The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Self-help philosophy, inspired by Socrates, that avoids hard questions

Marble statues of the Greek philosophers Socrates, right, and Plato sit in front of the Athens Academy. Socrates tried and failed to teach Alcibiades, a controversial political and military leader in ancient Greece, to become a better statesman. (Petros Giannakouris/AP)

More than 50 years ago, the French historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot argued that we had radically distorted the ancient Greek traditions of philosophy. We treated philosophy as a set of propositions, or a collection of arguments about which we could make other propositions and other arguments. This was philosophical discourse, but in ancient Greece philosophy was something very different than words about words. Philosophy was a way of life, and the philosophical quest was to engage in spiritual exercises that would come to alter how one lived.

Hadot’s view of philosophy as a way of life was unusual, but his erudition concerning the ancient Greek schools was undeniable. In France, Michel Foucault was very taken with the idea of spiritual exercises, which he integrated into his own writings as technologies of the self. How have we come to be the kinds of individuals we are? How do formal and informal practices — from schools to prisons to therapies and medication — create and limit our options? For Foucault, the essential question was “Can we live otherwise?” Can we find ways of being that are different from the ones that contemporary regimes of selfhood have defined for us as natural, healthy and acceptable?

Hadot’s and Foucault’s questions were radical when they first posed them, but by now they have been integrated into the American version of personal improvement. Self-help and its newer, narcissistic variant, self-care, are not what the French thinkers were aiming for, but now college philosophy departments will tell you how to live a good life, and psychology departments will explain how to be happy. These classes boost enrollments among undergraduates eager for more results and less anxiety from their education.

In “The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us About Our Search for Good Leaders,” Massimo Pigliucci embraces this self-help version of philosophy, mining the history of the field for precious advice to help us build better characters. The author comes to this subject from evolutionary biology, where he is an expert in phenotypic plasticity, the ability of an organism to adapt to better fit into its environment. It’s not too much of a stretch to see his work on character through this evolutionary lens. We can develop selves to better fit into the societies to which we belong, and perhaps make those societies more hospitable for survival in the process.

But unlike his work in biology, Pigliucci’s work in philosophy concerns ethics and politics — not just how we can survive but how we can live well together. That “well” should be a point of debate and critical examination. And so it was with Socrates, the hero of this book, who was told by the Oracle that he was the wisest among the Athenians. He came to realize that this was because he knew that he didn’t know that much. Other Athenians were confident in their answers to important questions, but when pressed by Socrates they often left their conversations quite puzzled.

Pigliucci’s Socrates is a gentle teacher who guides students away from fallacies and toward more dependable opinions. Like a sculptor chipping away at a marble slab, he carves away untruths to reveal something worth beholding. Given Socrates’ talents as an interlocutor, Pigliucci asks why he failed to educate the handsome, rich and powerful Alcibiades to become a better statesman. Alcibiades, a controversial political and military leader, had all the advantages, and Socrates was his friend and mentor (and perhaps lover). But the young man continued to display greed at every turn, was treacherous in his dealings with friends and was basically a poster child for bad behavior. The failure to educate Alcibiades leads Pigliucci to a series of sketches about how challenging and important it is to try to improve the character of political leaders. He considers Plato’s efforts with the tyrants of Syracuse, Aristotle’s influence on Alexander the Great and Seneca’s failures with the perverse Nero before going on to more general reflections on character and power.

There are no great surprises here — just a reminder that character matters in political leaders. Given the state of the country right now, I wonder whether we need such a reminder.

The enduring task of the philosopher has been to create opportunities to recognize what really matters — to teach oneself and others to redirect one’s attention from what should carry little weight and to devote oneself (perhaps through spiritual exercises) to the most important things or questions. Alcibiades liked wealth and power, which Pigliucci, following Socrates, doesn’t believe are the most important things. So, why did Socrates remain so attached to Alcibiades? Socrates is quoted as saying that the Athenian celebrity was “wedded to stupidity,” but he couldn’t take his eyes off the gorgeous, rich and powerful young man. Perhaps the effort to develop good character isn’t always in sync with one’s desires? If that’s the case, are the spiritual exercises supposed to change one’s affections? Who decides what are appropriate things to desire? What happens when one’s desires are in conflict with one another, or with the interests of those who hold authority? There are no simple ways to address these questions, and so they are not taken up in “The Quest for Character.”

Pigliucci doesn’t want his readers to be puzzled. He wants us to realize that becoming conscious of our own faults and practicing to reduce them will make us “better human beings.” By “better” he simply means more attentive to others, more kind, more generous and less prone to do the wrong thing because of bad people around us. The Stoic advice: Accept the things we must, improve what we can.

These self-help bromides are, of course, unobjectionable, but they have little to do with Socrates, who was put to death by his fellow citizens because of his radical questioning. Pigliucci suggests that contemporary science and ancient Stoicism can be combined to help us be kinder and gentler, avoiding bad people and finding role models who inspire us to more consistently act in accord with our good nature.

Lucky us. We don’t have to worry anymore about charismatic leaders like Alcibiades (or Nero!), nor about the systems that give rise to them. If you believe that, this is the book for you.

Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University. His latest book is “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses.”

The Quest for Character

What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us About Our Search for Good Leaders

By Massimo Pigliucci

Basic. 262 pp. $28

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