The Chronicle Review

The Fathers of Philosophy

A scholar on the brink of fatherhood contemplates how he got there

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

June 09, 2014

"Do you want to cut it?"

No. I wanted to run and hide. To find some quiet corner of the hospital that had nothing to do with pregnancy, labor, or children. Like the psychiatric ward. It didn’t even look like something that was meant to be cut—it looked like something between a vital artery and the nylon rope you buy at the hardware store. So cutting it was the last thing I wanted to do.

Instead, I wanted to point out to our lovely midwife that my father hadn’t even been in the delivery room when I was born. (In that moment, for the first time ever, I found myself not entirely blaming him.) I also wanted to tell her that I’d only very recently stopped calling her "the Wiccan Priestess," but that her question had once again convinced me that she clearly was one. Didn’t she know that I was a philosopher, not a surgeon, and therefore not schooled in this sort of occult ritual? More than anything, I wanted to state the obvious: that one end of that cord was attached to the only woman I’d ever really loved, and the other end was affixed to a total stranger. And that once I cut it, that little stranger would become its own person, and would be irreparably ours to take care of.

So, no. I definitely did not want to cut it.

As a young classics student, I’d learned from Sophocles that "children are the anchors of a mother’s life." He didn’t say anything about the fate of the fathers, and so I had assumed that they remained happily untethered. My own father had done little, if anything, to change my mind about the natural detachment of male parents. But my mere maleness wouldn’t explain why I would be especially bad with a pair of surgical scissors or the other obligations of fatherhood. And I was going to be worse than your average father. I just knew it.

Philosophers tend to be terrified of bodies, so having sex can be a problem. But some of us manage, only to have to face the question of parenthood.

I was, after all, a philosopher, and philosophers aren’t supposed to be parents. Or so I thought. Philosophers on the whole are awkward and bookish. And slightly terrified of bodies, especially the messy bits. We’re used to living in our heads—tidy little spaces that only occasionally provide enough room for meaningful relationships. In Kant’s words, making love "makes of the loved person an Object of appetite … and taken by itself it is a degradation of human nature." So getting to have sex, the very basis of procreation, can be a bit of a problem for philosophers as well. But some of us manage, only to have to face the question of parenthood with no small amount of fear and trembling.

Of course, as philosophers, we shroud our neuroses about parenthood in well-formed rationalizations. We’re doing everybody a favor by not having children in the first place. Our own lives are defined by anguish, despair, and existential crises—so obviously any offspring would face similar hardships. Why be complicit in that sort of suffering? Schopenhauer, who never raised kids, couldn’t think of a reason: "If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?" That sounded reasonable to me.

Philosophers, with their special corner on self-knowledge, know that no one is ever fully equipped to become a father. That may have been one of many reasons that Nietzsche never became a parent. "Are you a man entitled to wish for a child?" he asks us. "Are you the victorious one, the self-conqueror, the commander of your senses, the master of your virtues? … Or is it the animal and need that speak out of your wish? Or loneliness? Or lack of peace with yourself?" Or, one wants to add, all of the above?

As fathers, we’re expected (by Nietzsche and other childless experts) to be "self-conquerors," to have ourselves fully in order before we start giving orders to children. That seems to be a reasonable expectation, but one that nobody seems able to meet: From what I’d heard, parenting meant never again having yourself in order, but muddling along through the chaos of human relations as best you can. That strikes most philosophers as unbearable. So, following Nietzsche, some head for the hills of perennial bachelordom.

I was well acquainted with those hills. They’re located around Sils Maria, a little Swiss village just north of the Italian border, where Nietzsche summered (all by himself) between 1883 and 1888. Who needs kids when you’re surrounded by a landscape that Nietzsche described as blutsverwandt—"related by blood"? The mountains there are singularly inviting, intimate without being smothering. I arrived when I was 20 and instantly loved them. I vowed I wouldn’t make Nietzsche’s mistake: I would never leave. Because when Nietzsche left Sils Maria for the last time, he became increasingly lonely and ended up hugging a horse in a Turin marketplace, which was the last thing he did before being institutionalized. Cautionary tales don’t get much more cautionary than that. So I was determined that I would remain happy and alone in Sils Maria.

