Wednesday, 26 December 2012 00:00

The Story Of Philosophy by Will Durant: Book Review by Ozodi Osuji

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 Will Durant, The Story Of Philosophy. (New York: Simon And Schuster, 1926) 412 Pages. 

Book Review By Ozodi Thomas Osuji 

Western philosophy began at Athens, Greece. So, to Greece we go. Something happened in the little Greek city states between 600-300 BC to lead Greeks to produce thoughts that the entire world has not seen produced in a corner of it, again. As if they drank some sort of wine that led to philosophic thinking, Greeks thought about everything in their world.  Whereas in other parts of the world folks conformed to the religions of their people, individual Athenians questioned everything and sought to understand reality as it is, not as their culture or other people told them it is.

So, what is reality? What is the truth (Pontus Pilate asked the religious Jews asking him to crucify Jesus)?

Nobody knows what the truth is (religion gives people assumptions of the truth and folks go through their lives living with the unproven assumptions given to them by their religions and cultures).

Greek thinkers began from agnosticism and skepticism and then studied their world to see if they could figure out what the truth of things is.

Different individuals posited their views on reality. Democritus and others hypothesized that matter could be broken down into parts that could no longer be subdivided, and called that part atom. Democritus, Archimedes, Pythagoras etc. and their ideas gave rise to what we now call physics (the physical sciences).

(The Catholic Church’s interregnum that began with the fall of the Roman Empire in 450 AD banished physics and sentenced Europe to a thousand years of darkness until John Dalton rediscovered the idea of the atom in 1800.  In 1911, Ernest Rutherford showed that not even the atom is the smallest part of matter; Rutherford discovered the nucleus, proton of the atom. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the neutron of the atom; J.J Thompson discovered the electron in 1897. Today the atom is seen as having a nucleus with protons and neutrons in it and electrons circling it; there are other sub-particles of the atom.)

The sophists went around debating with themselves and whoever wanted to debate with them as to the nature of reality. Socrates was the king of the sophists and insisted on people clarifying their terms. If, for example, you said that there is no justice in society he would ask you to tell him what justice means. An argument would ensue on the meaning of justice. Days, weeks, months and even years later it would become clear that the person talking about justice does not have clarity in his mind as to the meaning of justice.

What is justice? Is your opinion of what justice is the nature of justice, if so what is it? Is justice of God? What is God, does God exist, and have you proved that God exists?  How do you know that God exists, and if not how can you talk of the justice of God?

Your wish that God exists is exactly that, your wish? You do not have proof that God exists. If all you have is faith that there is a force called God then are you willing to accept that other people have faith in different conceptions of God and if so why should folks fight over God if God is their ideas and not self-evident reality?

Many schools went about teaching their ideas of what life is. Zeno propounded his stoicism. He said that we do not know what life is all about, that there is no knowing that life has meaning or not or that it was created by God. What matters is how one lives one’s life. You do not have control over what is happening in the world, what matters is how you respond to them. You can allow yourself to be disturbed by events that you do not have control over or be equanimous towards them.

Seneca, Cicero, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (Roman stoics) said that one’s anger or depression or fear (ones emotional state, cheerful or sad) is a function of how one thinks about the events of this world but not caused by the events of this world. You can choose to see things differently. It is all up to you how you react to what happens to you; you do not have one set way that you must respond in.

Epicurus taught that given the pointlessness of living that the best lived life is one that enjoyed it. Horace said carpe diem, make the most of today, for you do not know what is going to happen to you tomorrow; you might be dead tomorrow. Have fun today and that is all there is to life. There is no point in depressing yourself about life, just make the most of it and leave it at that.

Epicureanism is often mistaken to mean indulging in hedonic life style; no, it does not mean eating too much food. One can find joy in intellectual pursuits and doing so is ones idea of living the good life.

Then there were the cynics and skeptics. Whatever you say from a positive perspective can be seen from a negative, pessimistic perspective. Life is good, right?   Didn’t the volcano of Vesuvius erupt and bury the whole city of Pompeii and charred people to death?  How then is life good? God loves his children, right?  God so loves his children that he gives them diseases, suffering and death! The cynic does not believe in anything; moreover, he is a killjoy. (That would suggest that joy is generally predicated on ignorance of the nature of reality. But then one may ask: what is reality, anyway?)

Good and bad are our opinions but not the verdict of nature, right? Is nature impersonal and does not give a damn about human affairs? How do you know that whatever your response is is the correct assessment of nature (and nature’s God, if there is one)?

