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Thales

Thales (-640 to -562) was the first Greek philosopher and scientist. He was the first to try to find out how the world works through observation and reason, not through old stories about the gods.

Thales said everything comes from water in the end, just as we say everything is made of atoms in the end.

He was wrong about the water bit, but that style of thinking, of looking for a root natural cause of everything, is still with us and it started with him.

He was on everyone’s list as one of the seven wise men in ancient Greece. So was Solon, the great lawmaker of Athens, who lived at the same time across the Aegean sea. We still have a letter that Thales wrote to him.

Thales was the first to say “Know yourself”. He said it was the hardest thing in the world to do. The best way to make yourself better is to avoid the faults you see in others. Time was the wisest thing of all because it brought all to light.

But Thales was less interested in men than in the stars. He was the first Greek to know when an eclipse would take place. He said there would be one on May 12th -585. On that day, right in the middle of a battle, the moon covered the sun just like he said it would. It made him a wonder in the Greek world.

He wrote little. We know of only two books, both on the motion of the sun: “On the Solstices” and “On the Equinox”. Both are lost.

Perhaps he wrote so little because he was too busy travelling the world to learn all he could: Crete, Egypt, Asia and throughout the Greek-speaking world.

Although to the Greeks he seems to have made great discoveries about the sun, the moon and the stars, it is likely that he “discovered” most of them not in the skies but in talking to the priests of Egypt, who even then had records going back thousands of years.

Even so Thales did not find philosophy and science being practised anywhere in the world. They are his invention. He certainly did not find it in Egypt, a land ruled by priests.

Thales came from Miletus, a town Athens settled on the other side of the Aegean sea. It was then a part of Ionia, which ran down the west coast of what we now call Turkey. It produced most of the early Greek thinkers, even Pythagoras who later moved to Italy. Athens did not become the centre of Greek thought till 200 later in the time of Plato and Socrates.

He once measured the height of a pyramid: he waited till his shadow was as long as he was tall. Then he measured the shadow of the pyramid.

Some say he died by falling into a hole while looking up at the stars.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was a Spanish writer and thinker from the early 1900s. He stood between two Spains: the old Spain of faith and the new Spain of Western science and reason. He was torn between the two – neither fully satisfied him. His thought was an early form of existentialism. He said, “Faith without doubt is dead.”

Unamuno was the head of the University of Salamanca, where he had once taught Greek. Twice he stood up to the generals who wanted to rule Spain. The first time he was sent to the Canary Islands, later escaping to France. The second time, against Franco, he was put under house arrest but died a few months later just as the civil war was starting.

His greatest work was “The Tragic Sense of Life” (1913). Unamuno said the root of every philosophy and every religion – in fact, of every human action and thought – is the fear of death and the desire for immortality, to live forever. It why people have children, why they want to get rich, why they want to be famous or powerful. The fear of the death and the desire to live forever drives them, whether they know it or not. It stands behind everything like a shadow.

In the past men have tried to prove that the soul is immortal, using reason alone and not religion. Aquinas tried, so did Spinoza and others. They failed.

Because it cannot prove immortality, reason becomes the enemy of man, of life. What is more, reason, which began as the golden road to the truth, in the end destroys the truth through doubt and scepticism.

Like Tolstoy, Unamuno wished he had the simple religious faith of country people. But he does not. Reason has destroyed his faith. Yet reason itself has also destroyed the truth and any hope for an afterlife. It is a dead end.

His head could not believe in Christianity, but his heart still did. In the end he followed his heart and his faith over his head. It did not make sense, but it was the only way out that he could see.

Unamuno once wrote a story about a country priest called “Saint Manuel the Good, Martyr” (1931). Every Sunday he told the simple country people about the afterlife, but he believed none of it. Yet he did not have the heart to tell them the truth – it would kill them, he said. The story tells about his fight between faith and doubt in his own soul. Just like Unamuno himself.

Unamuno also wrote an excellent character study of Don Quixote. Of course, it was about more than just a character in a book. It was about Spain itself.

Some wanted all of Spain to become like Castile in the centre of Spain. Unamuno, being a Basque, opposed it.

Unamuno knew 14 languages. He learned Danish so he could read Kierkegaard in his own language.

