So what did I mean by my assertion that philosophers are freeloaders?
Consider society as a pyramid. Those who grow the food and gather the raw materials needed to sustain the basics of human life are at the bottom – not because they are the least important but because they are the foundation upon which everything else is built.
Next comes the tradesmen – the movers of goods, the artisans and engineers, the teachers. Those who take the materials and turn them into things which improve life and pass knowledge on. The important thing here is that these people are actually using the knowledge of past generations for immediate practical benefit. They are however not immediately necessary and thus add strain upon the base of the pyramid – i.e. without, say, 10 farmers you cannot have one factory worker or bespoke ethical vegan butcher – it makes no sense to mass produce squeaky dog toys if you cannot eat.
The final tier is the leadership, the thinkers and the artists. The products of this class have no immediate value. The Illiad for example is a magnificent text, but confers no immediate benefit to society in terms of what you can eat, build or take comfort or convenience from. The same is true for thinkers, philosophers and scientists: These people can make great leaps in human understanding, but this understanding often means little for the man on the street. Take William Harvey, for instance: in 1628 he published a groundbreaking work that we now take for granted: That blood circulates around the body. In modern society we take that for granted, it has given doctors and biologists new ways to save lives and improve them. At the time, however, medical technology was nowhere near the point where that could help – in fact, given the hygiene standards of the time, it was just as likely to cause death from infection as blood loss if intrusive surgery was performed.
In simple words: the engineering had not developed at the same rate as the science.
The people at the top of the pyramid contribute the least to society, but have the most impact on the direction that a given society is heading.
So yes, to the people at the bottom, the people at the top are freeloaders getting rich off their labours.
To a societies’ descendants, the people at the top are the pioneers, leaders and key figures that define their identity.
It’s simply a matter of perspective.
(As an addendum to the addendum, this model is grossly oversimplified but I think it serves to illustrate my point well. As time and society progress, however, the pyramid will become top-heavy as technology replaces people. What effect this will ultimately have remains to be seen).