From a History of Thought and Thinkers, foreword: What is philosophy for?

Philosophicus humanicus – an anthropomorphic concept of an abstract, the embodiment of the academic field of philosophy cobbled together from the parts best suited to the purpose of our present story: a guided tour through the history of great ideas and thinkers, meeting with philosophers, artists, and social critics in order to apply their wisdom to the moral and philosophical questions of our own time.

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Foreword – The Making of Our Guide and The Devout Heathen

A philosopher is unique among academics in the esteem held for them by their academic peers. It is a noble institution, distinct from and sometimes critical of all in faith and science. It is the arena for questions from all academic traditions; physics, math, engineering, and biology–the philosopher looks at these institutions with a learned eye and props them up if they can stand, and, if they cannot, it falls to the philosopher to tear them down.

The discipline of question and hypothesis and inquiry became the standard because of how low the standard for proof has historically been to a large subset of controlling bodies, governmental or religious, and inquiry was a natural response to the unquestioning acceptance of incredible claims, often made by those who have the most to gain by their truth. Socrates is considered the first philosopher for he dared to suggest that, perhaps, Zeus wasn’t involved in every clap of lightning. The fact that it happened was enough to prove that Zeus made it happen; it was beyond the common sphere of understanding at that time. Now, scholars are nearly certain that Zeus doesn’t cause lightning. At least not all of it.

The willingness to question, while now applauded and admired, was once a very dangerous thing. This also endears the brave practitioners of the art of thinking to our romantic spirits; they asked questions and gave answers during times when both were dangerous. Baruch Spinoza embodies the dangers of philosophy as well as its worth and consolation in day-to-day affairs. What he attempted to do is now considered admirable, at least by skeptics: he sought to replace the Bible with a scientifically based system of ethics. Breeding seemingly unrelated fields together is a hallmark of a good philosopher, and Spinoza was as versatile as any of his age.

In 1692, living in the Dutch Republic after his ancestors were expelled from Catholic Spain, Spinoza wrote Ethics, or The Ethics, entirely in Latin. His challenges are sharp and seem to be rather deflating at first, such as his distancing God and concepts of God from the imaginations of human beings. To Spinoza, an intelligent child who attended Hebrew school, observed all the customs, and celebrated the high holidays, most of what religion promised was a product of the human imagination. God was not some person outside of nature, hearing prayers or creating through miracles, and there is no one to reward us for our faith or – and this was crucial – punish us for our misdeeds. Our prayers go unheard and unanswered by an imaginary, impersonal figment of our collective imagination which, in the final analysis, stems from both fear, of death of the unknown, and deep confusion about who and what we are.

To the many people on this Earth who relied on the comforts Spinoza attacked, it was undoubtedly harsh; we are not God’s chosen children, there is nothing in the dark, and the Bible was written by regular men. The disruption such a notion would have to a common man, a pious man, who simply enjoyed the ritual, the holidays, and practiced what bits he could remember, this was an attack on ethics rather than ethics implied by supernatural suggestion – and it was taken as so. It’s understandable; if I were to be such a man, virtuous and loyal, truly generous of spirit, I would be broken to pieces over such a suggestion. But only because one suggested truth, that the Bible and, by extension, all organized religions, is harsh, should not undo the second part of Spinoza’s philosophy. The existential crisis of our unimportant and cosmic loneliness was too much to put aside to come to terms with the beauty of Spinoza’s consolation, for anyone despirited by the more controversial elements of his argument. We should have the patience to give someone with such a hugely ambitious goal the opportunity to realize it.

To those who held to belief under the banner of a God who was a king or a commander or anyone for whom you might have to fight and die, this was a dangerous idea, and quite capable of undermining basic assumptions made by common peoples under the rule of Godkings and military strategists who are guided by providence. The different between a holy sword and a sword is only that you call one holy and the other unholy, the difference being only the reasons for which the sword is being used.

But this also had a problem on the smaller folk of history: if there is nothing to be gained for sacrifice and holy work and something, anything to make up for the undue labours of this life, why then, and this is a reasonable question, should such labors be done? If all falls on deaf ears, all is silence whether one sings or not. But Spinoza didn’t see it that way. There was something in the darkness, something that inspired poets and artists to bring truth and beauty into the world, works that refined us and made us more humane. And while he thought religion to be a projection of the imagination, on the other hand he lauded the ingenuity of astronomers in their attempts to chart the planets and the natural philosophers who sought to understand creation through the study of creation.

The harmonious and sometimes violent reactions in nature are a chain reaction, one following the other for natural reasons from and inspired by natural causes. To speculate outside of nature is to impart an unnecessary element, and though it is imparted to give meaning to the madness, the madness is more meaningful without it. Because that gives us free will, and the will to be better at the end of the day than who we were when the day began, to be wiser after being foolish, to be kinder after being harsh; these were all truths humans could and do learn from each other. This is why, despite his harshness, Spinoza never declared himself an atheist.

