I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, translated by Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011). Pp. 282.
Despite completely disagreeing with the author’s conclusions, this book was simply marvelous! Ferry gives a complete overview of philosophy, from the ancient Greeks to our own contemporary time. In order to be able to show how thought has evolved in philosophy, Ferry looks at three dimensions in each period: a theoretical stage; a moral, or ethical stage; and, finally, a conclusion as to salvation, or wisdom. This gives Ferry a common base from which to compare various philosophies through the centuries. His ultimate conclusion is that there’s no need for religion, and that salvation can be found in philosophy. It is here that I disagree with him, yet I still believe this book is very useful - even for believers!
Ferry starts by discussing Greek stoicism. He argues that the stoics saw nature as a harmonious whole. Our task, and our means of salvation, is to find our place in nature, and, when we die, we are joined to the whole of the cosmos.
From here he continues by discussing how Christianity was able to overthrow this philosophical system. Its primary advantage was that salvation is now personal – we are saved as individuals and, by remaining distinct, we can be reunited with our loved ones in death. Even Ferry says this is a very attractive feature of Christianity.
Following this Ferry moves to humanism by means of Kant, Descartes, and Rousseau. By this time, science has shown that the world is chaotic. In light of this, Rousseau redefines what it means to be “human.” He says that humans are capable of liberty of action, whereas animals only operate by instinct. This allows the humanist philosophers to create ideals that replace religions (e.g., scientism, patriotism, and various utopias).
Next comes post-modernism with the ideas of Nietzsche, who says that the ideals developed by the humanists are basically a new form of religion. For him, these values imply that there is a better and external value to life itself, an idea he doesn't believe. Believing that reality is chaotic, he argues that we must learn to situate ourselves with this chaos. Ferry goes on to write a clear explanation of reactive forces, active forces, the power to will, and other aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophical system.
Ferry next draws on Heidegger to move beyond Nietzsche's deconstructionism. Essentially Ferry argues that our capitalistic globalism betrays the fundamental promises of democracy. We have lost the power to determine the course of our lives because technology now evolves not because technological advance can help us live happier lives, but, rather, it evolves simply for the sake of change, motivated by economic interests.
Finally, Ferry draws all this together to form a modern philosophy. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that Ferry’s philosophy for today is a new transcendence that essentially means the deification of man (not in the religious sense, though).
The beauty of this book is the clarity of writing and the clarity of the argument. Anyone, even without a background in philosophy, is able to pick up this book and understand key concepts in the history of philosophy, and how those concepts have built upon one another and developed over time. I have seen some reviews that criticize Ferry for not introducing certain philosophers. However, I believe this is an unfair criticism because this book is to serve as an introduction, and if he had introduced too many philosophers, I believe the reader would have easily gotten bogged down in too many theories.
As I wrote in the opening paragraph, I completely disagree with his argument that one can find salvation in philosophy, thus replacing religion. As a Christian, I believe that truth is not just a logical, or philosophical, reflection, but rather it's a revelation from a Creator. Believing this, of course, changes the game. However, I believe this book is still very useful. For example he writes,
“[By learning about others]... You enter into a larger and more universal sphere, that of another culture, and, if not a different humanity, at least a different community from that to which you belonged formerly... By uprooting ourselves from our original situation, we partake of a greater humanity. By learning another language [or about another culture/religion], we can communicate with a greater number of human beings, and we also discover...other ideas and other kinds of humour, other forms of exchange with individuals and with the world. You widen your horizon and push back the natural confines of the spirit that is tethered to its immediate community... If to know is to love, then it is also true that by enlarging your horizons and improving yourself, you enter a dimension of human existence which 'justifies' life and gives a meaning and a direction.”
Ideas like this can certainly help everyone live together in an ever more global community. It’s also a good philosophy for why various denominations and religions can – and should – learn to cooperate together to make a difference in our world for the better.