What is Circus? What is Philosophy?

Circus – Origins

If you have never been to a circus, you nonetheless probably have an idea of what a circus is: huge canvas tents, in bold contrasting colors, containing a wonderful, chaotic madness inside. There may be a menagerie of animals performing strange tricks, slick magicians beguiling the crowd, ridiculous clowns jesting for laughs, a dozen acrobats balanced atop one another riding a small unicycle, and so on. The notion of a circus may even conjure up images of less traditional, more modern spectacles—sometimes known as contemporary circus or nouveau cirque—such as Cirque du Soleil: impossibly limber contortionists bending back into themselves like pretzels, flitting aerialists crocheting themselves into suspended strips of ribbon, jugglers awash in black light tossing incomprehensibly many pins. The notoriety of the circus—whether traditional or contemporary—has seeped into our collective consciousness. And for good reason. The circus is designed to bewilder, bedazzle, and amaze; it’s meant to entrance and mystify us. It’s no wonder the circus has a long history arresting the public’s attention.

Like many histories, however, the origin of the circus depends on how we define it. If lone performers showing off in front of small crowds qualifies as a circus, then circuses have been around since certain human beings discovered they could do the extraordinary,  and other human beings discovered that they were pleased to watch them. So one might think that circuses date back as far as the start of human exhibitionism – “the roots of human spectacle” – which would be ancient greek and roman times, and possibly even earlier.  

“At that, the other girl began to accompany the dancer on the flute, and a boy at her elbow handed her up the hoops until he had given her twelve. She took these and as she danced kept throwing them whirling into the air, observing the proper height to throw them so as to catch them in a regular rhythm.” — the Symposium, by Xenophon (Ch. 2)

If we need tents, multiple acts, rings, and a menagerie of animals to qualify as a circus, however, then circuses began in the eighteenth century, with Philip Astley, who is often considered the father of the modern circus. These circuses started out as elaborate hippodrome-like or equestrian-centered affairs, taking place in a giant outdoor ring or circle. In between trick riding and races, acrobats, clowns, jugglers and other performers would entertain the audience.

Or perhaps you think that the circus is a certain experience, not a conglomeration of acts, equipment, or particular performances. Perhaps a circus is  any kind of performance art that attempts the seemingly impossible, or a certain kind of daring, and leaves the audience awestruck and amazed. We will be exploring the idea of circuses as a unique aesthetic experience a little later on.

Yet however we define “circus”, and however we track its origins, most people have some kind of idea of what the circus is.

Philosophy – Socratic Wisdom

In contrast, if you have never studied philosophy, you probably do not have much of an idea of what philosophy really is. Maybe, you think, philosophy is just a bunch of people sitting around talking about their opinions. There are no right answers, everyone can think what they want, and it’s all just a matter of individual perspective (whatever that means).

I’ve even had people, upon learning that I teach philosophy, ask: “But how do you grade the papers and exams? Isn’t all just their opinion? I mean, it’s not like there are any right or wrong answers, right?”

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Or maybe you think—as certain bookstore sections may lead you to believe—studying philosophy involves magic crystals, tarot cards, discovering your aura, and thinking that the universe talks to you about whether you should have a latte. Maybe anything spooky and elusive and weird is what makes something philosophy.

But this isn’t the case. And sadly, unlike the circus, philosophy has had a chronically poor public relations problem. Not only do most people have an inaccurate conception of what philosophy is, most people don’t even know or care that their conception of philosophy is mistaken.

So what is philosophy if it isn’t magic crystals and mere whims of opinion? And why should we care anyway?

The etymology of the word ‘philosophy’ gives us some clue into its meaning: philo– meaning love of and sophia meaning wisdom. But what does ‘love of wisdom’ mean?

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates describes true wisdom as knowing that which we do not know.  

“He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” –Plato, The Apology

But what does that mean? Do we just tally up all the things we don’t know, recognize that we don’t know them, and this is all it takes to be wise?

There are heaps of things I don’t know: I don’t know who won the world series this year, I don’t know how to crochet a sweater, I don’t know the answer to complicated math problems without the use of a calculator, or whether there is life on other planets, or how to change a carburetor, or how to play the ukulele. So now that I know that I don’t know these things, does that make me wise?

That would be awesome. Unfortunately, being wise (in the Socratic sense) is not that simple. Here’s why.

The context in which Socrates explains his concept of wisdom is in a courtroom. Socrates is on trial for corrupting the youth, doing evil things, not believing in certain gods—mostly, however, Socrates continually (and deeply!) annoyed the people of Athens. Whenever anyone would claim to know something—in particular, when someone would insist that a certain course of action was the moral one, or a particular situation was just or unjust, pious or impious, etc.—Socrates would engage them in a public debate, interrogating them ceaselessly, arguing with them until they contradicted themselves, eventually humiliating them in front of their peers.  These debates would usually take place in the agora—a public meeting place of sorts—where nearly everyone would be witness to the embarrassing examinations.