Baruch (meaning ‘blessed’) believed in the consolatory beauty and wisdom of his way of allowing religion to live on and despite of the emerging age of reason. By knocking it down, Spinoza, the wise old man with a cane, was trying to do what philosophers must: prop the structure up or make sure that it falls. Had he succeeded, the rational religion of Spinoza might be held in higher esteem today than the religions that held on to the myth and miracle ‘mumbo jumbo’ and, though we may not agree on the workings of God, the questions are immaterial; we must be as we are, and the pursuit of philosophy is to find how to be more fully who you are. And it was this deeply fulfilling aspect of what religion provides that Spinoza understood and valued very much.

Rather than claim to be an atheist, despite his claims about superstition and mumbo and jumbo, he insisted that he remained a defender of G-d. And Spinoza’s god is not the vengeful spirit that haunts the pages of the Old Testament, but the natural magic at work in formation of a pond, the natural symmetry of eyes, the ‘world soul’ – what we might call nature. God is the universe and its laws; God is truth and reason, and the animating force behind all of life is what we might more properly call God. It is impersonal, sure, but, is it, surely?

There was consolation, too, but to appreciate it, it was important for each of us to experience a unique disillusionment and therefore see the world with more precise and knowing eyes. And these sharp eyes were the eyes of reason, the aperture of a telescope or a photographic plate, and Spinoza’s God is compatible with all of physics and biology, and would have survived the major upheaval of Darwin’s Origin of Species unscathed, rather than forced into being the aggressor, attacking the man’s person, and putting it that one cannot mutually exist with the other (mutually inclusive ontology); but for Spinoza, coexistence wasn’t only possible, the notion that science and reason needed to coexist with science was an absurdity, as science and reason were tools in pursuit of knowing religious truths.

Whether we find the understanding we need of our biological lives in the literal word of holy writ or through the microscope and put each to the same rigor of questioning and examination, science and reason were in search of religious truths, and therefore anything regarding origins, biological as Darwin suggested, or physical, as in the big bang believed by many working physicists to denote the moment when time began – the knowledge of this, for us to know that we are part of a larger heritage of animals, part of an entire tree, an offshoot that made it, first onto two legs and then onto boats, then to planes and to the moon – these were spiritual victories, and remain so.
Understanding the nature of questions answered by religion and showing the way by which they are just as miraculous, awe inspiring, and worthy of our trust and admiration as an institution to improve the quality of human life. For Spinoza, we didn’t need to be loved externally, or to have a divine mandate to be just as thoroughly loved and just as justifiably alive and potent in action and thought.

Spinoza would welcome the progresses of the last 300 years, not asking whether this disproves that or any such thoughts should be in competition with each other – they should be in competition, perpetually, with falseness, forever striving to get an ever more accurate picture of the Universe. It was through the study of all that is that one knew God. Without the deism, the same spiritual need of meaning and of purpose can work in much the same way as Spinoza’s compassionate, resonant pantheism, wherein there is something divine to be found in everything, and the better we knew it, the better we would know how to live and die well, as the Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Bottom often states as the mission of an understanding of philosophy. To live and die well, that’s a good reason to give it a serious look.

To be plain: What makes philosophy necessary?

Imagine for a moment that if you could look into a painting, and walk into the world preserved therein, interact with, and you took your foreign tools with you, tools that, in that world, are utterly confusing and indistinguishable from magic. Philosophy is the result of such deeply mystifying and psychologically influential encounters, of such a nature as, say, you could use Google maps standing beside Alexander the Great. If he had the wisdom of a man like Seneca, Spinoza’s favorite philosopher, how would he be able to explain something such as satellites and an interconnected web of machines, spitting invisible information through the air, into space, beaming information in real time all over the world and at the speed of light. We have such things in our pockets, devices that can illuminate a forest; philosophy is humanity’s attempt to use a rigorous intelligence to explain similarly baffling notions. We need notions equally baffling to realize our full potential, intellectually and emotionally.

If it is the result of the need for answers, it must also be considered the endorsement of the need for questions. Questions that aren’t arbitrary, but pointed and guided probing is the blood that animates the spectre that is Philosophy, the brain, then, would be the abstract world of immense connectivity, where neurons send brief, chemical-electrical responses between exchange centers between synapses, dendrites and axons. That is the running thought of Philosophy, if we were to anthropomorphise the subject. Its legs would be pillars, the gables needed to stand for thousands of years, as Philosophy has, on reason and logic. If reason and logic are Philosophy’s legs, what would the arms be, then? What we grasp with is inquiry; the way we probe is science. The fingers make measurements, electron microscopes and spectroscopes, forever forcing the wisest of men to wrack their brains to explain the mechanisms of nature and the universe. Our anthropomorphic Philosophy now has a mind, two legs, two hands, fingers, and now is in want of a heart, and a soul.

