I am reading an excellent book titled The Infidel and the Professor that I will review in more detail once I have finished it and had time to fully digest it. The book is an intellectual biography of two Scotsmen David Hume and Adam Smith who were so influential in shaping modern western thought and were also good friends, with each of their ideas building on the other’s, though since Hume was twelve years older and a far more prolific writer, his ideas went into print before Smith’s.
But along the way, the author Dennis C. Rasmussen makes some interesting asides and one that struck me was his listing of all the canonical philosophers who were also bachelors like Hume and Smith: Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Benedict Spinoza, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Edward Gibbon, Arthur Schopenhauer, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In fact, Nietzsche remarked that true philosophers never marry and that Socrates did so only ironically.
The list is quite impressive and makes one wonder whether there is something about a deep commitment to studying philosophy that makes people leery of permanent romantic entanglements. Of course, in making such lists, there is the danger of cherry picking names to fit a tentative hypothesis. There is always the problematic question of what should be the total population that one should start with (what would be the total pool of canonical philosophers) and how the rate of bachelorhood among philosophers might compare with (say) that of prominent physicists or musicians. Perhaps under such a more careful analysis, the effect becomes less dramatic.
But if I take as a baseline Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Drinking Song (below) and look at the names of the famous philosophers they mention where they picked names without consideration of marital status but presumably because they could fit them into the comic rhymes, only four of the 13 people in their list (Martin Heidegger, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel) were married with the nine others (Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Descartes) being bachelors, giving a bachelor rate of 71%.
For the majority of Western history bachelorhood was actually a requirement for membership of a university -- academics were considered clerics in the church, and bound by rules of clerical celibacy. Even in Protestant countries after the reformation universities continued with this custom -- even into the twentieth century for some archaic hold-outs like Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh (which accounts for many of the names on the list). Without a university as a base of operations the philosophical life was basically only open to independently wealthy aristocrats. So both the culture of academia and the economics of the academic life have made bachelorhood the norm in the West.
Indeed, the word itself -- bachelor (from the Latin “baccalaureus” -- “admitted to the convent with a tap of the staff”) -- originally applied to a member of a university and only later came to be associated with unmarried men.
Non-Western philosophers tend to be married far more often. Confucius was married. Lao-Tze was married (in some versions of his life -- biographical details are very hard to pin down). Most of the great medieval Islamic scholars were married (apart from those who were religious ascetics).
It has always bothered me that, in the Harry Potter books, 100% of the faculty are unmarried. If I could ask J.K. Rowling one question, it would be about that — is this a rule, a tradition, or just a coincidence? Or is it that, as a person who was a student but not a teacher, she still has difficulty imagining professors having private lives?
It may just be my bad memory but I thought that there were rumours that when Oxford U changed the regs a lot of dons “found” wives very quickly in North Oxford?
Tabby Lavalamp says
We used to have a much higher caliber of Men Going Their Own Way…
Mano Singham says
I had noticed this phenomenon too about British public (i.e., private) boarding schools (I read a lot of that schoolboy literature when I was young), that teachers seemed to live on the premises in rooms that were provided by the school. Such an arrangement seemed to indicate that the teachers were unmarried. But what happened to a teacher who got married and had families? Did they get a larger apartment? Or were they expected to move out and find housing off-campus?
Marcus Ranum says
There’s another fun book of Hume-related stuff, Rousseau’s Dog: an account of the time when a paranoid and very weird Jean-Jacques Rousseau hid out at Hume’s place and annoyed him mightily.
[M]akes one wonder whether there is something about a deep commitment to studying philosophy that makes people leery of permanent romantic entanglements.
Perhaps it makes them unbearable? I’ve, uh, had occasion to wonder.
I’m a lifelong bachelor. Does that mean I’m a renowned philosopher?
OTOH, Bertrand Russell married four times -- trying to raise the average number of marriages per philosopher to a respectable level, perhaps?
Robert Bauer says
“Bachelor” is probably a euphemism in Plato’s case -- at least, The Republic talks about attractive boys way more than you would expect from a book of ethics and epistemology. Spinoza was Jewish, but exiled from his religious community because his philosophy was seen as heretical, so he may not have had any opportunities for marriage. And I can’t imagine anyone wanting to marry Nietzsche.
This made me think about the author JG Ballard. He’s been exposed to the idea that ‘great writers’ or artists or whatever would disdain forming families and marriage, but disagreed and was himself a single father after his wife died. He seemed to think the whole idealization of bachelorhood was wrongheaded. In the past it was probably impossible to both be a philosopher and have a family. In the present, the demands of academia tend to discourage children more than encourage them, and even potentially discourage marriage, but for a field as open ended as philosophy, I wonder what the overrepresentation of the ‘single man’ perspective might be doing.
Joe Patton says
I have always thought that people who are happily married would not be interested in philosophy. I believe that people who are interested in philosophy have something missing in their lives, some character defect or shortcoming or feeling of inferiority that makes it difficult for them to maintain an intimate relationship for any length of time.
I studied philosophy in Trinity College in Dublin when I was 21. I recall reading Descartes’ Meditations and also some of Nietzsche’s works. I found Nietzsche very difficult to read. Of course, I dropped out after the first year.
I returned to university at the age of 40 after my younger brother’s death. I studied philosophy for three years and emerged with a decent degree. We were introduced to the ancient Greeks in first year and I must say I was very impressed with Plato.
I am now 68 years old, back living in my native county in the north west of Ireland where I was born and bred and lived for the first decade of my life. I still read philosophy and have always gotten great consolation from doing so. Not surprisingly, I am not married and have never seriously thought of getting married. I was struck by the fact that many of the great philosophers, as included in the book by the late Bryan Magee, were unmarried and find comfort in that fact. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.