Simply stated, many schools of thought were in Athens and each attracted followers. In this mix came Plato. Plato was a disciple of Socrates but when Socrates was judged a corrupter of youth (teaching them not to believe in God), imprisoned and forced to drink the hemlock and die Plato continued Socrates teaching. He employed the Socratic Method; his books were dialogues supposedly between prominent members of the Athenian society. These gentlemen would gather and talk about issues, such as justice, politics, ideal society, God etc.  Plato wrote on many subjects but he is famous for his idealism (explicated grandly in the Republic).

Plato’s idealism consists of his belief that what exists imperfectly in our world have perfect archetypes of them in the world of ideas (if you like, spiritual world). There are ideal things that we do not see; we are corruptions of those ideals. There are ideal human beings and ideal animals etc. and we are imperfect renditions of them.  (Are there ideals or are ideals wished for perfect state of being?)

In his politics Plato sketched how to govern an ideal society. He said that all children from about the age of ten should be offered compulsory education (mostly physical education) for ten years. At age twenty they are given examinations and a few pass and the rest are weeded out (and made to become farmers and laborers etc.).  The few that passed the examination are given further ten years of instruction on the nature of things. At age thirty there is another weeding out examination. Those that make it are thereafter taught philosophy. At age thirty five they are examined and thereafter told to go put what they learned into practice, to live in the world.  At age fifty those who have succeeded are gathered together to rule society as its guardians, the philosopher kings.

The philosopher kings are to live communal life, share things, including wives and generally not have private property. Their function is to do what is good for society. 

Plato was an idealist. He wanted to change people, change society and its institutions and bring about what seemed to him ideal society. His Republic delineated how he planned to go about getting guardians, philosopher kings’ rule his utopia. He was a little, timid man with a wish to change himself, change other people and change social institutions, all by his self. This showed that he had wish for power to recreate the world. He was teetering on delusion disorder, grandiose type. He was a dangerous lunatic.

His wish to replace god and recreate people and make them what he wanted them to be led him to justify infanticide. He wanted to be more powerful than God and all people hence he was living in fantasy land.

Plato, like Socrates ran afoul of the leaders of Athens; they imprisoned him and gave him the choice of exile or drinking the hemlock and he chose to go to exile. He was not going to allow Athens to kill another philosopher.

He went to Syracuse, Sicily (now part of Italy but then one of Greek outposts in the Mediterranean). He was welcomed by the king of Sicily, Dionysius. The king told him to implement his ideal republic.

What do you know? The unrealistic philosopher wanted to do away with the king and initiate his ideal pattern of governing society by philosopher kings. Plato had no clue about human egoism and desire for power. The king arrested and sold him into slavery!

His friends rescued him but thereafter he died, a broken man.  These timid men who are dreamers and want to transform the world into their dreams always come to tragic ends. 

Barbarians living two hundred miles to the north of Athens, Macedonians were rising to power. Their king, Philip eventually conquered Athens. His son, Alexander caught the conquering bug and embarked on conquering the known world. By the time he was done he had conquered Egypt, Judea, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Syria, Persia and India.

Alexander the great spread Greek culture to the areas he conquered just as Napoleon spread the French culture of reason and enlightenment to the parts of Europe he conquered.  Alexander drank himself to death at age thirty.

Aristotle was Alexander’s teacher. Apparently, with financial support from Alexander he established his school, Lyceum in Athens (to compete with Plato’s school, the academy). Unlike Plato Aristotle was a scientist of sorts. He gathered specimens of all animals, fauna and things around him and categorized them.  He tried to study things as they are, not as he wanted them to be, hence sowed the germ of the scientific method in the Western world.

Alas, he had strong opinions of what things are and propounded those without basing his conclusions on pure observations alone, as scientists do.  He proffered interesting but weird views of phenomena, most of them false.

Yet his ideas ruled the West for the next two thousand years and, more or less, retarded the growth of science (because he was deemed the authority on most issues and scholars referred to what he supposedly said to give their views credibility).

Democritus was on the right path to science but Aristotle attacked him for saying that atoms exist in a void. As he sees it void cannot exist.

Aristotle established syllogistic logical process. Even here he was wrong. Consider: 

All animals have four legs. (Major premise)

A dog has four legs (Minor premise)

Therefore, a dog is an animal (logical conclusion). 

This is the logic taught by Aristotle. The problem is that the major premise is assumed and not self-evident.  Are all animals four legged?  There are two legged animals, and animals with hundreds of legs (millipedes).  As long as one assumes the truth of the major premise the minor premise and conclusion follow as logical.  The point is that Aristotle did not help us understand the truth by positing his logical processes but merely showed us how we think. We tend to posit major premises, assume them to be true and then draw inferences from them.  For example, we say, God created people. Therefore people are the children of God, not the creator of God.  We say God is love and people are the children of God, therefore, people must love like their father, God. How do we know that that is true; how do we know that God is love, that we are his children hence are like him, loving? We have made many assumptions but given our major assumption our deductions are logical.

