A Primer on Philosophy

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“I’ll get to that book in one or two weeks, but I need some philosophy now.”

I said those exact words recently and people seemed taken aback, as usually happens when I say that I “need some philosophy.” Nowadays the image we have of philosophers is that they are people who sit down and think, think and eventually come up with a new theory. “Maybe this is how the world works!” Some people even have a negative view of the subject. They think that philosophy is nothing but a waste of time, and instead we should be moving and working and definitely not trying to find subjective answers to subjective questions. Science is already a foolproof method to discover new things, right?

The problem with this is that philosophy is necessary and science is not an alternative to it. The two need to coexist. We all need philosophy, even those who claim that it’s a waste of time. This thought generally comes from a misunderstanding of what philosophy really is about. Seeing that many of the articles will focus on less-than-objective questions, I think it’s a good idea to know the method we will be using to tackle them—as well as what influences me, personally, the most.

This article and series (which will extend for a very long time) is meant for those who never quite got into philosophy. We will focus mostly on the Greeks, as this is where a great deal of my personal interest lies. I hope that those who come to this article with a negative view of the subject will leave with a newfound interest, and those who already like and practice (yes, practice) philosophy will have even more reason to.

What is philosophy?

If we look into the root of the word, what we find is simply “love of wisdom.” In its essence, that is what philosophy is. Philo means love and sophia means wisdom. Simple. Now think: do you like to learn new things? Are you curious about something, anything at all, in the world? If you said “yes” at least once, you can call yourself a philosopher already! Better start acting like one. Time to throw your judgements and possible negative biases in the trash, because not doing that will mean being a hypocrite, would it not? Don’t worry, I’ll help you appreciate philosophy for what it is.

To put it bluntly, it’s impossible to find knowledge if you do not love it. Philosophy governs our every action. You have probably said or heard the term “philosophy of life” at least once. Well, there is simply no better way to describe how we choose to act. It is the set of actions that dictate how we go about our daily lives.

The most important separation to be made when talking about philosophy is between ancient and modern philosophy. In high school we are mostly exposed to the modern period. Names like Locke, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche are spread all over textbooks and said out loud by a monotone teacher (full disclaimer: my philosophy teacher would not fall into that category). The ones who still remember something from those days would probably still have a rough idea of what each one of those guys said, but not much more than that. Pertaining to the ancient period, we are probably all familiar with the names of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and maybe one or two other Greeks. We might still remember one or two factoids about them, but also not much. I would wager none of those concepts were explored too closely and in many cases even misrepresented. I know for a fact that when I was in high school I thought those names, especially the ancient ones, did nothing but sit inside and waste their time trying to define things that “don’t need to be defined.” Anyone familiar with Socrates (“it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit.”) would have laughed in my face.

I believe there is no better way to learn philosophy than to live it. Philosophy is action, control, knowledge and self reliance, all done through logic and will. Have you ever heard the names of Sigmund Freud, Isaac Newton and Thomas Jefferson? They all studied philosophy before moving on to the fields that made them famous. Think back to any well known man or woman in history who made or helped make a groundbreaking discovery; chances are they studied philosophy too.

Philosophy in its essence is not about lecturing, reading heavy long books, trying to decipher what X or Y meant when he said this or that… Leave that to the academics. For us, and for most throughout history, philosophy is and was about living. Philosophy is about self knowledge, about taking a step back and taking action to change what we are not pleased with. Philosophy is refining ourselves. Philosophy is aiming for a goal that nowadays is not talked about anymore: virtue. In this series, we’ll examine just what it means. Our sights will be set on ancient Greece for the time being, but we will explore the orient and even a few modern thinkers in the future.

The way I will structure it is not presenting philosophical texts and going, “Start caring about them!” Instead, I will be primarily presenting lives of philosophers and men influenced by philosophy, their impact, what we can learn from them and their ideas; men who are, as it is safe to assume, smarter and who had a longer lasting impact on the world than we will ever have. If we can learn from their lives, we can start looking into what they said and thought, and then we can respect that. I will be doing my best to make sure the articles are as uncomplicated as possible and try to focus on what can be learned and what we can apply to our lives.

A (very) brief history of Greek philosophy

Some (myself included) would argue that philosophy has been part of mankind since mankind came to be, but a large portion of it went sadly undocumented. There is very little (if anything at all) that survived before the 7th 6th centuries BCE. What is widely considered as the birth of philosophy began with the Milesian school and Thales, the perceived father of Greek philosophy and the first individual to whom a mathematical discovery, regarding the geometry of lines, has been attributed.

Yes, back in the ancient Greek days, mathematics and philosophy went hand in hand. Plato’s academy (more on that in a later post), for example, reportedly had the phrase, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter,” engraved at its door.

