Should philosophy be a solitary or social exercise? Is solitude essential to reach the inner parts of the self and the spiritual core of the soul? Historically, Philosophy has been the handmaid of Theology up to the dawn of Humanism in the sixteenth-century. Augustine wrote his Confessions in solitude after his conversion to Christianity in a Milanese garden. All great mystics before him had renounced the false trappings of the mundane world and found spiritual comfort in the apparent desolation of the desert, a place where salvation or damnation awaits in equal measure soul-searching wanderers. Greek philosophy dissociated itself from this early Christian tradition as the adepts of Stoic mortification, precariously perched on their thin columns (or stoa) gave way to the more sociable Sophists and their constant engagements with their fellow citizens. Socrates was a well-known figure among Athenians and his regular encounters and controversial discussions with these so-called ‘men of wisdom’ prepared him well for his future role of ‘midwife of ideas’ among his peers. Plato, himself, possibly the most aloof figure in the history of philosophy, did not confine his Philosopher-Kings to a solitary life of pure contemplation but emphasised their political duties to their community (polis). Aristotle continued the tradition of the Academy by describing man as ‘a social animal’ and putting political activity as the epitome of a philosophical life.
It is only with the rise of Christian theology and scholasticism that philosophy returned to its roots and searched for God through personal ‘meditation’ instead of ‘contemplation’ of Pure Forms. Descartes is, in this respect, the last scholastic thinker and the first modern philosopher. His Meditations combine the intensity of a religious exercise with the flexibility of a logical mind liberated from the dogmas of the Church. Descartes needed solitude to find his cogito but his life was far from the existence of a hermit as shown by his travels and rich correspondence. The latter attest his very secular determination to spread his philosophical ‘method’ among his intellectual peers. By contrast, his intensely religious rival, Blaise Pascal, rejected his philosophical pretension to locate a purely rational soul in favour of a more devotional attempt at celebrating the mysteries of the heart and the undecipherable glory of God. Descartes came out the victor of this duel between Philosophy and Theology even though his Dutch nemesis, the young Jewish scholar Baruch Spinoza turned Cartesianism on its head and went on to prove that the God of Descartes was not only our invisible guide and guardian but, in actual fact, the author of every single action in Nature since His existence was synonymous with His Creation (‘Whatsoever is, is in God’). Banished and forced into exile by his Amsterdam synagogue for his heretical propositions, Spinoza had a surprising legacy as much as a long-lasting influence on succeeding generations of scholars across Europe, to the point that this lonely figure (whose only portrait may not even be of him) is now regarded as the Father of the Enlightenment … to be continued.