In ancient times, if your goals in life included hanging out with your friends and working as little as possible, you founded a school of philosophy with the stated aim of discovering the meaning of life. That was probably fun for its first few years, drinking wine and wandering around in the hills, pausing every few weeks to inform some befuddled shepherd that man and woman were once one creature split in two by the spiteful gods. (They had a lot in common with some present-day philosophy students, come to think of it.) Then more people joined your merry little band -- earnest kids in search of something called wisdom -- and the jig was officially up: you had to establish a firmer intellectual framework to back those musings.
If the prospect of teaching new disciples about the ideal way to exist filled those early sophists with terror, their nerves would have been outright fried by the thought that, a couple thousand years down the road, other thinkers would use their drunken flights of fancy as the building blocks of still more complex philosophical systems.
These later philosophers concerned themselves with not only the best way for people to live, but also to rule themselves. Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated a social contract as the basis of a harmonious culture, while Hobbes argued that rulers should apply an iron fist to the brutes under their command. Descartes questioned the external world, Immanuel Kant plunged into the deep thickets of metaphysics and Friedrich Nietzsche wanted everyone to toughen up a little more.
So many philosophers, so little time. For the intellectual, naming one (or two, if their theories don't collide) as your favorite is positively de rigueur: it hints that you've not only read a number of highly abstract and difficult works, but that you absorbed them deeply enough to incorporate their key principles into your life. You live a philosophy every day. It doesn't get more intellectual than that.
Putting This Theory Into Practice...
Choosing a philosophy is a bit like adopting a pet: it looks weird if you select one for a few days, only to decide it's not quite right for you. Here are a few to consider.
Aristotle: This ancient Greek philosopher argued for the primacy of rational thought over animal instincts, and moderation over hedonism.
Ideal for: Drivers who slow at yellow lights.
Immanuel Kant: In addition to his complex work in metaphysics (you could spend decades parsing his ideas on perception and reality), Kant advocated something called the categorical imperative, or moral principles that are valid under all conditions.
Ideal for: People who back themselves into intense debates, complete with a lengthy weighing of the pros and cons, over which brand of laundry detergent to buy.
Friedrich Nietzsche: My personal favorite, Nietzsche is one of the more misunderstood philosophers, thanks in large part to his infamous "God is dead, and we have killed him." He argued for the shucking of old and hypocritical values, endorsing instead the ideal of the Übermensch (broadly interpreted as "super-human").
Ideal for: Hardcore marathon runners, social Darwinists, rugged individualists, death-metal guitarists.
Ayn Rand: Few modern philosophers draw as much adoration and anger as Rand, who espoused the virtues of libertarian ideals and laissez-faire capitalism. Ideal for: Economists, railroad tycoons, Alan Greenspan.
Jean-Paul Sartre: A titan of existential thought, which seeks to focus on objective existence over "essences" or vague spiritualism.
Ideal for: Pragmatists, French citizens, chain smokers, disaffected teenagers.
And the Inevitable Footnote...
Philosophers, in their role as champion intellectuals, were masters of debate: they picked apart each other's arguments, lambasted opposing beliefs, and skewered weak assumptions with zeal. In that spirit, should you embrace a particular philosophy, take care to learn the arguments against it: you will almost certainly encounter other intellectuals who embrace an opposing worldview, and find yourself in the midst of settling once and for all arguments that began over a goatskin of wine in the Athenian foothills.
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.