Aristotle’s famous statement that God is the unmoved mover is one of the instances in which he assumes a major premise to be true. He reasoned that all things are in motion. We can go on showing how one thing moved another and go as back as we could. If this logic is true then it is possible that there is infinite causation of motion. But that would not do, for it would lead to infinite regress so Aristotle suddenly ended the discourse by saying that there must be a beginning to the chain of causation and that beginning is God. God is the unmoved mover.

The assertion that God is the first cause is, of course, nonsense for it assumes that there is an unmoved mover.

When the Catholic Church embraced Aristotelian logic it used it to justify the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas, in the 1200s essentially posited a God that got everything in motion.  This is an assumption but an assumption that as we speak colors extant Catholic, Christian theology.

Aristotle had interesting ideas on politics. Essentially he believed that there are different types of people and that each person is suited for certain professions. There are those suited by nature and training to rule society (aristocrats) and there are those fitted by their nature to be in the military or trading, businessmen, or bureaucracy, or work as slaves. Slaves and women are not fitted to rule society.

Both Aristotle and Plato embraced aristocracy, as opposed to mob rule, democracy, or the rule of one man, monarchy or the rule of a few persons, oligarchy or the rule of the rich, plutocracy. They gave their reasons for their choice. We shall not concern ourselves with their complex and convoluted reasoning.  Our society’s choice is democracy, properly put, aristocratic democracy, and a society where all are given equal opportunity, and competition is allowed to select folks for whatever goods society gives people. 

Aristotle’s philosophy influenced the West and made the West stagnant until Francis Bacon (born 1561) came along and insisted that philosophy can be a forum for useless speculations and that what we need to do is base knowledge on empirical observation.

What is the truth? We do not know. The aspect of the truth that we can say something for sure is that aspect of it that we can observe, and experiment on and verify. Bacon established the philosophy of science in the West.

Copernicus was the first modern scientist when in 1543 he insisted that the sun is the center of the universe (he was wrong; the sun is the center of the solar system). Galileo in 1610 became the first empirical scientist when he actually used the telescope to prove that the planets revolve around the Sun. In 1687 Isaac Newton established his three laws of motion and gravity and established physics as a scientific discipline.

England embraced the scientific method and thus we had such hardnosed realists as Thomas Hobbes (men are atoms, they are individuals pursuing their self-interests, Leviathan), John Locke (there is no evidence of the notion that we are born with souls; we are born tabla-raza and experience write in our brains what we now have), David Hume (there is no proof that God exists, only experience is real), George Berkeley (tried to prove that God exists by saying that since scientist say the external world is known to us as ideas in our minds, therefore the world is ideas  in our minds and since we do not know everything, there must be a larger mind, God’s mind that everything is in it), Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (utilitarianism, that laws should reflect what gives pleasure to the greatest number  of people in society, that is, laws are not what God say that they are but what is good for us). 

Let us shift gears a bit and focus on French philosophers such as Rene Descartes, Blasé Pascal, Voltaire, Jean Jacque Rousseau, and Denis Diderot (and thereafter shift to Spinoza and German idealistic philosophers such as Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and end by focusing on Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson, William James, John Dewey and Bertrand Russell).

Rene Descartes studied mathematics (geometry) and philosophy. He brought his analytic geometry to bear on philosophy but his greatest contribution was in metaphysics, the issue of matter and spirit. Does God exists or does God not exist?  Descartes began from what he called skepticism, doubting all known ideas on everything. Having done so he proceeded to say that the only thing that he knows for sure is that he thinks that he exists (cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am).

Of course this is not persuasive for just because a person thinks does not prove that he exists, does not prove that God exist or that there is a part of him that exists as part of God. Contemporary neuroscience teaches us that thinking is epiphenomenal, is a product of the dance of neurons in our brains. Contemporary brain science teaches that thinking is strictly biological.

We do not see dead people thinking; what is empirical is that some life biological animals, human beings do think and to say anything beyond that is speculative.

Descartes tells us that human beings have two sides to them, their bodies and their souls. Their body he concedes is like any other material in the universe and is affected by the laws of motion (mechanics). The human body obeys the laws of motion and gravity (and, as we would today say, the laws of heat, light, electricity, sound, gases, liquids, solids).The human body is composed of matter and particles and obeys all the laws of matter, space and time.

The question is whether all we are are our bodies. Descartes thinks that there are spiritual parts of us hence his famous dualistic philosophy: man is composed of matter and spirit.

But where is this spirit that Descartes talked about? How do we know that spirit exists?  We do not have objective evidence that spirit exists. Of course, there are poetic writings on the nature of spirit but no one has demonstrated that those are anything but wishful thinking.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176