The Meaning of Life 101

Two authors explain philosophy's mysteries to the layman, but which book is better?

Published March 23, 2001 8:38PM (EST)

At the beginning of his otherwise mild-mannered "Socrates Cafi," Christopher Phillips makes a testy reference to "philosophers of the past who are considered by academics to be the undisputed exclusive members of the philosophical pantheon." In a book in which all children are filled with a precious "wonder," all senior citizens are "unusually reflective" and even the most prickly and antisocial-seeming individuals are invariably incubating important thoughts, snooty academic philosophers and philosophy professors are unquestionably the bad guys.

Furthermore, they're incomprehensible. A disgusted grad student who approaches Phillips after one of the philosophical discussions the author leads at cafes, community centers, schools and other gathering places fulminates about abandoning a dissertation written in "academic mumbo jumbo. I'm sure my professors would have loved it, but I hated myself while I wrote it ... they imagine themselves to be philosophers, but they aren't real philosophers. I think what some of them do under the guise of philosophy is criminal."

Like most of the anti-academic remarks in Phillips' treatise on his "rather zany quest of bringing philosophy out of the universities and back 'to the people,'" this diatribe doesn't come directly from the author. (Perhaps that's because, as Phillips puts it, "in addition to all my philosophical outreach activities, I am tapping into the academic world in a creative way." But as Plato has demonstrated, one of the best ways of getting your ideas across is to put them in someone else's mouth, and there is too much incidental sniping at the ivory tower in "Socrates Cafi" for Phillips to credibly present himself as a bystander. You can't blame him: Most academics do write in impenetrable jargon, and furthermore, the clutch of "academic philosophers" who huddled together at one of his discussions, like a clique of preteen girls snickering at the back of a classroom, sound awful enough to drive anyone to paranoia and loathing.

Mostly, though, Phillips thinks academic philosophers (he never actually names any) have put people off what William James called "the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits." Phillips sees himself as "a Johnny Appleseed of philosophers." Are "the people" biting? Apparently yes, at least on a small scale; 10 weeks after Phillips started his project in a Montclair, N.J., coffeehouse, his get-togethers were drawing 40 people per week. However, not everyone wants to grapple with the meaning of life in a social forum, and fortunately no one need choose between discussion groups and the mandarin world of university philosophy departments. Other seekers after wisdom satisfy their craving for and curiosity about philosophy in different ways: books, for example.

In 1991, a Norwegian schoolteacher named Jostein Gaarder wrote a very peculiar but charming (and highly recommended) "Novel About the History of Philosophy" called "Sophie's World," in which, through the surreal adventures of its young heroine, readers receive a lucid basic history of philosophy. The book became an international bestseller. Alain de Botton recently hosted a popular British television series on philosophy (although his book based on the show, "The Consolation of Philosophy," published last year, proved a less felicitous creation than his earlier book, "How Proust Can Change Your Life").

So, despite what conservative Jeremiahs say, many people hunger for a better understanding of the major events and ideas of Western civilization, enough to put Jacques Barzun's mammoth "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present" on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks. The publishers of Anthony Gottlieb's "The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance" no doubt hope it will meet with similar success (it even looks like the Barzun book). The first volume of a projected two-volume work (this one takes us to the threshold of Descartes), "The Dream of Reason" is crystal clear, conversational in tone and fundamentally skeptical -- in the modern sense of the word. In fact, it's far more digestible than Barzun's often enigmatically allusive tome. Anyone who foundered in the midst of that elderly historian's erudition will find more solid ground in Gottlieb's primer.

The Presocratic philosophers are always the most fun to read about, even if the bulk of their ideas aren't "philosophical" in the contemporary vernacular sense of the word. As Gottlieb, an editor at the Economist, points out in his introduction, the discipline of philosophy once included (and sometimes still does include) "natural philosophy," what we now call science. The Presocratics mainly concerned themselves with the second of the two mysterious questions Gaarder's Sophie receives in her mailbox -- "What is the world made of?" -- and their answers were often as bizarre as the musings of an LSD-addled hippie.

