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Hegel

Hegel (1770-1831) was a giant of Western philosophy in the 1800s. He affected much of the philosophy of the time, especially that of Marx, who read history in light of his thinking.

As a boy Hegel studied the great works of the Greeks and Romans and wanted to become a Protestant minister. So he went to study at Tubingen. There he became friends with Schelling and Holderlin. Schelling would later make his mark in philosophy and Holderlin became a famous poet.

Hegel changed his mind about becoming a minister and became a private teacher instead. But then when he was 27 his father died. Hegel became rich and never had to work a day in his life again. He studied philosophy and in time taught it first at Heidelberg and then at Berlin, where he became famous.

Hegel taught that a simple process, the dialectic, governs everything – not just nature, but art and society too:

thesis + antithesis -> synthesis

In the beginning is the thesis, but before long this brings about its opposite, the antithesis. A period of disorder follows as the two battle, trying to get the upper hand. Neither wins. Instead a new order arises: the synthesis. It puts the thesis and antithesis together to create something newer and better. That is how history progresses, how things get better over time.

But the synthesis now finds that it has become the new thesis, which brings about a new antithesis. And so on.

And so by this process earth becomes plant, plant becomes animal, animal becomes man, man becomes the state and so on. It is how worship of nature became Christianity. (Hegel saw Christianity as a sort of Hegelianism for the masses.)

And so from bad and simple beginnings come good and wonderful things. Things are always changing but, in the long run, getting better. Much better.

This process comes to an end in what Hegel called the Absolute Spirit when we will know everything and see God.

Marx saw history in these terms: the capitalists, the rich moneymen, would bring about their opposite, the workers. The two would battle and in the end communism would arise to replace them both and bring an end to their division:

capital + workers -> communism

Hegel was deeply affected by the Greeks, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Fichte and his friend Schelling.

Hegel himself affected not just Marx but also Kierkegaard, Sartre, Dewey and Royce and, of course, the Young Hegelians, who wanted to unite Germany.

Hegel is still important, given how often his works are still cited, but he is no longer the giant he was in the 1800s. His chief influence now comes through Marx.

His books:

  • 1807: Phenomenology of Mind
  • 1816: Science of Logic
  • 1817: Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences
  • 1821: Philosophy of Right
  • 1837: Philosophy of History
  • 1838: Philosophy of Art

In the “Phenomenology” he first presented his new philosophy and in the “Encyclopedia” he laid it out in detail.

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Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German political philosopher who founded the school of Marxism, known also as communism. Marx said the workers will overthrow the capitalists, the moneymen. They will set up a society with no private property, no rich and poor. Even government itself will wither away in time.

Many saw this as the wave of the future and so it was:
in the 1900s many countries ordered their societies according to Marx’s ideas, in whole or in part:

  • In backward countries, the communists overthrew the government and remade society according to Marx’s ideas. There was no more private property – the government owned all the land, all the mines, all the businesses, all the houses, everything. There was no more freedom of religion, no more free political thought. Those who disagreed with the government and would not shut up were taken away. Examples: Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia.
  • In democracies, socialists formed parties to represent workers. When they got in power they used the government’s power to tax to take from the rich and give to the poor. They gave money to those too old to work, made businesses pay workers fairly, gave workers the right to strike, provided money for higher education, and so on. Examples: Britain, Sweden, Chile under Allende, Israel.

In 1991 communism fell in Eastern Europe. It no longer seemed like the wave of the future, but a bad period in history. Yet even today Marx’s ideas live on in left-wing political thinking:

  • The purpose of government is to bring justice through equality, doing away with rich and poor.
  • To improve man you must improve society.
  • Man can be understood by his material conditions alone: to understand man, follow the money.

When Mother Theresa was in India helping the poor, some laughed at her because she only helped one poor person at a time. They said she should work to change an unjust society instead. Mother Theresa thought like Jesus Christ, those who laughed at her thought like Karl Marx.

In the old days land was power, so the great landowners ruled society. Then came the rise of traders and bankers – the capitalists. Power moved from the land and farming to money and industry. The capitalists overthrew the old ruling class, the landowners.

Marx, who spent his days studying history in the British Museum, said this was going to happen again, only this time the workers will overthrow the capitalists.

