By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Nigel Warburton
Narrated by: Kris Dyer
Circling God and Mammon, Nigel Warburton covers nearly 2400 years of philosophy. Beginning with Plato’s cave, Warburton briefly and clearly explains philosophers’ search for “…the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence…” Warburton’s summaries of famous philosophical ideas are like planets circling the sun. The summaries of renown philosophers and scientists reflect the sun’s light, albeit dimly but cogently. The light shines on either God or Mammon (the material world).
Plato argues that in a polytheistic world all we see in life are shadows of reality. We rarely see reality because we live in a cave that we fear to leave. Those few human beings that risk leaving, only return to be ridiculed by fellow cave dwellers. Reality is too frightening, unimaginable, or confusing for cave dwellers to understand; let alone believe. Plato presumes it is a material world made of ideal forms that have one true value determined by the senses, but only clearly defined outside the cave. Cave dwellers disbelieve or misunderstand the ideal forms because they only see shadows of reality. Using the senses to understand reality is Plato’s philosophical objective.
Aristotle takes a slightly different path from Plato’s view of polytheism and Mammon with discussion of happiness, or fulfillment; i.e. what he calls Eudaimonia. This still falls into the category of Mammon’ materialism but with emphasis on what gives human beings the feeling of happiness or fulfillment. To Aristotle, Eudaimonia comes from living with choices that bring personal peace and contentment. Aristotle believes the goal is to achieve a stage of human existence that allows one a contemplative life.
Warburton notes that Plato’s and Aristotle’s view of life is highly idealistic and sense driven. He suggests their idealistic views are challenged by a philosophical movement called Skepticism. Skeptics, like Pyrrho, recognize what is perceived by the senses is often misleading. The example Warburton gives is a stick or walking cane dipped in water seems to bend; when in fact, it remains straight. Pyrrho notes that senses mislead us and cannot be the sole determinate of reality.
Skeptics like Pyrrho argue that inner peace comes from using one’s senses, but verifying their validity. Once a Skeptic is fully aware of circumstances, they have no fear. The example Warburton gives is of a water crossing where Pyrrho shows no fear to fellow passengers. Pyrrho acknowledges the existence of bad luck, like a storm in high seas, but having the best pilot (presumably verified by Pyrrho) is all one can do. The more complete one’s understanding comes from the senses, with verification through reason, the greater is their inner tranquility. Pyrrho, like Plato and Aristotle, still focuses on the materialist world.
As philosophic history progresses, it turns from polytheism and a materialist perception of nature to a One-God and spiritual interpretation of knowledge, reality, and existence. The preeminent philosopher of this philosophical turn is St. Augustine. St. Augustine is no saint in his youth. He fathers a child out-of-wedlock early in his life and asks God to wait until his hunger for a sensual life are better constrained.
One of the great questions that remain unresolved to this day is how there can be a God when there is so much pain and suffering in the world. St. Augustine, as he is known when he becomes saintlier, writes that the reason is that God does not abate the pain and suffering of the world because of His gift of free will to human beings. Human beings have the right to choose sin or saintliness in their temporal lives.
To later philosophers, St. Augustine’s answer is not enough. In the sixth century, Boethius provides a further explanation of why there is evil in the world; despite a benevolent, all-seeing God. It is a matter of luck. Good luck and bad luck happen in the natural world. Luck is a fickle turn of the wheel. Be patient–for the end of life and heaven are a reward for living a good life, unfettered by materialist excess; i.e. suffer the consequence of bad luck because it is temporal; savor good luck while it lasts.
Other philosophers deal with the existence of God and reasons for believing and not-believing but a great turning comes with Charles Darwin. God-centered life turns to a human-centered life. With Darwin, materialism becomes a more prominent feature of western philosophy.
Though the turn begins earlier, with Machiavelli and Hume, Darwin drives many to either question or completely abandon belief in God. Machiavelli posits belief in absolute power exercised within the context of being feared, if not loved. Everything that is necessary, including murder, are permitted as long as power over others is maintained. Ends justify means.
After Machiavelli’s historical observation of absolute rulers, Thomas Hobbes is born to write “The Leviathan”. In “The Leviathan” the state ameliorates the power of absolute rulers. Hobbes posits the need for rule of law because of the nature of humankind. To Hobbes, humans are motivated by money, power, and prestige that can devolve into greed, arbitrariness, and hubris. Government is a counterbalance to the baser characteristics of humankind.
Warburton notes well-known philosophers after Darwin’s “Origin of Species” that discount belief in God. He turns to Marx, Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, and Sartre; among others. There is still a philosophical movement harking back to Spinoza’s “God is in everything”, Kierkegaard’s “Witness to the Truth”, and Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” but the turning is to a materialist philosophy of life. Marx writes of the evolution of society from capitalism to “each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Wittgenstein focuses on the power of human words and language. Popper insists on science’s progress only through proof of the negative. Sartre argues that hell is other people from which there is “No Exit”.
Warburton has written an excellent summary of the history of philosophy that is barely touched by this littler, shorter, and less erudite review of Warburton’s “A Little History of Philosophy”.
“A Little History of Philosophy” is a valuable introduction to a neophyte’s understanding of purpose and meaning in life.