Thinking and Circusing: What Are They Good For?

What’s the Point? 

Our exploration of Circus and Philosophy will primarily concentrate on the many similarities and interconnections between the two. Yet I’d like to point out at least one important dissimilarity. 

Having taught both circus arts and philosophy classes, I’ve noticed a remarkable difference in attitudes of the students of each.  In nearly every philosophy class that I have taught at the college level, there are several students each semester who, at one point or another, ask: “But what is the point? Why should I care about Descartes?”

Or: “I’m only taking this for a grade. How is Plato helpful in the real world?”

Or: “I just need to pass this class as a requirement for my major. Metaphysics has no bearing on my real life!”

Yet in my years of teaching circus arts, I have not yet had a single student ask: “But what’s the point? Why should I care about the trapeze?”

Or: “I’m only taking this class for a grade. How are aerial silks helpful in the real world?”

Or: “I just need to pass this class. Juggling has no bearing on my real life!!!”

What accounts for the difference?

Perhaps it’s just a matter of exposure.  In the US, aside from the university setting, philosophy is rarely taught. Philosophy classes are not included in very many primary or secondary school curricula, philosophy is rarely the (sole) topic of many films or shows, it is not the topic of very many magazine or newspaper articles, or the primary focus of many popular social media discussions . Moreover, entire philosophy departments in universities across the US are being eliminated (or being threatened to be eliminated) in response to drastic budget cuts. Sadly, the one place where someone can go to learn philosophy—higher education—is slowly becoming a place where philosophy is being squeezed out (see here here and here). These administrative and bureaucratic decisions reflect an overall low opinion of the discipline, which trickles down to poor public impressions about philosophy generally. No wonder many students don’t see the point in studying philosophy – there’s very little exposure and (as discussed here) most people don’t even know what philosophers do. It is unreasonable to expect people to understand the purpose of a discipline if they don’t even know what that discipline is. 

In contrast, nearly everyone has an idea of what the circus is. And while it is true that the circus arts are rarely taught in school (in the US at least), and that, until recently, many people do not participate in the circus arts, hundreds of millions of people have seen or heard of circus shows, especially since the meteoric rise of nouveau cirque – such as Cirque du Soleil.

So perhaps students don’t ask questions like ‘what’s the point of the circus?‘ because the public already sees the circus as magical, admirable, and a fanciful way to escape the stifling ennui of an unfulfilled life. The point of the circus is obvious: to be amazed (spectator) or to be amazing (performer).

Alternatively, you might think circus students don’t ask questions like ‘what’s the point?‘ because they already know and accept that circus has no bearing on their real life. Maybe circus students already accept that what they do is frivolous and without meaning. Maybe circus students already fully embrace the absurdity of the circus.

Perhaps. But I rather think that, unlike many undergraduate philosophy students, circus students find the practice of their craft rewarding in itself – that is, most circus students find circus activities intrinsically valuable.  

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value

If something is intrinsically valuable, we value it for its own sake.

Contrast this with things that are extrinsically valuable. If something is extrinsically valuable, we value it as a means to some other end.

Take money, for example. Money is extrinsically valuable: we value the things that money can buy, but we do not value money for its own sake. If money couldn’t buy or get us anything, it becomes worthless scraps of paper, or mere meaningless numbers in our bank account. We use money to get things we really want: a car, clothing, food, an iPhone, etc.

Are the things that money can buy intrinsically valuable? 

You might think that you value a car for its own sake, but more than likely, you value the car because of what it can do for you: get you from A to B in a hurry. If I gave you a jet-pack or teleporter or some kind of transportation device that accomplishes this same goal faster and better, then you would likely cease to value the car. Clothing and food on the other hand, might be intrinsically valuable, but it may depend on the kind of clothing and food you desire. If you are going beyond the food and clothing needed for survival, chances are that you are buying them to satisfy some other desire—to be fashionable, to impress peers, to become an insufferable hipster, etc.

Aristotle suggests that we consider the chain of things and activities that we do for other things — e.g., we get money so that we can have a house, we have a house so that we can stay warm and protected from the elements, we desire to be warm and protected from the elements so that we can be healthy and happy, etc. If there is an end to these things – if we find that there is something to which all other activities are eventually done for the sake of – then this thing is the “chief good.”

“If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.”  — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Book I Section 2)

To determine whether something—call it X—is intrinsically valuable or not, ask yourself: if X didn’t bring about the effects that it usually does, would I still value or desire it? We did this above with money: if money stopped being the currency needed for the goods and services you desire, would you still want to get a bunch of money? Clearly, no. We only desire money for the things it can buy us. But why do you desire the things that money can get you? Why, for example, do you desire a car? So that it can get you from one place to another. But why do you desire that? Maybe you desire it so that you can get to and from your job, or so that you can get to your friends’ house, or travel places, or so that you can have some mobility and freedom, allowing you to go wherever you want whenever you want to. But why do you want each of these things? Presumably, because you think that being able to do these things will, eventually, make you happy.

But why do you want to be happy? What does happiness get you?

