Philosophers and their eccentricities

I have been through the internet, looking for anecdotes about philosophers. Here is a selection:

English philosopher and the ‘Father of utilitarianism,’ Jeremy Bentham left his entire estate to the university College Hospital in London – on condition that his body be preserved and placed in attendance at all of the hospital’s board meetings. Dr Southward Smith was chosen by Bentham to prepare the philosopher’s corpse for viewing. Smith constructed the skeleton and affixed a wax likeness of Bentham’s head [the real one was badly damaged in the preservation process] to it, then attired the body in an appropriate suit and hat According to Smith, ‘The whole was then enclosed in a mahogany case, called the “Auto-icon”,  with folding glass doors, seated in his armchair and holding in his hand his favourite walking stick [with his actual skull resting at his feet]…’ It was acquired by University College London in 1850. It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the college, but for the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, it was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where it was listed as “present but not voting”. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.

While Aristotle’s work on logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and poetics had a profound influence on Western thought, many of his speculations about the natural world border on the absurd. Not only did Aristotle believe that the sun orbits the earth and that objects fall at speeds in accordance with their weights; he also suggested that women have fewer teeth than men and that a baby’s sex is determined by the wind’s direction at the time of its birth.

We may think multi-tasking is a relatively new phenomenon  but the 17th century French churchman and philosopher ,Pierre-Daniel Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person in his day.

While supervising the building of his house, and before the North Bridge was opened, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume customarily took a short cut to the New Town across the Nor’ Loch bog. On one trip he slipped and fell in. Luckily he caught the attention of an old fishwife who, recognising ‘Hume the Atheist’, doubted the propriety of helping him. “But my good woman, does not your religion as a Christian teach you to do good, even to your enemies?”  “That may well be,” she replied, “but ye shallna get oot o’ that, til ye become a Christian yersel: and repeat the Lord’s Prayer…” To her astonishment Hume readily complied, and was pulled out of the bog. Henceforth he was ever ready to acknowledge that the Edinburgh fishwife was the most acute theologian he had ever encountered.

Friedrich Nietzsche worshipped Richard Wagner when they first met (in 1868) and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy was heavily influenced by Wagner’s views on Greek tragedy. By the time Die Meistersinger was completed, however, Nietzsche’s admiration had soured. His verdict of the opera? “German beer music.”

Alexander the Great, intrigued by stories about Diogenes, sought him out and announced, “I am Alexander the Great. What can I do for you?” “Stand back – you block my light” was Diogenes’ response. While the ordinary person would have lost his head after such an insult, Diogenes was admired all the more, as the great conqueror said, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”

The influential medieval philosopher Peter Abelard, who, did important work in ethics and logic, fell in love with a beautiful young girl named Héloïse, whom he was supposed to be tutoring, and they married secretly, though they lived apart. Heloise’s uncle, however, mistakenly thought Abelard had discarded Héloïse by placing her in a convent, and he took revenge by having servants castrate Abelard in his sleep. Abelard woke up and things were never the same between him and Héloïse. It put a bit of a dampener on Abelard’s sex life and Héloïse was forced to become a nun. Héloïse sent letters to Abelard, questioning why she must submit to a religious life for which she had no calling.

On 25 February 1980, after leaving a lunch party held by François Mitterrand, Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist, philosopher, critic, and semiotician was struck by a laundry van while walking home through the streets of Paris. He succumbed to his injuries a month later and died on 25 March at the age of sixty-four.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language, went to school with Hitler. Until 1903, Ludwig was educated by private tutors at home; after that, he began three years of schooling at the Realschule in Linz, a school emphasizing technical topics. For one school year, Adolf Hitler, who was born a mere six days before Wittgenstein, was a student there, but two grades below Wittgenstein, when both boys were 14 or 15 years old. It is unknown whether Hitler and Wittgenstein even knew of each other, and, if so, whether either had any memory of the other. Years later when living in England Wittgenstein allegedly threatened his fellow Viennese Karl Popper with a poker during an argument about the existence or otherwise of moral rules at the moral sciences club at Cambridge.