Parmenides, for example, reasoned that the universe consists of (in Gottlieb's words) "just one eternal, immovable thing, which is complete, indivisible" and that nothing ever moves, or is born, or dies or in any way changes. (Not surprisingly, Zeno, of the famous paradox that "proves" it is impossible for you to rise from your chair right now and walk across the room, was a student of Parmenides. If, like me, you've always found Zeno and his paradox annoying, Gottlieb covers both, and offers a cocktail-party-ready refutation.)

Other Presocratics stumbled surprisingly close to the facts about the physical universe before veering off into fresh absurdities. Democritus and Leucippus hit upon the notion, called "atomism," that everything is made of tiny, indivisible particles. Empedocles, inventor of the four elements theory (which states that everything is a mixture of air, earth, fire and water), was astute enough to recognize that hair, feathers and scales were essentially the same thing. Even more remarkable, he "said that creatures owe their useful and fortunate features to the fact that there were originally many sorts of creatures and that the strange, deformed ones failed to survive because they were unsuited to do so, leaving only the well-suited creatures to reproduce their kind and populate the earth." Darwin himself recognized his own theory of natural selection "shadowed forth" in this idea, even if the ancient philosopher did imagine the unselected animal kingdom as a trippy, Hieronymous Bosch-like menagerie of "faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads."

Whether they were of a mystical bent, like Pythagoras, who believed that numbers had spiritual qualities, or mechanistic in outlook, like Democritus, who refuted the notion of an afterlife and regarded the universe as "vast, unlimited and impersonal," the Presocratics don't seem to offer much moral or ethical insight on how to live. They serve more as impressive demonstrations of the human mind striving toward a wider, deeper and truer understanding of the world despite a paucity of both concrete knowledge and the tools to get more of it. It's not so much what the Presocratics thought that seems worth celebrating, as their commitment to thought itself, seen in Democritus' famous statement that he'd rather find a single genuine explanation than become the king of Persia.

With Socrates, in particular, what we'd now call "philosophy" properly began: the probing inquiry into good and evil, and the nature of such abstractions as justice and beauty, as well as attempts to define more down-to-earth things like friendship -- all concerns championed by Phillips in "Socrates Cafi." But it's with the two philosophical giants that follow, Plato and Aristotle, that the gist of Gottlieb's project really comes into focus. The obvious precursor of "The Dream of Reason," the big shadow Gottlieb's book must creep out from under, is Bertrand Russell's 1945 classic "A History of Western Philosophy." Since Russell's book combines great erudition with ample amounts of sheer reading pleasure, and since the number of readers up for two massive works of philosophical history can't be large, Gottlieb certainly has his work cut out for him.

Why tangle with Russell's "History," then? Well, it is over 55 years old, but has the past half-century added that much to our knowledge of pre-Enlightenment philosophy? And Russell is notoriously opinionated, but then, that's what makes "A History of Western Philosophy" so much fun -- and Gottlieb isn't exactly devoid of opinions himself. In fact, it's those very opinions that make the most compelling case for publishing "The Dream of Reason," for if Russell's book still has the power to inform and delight, it's decidedly behind the times.

We in the West live in a peculiar age, one that combines a ruthless, rationalized free-market approach to society with a Romantic attitude toward intimate relations. Personally, we want to believe that intense feeling is the highest truth, while politically we increasingly embrace a steely ethic of laissez-faire capitalism bolstered by a scientific rationalism that's become pretty much the only thing that almost everyone can agree to believe in. This would have horrified the ancient Greeks, who, as a rule, thought that passion ought to be moderated by wisdom and that civic love exists on a higher level than love for another person's body or soul. But even an early 20th century thinker like Russell, if "A History of Western Philosophy" is any indication, would have looked on our time, and perhaps even Gottlieb's elegantly written book, in despair -- not for its glorification of private emotions, but for its indifference to public ones.