The power of the capitalists came from profits made from putting money into businesses. But where did the profits come from? From underpaying workers. As soon as the workers understood this, they would overthrow the capitalists and take power for themselves.

Marx did not believe in God. He said religion was “the opium of the people.” – something to keep them from feeling the pain of living in an unjust society.

Marx was influenced by the philosophy of Hegel. Like Hegel he saw history in terms of opposites creating something new and better. Thus progress.

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Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote “The Prince” (1513), a guidebook to power and how to use it. He said a prince’s first duty is not justice or doing what is right, but the freedom and prosperity of his country. The ends justify the means.

He wrote the book for Lorenzo de Medici, but Lorenzo was more interested in his dogs.

Machiavelli loved Florence and Italy and wanted a prince who could unite the country and free it from the barbarians – the French and Spanish.

In 1494 the Medici family, which had ruled Florence, were overthrown and a republic of Florence was established. In 1498 Machiavelli became the foreign secretary.

This took him all over Europe: all through Italy, France, Switzerland and Germany. He talked to popes, princes, generals and cardinals. He saw how political power worked in the real world.

But then in 1512 the republic fell. The Medicis were back and threw him in prison. Later they let him go. No longer foreign secretary, Machiavelli returned to his estate in the country.

There he read the books of ancient history in his library and wondered what went wrong.

Cicero and others throughout history had told rulers to be just, prudent and seek the love of their subjects. Machiavelli saw first hand that this does not work. The republic of Florence had been ruled by just such a man and yet it fell. What to do?

Machiavelli noticed that the acts of princes and men were driven by the same passions all throughout history. Therefore through a knowledge of the acts of great men learned from long experience in the present and endless reading of the ancient, Machiavelli figured out what worked and saved a country and what did not.

In 1513 he wrote down his findings as a handbook for rulers called “The Prince”. It was shocking: Machiavelli told princes to be immoral if that is what it took, as it sometimes did. He even told them to seem good but be evil; that it was better to be feared than loved.

Of all the ancients, Machiavelli loved Livy most. Livy’s history of the Roman republic became his touchstone for everything. So he wrote a book about it: the “Discourses” (1519). In it he lays out his own philosophy of history and how a strong, enduring republic can be founded. Something he wished for Florence and all of Italy.

He wrote books on the art of war and the history of Florence, a play, “Mandragola”, and some verse.

His verse was nothing great, but his prose was excellent. He wrote in the Italian of Florence, not in Latin. His Latin was excellent – he was foreign secretary and had read Livy in Latin – but what he wrote was for Italy not for the West as a whole.

Machiavelli loved to read, especially Lucretius, Dante, Virgil and, above all, his Livy. He also read Thucydides, Tacitus, Plutarch, Ovid, Tibulus, Terence, Diogenes Laertius, Petrarch and Boccaccio. He loved to read about his two great passions: history and love.

Machiavelli knew Leonardo da Vinci. The two met when they both worked for Cesare Borgia.

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Hume

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher of the Enlightenment who pushed Locke’s and Berkeley’s school of empiricism to the breaking point, resulting in scepticism.

Hume wanted to be a great writer and saw himself as a moral philosopher, but today we read Hume mostly for his theory of knowledge in his book “Human Understanding” (1748).

Hume, as everyone knew, did not believe in God, not even when he was dying. He was the first famous deathbed atheist in the West. His housekeeper, however, said he did not die with peace of mind.

Hume doubted not just God, but everything – even the existence of the mind, self and the material world. Although he believed the sun would rise tomorrow, he saw it as just that: a belief, nothing more. You cannot prove it. Much of our knowledge is just like that: physical laws are just another way of saying what always seems to happen. So are cause and effect: we suppose that cause leads to effect, but there is no way to prove it. It is just what seems to happen, but we really do not know why.

Ideas and words are the same: they can only be about those things that always seem to go together. They are just names we stick on things, there is no inner truth to them.

We think of the world as being predictable and based on rules, but that is just the bit of reality that we can understand. Reality goes far beyond that.

Hume argued against the existence of miracles. Miracles by definition are highly improbable events. Which only means that it is more probable that any report of a miracle is a lie or an error than that the miracle really took place.

Hume said that religion and theology are not based on reason.

