Two books on philosophy give both a theoretical and practical view of where philosophy has taken us, and the direction in which it is leading us today.
A Brief History of Thought
The first is “A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living,” by French philosopher Luc Ferry, Ph.D.
Philosophy, Ferry argues, should be what Epicurus termed it, “medicine for the soul.”
Its theoretical tasks, he maintains, are to help us gain a sense of the world we are in and to gain instruments for understanding it.
Its practical tasks are to teach us the ethics of living with others and to bring us salvation, or at least wisdom, in preparation for the demise that awaits us all.
“All philosophy lies in two words: sustain and abstain,” said the ancient philosopher Epictetus.
Ferry traces the paths down which several key philosophers have led us toward finding wisdom and salvation. He first notes how Stoics such as Zeno, Epictetus, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius suggested that we become at peace with the living cosmos and accept everything that happens with serenity; that we limit our attachments to people and things and live ethically, so that death and separation lose their sting.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Jesus’s offer of eternal life upon our agreement to give love a chance wrested philosophical supremacy from the Stoics, who offered only a serene end to our existence. But the age of reason, enlightenment and humanism, ushered in by Descartes and Rousseau, declared that man is distinct from nature in that he can change, and that unlike the animals, his existence precedes his essence. Man was then free to set his own destiny based upon reason, not faith. The individual became an end in himself, in search of his own ethical philosophy unbridled by the philosophies and religions of the past.
This, Ferry observes, led to creating godless doctrines of salvation, i.e, Rousseau’s French Revolution, the scientific revolution, Democracy, Marx’s Socialism and Lenin’s Communist revolution.
“Socrates was the buffoon who got himself heard,” said Friedrich Nietzsche.
Ushering in post-modernity with his phrase “God is dead,” Nietzsche bemoaned the fact that the humanists had simply replaced God with false idols of their own — republicanism, Communism and scientific rationalism, just as the Stoics falsely ascribed order to a chaotic universe. Previous philosophers were all reactive, Nietzsche declared, tearing down other philosophies only to erect more absurd constructs in their place, leaving humanity no signposts for the future. Nietzsche posited the true creative genius with his active vital forces — the artist, or the creative leader of nations, living their lives intensely — as the only ones with a chance to lead us out of the darkness.
His will to power, Ferry explains, was not a will to conquer, but to enjoy a maximum intensity of life, dispensing with guilt, and every morality based on religions and political philosophies that were no longer relevant. His theory of “Eternal Recurrence” simply meant the virtue of living one’s life as if one had to repeat every moment again and again throughout eternity; the virtue of making each moment count.
Then came Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, Ferry notes, leaving a weary humanity enraptured with science’s brainchild- technology.
Today’s philosophy, Ferry urges, must retake its place beside technology, and drag itself out of speculative academia, not to restore old questions, but to “rethink them afresh,” to give humanity more than mere technology offers. To offer them true wisdom to use their technology, and if at all possible, salvation from both the fear of death and a life bereft of ultimate meaning.
The Cave and the Light
Author and history professor Arthur Herman yields another unique perspective on philosophy with his “The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization.”
His premise: that the Western world has gravitated back and forth between the teachings of Plato and Aristotle in deciding how life should best be lived. And he supports that theory with a wildly interesting approach.
For Plato, knowledge is the prerequisite of virtue, and grasping a standard of perfection, i.e., God, the Good, etc., through the dialectic approach, is how we transform ourselves into virtuous and happy people. Aristotle, the lisping doctor’s son and father of the scientific method, saw things differently. He trusted the evidence of the senses, not transcendental theories. He placed his faith not in Plato’s God, moral absolutism, or other abstractions, but in science, ethics and rational politics.
Ancient world scientists such as Strato, Galen, Ptolemy and Archimedes appeared to be taking the world in an Aristotlean direction, but the great Roman stoics, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius headed things back on a Platonic course.
All of this was prelude for what would follow throughout Western history.
Jesus Christ’s arrival, and the subsequent melding of Greco-Roman philosophy with Christianity by Augustine, led to 500 more years of Platonic supremacy in the Western mind.
This changed, Herman notes, at the end of the Dark Ages when those like Abelard (b. 1079) began rediscovering Aristotle logic from Arabic texts. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) attempted a synthesis of the two, arguing that faith and reason supported each other in their joint search for truth.
But the Western world would have none of that, and when the Renaissance (c. 1300) arrived, it grasped tightly to Aristotle’s reason and didn’t let go until the High Renaissance of Michelangelo (b. 1475) Galileo and Leonardo brought the Platonic mystical vision of beauty equals truth back to the fore.
The Reformation brought an Aristotle resurgence that was supported with a vengeance by the rise of science in the age of Newton, and by the philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire, Locke and Jefferson. The tables turned once more with Rousseau and the Romantics, Wordworth, Blake, Byron and Shelley, et al., mystical visionaries in search of beauty, truth and a higher existence unknown to science and reason.
But the Romantics’ vision would ultimately fall to the more practical views of Hegel (German Idealism), Marx (Socialism) and John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism), who saw in the modern state the ultimate salvation of mankind. This was reminiscent of Plato’s vision in The Republic, where a philosopher king ruled for the greater benefit of all. Nietzsche, of course, raised a new voice against Plato deploring Plato’s god worship and Hegel’s state worship in equal measure.
So where does that leave us, according to Herman? He finds the present day Western mind in thrall to American Exceptionalism, an odd mixture of Platonic religious mysticism (Christianity) and Aristotlean worship of science and technology. Both are necessary for the fulfillment of the Western soul, Herman suggests, so long as the worst of Plato’s and Aristotle’s legacies (heartless governments and soulless technology) do not ultimately predominate.
But most interesting in Cave is how Herman draws so many of Europe’s artists, painters, political and religious leaders and scientists into the struggle between Plato and Aristotle.
Whether discussing their influence on Michelangelo’s paintings, Wordsworth’s poetry, or Lenin’s politics, Herman effectively demonstrates that, as with the Chinese and Confucius, we Westerners are never far from the sway these philosophical giants still hold over us today.
‘The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization’
704 pages; Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition, June 3, 2014, English
‘A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living’
304 pages; Harper Perennial; Original edition Dec. 27, 2011, English