What do you find at the heart of philosophy? What keeps this undying creature of ours keep walking on? Curiosity, perhaps? And the soul? The consolation that comes with wisdom. And now, for eyes: with what eyes should we look at philosophy? Well, to answer that, we have to consider what philosophy is. That’s it, right there, the sentence behind this one. Philosophy takes place every moment in which something is in question or someone in want of giving answers or asking questions. We could look at philosophy as a study of bearded men, contemplate big questions, and keep it that way, just idle, modernist fluff.

The big questions are a doorway to the practice of philosophy, but in its most broad sense, philosophy is the result of self-aware thought and analysis. The study of philosophy is the expounding of ideas thought by long dead but still relevant thinkers. To be a philosopher, you must adapt those legs, reason and logic, those hands of inquiry and science, and use those tools, those telescopes and spectroscopes to our self-benefit.

Philosophy should begin from a place that isn’t about what way the world should be, but about where we go once we’re in general agreement about the way the world is. Voltaire wrote his most popular work, Candide, as a treatise to explicitly denounce oafish, ignorant optimism despite the overwhelming evidence that the world does reward such hopes. The way for a philosopher in the modern world is to find a way through the language, through words like epistemology and ontology, empiricism and existentialism, and give students a means to relate to the great thinkers whose best ideas are still provocative and largely necessary in our own age.

If to build the abstract of Philosophy, to make it a living being, we have given it legs and arms and fingers, a heart, a mind, and a heart. What features should we gift our new creature, our guide through the field of philosophy, should be complimentary to one another, and never contraindicated; the twin pillars of reason and logic may help our monster remain grounded, but in order to discover, we must gift imagination and creativity, so the ancient alchemy of genius might be found in such reverie. Our temperament should be that of skepticism, but not overtly cynical or dismissive. To retain pessimistic credulity without becoming anhedonic, to respect the Stoics, as Spinoza did, and I think we could all learn something from the perspective. Would you, for example, shout simply at the rain if you lived in an area where it often rained? For the most part, people haven’t been known to shout at the rain, or the unhearing, unfeeling forces of nature, whirling endlessly through mechanisms the greatest of our species can only aspire to more accurately approximate. 

The reason for being or aspiring to be a philosopher is in that very sentence, that very reason justifies the time and effort necessary to pursue philosophy, whether at university or in personal life. The universe is too intriguing and mysterious not to inspire wonder and thought, and it is helpful to keep in mind that the very best philosophers, they each started as students of philosophers (except for Socrates, maybe), and what makes their work so brilliant is not because of indomitable, innate genius, not necessarily – though that is part of it – but through a lifetime of life-denial in pursuit of understanding life. This aligns nicely with Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, right thought, right action, and the pursuit of wisdom as a means of self-refinement, philosophy, in the end, is the whet stone that sharpens the mind.

It’s important to remember that everything is difficult at first. Swimming, dancing, being born with eyes facing inward. But, the brain is a muscle, and like all muscles, [it] gets stronger the more it is used. So it is important to, if you can’t find time to read an entire book of Plato or, say, Arthur Schopenhauer, this work was inspired by that gap – the gap between our need and want of wisdom and our lack of time and patience to get through the more, ahem, artsy language.

In this volume I will attempt to give you a uniquely tailored road-trip through history, stopping at each destination to have a conversation with a philosopher from that era, and at the end of our journey, we’ll bring back their wisdom for the modern world and see if the brightest thinkers to ever live could somehow figure out the most confounding mysteries of so intractable an era. Our tour-guide will be the anthropomorphic figure we have created, Philosophy, but, sounds a bit dry doesn’t it? Personally, I was always fond of the nomenclature of anthropologists, with Latin portmanteaus entering into the English lexicon as new species are discovered. We can call our monster Philosophicus humanicus – the human embodiment of philosophy. P. humanicus, a creature created as an academic exercise in building the perfect guide to philosophy, a guide that is to begin in antiquity, as the spirit of philosophy came to be among men, and with the time machine of history and memory, of libraries and Parthenons, we will visit the most learned men from around the world over the course of the last 3000 years, stopping here and there to speak with figures of importance in our understanding of the subject philosophy, its important figures and notions.  We’re going to stop first in ancient Egypt and visit the first person to measure the circumference of the Earth, Eratosthenes of Cyrene in the 3rd century BCE. That’s 2316 years. Bring dramamine.

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