Hume’s moral theory was based not on God or religion but on the pleasing and useful consequences of our actions. This was later developed by Bentham in his philosophy of utilitarianism. It was Bentham who said “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Hume’s ideas also influenced John Stuart Mill, Comte and others. The philosophy of Kant was partly in answer to Hume.

Hume received his education in Edinburgh in the 1730s, but soon after moved to Paris, where he spent much of his life. There he became friends with Rousseau, whom he later helped to flee to Britain with some money to live on. Rousseau was not grateful.

Hume’s history of Britain was the top book on the subject for many years. His facts were not always right, but his writing was wonderful.

Hume’s science writing is among the best in the English language. It is as clear as glass, uncoloured by his emotions.

Some say he wrote to shock in order to become a famous writer. Still his thought does hold together and is not easy to overthrow.

If you wonder about the truth of religion, science or atheism, then read Hume.

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Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was a French philosopher. In Latin his name is Renatus Cartesius, from which we get the word “Cartesian.” He moved Western philosophy beyond Aristotle, created analytic geometry by applying algebra to geometry and was a leading light of the new science.

Descartes is the one who said “Cogito, ergo sum”, Latin for “I think, therefore I am”.

Descartes said that if you really want to know the truth, then at least once in your life you must doubt everything. From this universal doubt he knew that he existed because he doubted! “I think, therefore I am.” From there he proved that God exists, using the proofs of Anselm and Aquinas. But God would not deceive us, therefore we can trust our senses too. And so on.

Descartes reasoned from truths he could not doubt to new truths and then reasoned from these new truths to derive yet other truths and so on through a process of deduction.

Descartes did to philosophy what Euclid had done to geometry, building it from the ground up. So had Aristotle, but Descartes was far more thorough. It was quite unlike Bacon’s science by induction.

Descartes founded the school of rationalism. It said that man’s knowledge is based on reason and certain inborn ideas. This was later opposed by the empiricism of Locke.

Descartes saw the body and all of nature as matter in motion, as moving parts working together. The human mind, on the other hand, was something completely different. The mind was not material, it was not an ordinary part of nature. You could not see it or touch it. We only know about minds because we all experience them.

This is known as mind/body dualism, where the world is divided into mind and body. Most philosophers in the English-speaking world see it as a false distinction.

Descartes wondered where the mind was connected to the body. So he cut open dead animals and he cut open dead men and looked. Only man had a pineal gland, so he thought that was it. Years later, however, the pineal gland was found in other animals.

Descartes was a pious Catholic and, like Galileo, saw himself as helping the Church into the new age of thought. The Church did not see it that way.

While Descartes was writing his master work on science, “Le Monde”, the Church condemned Galileo for teaching the theory of Copernicus as true. That is just what Descartes had done in “Le Monde”! He stopped writing the book and never put it out. Instead he came up with his theory of vortices. It had some following till Newton proved Copernicus right once and for all.

In 1649 he went to Sweden to teach philosophy to the queen. The cold was too much for him and he died of pneumonia a year later.

His best books:

  • Discourse on Method (1637)
  • Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641)
  • Principia philosophiae (1644)

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Epictetus

Epictetus (55-135) was one of the leading lights of the Stoic school of Greek philosophy. He became a Stoic while still a slave in Rome. Later freed, he was kicked out of Rome with all the other Stoics by Domitian in 90. He went to Greece and started his own school. We have two of his books, the “Discourses” and the “Encheiridion”.

If you have read the Bible, you should read Epictetus: he is the missing chapter between Socrates and the New Testament. In the time of St Paul Stoic philosophy affected people’s everyday thinking like how Freud and Marx affects ours. Stoic thought was the mental background noise of the age.

Surprisingly, Epictetus often makes a stronger case for what we would call good Christian living than the Bible does – because he gives down-to-earth reasons for it, not those of heaven and hell.

At times in Epictetus it almost seems as if Christianity is just Stoic philosophy for the masses.

At times, because they part ways on two very important questions: sin and death.

Sin:

Epictetus says that you can become a good person by an act of will, through self control and right reason. Christians say that is impossible: it takes an act of God – what is called grace. To a Christian, the whole point of the Old Testament is that man cannot make it on his own, that just knowing what is right and wrong and wanting to do good is not enough. If it were, we would all be Jews. Or Stoics.