"John. Do you want to cut it?"

Of course I didn’t.

I could tell the Wiccan was getting annoyed. So were the nurses. I couldn’t blame them.

They’d led my partner, Carol (who like me is a philosopher, but unlike me is brave), through 72 hours of medically induced labor. Finally, after three days, there was movement from the beast within, and now I was the one being squeamish.

But then, somewhere deep inside—in some fleshy place where philosophers aren’t supposed to have memories or realizations—I remembered a handful of lessons that I’d forgotten, or intentionally overlooked, in the process of becoming a professional philosopher. These lessons were, in fact, from the early days of philosophy, from a distant time before philosophers had retreated into the ivory tower and didn’t avoid the most important moments of everyday life, moments that might feature nylon cords and surgical scissors.

The ancient Greeks didn’t all want to have kids. "Raising children is an uncertain thing," Democritus says. "Success is reached only after a life of battle and worry." The confusion and ambiguity of parenting did not sit well with his strict determinism and materialism. For this pre-Socratic philosopher, the universe was atomistic, and things in such a universe—even things like humans—should stick to themselves. No one is sure, but I suspect that Democritus didn’t have kids. Maybe that’s why Socrates, father of three, had a special hatred for him, the type that some parents reserve for the childless.

Socrates would have deemed me a lousy philosopher, since for most of my life, I had regarded uncertainty as something to be avoided at all costs. In the Theaetetus, he tells his listeners that any philosophy worth having "begins in wonder"—in a tenuous moment of uncertainty—and after philosophy runs its course, the wonder remains.

Wonder. For Plato and Socrates, it isn’t just a matter of having a question. It’s a matter of being taken aback. Astonished. Flabbergasted. Surprised beyond belief, to the brink of sickness.

Did you know that the head of an average newborn is the size of a small cantaloupe? It looks much bigger when it is being pushed through a much smaller orifice, the integrity of which I’d always regarded as a little sacred. Did you know that childbirth is the metabolic equivalent of swimming seven miles? At the end of it, you expel a little person from that little passage but also enough blood to fill a pint glass. Sometimes this little person inhales its own poop. I didn’t know that. Like I said, surprised to the brink of sickness.

Wonder is exactly like that. And so, parenthood and philosophy really should begin at exactly the same place.

There’s a proper response to wonder, according to Plato and Socrates, and it’s not to escape as quickly as possible. It’s also not to pretend that the object of wonder makes perfect sense. It doesn’t. In his Apology, Socrates argues that the first step in handling existential confusion is to admit, as quickly as possible, that you’re confused. "I know one thing: that I know nothing." When Socrates says it, it almost sounds easy.

Philosophers, with their special corner on self-knowledge, know that no one is ever fully equipped to become a father.

This harmless-sounding paradox is the core of Socratic wisdom—the one thing that Socrates knows that others don’t—and amounts to renouncing any claim to perfection.

That renunciation was always hard for me to swallow, and, until now, I never had to. Of course no one, not even a childless philosopher, is perfect. But that didn’t keep me from spending much of my life pretending I could be. I also tended to avoid situations that might jeopardize the beautiful facade I’d managed to construct.

So I had no idea how I’d gotten into this mess with the Wiccan and the squalling stranger who was about to become our most intimate companion. From the outside, good parenting always looked a little tough but ultimately doable. So I wasn’t supposed to feel completely gutted, was I? Socrates knew better. There’s an unavoidable difference between semblance and reality, between what something looks like from the outside and what it actually is. When we stop pretending and avoiding, when we stop playing with appearances and actually tarry with reality, the truth of Socratic wisdom has the chance to sink in. And it turns out that when it does, we don’t have to go to pieces.

I tried to tell myself that things could be worse. At least I didn’t have to bite through it, which is what most mammals do with umbilical cords. So to say that I was completely ill-equipped to be a father isn’t exactly true: At least I had scissors.

According to Plato, "No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nature and education." But unlike Democritus, he says nothing about "success" in parenting, only that we should brace ourselves to "persevere to the end." If we foreclose the possibility of perfection—as we should, if Socrates is right about human fallibility—the best we can expect is a life of struggle.

