What’s so funny about philosophers?

Unthinkable: The original ‘sage-wannabes’ of Athens were considered slightly weird, a new book reveals

Comedy has played a central role in philosophy from the days of ancient Greece. Diogenes was renowned for oddball stunts. Zeno of Elea traded in amusing paradoxes. Most famously, Socrates made fun of his interlocutors – and was lampooned in turn in Aristophanes' The Clouds.

So it seems entirely appropriate that Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are journeying to the cradle of western civilisation for the fourth – and possibly final – leg of The Trip. The comedy series airs next week (Sky One from March 3rd), with a heavy dollop of philosophical content amid Michael Caine impressions and competitive joke-telling.

According to Greek scholar Christopher Moore, the very word "philosopher" began its life as a jibe – or rather as "a wry verbal slight" roughly translated as "sage-wannabe". It was only after some time that philosophers claimed the label for themselves, redefining their discipline in a self-lauding manner as "love of wisdom".

Moore's recently-published book Calling Philosophers Names: On the Origin of a Discipline (Princeton University Press) is the perfect intellectual accompaniment to The Trip to Greece. A hefty tome, running to over 400 pages, it deals with the single question of how the word "philosophos" or "philosopher" first emerged roughly 2,500 years ago. Now that is funny!

Moore admits to himself the somewhat farcical nature of the project. The “unremitting interrogation of the same old texts… might seem boring or witless to outsiders” but there is “the competitive zest in seeking something as yet overlooked by past generations, and the pride of minute discovery, a feeling of distinction in a crowded field of greatness”.

A work of immense scholarship and delightful fastidiousness, Calling Philosopher Names concludes – after some major analytical legwork – with one of the most elegant definitions of philosophy. It is, writes Moore, “basically the practice of talking, with the goal of becoming a better person”. He explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Who first used the term “philosophos” or “philosopher” in Ancient Greece?

“We know the term earliest from Heraclitus [a thinker who emphasised harmony in the world], who wrote in the decades before Socrates’ birth. But the term must predate that. Heraclitus is pitying those ‘philosophical men’ who have to sift through an awful lot of material to attain their status – too bad they haven’t yet realised that all is only ‘one’.

“His description matches derisive comments about Pythagoras that we know from him and his contemporaries. Pythagoras – of soul-migration and geometry-loving fame – surrounded himself with a circle of politically consequential, religiously inspired, and theoretically clever thinkers in southern Italy. I infer then that the term circulated as a bemused label for these Pythagoreans or similar groups.

“In subsequent generations the Pythagoreans probably capitulated and accepted the name, as happened with ‘freak’ or ‘queer’, but early on I would think of it as applied from the outside.”

Was “philosopher” originally designed as an insult then?

“Maybe not an insult, though probably marking some doubt or disapprobation. Don’t a lot of religious group names start this way: ‘Protestant’, ‘Shaker’ or ‘Holy Roller’?

“The dominant group refers to some upstarts by appeal not to their central tenets but to the most obviously odd, socially uncouth, or seemingly irrational component of their behaviour: ‘Geez, they’re just contrary all the time!’ ‘They can’t sit still for a moment!’

“This pattern probably holds for the early Greek case, especially for a quasi-religious cult and political action committee like the one we see around Pythagoras. Etymological evidence supports it. The ‘phil-’ prefix, so I argue, is a name generator for just such bemused observations of unusual and problematic behaviour.

“It’s like ‘cat-lover’ or ‘Jesus-freak’. Not harsh, and seemingly neutral, but definitely implying having gone over the deep end, dedicating too much time and energy to something outside the norm.”

Is it fair to say one of the early distinguishing features associated with philosophy is that it was a not-for-profit activity? How did this impression develop and what sustained it over time?

“Super question, which hadn’t occurred to me: the benighted standpoint of being a salaried philosophy professor. This is certainly a point Socrates and his friends came to make. He didn’t know enough, Socrates said, to teach anything, and thus it would be unconscionable to charge for such teaching.

“His student Plato made his research school, the Academy, free, and I think the same thing holds of Aristotle’s Lyceum. In their line of thinking, the pursuit of money had little value relative to pursuit of virtue or knowledge...

“Of course, this is all wholly consistent with students paying money to learn philosophy, and thus there being paid teachers of philosophy.

“The basic point is akin to that of the liberal arts: the liberal arts, and philosophy, do not have as their specific goal any profit making, even if they both might contribute to one’s successfully pursuing profit-making activity. They seek to lay the groundwork for any profit being beneficial to you at all.”

Was there an historical turning point in ancient Greece when philosophy became mainstream?

“Maybe never? Comedians lampooned philosophers throughout the fourth and third centuries BC. The dedication to a life governed by principles, a search for erudite knowledge, and logical precision sounded as weird and niche back then as ascetic, cloud-contemplating, captiously argumentative life does now.

“But I suspect you’re asking something else – when it became a recognisable and familiar-enough thing… Near the place on the Temple of Apollo of Delphi, where the famous ‘Know Yourself!’ and ‘Nothing in Excess!’ were inscribed, there was eventually ‘Be Philosophical!’ Naturally, it doesn’t mean: ‘Get a PhD’. I suppose it meant something like ‘Think before you act’ or ‘Reflect on your reasons’.

“What’s the turning point? I think it’s seeing that the idea that guides those you scornfully call ‘philosophers’ also in fact guide you, even though with less intensity.”


Ask a sage:

Who was wiser, Jesus or Socrates?

Steve Coogan replies: “It always baffled me that people stick to Christianity when there was a more nuanced, holistic approach to living your life that pre-dated it a few centuries.”