Thales, born in Greece, was instructed by an Egyptian priest. The Egyptian culture heavily influenced Thales’s thought and would shape Greece’s philosophical path—and legacy later on. Thales was primarily concerned with the essence of things, meaning where everything comes from, from what they are created and how we can describe them. After Thales came most notably Pythagoras, a name we all got sick of hearing during math classes, and the Pythagorean school. As he wrote nothing down, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what his philosophy focused on, but later thinkers who wrote about him emphasize the origin and arrangement of the universe, as well as, unsurprisingly, mathematics and geometry.

Those first two schools, as well as other less well-known ones, compose a period that is known as pre-Socratic. Socrates himself marks the birth of classical Greek philosophy, of which two other very well-known names, Plato and Aristotle, are also part.

Socrates was an enigmatic figure to say the least. He himself also did not leave any writings of his own, and instead is known through accounts of two of his disciples: Plato and Xenophon. Hence it is hard to tell to which extent these other philosophers properly represented him and his views.

Socrates is said to have spent his days walking through Athens, questioning people on their beliefs while asserting that he himself knew nothing. The “Socratic dialogue” started with him, the main goal was which was to discover something new. Not simply two people talking and meeting in the middle or one of them “giving in,” but instead meeting somewhere higher up. Legend goes that the oracle of Delphi held that nobody was wiser than Socrates, because while most citizens went around professing their views on love and life as truth, Socrates chose to remain ignorant and simply see himself as a seeker. He was later sentenced to death for not upholding the status quo and questioning the latest decisions being made in Athens. His pupil, Plato, wrote about his trial in The Apology.

With Plato we begin to see original writings more often. He is largely credited to have come up with ideas to the meaning of love, knowledge, justice and many other topics. All of his writings take the form of dialogues, following the Socratic discourse that largely influenced him. Among his biggest contributions is The Republic, where he goes into the meaning of justice and how a city should best be structured to uphold it. Inside the book we can also find the Allegory of the Cave, describing one’s road to wisdom.

Besides writing multiple dialogues, Plato also founded the Academy in Athens. This is where he met Aristotle, who was his disciple for close to twenty years.

Aristotle decided to go against most of what Plato and Socrates had said until then, focusing strongly on physics, biology and other subjects that today are known as “scientific.” Aristotle shaped modern thinking and we have him to thank for much of what we know today. Besides that, he tutored Alexander the Great. Remember that guy? The king of Macedon? One of the largest empires of the ancient world?

And speaking of kings and emperors, after Aristotle we have most notably a rise in the Stoic philosophy, including names like Seneca, Epicurus, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who was the last of the Five Good Roman Emperors. The Stoic philosophy, which back in the day was virtually the unofficial religion of the Roman world, places the utmost importance on duty, self restraint and respect for others. These concepts were unfortunately largely abandoned after Marcus’s death and, one could argue, ultimately caused the fall of the Roman Empire. Well, that and the Germanic barbarian tribes.

The common factor among all of these philosophers is that in reading their biographies, we do not come across people who were sitting inside, reading books and writing their “oh so smart” thoughts in hopes of someday becoming well-known. On the contrary, there are accounts of Marcus Aurelius saying that he “gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.” Plato’s name comes from his wrestling coach and means broad because of his physique, Socrates fought in battles for Athens as a soldier… You get the idea.

We always knew that these men were insanely smart, but now we can also say that they held very desirable qualities and that their intelligence was not by any means their only defining characteristic. Should we not aim to have qualities of emperors and their advisors? Should we not, in our quests to become better men and women, learn from people who were presumably better than we will ever be? We have gone to school to learn from teachers who were smarter than us, now we should start learning from people who led better lives than we will ever be able to.

Getting your philosophical journey started:

Below are a few books that I have read and can recommend to anyone starting to delve into the subject.

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder – Although I could criticize the book for not going too deep into any period, that is not what it sets out to do. Primarily a fictional story, Gaarder takes the reader through the history of philosophy, from antiquity to modernity. Since it’s shaped as a story, much of the dialogue and conversations feel quite artificial. But if we are looking for an introduction to philosophy, there’s no better place to look.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – The one book I hold as most influential in my life, it’s simply a collection of passages and maxims that Marcus wrote to himself, condensed in a neat little package. It lays the principles of the Stoic philosophy in a very applicable fashion. Just do yourself a favor and get Gregory Hays’ translation

The Apology by Plato – The speech Socrates gave to defend himself when he was judged in 399BC. Gives us a very good insight into how Socrates thought and acted as well as some very valuable lessons with the outcome. The “sequel,” going into Socrates’ execution, is called Phaedo and is also an easy recommendation.

Letters from a Stoic by Seneca – Yet another book on stoicism. Might as well be a handbook on how one should live his life. Seneca achieved power and wealth but remained humble and gives us very practical advice on, well, just about everything.

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