The prospect of struggle in life and fatherhood is not an indication that we should opt out, but rather lean in—like Sisyphus, who is destined to push the boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. Lean in that way, for all eternity. Plato’s Republic suggests that we can grin and bear it. That centerpiece of Western culture can be boiled down to the burdensome question of how best to educate and cultivate the youth. Socrates is brought to trial for promoting a new philosophy of fatherhood in a culture that is pointedly uninterested. It is, after all, so much easier to let the kids raise themselves.

Obviously few interpret the Platonic dialogues this way anymore. Most philosophers have looked back at Socrates and Plato and seen themselves—thinkers interested in making arguments divorced from the business of living. But if you take a fresh look at what Plato is actually saying, it’s pretty clear: Socrates was condemned to death for the sake of the kids, for the chance to raise them in reflective and moral ways. This becomes clear in the Symposium as well, when Socrates explains that the vitality of the state depends on the cultivation of the youth, and that this task belongs collectively to the culture at large. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom, who took up Plato’s original concern in the The Closing of the American Mind, worried that a culture like ours tends to neglect this task at its own peril.

"Fathers and mothers," according to Bloom, "have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise. … Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine." Children, as a product of such a culture, develop similar aspirations and imaginations, and they, for better or for worse, go on to have kids of their own. Mostly for worse, according to Socrates and Bloom.

These thinkers might be wrong about many things, but this isn’t one of them. As a professional philosopher, I found that my fixation on success, both real and imagined, had left me unprepared to see the value of anything else—like beauty, or wisdom, or justice. You could say that being a professional philosopher had made it difficult for me to be an actual one, never mind a person anyone would want to have as their father.

According to Plato, good philosophers and good fathers aren’t distracted by the allure of extrinsic or instrumental goods, the value of which is measured by their ability to achieve some other end. Instead, truly good ones doggedly pursue intrinsic goods in the form of ideals that are good in themselves. Those ideals are not achieved by individuals in the course of their relatively short lives, but rather preserved from one generation to the next by way of education. At least that is Plato’s hope when it comes to raising kids. At the end of the Apology, which describes his trial, Socrates begs his judges—the men of Athens—to raise his children as he would have raised them. Of course, they probably didn’t. They probably had more important, more professional things to do.

The philosopher once called the "American Plato," William James, never wanted kids. That is, until he did. Then he had five. Through his early 20s, James was convinced that his poor physical health wouldn’t allow him to be a father. And through his late 20s, he was convinced that his poor mental health should preclude him from being one. But then he met Alice Gibbens, married her at the age of 36, and sired a small brood.

I didn’t think about such biographical tidbits on the day that my daughter was born. I did, however, recall the lesson James gives us in "The Will to Believe," that when certain questions cannot be settled once and for all on the basis of empirical evidence, we are justified in answering them on the basis of what he calls "voluntarily adopted faith." When it comes to these questions, we are entitled to believe whatever we want. For a long time, I thought that such questions didn’t exist, or, if they did, they weren’t really worth asking. To me, James’s argument smacked of Pascal’s Wager. In the 17th century, he argued that in the absence of proof, it is safer to believe in God (since you lose relatively little if you are wrong about his existence) than to adopt atheism (and face eternal damnation on the day of judgment).

But I wasn’t worried about God. "Voluntarily adopted faith" struck me as a euphemism for willful ignorance.

But my first and only experience with surgical scissors taught me an important Jamesian lesson, which is that life’s most significant questions (theological, moral, and existential) don’t have definite, empirical answers. For James, any attempt to settle on final solutions will be, at best, provisional and incomplete. For example, there are no physical signs that you’re emotionally ready to become a father, no auguries that suggest you’ll be any good at it. In fact, just like the belief in the Almighty, there’s often a disturbing amount of countervailing evidence. But one still has to choose, to make practical decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Parenthood is what James would have called a "forced option"—you either choose to be a parent or you don’t. There’s really no middle ground. It would be convenient if science could make hard and fast choices for us, but James is happy to report that it can’t. "Science can tell us what exists," James writes, "but to compare the worths, both of what exists and of what does not exist, we must consult not science, but what Pascal calls our heart."