Death:

Both Epictetus and Christians see that death is at the root of our fears and drives us to do senseless things. For example, people do not become famous, get rich, own large houses and fancy cars because they need them in and of themselves. At root, they do it because they are afraid to die. The fear of the abyss ruins our character. We will never live right, we will never be all that we should be, till we face death and somehow overcome it.

Part of what makes Christ stick out so much in people’s mind is how he was so unafraid of death and lived life accordingly.

Where the Stoics and Christians part company is how they overcome death. Christians overcome it through faith in God and his promise of a blessed afterlife for the faithful. Stoics, not believing in an immortal soul, have to come to terms with death head on.

Epictetus cares little about nature – for him the burning question for philosophy is how best to live. In this he is a child of his age. Yet his answer is hard to take since it means giving up everything we have built our lives on.

Epictetus, like Plotinus, unwittingly shows you how to put together the best of Greek philosophy with Christianity; how they are not really all that far apart.

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Stoic

The Stoics were one of the five schools of Greek philosophy in ancient times. It is the one that most influenced the Romans and early Christians. Stoics valued virtue above all. Famous Stoics include Cato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

For Stoics virtue, doing what was right, was the only thing that mattered, not health or wealth, family or friends or even life itself – which is why suicide is allowed, as in the case of Cato. Virtue is your only real possession, apart from your soul. Everything else comes and goes. A wise man, therefore, is indifferent to them – he is happy whether he is rich or poor, a king or a slave.

Virtue means being ruled by reason, not by your passions, which only leads to vice.

Life is an endless battle against vice, against one’s passions. To attain virtue a wise man seeks wisdom. Wisdom leads to virtue, virtue leads to peace of mind or what the Stoics called apathy, where all the passions are dead. Apathy leads to true happiness.

Stoics admired Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic and regard them as two wisest men who ever lived.

Stoics believed in fate and providence. God created and rules the world for the benefit of rational creatures like ourselves. Everything happens by necessity: what happens is meant to be and could not be otherwise. A wise man accepts this with good grace.

The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium in 322 BC. He was a trader from Cyprus who lost his ship and all his goods. When he got to Athens he met Crates the Cynic outside a bookshop. Crates told him that material possessions do not matter. Zeno went around Athens to hear all the other philosophers. In time he started to teach his own philosophy in the Stoa Poilike in Athens, which is how his school got its name of Stoic.

Zeno divided philosophy into three parts:

  1. Logic – about reason and knowledge, how to think and know.
  2. Physics – about nature and how it works.
  3. Ethics – about virtue, how to best live.

By and large, Stoics did logic and physics only to get their ethics right.

Stoic logic comes from Aristotle. Everything we know in the end comes from our senses. Ideas exist only in the mind to help us understand what we sense; they have no reality of their own.

Stoic physics comes from Heraclitus. Everything is material, even our soul and God – both made of fire. God is to the world as our soul is to our body. Our soul comes from the fire of God. God at the same time is Logos – Reason itself.

Stoic ethics comes from Socrates and Diogenes. Since Reason rules the world so reason should rule our souls. This is what Stoics mean when they say “live according to nature.”

After 200 the Stoics were overtaken by the Neoplatonists and Christians. Christians carried on many Stoic ideas, but said that reason alone was not enough: you also need faith. Stoics came very close, but never quite said that.

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Epicurus (341-270 BC) of Athens founded the Epicurean school of Greek philosophy, one of the five great school of ancient times. Its glory days ran from about 300 BC to 200 AD. It taught that the world is nothing more than matter in motion, that things happen by chance – not even the gods are in control. To live well in such a world and have peace of mind, one must avoid pain and seek pleasure.

Although the Epicureans later got a bad name as immoral pleasure seekers, Epicurus himself lived very simply as an example to his followers. He lived in a house in a garden where he taught his followers. His school was therefore called the Garden. It stood there in Athens from 310 BC to 529 AD.

Epicurus said that the aim of life was peace of mind. To attain it you must seek pleasure and avoid pain according to the following principles:

  1. Fear no god: Gods exists, yes, but they want to live in peace. They do not care about us. The universe is ruled not by gods but by matter, motion and chance.
  2. Do not care about death: it does not hurt, you will not even know you are dead! You will be gone, even your soul. There is no hell to fear.
  3. The good is easy to get: Man does not need much – he can live on “water and barley cakes.”
  4. The bad is easily endured: if sickness or pain is horrible it is short-lived. If it is long-lasting, it is bearable.

