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Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name…

Long ago — at a time when human history was just starting to be captured — there lived a boy who, tragically, lost both of his parents when he was quite young (at a mere ten years old). Several years later, and now a young man of seventeen, the boy started to make plans to leave his home and seek his future. The night before he left, his father’s spirit appeared to him a dream. The father spoke to his son about his wishes for the boy’s future:

“Son, you have nearly come of age now, and my wish is that you continue our family practice of medicine. I had once served as a court physician to a King and was well-known in the Northern region of Greece. Sadly, because I have been absent, I was unable to help you follow in my footsteps as I wanted. But I believe you learned much from me while you were younger — and you can still study from other practitioners to become a physician. Perhaps with hard work and determination, your medical practice will one-day rival mine — and you will continue our family legacy!”

But the boy replied, “No father, I do not wish to pursue your profession. My plan is to travel south and join the school in Athens. I will study philosophy there.”

The Father responded, “You are speaking of Plato’s Academy? So instead of becoming a successful physician, you wish to participate in useless debates, and spend your days arguing about the nature of the heavens? What a terrible waste of your talents that school will be! You will never make a name for yourself there.”

“Son, I warn you: If you follow this path, no one will ever know your name of Aristotle, and our family legacy will end with you!”

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Did you guess the boy’s name before the end of this story? Or were you surprised at who he was?

Aside from the fictionalized ghostly appearances (and the dialogue within the dream), the other details of this story are based on historical records. Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was by all accounts, a successful physician and medical practitioner. Also true is the fact that Aristotle’s parents died when he was a young boy. During this time (around 360 B.C.), it was common for medical skills and practices to be handed down from father to son. Had he not died at an early age, this may well have been what Nicomachus would have wanted for his son Aristotle — had he been given the chance.

After understanding these details about Aristotle’s early life and from the point-of-view of our 21st Century perspective, it is easy to imagine (as I did above) that if Nicomachus would NOT have died so early (or if he could truly appear in dreams), it seems highly probable that he would have encouraged Aristotle to pursue the family medical practice. But since neither of those things (likely) happened, we can surmise that the untimely and early demise of his parents may have been one of the main reasons why Aristotle never pursued the family business — and instead found himself in Plato’s Academy.

Was his family tragedy really the twist of fate that caused Aristotle to pursue philosophy instead of being a physician? This is just my own speculation based on a select few historical details. But let us be honest: Why else would someone choose the “useless” path of studying philosophy over becoming a medical practitioner? After all, it is not like he ended up becoming successful, or well-known, or historically significant… right?

Of course, the irony of this question lies within the fact that even if you do not know that much about philosophy, you probably at least recognize the name Aristotle. And contrary to the (fictional) fatherly warning given to young Aristotle in my story, he did in fact continue on his path to the Academy in Athens. From there, it is easy to connect the dots and conclude that because of the time he spent studying philosophy (instead of pursuing a more “practical” field), Aristotle went on to become one of the most well-known and influential names of all time.

So what are the morals of this story? Based on the fictional dialogue between Aristotle and his father, one might be tempted to think the story is recommending that people should just ignore the practical advice we receive from others and boldly pursue an impractical life of philosophy instead. It also might seem like I’m suggesting that this path will lead you to fame and glory as it did for Aristotle. But I can assure you that these notions are definitely not the correct takeaways.

Firstly, due to the differences between what it meant to be a philosopher during Aristotle’s time as compared to today, I would argue that seeking to become a philosopher would likely have NOT been regarded as such an “impractical” path for Aristotle. In fact, during Aristotle’s time (and for many centuries to follow) those who achieved the title of “Philosopher” were often highly-regarded and often very influential members of society (as demonstrated by Aristotle himself). So as strange as it may seem to us today, perhaps we might even assume that, if he could have had the chance, Aristotle’s father might have given his seventeen-year-old son his full blessing (or even his recommendation) to pursue the path of philosophy instead of medicine.

As for the suggestion within my fictionalized story that if one pursues philosophy, you might achieve fame and recognition (like Aristotle did), I will go ahead and clear that up right now: I believe there will probably never be another philosopher who will ever be as important or as successful as Aristotle. Historically speaking, maybe he just happened to be in the right place at the right time — and that ship has now sailed for anyone else who may wish to follow this path. (Sorry if this bursts any aspiring philosopher’s bubbles, but on the other hand, I have a STRONG feeling that most aspiring philosophers already know this.)

What I believe are the correct takeaways from my version of Aristotle’s story is that there are certainly some paths in life that are worth following— even though they may not be practical or immediately “useful” in the traditional sense. Perhaps this story might help us to answer the question of why anyone should study or spend time thinking about philosophy (or any other “impractical” pursuit), when instead they could be studying medicine, engineering, business management, or any other skill or trade that has more “real world” value. If nothing else, I like to think that my version of the story of young Aristotle at least turns this question on its head.

Another important idea that stems from this story is WHY and HOW the pursuit of philosophy is regarded so differently today as compared to during Aristotle’s time. How did philosophy evolve from being such a HOT TICKET career path to one that is almost universally regarded as a nearly “useless” field of study? This will be a topic for a future article… more on this idea soon!

In the meantime, I’d like you to ask yourself: If your son or daughter (fictional or otherwise) told you today that they wanted to study and pursue a career in Philosophy — what would your response be?


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