Why Philosophy Mattered (and Should Still Matter) to Revolutionaries

Philosophy is not about knowledge, at least not most interestingly. It is about wisdom. Knowledge is relatively easy. Wisdom is harder. We get it from feeling, and feelings can be hard. We sometimes get wisdom from suffering, but not always. Suffering can make us fearful and bitter, incapable of wisdom. Wisdom is harder than knowledge because it changes us. We lose some part of ourselves. This hurts.

Societies that value knowledge don’t always value wisdom. Revolutionary progressives don’t always do so either. Anti-war activists of the sixties, in at least two memoires I can think of, comment on debilitating moral superiority. They have a point, noted by philosophers, although not always the revolutionary ones. Self-absorption and moral superiority block wisdom. Stuck on ourselves, we can acquire knowledge. We don’t acquire wisdom.

Speaking to Congress about Cuba, the Pope quoted Thomas Merton, Trappist monk. Merton wrote about being trapped by fears and desires, imprisoned by self-importance. Eastern philosophers, not always revolutionary, politically, said the most radical form of alienation – from others and from our own humanity – is self-importance. We build up an image of ourselves, mostly arbitrarily, from habit patterns, and we depend upon it, unwittingly, to interpret the world.

Some political revolutionaries saw the point. The Pope’s reference to Merton, in the context of Cuba, was appropriate. Cuba’s early independence activists, Félix Varela and José de la Luz y Caballero, were priests. They were also academics. In a remarkable debate across the entire island, 1838-40, they argued for the primacy of philosophy in school curricula. For the sake of revolution, a truly humanist revolution, they wanted Cubans to know how to think.

They objected to European insistence on the centrality of the self. For some European philosophers, at the time, we live best “from the inside”, realizing desires. Varela and Luz understood cause and effect. They knew imperialism’s dehumanizing and pervasive “logic”. Cubans’ thinking depended upon such logic. It included thinking about freedom. European liberalism, urging life “from the inside”, was a preposterous glorification of the prison of the self, conditioned by imperialism. Or so they argued.

Those early revolutionaries, not really political revolutionaries, insisted, not on knowledge, but on the nature of knowledge. Cubans should know philosophy, they argued, because they should know how to think critically and humanistically. Varela and Luz were followed by José Martí, who really was a political revolutionary, leading Cuba’s third independence war against Spain. Martí’s independence revolution was a “revolution in thinking”, offering a new way of living, a vision of what it means to be human.

Martí understood what Merton understood, namely, that arrogance and self-importance block wisdom. He wrote that the “Herculean challenge” to self-understanding, that is, to understanding one’s human potential, is commitment to oneself. The person who looks to himself, Marti wrote, is like an oyster in a shell, “seeing only the prison that entraps him and believing in the darkness that it is the world”.

To say philosophy happens best in revolutionary political struggle is – dare I say it? – philosophically confused. Wisdom is acquired many ways. The great revolutionary academic, Albert Einstein, wrote that wisdom requires humility. It is not acquired by “mere thinking” but neither is it necessarily the result of achievement, academic or political. For wisdom is be revolutionary, it should help us understand our nature, as human beings, and how to know it. Without addressing these questions, “revolutionary” direction may not be revolutionary. Whether academic, political or both, revolutionaries can fall short of human capacities that, in a dehumanizing world, must be discovered and named.

Che Guevara warned revolutionaries not to ignore the “invisible cage”. It was not just power structures. It was also beliefs and values. Setting academia and revolutionary politics in opposition to each other is short sited. The battle for ideas requires both.

Susan Babbitt is author of Humanism and Embodiment (Bloomsbury 2014).