Religious faith empowers people to overcome fear. Without fear, the capacity of man is dazzlingly greater than what we find our capacities to be in everyday life. A powerful faith is a commitment to sceptical, quietist philosophy. In the painting The Death of Socrates, Socrates is seen in a pedagogical stance. His raised finger shows that he seeks to enlighten those around him and that he has a deep confidence in what he is telling them. A great many groups have claimed to be Socrates’ heirs, including the bourgeoisie philosophical Academy.

This week I’ve been participating in Stoic Week and I’ve learnt that Buddhism and some schools of ancient Greek philosophy advocate different methods to get to the same place. Buddhists would purge our puny attempts at knowledge-that by concentration meditation. The ancient Greek philosophers thought that the process of philosophical argumentation was the most effective purge.

It’s easy to lapse into anti-intellectualism here. There is ever-present the tempting move, the real knowledge about how things really are has very little to do with what philosophers in universities get up to. In my own case, I find myself frequently struggling with the idea that if I don’t continue studying philosophy in the modern day academy, I stand no chance of reaching the enlightenment that Socrates promises. For years now my religion has been the faith that there is this Socratic ideal, that there is salvation in academic philosophy. The holy texts of this religion of mine are the four Platonic dialogues, Apology, Crito and Phaedo, translations of which are often published in the same volume. But I’ve also the toxic idea that the academic philosophy practised in universities is the One True Way: Socrates’ true heirs. At any one time my mind is dominated by either this idea, or a foolish attempt at running away from it. This attempt to run away boils down to the idea that contemporary academic philosophy is all rubbish. Both of these ideas are absurd but I seem to be unable to get out of their grasp for any length of time.

Here’s an example about how this plays out in my mind when I think about careers, in particular, when I think about becoming a professional computer programmer. I think to myself, if I dropped the idea of spending any more years studying in university, I could begin a career of developing a real skill that is not just a case of fulfilling a role in the great capitalist bureaucracy, which is what so many “career opportunities” seem to boil down to. The power of computers to do things for people requires people who understand how to make them do things. That will still be true if we finally manage to throw off the shackles of class and the amassing of personal wealth. I could be one of those people. The next thought though is that developing practical skills is no road to enlightenment. I feel as though the business of my life must be enlightenment, and I convince myself over and over that academic philosophy is the only route to this.

Here’s the truth of the matter. I don’t think that a kind of self-help is as far as philosophy should go. Serious academic study beyond that which I have already done is worthwhile. It is not, however, the real fight. Developing the right outlook on things and the right habits of thought is informed by serious academic work as it is informed by everyday experience as it is informed by becoming a really good computer programmer. We are not in a position to know that academic philosophy as practised today is the One True Way. So the dominating idea that it is or even that it might be must be rejected. Crucially, I can know and assert that academic philosophy is not the One True Way without being in a position to say exactly what the role of serious scholarship is. Indeed, the possibility remains open that it’s not possible to answer that question if you lack the faith that the role is not dominating.

A faith in the Socratic ideal is another component of the effort to develop the right outlook. I came to philosophy when I was introduced to the power of sceptical doubt for our liberation. I should have faith in this, and stop worrying too much about being a member of the modern day Academy. I should return to my own philosophical roots. I picked up far too much cynicism about them at Oxford.