Epicurus was against suicide because it goes against the fourth principle. Some later Epicureans, however, were for it.

For Epicurus there is no such thing as morals, as right and wrong – just pleasure and pain. Not just those of the flesh, but, even more important, those of the mind.

To attain peace of mind it helps to be just, prudent and honourable. So does friendship. Family and political affairs, on the other hand, do not.

The Stoics also sought peace of mind, but looked for it in duty, not pleasure.

Epicurus’s physics was based on the atoms of Democritus. Democritus said that everything was made up of atoms: very small bits of matter – too small to see and too small to cut up into smaller parts. They are uncreated and eternal.

The universe is just atoms moving about. To some degree they follow the rules of physics, but there is also an element of chance as well. There is certainly no divine design or purpose to it all.

Epicurus said that even the gods were made of atoms. While his universe does not require gods, either to create it or rule it, he believed they existed because it is a universal belief among mankind. Gods should be worshipped out of respect not fear.

Famous Epicureans: Cassius, Lucretius, Lucian, Lorenzo Valla, Gassendi, Thomas Jefferson.

Influenced by Epicurean thought: Virgil, Horace, Locke, Boyle, Newton.

Against it: Cicero, Plutarch, Origen and Augustine.

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Plato (429-374 BC) founded the Academy, one of the five schools of Greek philosophy. Through Augustine it became the one that most influenced the West from 400 till 1250. From 1250 to 1650 Aristotle, through the work of Aquinas, became more important.

Plato and Aristotle together laid the foundation of philosophy in the West.

Unlike Aristotle, Plato trusted mind and reason over the senses.

Plato was taught by Socrates, who turned Greek philosophy from questions of nature to questions about man. That is why so much of Plato is about virtue, justice and law.

Plato wanted to create the perfect society. He wrote about it in his book the “Republic”.

In the “Republic” a philosopher-king rules through a military made up of both men and women who have their property and children in common and their lovers chosen, it seems, by lot. The good of society is put above the good of the individual. Homer and other great works are rewritten to serve the needs of the state since, as they stand, they will ruin the young with the wrong ideas. Rulers tell “noble lies” to their subjects for the good of society.

In the course of telling us about his perfect society – which Plato does to find out the true nature of justice – he tells us along the way about the nature of man and of reality.

For Plato man is an immortal soul put in a mortal, material, corruptible body. Man is born neither good nor evil — he is whatever his education has made him. So the key to creating the perfect society is education. He who controls education controls the future. That is why Homer has to be rewritten.

After death the soul goes through the river Lethe where it forgets everything. It then enters a new body.

Plato’s picture of reality is given in his story of the cave. We are like men living in a cave who only see shadows on the wall. We think that is real life. We cannot see what is causing the shadows much less the light.

And so what we see about us is only a shadow of a higher reality, which Plato called the Forms or Ideas – the things causing the shadows.

For example, when we see horses, they are mere shadows or imperfect instances of the true Horse, which is idea or form of horseness in all its purity.

This is called idealism. It speaks to our sense that there is something beautiful and pure at the root of this very imperfect world.

Plato wrote his books in the form of dialogues or discussions. This is because Socrates taught by close questioning to test ideas and seek definitions.

Plato’s dialogues discuss the deepest questions of life:

  • The Republic: What is justice? What is real?
  • Parmenides: What is being and nothingness?
  • Theatetus: What is language?
  • Timaeus: How the world put together?
  • Phaedo: Is the sould immortal?
  • Symposium: What is love?

And so on.

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Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, the founder of the Peripatetics, one of the five schools of Greek philosophy in ancient times. His teacher was Plato and he in turn taught Alexander the Great. Although Plato has been more important through most of the history of the West, Aristotle’s philosophy was on top from about 1250 to 1650, a period that saw the birth of Western science.

Aristotle was more down to earth than Plato. Unlike Plato, he trusted his senses and did not see this world as only the shadow of some higher reality. But like Plato he saw reason as the royal road to the truth.