Thomas Aquinas was held captive by his family for around two years. Thomas had previously joined the Order of St Dominica his family were none too pleased and he was locked up in the fortress of Giovanni at Rocca Secca. During his imprisonment, his family tried desperately to talk him out of his chosen vocation. His brothers went so far as to send a beautiful woman to his room to seduce him and break his oath of celibacy. He chased the girl from his room with a poker retrieved from the fire. The duration of his imprisonment he then spent in study, just as he would have if he had actually been in Paris. Eventually, his mother granted him freedom, and Thomas finally was able to return to the Dominicans. They were relieved to discover that he was as educated in theology and the scriptures as he would have been if he had not been sidetracked

One Sunday morning Adam Smith, famed for his absent-mindedness, wandered into his garden. Soon thereafter, thoroughly engrossed in philosophical contemplation, he passed into the street and began walking. Some time later, he was roused from his reverie by the ringing of church bells. Parishioners arriving for the morning service were amused to encounter the eminent philosopher – wearing only his nightgown – in Dunfermline, twelve miles away from his home.

Augustine was famed for his licentious youth. Indeed, the future saint had a mistress for many years and produced an illegitimate son. “Give me chastity and continence,” he once remarked, “but not yet.”

Pythagoras (whose cult forbade the eating of beans and the poking of fire with an iron poker) harboured many unusual beliefs. Seeing a puppy being beaten one day, for example, he implored its owner to desist: “It is the soul of a friend,” he claimed, “which I recognized when I heard it crying out.” Pythagoras, however, did not always extend such courtesies to human beings. On one occasion, for example, he became upset when a student, Hippasus, correctly concluded that the square root of 2 was an irrational number (a number inexpressible as a normal ratio). Pythagoras, who found the notion of irrationals philosophically abhorrent and denied their existence, promptly sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning. According to Pythagoras, the even numbers were female and the odd numbers male. Moreover, many integers had symbolic meanings: 1 stood for reason, 2 for opinion, 3 for poetry, 4 for justice, and 5 for marriage; 7 held the secret of health and 8 the secret of marriage.

After the Jacobins came to power following the French Revolution, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, the French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist, was sheltered by a widow who bravely insisted that he remain with her despite the risk that she would be killed if discovered harbouring a fugitive. Concerned for her safety, Condorcet quietly slipped away and went into hiding in a stone quarry. There he remained for three days, until driven by hunger to a local tavern (in the village of Clamart), where he ordered an omelette. When the cook asked him how many eggs he desired, Condorcet, with an aristocrat’s ignorance of such concerns, ordered a dozen. His suspicions aroused, the tavern-keeper asked Condorcet about his trade. “I am a carpenter,” he replied. “You’re no carpenter,” the tavern-keeper replied, snatching up the outlaw’s hands. Condorcet was promptly hauled off to prison and was found dead the next day in his cell.

In Slovenia’s first democratic elections (in 1990), Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek ran for a seat on Slovenia’s four-person Presidential committee. He finished fifth. Nonetheless, Zizek was delighted by the result. Had he been elected, he later remarked, his first action would have been to resign. “I thought the position meant that you had a meeting once a week, and then a certain influence and power,” he recalled. “But no, it was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, with all these stupid social obligations.”  A few years later, Zizek was asked to consider becoming a government minister. He declined. “The Prime Minister said, ‘Do you want Science? Culture?'” he recalled. “I told him, ‘Are you crazy? Who wants that crap? I am only interested in two posts – either Minister of the Interior or the head of the Secret Police!'” “People are always asking me, ‘Why don’t you get a job in the States?'” Zizek remarked on another occasion. “But I am not interested, basically. Why, if you have a job where you do nothing, would you change it for a job where you have to do something?”

After his house in Môtiers was stoned on the night of 6 September 1765, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau took refuge in Great Britain with David Hume, who found lodgings for him at a friend’s country estate in Wootton in Staffordshire. Neither Thérèse nor Rousseau was able to learn English or make friends. Isolated, Rousseau, never emotionally very stable, suffered a serious decline in his mental health and began to experience paranoid fantasies –  he believed he was the victim of an international conspiracy, led by David Hume. He wasn’t, but Hume was delighted when the Frenchman got the hump and shoved off back to the other side of the Channel.

Though the science wars had burst on the university world years earlier, the event that brought them to public notice was the publication in May 1996 of an article by Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, in an American cultural-studies discussion journal, Social Text. It argued that unifying the currently incompatible theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity would produce a postmodern, ‘liberatory’ physics. Once his paper was safely in print, Mr Sokal revealed it as a spoof, made up of ideas and quotations from various postmodernist philosophers and mined with mathematical absurdities which the editors ,who do not send articles to referees, had failed to spot.


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