Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Philosophy 101

Be prepared for overconfident answers that make no sense to you:

Using "Bad" Philosophers: "In the April 2008 issue of First Things, Fr. Neuhaus recommends a small, pocket-sized book by an eminent historian of ideas, Leszek Kołakowski of Poland, who is now working at Oxford University. From what I can tell, Kołakowski sounds like a modern 'Renaissance man' with proficiency in a wide range of intellectual domains, including theology. Here is how Neuhaus describes him:'Kołakowski is one [of] the great wonders of our age. Author of the classic Main Currents of Marxism and of many books on philosophy, religion, and the history of ideas, he is one of the very last of those Central European intellectuals whose learning is such as to force most of us to confess that our education is, by comparison, slapdash at best.' The recommended book, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? compiles 23 questions from several great Western philosophers (unfortunately, the English translation of the Polish original cuts down on the number of philosophers discussed). As an old philosophy major, I was surprised at my reaction as I progressed in reading the book (I have not yet finished). Several of the great philosophers struck me as astoundingly absurd. For whatever reason, I don't recall having that strong of a reaction in college. Kołakowski notes the great self-assurance of some of the thinkers--the implication is that such self-assurance is indeed amazing given the lack of evidence produced for their bold proposals. My conclusion is that it is very perceptive of Kołakowski to focus on a compilation of 23 questions as the key to his short survey of Western philosophy--because few of the philosophers really offer any satisfying answers to their questions. The questions are vastly more important than many of the proposed answers.

Yet, while most of the philosophers seem to fail in offering any cogent and persuasive answers to their own questions, we do get insights, sometimes very practical and perceptive insights along the way. As N.T. Wright notes in one of his biblical commentaries, sometimes what is important in life is not the particular earthly destination we are pursuing at a particular point in our lives but rather the journey itself to that earthly goal, even if the goal is never in fact reached. Wright gives the example of St. Paul who mentions near the end of his Letter to the Romans that he is planning a missionary trip to Spain. Even if St. Paul never made it to Spain (we are not sure), the planned Spanish trip did play a role in getting him to write the seminal Letter to the Romans--he was apparently planning to use Rome as a way station en route to Spain. Likewise, in the course of trying to answer questions they cannot answer, many of the philosophers do give us noteworthy insights into life, even if the philosophers do not actually reach their philosophical destination.

In the famously pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), we can recognize, as Christians, the emptiness of life without Christ or God:

Here there is no God, no soul and no free will: everything in the world, and therefore also in life and in human behaviour, is governed by implacable necessity. . . . [T]he true reality, the world that is independent of our mind, is will--unknowable, aimless, and impersonal. Here is true metaphysical horror. . . . Neither moral nor even mathematical categories are applicable to it; it is not evil or good; it contains neither number nor any other products of the human mind.

łakowski, p. 176.

For Schopenhauer, what he chose to call 'will' became the ruthless driving force of a reality without purpose or meaning. We can see this same fatalism and nihilism today in the lives of many: the life of the despairing (remember that appearances can be deceiving: the despairing can smile a lot for photos and be very busy doing many 'exciting' things) is one in which everything becomes acceptable and permissible simply because it happens or has happened. We see this fatalism all of the time in our society when many, as one of the Old Testament prophets said, have forgotten how to blush or how to be outraged at evil or injustice. In many ways, that morally indifferent fatalism is what our popular slang labels being 'cool.' In my opinion, that despairing fatalistic strain is why some Eastern philosophies, such as Buddhism, are popular in the West.

A more familiar name, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), paints a similar picture that also captures a lot of what we see in the United States and other places. In the Nietzschean world, the 'word 'evil' is unnecessary; only the word 'bad' is meaningful, and 'bad' means hostile to life, hostile to the expansion of the strong, triumphant life' (Ko
łakowski, p. 197). Let's be more direct: for Nietzsche what is bad is what blocks the urges of the ego. So today, many are willing to say that abortion is 'bad' but not evil. Many are willing to label the effects of fornication, such as STDs, as bad but refuse to label such sexual activity as evil. The ego can learn to live with and get around the 'bad' by trying to be safer and drowning out memories of the past, but calling something 'evil' would mean an impolitic disruption of the ego's urges and too much personal discomfort and dissonance.

Nietzsche's world sounds a lot like the world of striving modern competitors for success:

Reality is a collection of an infinite number of centres of will to power, each of which struggles to enlarge the domain of its power at the cost of others. Each of us is such a centre. But there is no direction, no aim and no meaning in this struggle.

łakowski, p. 198.

St. Paul would likely have agreed with the above description as applying to life apart from God--Paul paints as bleak a picture of such a reality in Romans 1:18-32 (reread Romans 1 and be astounded at how contemporary it is). Yet, the religious cannot be smug at all: throughout history, many of the outwardly pious remained and remain 'centres of will to power.'

Sometimes the 'bad' philosophers give at least an honest and stark picture of reality apart from God. Sometime we can use them to rip off the veil that blinds us to the reality around us and within us.


(Via Catholic Analysis.)

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