For Aristotle a field of science starts with a set of axioms – statements whose truth is self-evident. One builds on top of this by observation and reason. This was how science was done until the time of Galileo nearly two thousand years later.

Aristotle saw the earth as a place of ceaseless change, birth and destruction. The heavens, however, were perfect, changeless and eternal.

The universe is made up of five elements: earth, water, air, fire and quintessence. Earth is the heaviest element so it sinks to the middle of the universe. That is how the earth itself came to be. Water is the next heaviest, making the seas, then comes the air. Above the air is a region of fire and above that are the heavens made of quintessence. Quintessence moves in perfect circles.

That is why the sun, moon, planets and stars all go round the earth.

Aristotle said that nothing could be physically infinite, that it was impossible for anything real to go on forever. That meant that the chain of causes that make up the universe cannot go on forever. There must be some starting point. That first uncaused cause he called the Prime Mover. Aquinas would later develop this argument into his proof of God.

Aristotle said that each physical thing or substance, like a man or a horse or a table, is made up of essence and accidents.

An essence are the parts of a thing that belong to its definition. Man, for example, is a rational animal. So his reason and animal body are part of his essence. He could not be a man without them. Accident, on the other hand includes those things that make one man different from the next, like his colour or weight, but which do not make him something other than a man.

This is only some of what he taught. He also wrote about the soul, virtue, reason, cause, motion, being, animals, the earth, government, rhetoric, theatre and much else.

Aristotle came down to the West chiefly through the Arabs. When his works appeared in Europe in the 1100s the Catholic Church at first saw him as a threat. But in the 1200s Aquinas was able to explain Christian theology, even the Eucharist, in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy. This in turn laid the groundwork for the rise of Western science.

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Greek philosophy

Greek philosophy means the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans from about 600 BC to 500 AD. It includes such great thinkers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and many others. It attempted to understand the world through reason alone, which was at once its glory and its ruin.

Socrates was the turning point of Greek philosophy.

Before Socrates Greek philosophers were concerned chiefly with explaining nature. We call them the pre-Socratics. They include Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaximenes, the Sophists and many others.

With Socrates philosophy turned to the deeper questions of life, about the nature of man, society, virtue and justice. It was concerned less with the why of the stars and the moon and more with the how to live on earth as good men.

After Socrates five great schools of philosophy arose, here listed with some of their followers, Greek, Roman and even Christian:

  1. Academics – followed Plato, includes Cicero, Plotinus, Porphyry, Augustine, Boethius.
  2. Peripatetics – followed Aristotle, includes Aquinas.
  3. Stoics – includes Cato, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius.
  4. Epicureans – followed Epicurus, includes Lucretius.
  5. Cynics – followed Diogenes.

Of these only the first two — Plato and Aristotle — still matter. The rest have become curiosities of history.

In Roman times, philosophy was far more important than it is now: it gave many their bearings, told them what was right and wrong and how best to live. It was almost religion. Philosophy was not just some intellectual game played by eggheads — it was about real questions about real life. In fact, in its early days Christianity found itself fighting Plato more than Jupiter.

We do not see that today because science and Christianity have largely overthrown Greek philosophy in the West. So few now turn to it for answers.

In overturning Greek philosophy, however, both Christianity and Western science have been influenced by the very philosophies they overthrew! And so some of Plato’s thought lives on in Christianity and some of Aristotle in Western science. That is why the West retained its great faith in reason.

Reason was the great glory of Greek philosophy. Its philosophers used reason above all else to explain the world, to work out the answers to the questions of life. This has made it universal, something that speaks to men of any age or country. But reason was also its great weakness. Reason is wonderful and powerful, yes, but it is not enough.

In science, for example, it is too easy to think up different theories to explain the same facts. Reason alone cannot choose the right one. That is why we need observation and experiment too.

When it comes to the deeper questions of life, we probably do not know enough to settle them by reason alone. Those who believe in a revealed religion, like Christianity or Islam, will certainly tell you so: sometimes God has to give us help to lead us on the right road; sometimes we need the faith of a child to follow God down that road because reason alone is not enough.

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Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) was an American philosopher of science. He said that science progresses not by the slow, orderly increase of facts and theories – fact building on fact, theory building on theory – but by one theory overthrowing another.

He called the conquering theory a paradigm and the overthrow a paradigm shift.