The oddity of the question seems to suggest that happiness is valued for its own sake. We don’t want happiness for anything; happiness is intrinsically valuable.

Why do you want food and clothing? Perhaps it is to be fashionable or to impress your peers or become an insufferable hipster. But possibly you desire food and clothing because it will keep you healthy.

But why do you want to be healthy? What does health get you?

Again, the oddity of the question suggests that health is valuable for its own sake. We don’t value health for anything; health is intrinsically valuable.

“Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Book I Section 7)

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that there is only one highest good: eudaimonia or  eu zên or happiness. According to Aristotle, the highest good is not only valuable in itself, but it is also not valuable for the sake of something else, and all other things are valuable for the sake of it.

For our present purposes, it does not matter whether we agree with Aristotle that there is a highest good in this sense. Nor does it matter whether we agree with him that, if there is such a highest good, that this highest good is happiness. The important point (for us) is that we understand the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic values.

Additionally, it might be helpful if we think of intrinsic and extrinsic value as being person-relative. For example, you may have a relationship with a friend that you value intrinsically – you aren’t friends with this person for any particular extrinsic benefit the friendship yields – you value the friendship for it’s own sake. Yet someone else may have a different kind of friendship that they only value extrinsically. Maybe they are friends with someone only because she has a cool car, a pool, or a boat. Your friendship would be one that has intrinsic value for you; the other friendship would not have intrinsic value for the other person.

(This person-relative understanding of intrinsic value is not what Aristotle had in mind when he claims that happiness is the highest good. But we will leave these details and related distinctions for a later time. For now, it is enough to understand the idea of something being intrinsically valuable for you.)

Circus Students, Philosophy Students

When I say circus students value circus education intrinsically, what I mean is that they value it for its own sake. Learning how to juggle or fly on the trapeze or monkey up the silks is rarely an activity that someone does for something else. Students learn these skills because they just want to learn them, period.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t extrinsically valuable benefits from doing the circus arts. There are! One can increase flexibility, balance, poise, coordination, strength, and better one’s overall fitness and health by engaging in the circus arts. But take away these benefits and most circus students would still find studying the circus worth doing – they would find the experience itself intrinsically rewarding.

Sadly, this is not the case for the majority of (beginning) philosophy students. Hence, the onslaught of questions like “but what is philosophy good for?” Or, as philosophy majors are often asked when telling anyone their major, “What on earth are you going to do with a philosophy major?” The assumption behind these questions is that if philosophy isn’t good for something—if it doesn’t get you the credits required to get your degree, or doesn’t contribute to your career in some way, etc.—then it is pointless and decidedly not worth doing.

But this assumption is wrong twice over. First, philosophy need not be good for anything in order for it to be valuable – as I will be proposing in the next few months, philosophy, like the circus arts, is intrinsically valuable. Second, philosophy is in fact good for some things (see here here here and here). But these benefits, like the the increase in flexibility, balance, poise, coordination, strength and overall health by participating in the circus arts, are incidental – they are happy aftermaths of an activity that is enjoyable in and of itself. 

Of course, this may not convince the exasperated undergraduate that his required philosophy class has value. And this may not convince administrators and bureaucrats under drastic budget cuts that philosophy departments are worth having in higher education.  Nonetheless, what I’d like to propose is the idea that philosophy—like participating in or watching the circus—is good for its own sake.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates argues that the unexamined life is not worth living. This can be understood as the contrapositive of the point above—rather than thinking about the intrinsic value that is added when someone does philosophy, we can think of the value that is lost if they don’t. In the next few months, as you begin to get a better sense of the intrinsic value of philosophy, and how it might improve your life, I’d like you to keep in mind the ways in which an absence of critical thinking and careful reflection about yourselves and the world around you might make life worse.

What’s the Point? Take a  moment to think about the things you value: your house, family, car, job, loved ones, hobbies, friendships, your dog, a soft bed, the sound of rain, obscene amounts of coffee. Which of these things do you value for other things, and which of these things do you value in and of themselves? Of the things that you desire for other things, do they bottom out in a single thing, like happiness? Or are there multiple goods that you value for their own sake?

Whatever your answer to these questions, if you have pinpointed at least one thing that you value intrinsically, I bet that thing involves an idea or concept that you are familiar with and have had a lot of exposure to. Put another way, there is nothing on your list of intrinsic valuables that you look at and think: “I have no earthly idea what that is.”

And of the things that you find intrinsically valuable, was philosophy among them? My guess is – if you are new to philosophy, at least – the answer is ‘no.’ But my guess is also that – if you are new to philosophy – you’ve never been told or shown what philosophy really is. How can anyone expect philosophy to be intrinsically valuable when so very few people have an idea of what it is?

What Are They Good For? Both circus and philosophy are good for lots of things, but they are also, importantly, good for their own sake. This may be (presently) harder to see in the case of philosophy, but that’s just a matter of making the unfamiliar familiar – which is exactly the aim of these ongoing discussions. Stay tuned!

Suggested Reading


**Originally published Sept. 4, 2017; updated Sept. 6, 2018

Got thoughts?