Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant (Book Review #91 of 2015)


Story of Philosophy
Durant and his wife are apparently best known for an 11-volume The Story of Civilization, published between 1935 and 1975. Durant wrote the original The Story of Philosophy in 1926, "which was considered 'a groundbreaking work that helped to popularize philosophy.'" He and his wife were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1967 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

I've devoted part of my reading in 2015 to catching up on works and ideas of philosophy that I missed out on in not having a liberal arts education (not that I would have paid much attention back then anyway). I have read Plato/Socrates and Aristotle but was relatively ignorant of most of the others presented, having heard only overviews of Kant, Nietzsche, and Russell by other authors. Durant's perspective is clearly Western/American and I note many commentators recommending Russell's own work on the history of philosophy over this one. This is clearly Western thought. I do not know what "important" aspects of the philosophers Durant omitted, but he notes in the preface that this relatively brief, one-volume account is not intended to be comprehensive. 4.5 stars out of 5, as I believe Durant did a goob job accomplishing what he set out to do. It certainly must have been difficult to be knowledgeable enough about the works of each philosopher to summarize each's thought and critique them. The book is definitely readable and there are attempts at humor. It has held up almost 100 years later.

I think Durant does an excellent job on each philosopher, the context of his ideas, and his influence on his contemporaries or those who came later. Each chapters starts with the life of the philosopher and the historical-political context he was writing in. He then summarizes the philosophical ideas found in the published works of the philosopher, quoting at length from many. Durant then criticizes the ideas and finds reasons for inconsistencies and what ideas have not endured.

Philosophers covered include Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Spencer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Croce, Russell, Santayana, James, and Dewey. In dealing with the first four, Durant has to delve a bit into Jewish and Christian philosophy. I spotted a few false premises in that exercise. But I found Spinoza to be rather fascinating, whether dealing with biblical interpretation or time and metaphysics. He is someone who I would read further as I've read he's important to contemporary Jewish thought. One common theme I found in all the philosophers (minus Nietzsche) was a distrust of the nature of man, and therefore the state. Even socialists like Russell could become disillusioned by what they saw in the realities of the new Soviet Union. Voltaire, for example, had many things to say about faith and the humility that comes with the recognition of our own limitations and the unknown.I found Voltaire's comments on politicians the most amusing:
“The art of government consists in taking as much money as possible to a class of citizens to give to another”
“Politics has its source in evil than in the greatness of the human spirit.”
However, I thought it odd that Durant claims Voltaire wrote the first philosophy of history, don't we credit that to Augustine and his City of God?

I understand now how Kant could be seen as rather dangerous. He seemed to say religion was useful for keeping a society moral, but apparently had no objective measure of that morality, as he did not trust the Bible or anything else as authoritative. Moral relativism prevails, but herein lies the inconsistency. What Kant might assume is "moral" I might disagree with, who then is right? This gets back to Voltaire's potential tyrany of the "mob." Shelley and Hegel drew from Kantian ideas.

Schopenhauer's ideas seem most problematic to me. While Schopenhauer acknowledges that the will is "hungry" and evil, he rejects the "pessimism" of Christianity's teaching of man man who is hopelessly depraved. He either overlooks or rejects the Gospel of redemption being available as a free gift apart from man and the redemption of all of creation at the end of the world. Schopenhauer seems to echo Ecclesiastes in saying "knowledge increases sorrow," and therefore puts life ahead of books/academia. "If you spend all day reading, you will never think." Schopenhauer and other philosophers had a very low view of women, himself seeming to argue that men should ignore them and just let the race go extinct. To be involved with women seemed to have costs that outweighed potential benefits for the species. I thought Durant had good critiques of Schopenhauer's cynicism. It's also true that by increasing knowledge we can increase our joy as well as sorrow. "Wisdom is a bittersweet delight," writes Durant.

Whereas mathematics inspired philosophy from the Greeks to the 18th century, the 19th and 20th century philosophers were essentially inspired by biology. Darwin changed how philosophers thought about the mind and self-knowledge, as well as the evolution of ideas. Spencer sought to find the underlying truth in religion. This strikes me as coming back to the Kantian problem of deciding who or what determines "truth." Just as Spinoza brought about literary criticism of Hebrew scriptures, later philosophers seem to fall into the laziness of saying "don't take Scripture literally" without bothering to notice that some Scripture is poetry, some is historical biography, etc. To his credit, Spencer does not try to reconcile creation and science, they are both "inconceivable," ie: uknowable and unverifiable. Science today makes many unverifiable premises, and I appreciate physicist philosophers like Alan Lightman who acknowledge that we can never prove how the universe was formed. Spencer was critical of communism and forced equality as being contrary to obvious human nature. Durant critiques him as having "rushed into generalizations" perhaps to hastily publish his work, much of which was published posthumously.

Nietzsche is pretty stark and is what so many in the West who hold to Aristotilian logic and thought (namely Christians) point out is the logical conclusion of moral relativism and godless life. To Nietzsche the good is the "one who survived." Might makes right. Judge everything by its effect on biology. "Mankind" does not exist and the well-being of the most of mankind is not the goal-- such egalitarian ideals like democracy hinder the development of the Superman, who is the goal. "Power is the good, weakness the bad." All war is good; war weeds out the weak, raises up the ├╝bermensch, and makes others subservient to him. Democracy, like Christianity and feminism, but be eradicated as they prevent the Superman. "The slave is noble only when he revolts," hence Christian ideals of loving ones neighbor and considering others as better than yourself is harmful to biology.  Czarist Russia was the ideal especially as it was contrary to the Jews. Nature abhors equality. Durant thinks much of Nietzsche's thought is "obviously" flawed, but seeing how the West cannot seem to come up with an honest moral or philosophical response to the brutality of ISIL I'd say it's not obvious anymore. But, who doesn't want to be the Superman? Each of us would love to impose our own tyranny on the world, to be moral arbiter. But none of us would like it if the other imposed his will. Hence, moral relativism is problematic. Durant notes that Nietzsche himself broke down, probably insane.

The last chapters on contemporary philosophers move quickly. Russell moved from being calculating mathematician to insightful philosopher. Heir to a great name in British history, he argued for Socialism but was disillusioned and brought back to the reality of human nature by what he witnessed in Soviet Russia. Croce was an interestingly self-taught philosopher. Santayana taught at Harvard and elsewhere and is most remembered for his "those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it." Santayana's skepticism of democracy has implications for America's current political polarization: Democracy leads to a struggle between different parties such that nobody is content and everybody wants something. Each reform brings a new government institution, and each new institution brings more abuse with control. Dewey was a proponent of pragmatism. He was against the liberal arts education, arguing that universities should train people for whatever employment would get him or her the highest wage or help increase the nation's output.

Durant concludes by pointing out that while America has not yet produced great philosophers or philosophy, it is only a matter of time. France, for example, basically had to develop and plateau before it could develop philosophers. "America must live before it can philosophize." Perhaps our current age of apparent "secular stagnation" will lead to a philosophical renaissance in the US. If that renaissance is what Christians call "revival," then I welcome it.

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