Kuhn found this out when he read Copernicus: Copernicus and Ptolemy had the same set of facts, more or less, yet while Ptolemy said the planets went round the earth, Copernicus said they all went round the sun. Copernicus did not “build” on Ptolemy’s theory: he ground it into the dust.

He is not the exception, as it turns out: Dalton did not build on Lavoisier, Darwin did not build on Lamarck and Einstein did not really build on Newton. They each had a new paradigm: a new way of looking at the facts that everyone already knew.

What makes a paradigm powerful is that it not only explains the known facts better, it predicts something surprising that turns out to be true. It also gains followers by opening up new roads into the unknown, just as Copernicus opened up new roads for Galileo, Kepler, Tycho and Newton.

Although the new paradigm has fact and reason on its side, it wins less by persuading the grey hairs and more by winning glory, honour and top positions for the young bloods. In time the grey hairs die off and the young bloods, by middle age, have all the top positions. By this point the paradigm has become the reigning truth. Paradigms win not by sweet reason, but by death and fashion.

Yet after a time new facts start to come in that do not quite fit. The paradigm becomes like a faithful old shoe that has seen its day and is starting to show holes. At first the new facts are not taken seriously, but then more are discovered. It seems like every five years or so someone finds out something new that does not quite fit.

Then a genius comes along with a new way of looking at it all – a new paradigm. He is able to explain the new facts as well as the old.

Then the whole thing starts over again.

Science was not always like this. Greek science certainly was not. Neither are the so-called “soft” sciences like those political and social. Not even computer science.

How to tell philosophy and soft science from true science:

  1. Theories sound good but cannot be proved to be true or false.
  2. The existence of different schools of thought.
  3. In school you read the “great works” of the field.
  4. There is no overarching theory – just a lot of rules that work.

In political science, for example, you may read Aristotle, but in physics no one thinks to read Galileo, as great as he was. Why? Because physics, as a true science, has progressed far beyond its founders, political science has not.

When a field gets its first paradigm it then becomes a true science.

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Western truth

Something that set the West apart from the rest of the world was its idea about the truth. Up until my lifetime, the truth was “out there”, as the old television show the “X Files” put it. It could be discovered, it could be put down into words and definitions. It was clear cut. It could overturn our world.

And nothing was more important.

But now it seems the West is giving up on the truth. The truth is no longer absolute. It may no longer be out there and, even if it is, it is probably beyond human understanding and discovery.

Whatever we think is the truth is really just a point of view, an opinion that cannot be proved. In the end we believe what we want to believe, no matter how many times we tell ourselves that we are seeking the truth.

And, so what? Does it really matter if we find the truth? That seems to be the current feeling.

It is too soon to tell if this is just a passing thing or if the West is taking a new turn. If it is here to stay, then it is a very deep change.

The West’s old idea of truth goes way back. You might
think it is something that came in with the Enlightenment or with the science of Galileo or the humanists of the Renaissance. No, it goes back, way back. Back three thousands years.

What Moses, Thales, Socrates, Aristotle, Euclid, the Nicene Fathers, Aquinas, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and all the rest have in common is the truth as something man can know, something so clear cut that it can be written down. It is what unites the Nicene Creed to E = mc2.

It is not some experience of the soul, it is not ancient wisdom handed down through the generations, it is not above the clouds and the stars, it is not a mystery, it is not between the lines of an old story: we can know it as men and set it down in words!

We got this from both the Greeks and the Jews. God spoke to Moses and wrote down – wrote down – his commandments! And then he sent his Son to give us Further Instructions! Thales used reason to figure out how the world came to be. And just as Thales applied reason to physics, Socrates did the same to man and all the deep questions of life.

Revealed religion, philosophy, science.

Augustine, Aquinas and others applied Greek philosophy to religion, of all things. We take it for granted and think little of it, but the Muslims were not able to do it.

None of this had to be. Why should the truth be that easy to find and that easy to tell others?

And even if the West was foolish, in the process it found out a lot that no one else has. Like what is inside a star or how life can be made out of dead matter.

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Written: 250
Read: 1994

In his six Enneads Plotinus explains life, the universe and everything.

If you want to question everything you ever believed read this book.