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Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was a British thinker from the middle 1600s, the godfather of the banana republic. In his book “Leviathan” he argued that democracy would never work. He is famous for saying that man’s life is naturally “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Hobbes was a private teacher for the powerful Cavendish family in Britain. He also translated Thucydides into English. Thucydides wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta, showing how men were driven by self-interest alone, however they may dress up their actions in fine words.

Later Hobbes saw Britain itself torn apart by war when Cromwell and the Roundheads rose up against the king. He fled with the Cavendish family to Paris to wait out the war. There he taught the future king, Charles II, and wrote his master work, “Leviathan“. He also met some of the best minds of Europe, like Descartes and Gassendi.

When his book came out in Paris in 1651 the Catholic Church was not pleased. The “Leviathan” seemed to have little room for God; man was little more than a machine. Hobbes was no Catholic, but he left Paris and went back to England.

“Leviathan” lays out Hobbes’s philosophy about nature, man, history, morals, power and the state. It planted two seeds into Western thought:

  1. The power of the king comes not from God, as everyone up till then believed, but from the will of the people. Power and rights in society come from a social contract, an agreement among the citizens of a state at its founding that binds future ages. The contract is often taken for granted, not written down.
  2. Nature is a machine. Not just the stones and the stars, but even living plants and animals and man himself. Even the mind itself is nothing but a machine.

Hobbes saw man as driven only by self-interest. Out of fear of death he will give away his rights to a king. The king then has all the rights and power of society, his subjects are left with none – they gave them away. The king is above even the law.

Kings grew powerful not by divine right, as they said in those days, but by force. His power came not from above but from below, from his subjects.

But even though Hobbes used this sort of thinking to support the right of kings, Jefferson would later use it to argue for democracy: since the king got his power from the people, the people had the right to overthrow him.

Hobbes thought that democracy would never work: it makes decisions too slowly and changes its mind too often. This makes it completely unsuited for war. In time the kings would overthrow any democracies that took root. Democracy is one of those bad ideas spread by the Greeks.

Few accept Hobbes’s philosophy, but his way of thinking has become common. Like reasoning from history instead of from the nature of man. It has especially affected Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham and Mill.

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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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Lao-tzu (老子)

Lao-tzu (-500s), also called 老子 or Laozi, was a wise man who lived in China in the time of Confucius. He founded Taoism which, along with Confucianism, became one of the two great schools of philosophy of ancient China. It later became a religion. Zen Buddhism is Buddhism interpreted according to Taoism.

Lao-tzu wrote the Tao-te-Ching, the book of the Way (Tao) and its power. It is very short, just 5467 words. It is the sort of book you can read in a half hour but take a lifetime to understand.

Apart from the Bible, no book has been translated more times.

Lao-tzu worked in a government office in Luoyang. As an old man he had had enough of man and his world. He got on the back of a black ox and headed west. At a mountain pass a military guard stopped him. He asked Lao-tzu to write a book. So he wrote the Tao-te-Ching and then disappeared into the west.

Some say he made it to India and taught a prince. Others say he died in China.

Experts in our time say that he wrote nothing – that the Tao-te-Ching was written during the centuries after his death by his followers.

The book is about the Tao. The Tao that you can put into words is not the Tao – the Tao is beyond words. It gave birth to the heaven and the earth and all of creation. These things developed out of it naturally, not as something consciously made.

The Tao is not a person like the Christian God. It is a force without a face. Its effect and manner you can see in the actions of heaven and earth, but not in the actions of men.

Men are always fighting against the Tao. They are always doing this or that, always seeking something: wealth, honour, power, knowledge, even holiness. They never sit still. But all this running about goes against the Tao and so it is bound to end in tears. We think we can have it our way. Wrong.

The true wise man acts and lives according to the Tao. Strangely enough, he acts by not acting – called wu wei in Chinese. He does not even try to be good or wise. He trusts in the Tao and acts according to it and everything falls into place.

The wise man has three jewels: mercy, humility and moderation. Going against any one of these goes against the Tao.

If you think of the Pooh stories, Pooh Bear acts in a Taoist manner, while Rabbit is completely the opposite.

After his death, Taoism was developed by his follower Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi).

In time Taoism became a religion, complete with gods, priests, rites, temples, all of it. Even Lao-tzu was a god. It had the support of the emperors down through the ages. But then in 1911 the last emperor fell. In time the communists took over China under Mao and destroyed Taoism after 1949. It lives on in Taiwan.

– Abagond, 2007, 2015.

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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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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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