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The Consolation of Philosophy

Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio tossed out an applause line at a recent debate: "Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers." The crowd went wild. The right wing punditry metaphorically high fived him and each other. Take that, liberal effetes.

Put aside the fact that if there’s a class of workers that we need fewer of, it’s lawyers, Rubio’s own field of study, not just because of their reputation for sliminess, but because the marketplace is demanding fewer and fewer of them as their domestic jobs are replaced by bots and overseas workers. Despite this fact, law schools continue to encourage a generation of dreamers to take on exorbitant student loans for jobs that the market simply doesn’t generate.

Put aside the other widely reported fact that philosophy majors actually make twice the wages of welders, plus the concomitant advantages of being more likely to pair up with a fellow college graduate, which is likely to lead to a household with two bread earners who make twice the wage of welders. Rubio’s statement is clearly empirically false.

But why is it that a nation founded almost miraculously by philosophically driven leaders (Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Paine), imbued with the knowledge of the greatest minds of the time, now throws out empirically false applause lines as red meat to the masses, rather than celebrating the possibility that a rich nation can evolve from material wealth and expansionism to a higher level of purpose that can add meaning and value to the lives of millions, even billions, around the world? Why do we choose to be Sparta and not Athens?

Both Sparta and Athens were highly successful expansionist societies from 700 to about 200 BCE. But as Sparta left behind a legacy of battles won and lost, Athens left behind the foundations of western civilization itself, all of which flowed out of philosophy. The word philosophy, after all, literally means “love of learning.” The list of innovators emanating from the Greek republic is mind boggling. Euclid, founder of Geometry. Archimedes, engineer. Pythagoras, philosopher and mathematician. Socrates, creator of the Socratic method of seeking truth. Plato, philosopher on virtually every subject, author of The Republic, the seminal work of governing. Aristotle, scientist, mathematician, philosopher, and teacher of Alexander the Great, one of the most powerful military leaders of all time. Philosophy can aid military skill, not diminish it.

Democracy itself was an invention of this land of philosophers. As was atomic theory. Very modern concepts that required philosophical thinking to break through conventions and change the world. And philosophy is the gift that keeps on giving. Ancient Rome adopted many Greek ways, including its epics, gods and artistic style to give meaning to its own expansionist empire. When barbarians attacked Rome and Greek ideals were lost, it was their rediscovery that led to the flowering of the Renaissance. The Medici of Florence and their fellow humanists and supporters of the arts hired Greek tutors. Learning Greek to understand the works of the great philosophers was all the rage.

The irony is that Rubio’s comment comes at a time when profound innovation is emanating from the American Empire. The transistor, the silicon chip, the rise of digital technologies all come out of a university system rooted in the scientific method and steeped in philosophy. America has gone to the moon, sent an exploratory craft past Pluto and beyond our planets, and discovered water on Mars. Western civilization, inspired by the ideas of Plato, Locke, Voltaire, Descartes and hundreds of other philosophers has led to an unprecedented engine of wealth, well-being, and purpose for hundreds of millions of citizens of the world. America needs more philosophers, not fewer. Now, more than ever, as we engage in a struggle of minds against dark age terrorists we need writers and thinkers to unleash a torrent of ideas that will persuade these cultures that the ideas they fear can lead to more fulfilling lives and help their cultures to flower, not fade. Persuasion comes from ideas. Ideas come from a love of learning. The ancient Greeks had a word for that: philosophy.

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