Philosophers usually regard the mandate to "listen to your heart" as a confused category error that’s appropriate for a schlocky Hallmark card but not much else. Hearts are not the sorts of things that can be listened to effectively. Intuition and instinct are viewed with similar suspicion—ineffable mental powers that are to be praised when they work and ignored when they don’t.

But I thought, for only the second time in my life, I would give it a try. I shouldn’t have been surprised by what I heard. No wise fatherly intuition emanating from the core of my being. No parental instinct to guide me through the hard times. No clairvoyant insight about the nature of infants. Just the unnerving sound of a muscle convulsing at 180 beats a minute.

The only other time I’d listened to a heart, I was waiting for it to stop. I’d like to be able to recount the death of my caring and attentive father. I’d like to be able to say that the halting chirp of the monitor drilled into me the desire to raise children, who would gather around their dying father in loving homage. I’d like to be able to tell you that, as my father’s heart skipped and slowed and slipped and slid away, I knew deep down in mine that he’d taught me all there was to know about being a parent. I’d like to be able to tell you that he’d been that sort of father. But he wasn’t. He drank too much. He was inattentive. He walked out on my mother when I was 3, and contracted esophageal cancer 23 years later. I ended my 15-year-long estrangement from him about six months before he died. I saw him twice in those six months: once in Manhattan, while he was getting treatment, and once in Buffalo, when the treatment finally failed.

On some subconscious level, one that philosophers generally ignore, I knew that the questions about my being a good father were the same as the ones that lingered about my losing a rather worthless one. I worried about repeating my father’s mistakes, about dying some day surrounded by children who hated me precisely to the extent that they didn’t know me.

My early readings of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer had only reinforced anxieties that I already had. I’d gravitated toward thinkers whose childless lives had generated life lessons that I could easily understand, lessons that were perfectly tailored to my own solitary existence. "It has gradually become clear to me," Nietzsche admits, "what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of—namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography."

In the same way, the decision to read particular philosophers and not others is a deeply personal one, rooted in our most private fears and desires. Of course most of us deny this to maintain our pretensions of objectivity and perfection. For most of my life, such pretensions had worked quite well; I’d selectively consulted the philosophy bachelordom, which obviously suggested that the easiest way to avoid my father’s mistakes was never to become a father myself.

But with surgical scissors in hand, I realized there was another way. In my limited experience listening to hearts, I’ve heard only one thing, but I’ve heard it loud and clear: "You are living, but dying rather quickly." That is the most literal way to interpret a beating heart and the only one that ever made sense to me. Obviously, it’s not the sort of thing that goes on Hallmark cards, but maybe it should. Perhaps it could be a wake-up call to all the fathers who seem to think they will live forever—and therefore leave the hard questions of parenthood until it is much too late. Each beat passes as a type of irrevocable stroke.

In the span of an average human life, the little muscle in your chest expands and contracts 2.5 billion times. Every single beat belongs to exactly one person. In Goethe’s words, "My heart is all my own." That anatomical fact is obvious, but its philosophical implications are not. It means that the owner of that little clenching muscle is responsible for putting it to good use. It means that shouldering this responsibility is the hardest task of life. Really, it’s the only task. It means that "nothing is too late," in Longfellow’s weirdly silly rhyme, "til the tired heart shall cease to palpitate."

That’s 2.5 billion times to redeem an otherwise misguided life; 2.5 billion chances to be brave or humble or caring or insightful; 2.5 billion moments to make life worth living. Give or take. This qualification is important, since nobody knows exactly how many contractions have been allotted. As Socrates reminds us, the ambiguity about the timing of our death might be the most meaningful uncertainty of life. It is also, perhaps, the most difficult to accept. Doing so is to admit, once and for all, that time is of the essence. "I must do something," says Dickens, "or I shall wear my heart away."

So I did something.

I took the scissors, cut the cord, and became a father.

John Kaag is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the author of the book Finding West Wind: A Story of American Philosophy, to be published in 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.