If you want to understand God or religion better, whether you are a believer or not, read this book. Plotinus himself was not a follower of Christ or Muhammad, but of Plato. Yet because he influenced Christian and Muslim thinkers, like Augustine, reading Plotinus helps you to understand those faiths better.

The West today is building a world view based on materialism, but this book made me see that it could just as well be done the other way around: it could be based on idealism, where Plato’s Ideas, not the material world, is the base reality. Plotinus shows how in his six Enneads.

Whether you go for his idealism or not, Plotinus is great because he takes apart and questions ideas like matter, knowledge, being and God. What he writes about matter and God is very good, even if you do not agree with him. He does go soft-headed sometimes, but he really does want to understand the nature of things and not settle for the easy answers we all heard in school. Where most are content to leave God as a name on a brass doorplate – “Creator of the Universe” – Plotinus really really wants to understand God. In detail. In depth. It is wonderful.

You know, most philosophers, like your father, will answer your question with a bit of arch wording and then have that smile on their face. Plotinus is not like that. It is wonderful!

Be aware that because he thinks so differently from the way we do, sometimes you have to read a passage several times before you get it. But in the end you will be happy you did not give up.

Some of what he says:

Plotinus said that the highest reality was the Idea of One which, it turns out, is the same as the Idea of Good. Christians and Muslims will recognise this as God.

The universe is a side effect of the emanations of the Good. It is not an act of will of the Good but just a natural side effect. The universe emanates from the Good like light shines from the sun. The sun is not about making light for us, but it is a side effect of its nature. So with the universe and the Good.

At each stage the emanations get weaker so that the farther away you get from the Good, the less perfect creation becomes. The Good emanates the ideas, which in leads to spirit which in turn leads to matter. In this way Plotinus is able to explain how something so perfect as the Good can create an imperfect world.

And what about us? We are part spirit but also part matter. But there is hope: Plotinus says that through self-control, philosophy (of course), contemplation and mysticism we can return step by step to the One. Very Gnostic, that. As a philosopher Plotinus loved reason, but he placed mysticism above reason as a shortcut to knowing the One.

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Plotinus (205-270) was the last great philosopher in the West who believed in the old gods. He founded a new school of philosophy, which we call Neoplatonism. He wrote about his philosophy in his six Enneads. Even though his school of thought only lasted for 300 years and he is barely heard of today, his influence has been great because of the Christian and Muslim thinkers who read him, like Augustine.

Some of what Plotinus believed:

  • The universe is eternal – without beginning, without end.
  • Reincarnation: the soul is eternal and goes from body to body.
  • Many gods exists, but there is also one God Almighty.
  • Stars are alive and have minds.
  • The purpose of life is virtue to free the soul from the body.
  • Providence: the gods act for our benefit.
  • Idealism: our world is an imperfect picture of the perfect world of Ideas.
  • Astrology: the stars influence our fate.

He was born in Egypt and went to Alexandria to learn philosophy. In 242 he went with the Roman army to Persia, where he learned about Persian and Indian thought. Two years later he came to Rome where he founded his school. It was not just a place of thought and argument: his disciples gave up their wealth and dedicated themselves to contemplation. This was a century before Christians did the same.

In 250, having developed his philosophy of Neoplatonism, he wrote about it in the six Enneads. He explains the world based not on materialism, as we do, but idealism, where Plato’s Ideas were the base reality And among those ideas the starting point of everything is the One, which is the same thing as the Good. Christians and Muslims will recognise this as God.

Plotinus saw creation as an emanation from the Good, like light shining from the sun. The farther something was from the Good, the less spiritual and the more material it became. This allowed him to account for the ruined beauty of the universe without recourse to the dualism of the Gnostics or the Fall and original sin of the Catholics.

Plotinus was not a Christian, but some of his disciples were Gnostics, so he was familiar with their errors:

  • As the “sons of God”, Christians thought they were as better than gods and stars. This made them seek pleasure instead of virtue and think only of themselves.
  • Dualism: They hated the body and the world, seeing the world as dark and unjust. Clearly they did not understand Plato!
  • They saw illness as a spiritual affair that could be cured by the right words.
  • They believed they could influence God by words and songs.

Plotinus had to spend time showing his Christian disciples how badly they misunderstood Plato. In the process both Gnosticism and Neoplatonism influenced one another.

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