Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category


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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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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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 Medicis, who had ruled Florence, were overthrown and a republic of Florence was established. In 1498 Machiavelli became its 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.

– Abagond, 2007.

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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 (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.


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.


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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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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