A Letter to a Young Philosophy Student

Dear Young Philosophy Student,

You are living the dream. You might not realize it as you pull all-nighters trying to solve the problem of evil whilst employing excellent prose and incorporating only the most acclaimed source material, but you are. Your job right now is to read, write, talk, and listen, and nothing is at stake.

Someday you’re going to graduate, and like 90 seconds later you’re going to need to find a job. You are going to fret over that future job – is it meaningful? Does it incorporate my glorious studies? To what end, employment?

If you find a job that fulfills your hopes and dreams – wonderful! But you probably won’t. A few rent checks into your job search, your standards are going to have to change:

Does this job pay me?
Does this job pay me and also not harm me or anyone else?

You might need to settle. Your analytical mind will feel guilty. It will feel like you are selling out. The voice of some parent/mentor/drunk uncle will be ringing in your ears saying “see, I told you! Statistical analysis and data reconfiguration (or waiting tables or tending beehives or whatever your fancy new job is) has nothing to do with philosophy!”

But you’re not selling out. Studying philosophy was never about getting a job. If you thought it was, then you were deeply mistaken.

Once you have that job, you are going to have a boss. And in all likelihood, they are not going to be able to even pronounce Aristophanes or Derrida, but you are going to have to respect them anyway because they actually know more than you. That boss is going to try to teach you things – skills – godforsaken techne. You are going to think, “this seems like a means to an end and not an end in itself” and “but I only care about useless things.” You’ll get over that.

You’ll think that your degree is useless, which is exactly what you wanted. But eventually you’ll realize that it wasn’t. Somewhere along the line in those cushy ivory towers of academia, you learned to read thoroughly, write carefully, talk intelligently, and listen respectfully. And you learned to love – books, ideas, conversation partners, questions, and wisdom. These things – dare I say, skills – are invaluable, and even marketable.

For a little while, you’re going to remain extremely skeptical. You’re going to approach everything in your line of work with thoughtful analysis – after all, that’s what you were trained to do. You’ll want to think critically about everything that happens on your desktop or in your office: I did this project well, but is it good? To what end, this Excel spreadsheet?

But eventually, those questions will start to subside, or at least, have less prominence in your everyday decision making. Which is good because you actually need to get things done now, quickly. The “unanswered question” is no longer a virtuous badge of honor, but an area for improvement. This is the active life, and that’s okay.

Someday you’ll realize that you were living the dream back then – pulling all nighters and agonizing about the problem of evil. And you’re living a different kind of dream now, one where you are loving the world from within, one marked by prudence and real responsibility.

That major of yours will be in the past, but it will not be forgotten. You’ll still have those books, and those ideas, and those conversation partners, and those questions. And you’ll still love wisdom just as much as when you were a bright-eyed young philosophy student.

[Image: Raphael. “School of Athens,” 1505. Vatican City.]

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