political philosophy must recognize that it is anonymity, not small, that characterizes our social existence. Today a non-ideological (religious obscurantists, pop gurus, and ad men) σοφία must begin from the premise of non-presence, of densely packed networks, of vortices, of a world characterized by the incalculable, aleatory, and perhaps hopeless. It must begin with a world that has no transcendent guarantees and where chance is the strange inverse or companion– like a two-faced coin –of all knowledge. It must begin with a circumstance or strange situation where it is not– as it was for Epicurus and Lucretius –the arrows of nature that we must come to terms with, but rather the anthropocene as this strange, alien mirror that we made but can never master. What is wisdom in the age of the anthropocene? That is the question we recoil from today.