These days, most communities do not have a physical central meeting place where people come to discuss ideas and engage in public debate. But we do have something similar: we have on-line forums where all sorts of people can (and do!) comment about their opinion on a large range of topics. Imagine that for every opinion shared on the internet, there was a lone individual who questioned those stated opinions and demanded that each poster support his or her opinion with arguments. And when these arguments rely on other statements and opinions, these, too, must be supported with argumentation. And so on, until all of the statements made were defended—all the way down. The endless questioning, the demand for backup and support, and all of it taking place in a public forum— no wonder such behavior would be criticized at best as mere needless needling, and at worst, grounds for exile or execution. These days, some might consider such a person an internet troll – someone who intentionally needles, pesters, and provokes an online discussion. In Athens, such a person was considered a gadfly.

Yet Socrates defends his actions as the city’s persistent gadfly, citing a visit to the Oracle of Delphi, and a decree from the prophetess, as justification for his actions. The oracle had told one of Socrates’ friends  that, indeed, there was no man wiser than Socrates.

Oracles are notoriously tricky things. Their pronouncements are often riddles to be interpreted in non-straightforward ways. Knowing this, Socrates set out to uncover what the oracle might have meant, and proceeded to investigate the citizens of Athens, trying to find out whether, contrary to the divine decree, someone was indeed wiser than he—and if so, how. This, Socrates claims, is why he was compelled to question the people of Athens and, in particular, to question when any of them said or implied that they knew something that he, Socrates, did not.

Socrates visited various people in Athens—politicians, poets, artisans, etc. Yet he found upon questioning these citizens, that their own opinion about what they knew nearly always outstripped what they in fact knew. Politicians, who might indeed know about the practical logistics of governing people, would also assume that they knew about non-legal matters. Poets, who might indeed know how to write beautiful poetry, would also assume that they knew about non-aesthetic matters. Artisans, who might indeed know how to build a boat, assumed they knew about matters that had nothing to do with their craft.

So Socrates asked himself: is it better to have their small bit of knowledge but to also think that you know things that you do not, or is it better not to have their small bit of knowledge, but also to be very aware of those things that you in fact do not know?

Socrates concluded that it is better to know that which we do not know, and to not assume we know more that we do. This is what true wisdom is, according to Socrates (and according to the Oracle of Delphi)—knowing that you know (nearly) nothing.

Of course, admitting that you do not know some things is easy. You may not know how to speak German, or play the ukulele, or you may not know who won the world series–and you will likely have no trouble admitting your ignorance in these matters.  But admitting that you don’t know other things is hard. It’s even harder in an environment where people convince others that they are correct by mere volume or the sheer confident tone in which they claim something. In the current age of rampant, unchecked opinions on the internet, fake news, fiction parading as fact, and blatant denials of past behavior or events, we are even less inclined to care about whether someone really knows something.

For example: you probably think that you know right from wrong, that you know what the moral or just course of action is in most situations. You probably also think that you know whether God exists or not, whether your life has meaning, and what happens to you and others after they die.

But knowing right from wrong, knowing the moral or just course of action, knowing whether God exists, what happens to you after you die, whether you have free will, etc. – these are complicated subjects that are presumably more difficult to determine or know than how to play the ukulele. Yet, as human history, current news, and nearly any random post on the internet can demonstrate, many many people think that they KNOW the answers to these questions, most emphatically.  But take a second to reflect: do they really know these things? Do you?

Being OK with and admitting that you do not know these sorts of things is quite difficult – and is the first step to understanding what is meant by ‘Socratic wisdom.’ Some may argue that coming to know all of the many things you do not know is crucial to understanding what philosophy is.

So what is philosophy? We will be answering this question more fully over the next few months. But to get us started: philosophy is an intellectual activity that begins with suspending our usual assumptions. We take the things we think are true and allow ourselves to wonder what happens if they aren’t.

“The circus, like philosophy, invites us to question our normal judgments.” —Sam Keen, Learning to Fly

So what does the circus have to do with philosophy? We will be answering this question more fully over the next few months, too. But to get us started: philosophy, like the circus, invites us to entertain the seemingly impossible, to contemplate the unusual and the strange, and – if we are lucky – will leave us with a sense of wonder, curiosity, and an appetite for more.

Suggested Reading


**Originally published on Sept. 1 2017; updated  Aug. 30, 2018.

Got thoughts?

3 thoughts on “What is Circus? What is Philosophy?

  1. Very interesting! As a dancer, I’m fascinated with the insights personal and community movement bring to human behavior. I’m going to love watching this series unfold!!