Academia has sold us the idea of philosophy as something so ancient, so irrelevant, and so marginal, that we forget to name our own wisdom traditions and our surrounding pop philosophy, even our ghetto philosophy, when we find it.
We sometimes think that philosophy belongs in ancient Greece and not in contemporary everyday reality. Philosophy is, actually, everywhere. It sustains many of our societal structures and inspires much cultural output: the cynical wisdom of comedians like George Carlin is philosophy. So are many of the isms to which we adhere, and the policies that our governments and civic bodies adopt are all inspired by philosophical views, some more accurately and carefully evaluated than others.
While studying queer theory, I learned of its treatment of coming out as parrhesia–frank criticism. One of the great Epicurean teachers of antiquity, Philodemus of Gadara, said that philosophers must engage in two forms of frank speech: private and public. From Reasonings About Philodemus’ On Parrhesia:
Both are crucial and necessary for different reasons …
The philosopher must speak frankly and openly to outside society in order to help emancipate others from ignorance or from tradition, and from the forms of suffering that ignorance and tradition generate.
Queer theory proposes that when gay people give up their need to conform to homophobic society and come out of the closet, they unmask the hypocrisies and double-standards of patriarchal and religious society, and that in doing this they perform a much needed societal role.
In gay culture, the act of pointing out a flaw in someone else (usually publicly and in front of them) and exaggerating it.
Drag queens–and many who are not–also act as laughing philosophers and take the role of being critical of individuals and society to a whole other level. They have elevated reading to the status of an art.
When we read someone, we unmask their vulnerabilities and attack their psychological defenses. This can be quite intimidating and disruptive, and there is no question that reading has been misused way too many times, but there’s also no question that there are occassions when reading somebody is absolutely necessary and therapeutic. Bullies, politicians, arrogant religious fanatics, and false friends who betray our trust might at times profit from private or public parrhesia. Philodemus compares it to sour medicine without which there is no healing from some of the diseases of the human character.
I’m not inviting my audience to go out and read people indiscriminately, but when you do, be cautious, avoid abuse, and be mindful of the end goal: the healing of the character. Most importantly: have fun. Ancient Epicureans specifically employed suavity and comedy to soften and sweeten the bad medicine. Lucian’s Alexander the Oracle-Monger is the perfect example of this.
Ladies, the library is open! – RuPaul