Gottlieb, for example, is far harder on the seminal Neo-Platonic thinker Plotinus than is Russell, who writes of the philosopher that "like Spinoza, he has a certain moral purity and loftiness, which is very impressive. He is always sincere, never shrill or censorious, invariably concerned to tell the reader, as simply as he can, what he believes to be important. Whatever one may think of him as a theoretical philosopher, it is impossible not to love him as a man." Gottlieb, however, remains unsmitten, writing that "the mystically inclined thought of Plotinus inaugurated the final phase of Greek philosophy as it tottered over the brink of reason into occultism." He stops just short of suggesting that Plotinus pushed it.

On the other hand, Gottlieb is very keen to champion Aristotle, about whose "Ethics" Russell wrote, "to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive." Russell thought Aristotle had feet of clay; to Gottlieb, the Greek master represents the best in ancient philosophy because he was a proto-scientist. Gottlieb doesn't defend Aristotle from accusations that his "Ethics" shows, in Russell's words, "a complete absence of ... benevolence or philanthropy." Instead, he chooses to protest Frances Bacon's charge that "Aristotle habitually ignored facts and disdained observation because of his blind adherence to theories he had cooked up."

It's clear which aspects of the discipline count most in "The Dream of Reason"; better to possess the practical temperament of a "great scientist" -- as Gottlieb argues, convincingly, Aristotle was, despite the philosopher's many famous errors -- than to pursue a moral vision or, even worse, a spiritual one. Where Aristotle falls down, in Gottlieb's eyes, is when, tangled in a bit of knotted reasoning about what made heavenly bodies move, the philosopher posited the existence of an "Unmoved Mover," or God. But, as Gottlieb hastens to point out, whatever God Aristotle's theories may have suggested "was pretty minimal as supreme beings go." (Whew! That was a close one.) Plato may have "wanted to treat everyone like children" in his design for a perfect republic (certainly not an unfair charge), but Aristotle, that exemplary man, had no use for abstractions and preferred to roll up his sleeves and dissect dogfish.

Russell, a liberal pacifist (who, to his credit, distrusted Communism from the very start) and an agnostic, would no doubt find Gottlieb's history lacking in feeling, but in the cool, blue light of our technocratic age, Russell seems embarrassingly idealistic about government at a time when everyone has succumbed to the fatalism of capital. It's up to you which you'd prefer: Gottlieb's tale of the slow, stuttering but inevitable triumph of scientific thinking, or Russell's obsolete notion that philosophy exists in a "no man's land" between science and theology and must find a way to wrangle both.

Neither, of course, is quite what Christopher Phillips advocates in "Socrates Cafi." That author's intentions are so laudable, his effect on the people he leads in discussions on such topics as "What is home?" and "Can you be too curious?" so wholesome, that it seems ungracious to point out the proceedings aren't all that Socratic. The systematic, penetrating series of questions that Socrates applied to his partner in a given dialogue were designed to dismantle conventional thinking and uproot the unquestioned assumptions underlying the other person's beliefs. The typical Socrates Cafi involves various people tossing out their ideas to the group, occasionally challenging each other or digging a little deeper with a nudge from Phillips, but ultimately concluding with a takes-all-kinds acknowledgement of intellectual diversity and Phillips' customary sign off, "It's something to keep thinking about."

This is admirable, but it doesn't make for exciting reading, particularly when Phillips himself -- who really does sound like a great guy, traveling to prisons, schools and rest homes to lead his discussions and never charging a cent -- isn't a terrific writer. The book abounds in the mawkish clichés of inspirational literature, such as the passage when a fourth-grader chirps, "I think Socrates is anyone who's not afraid to keep asking questions even when everyone wants him to stop." (I couldn't help wondering if the kid thought "I know you are, but what am I?" might be one of those questions.) For the intended audience -- which would appear to be earnest, well-meaning people with charter subscriptions to the Utne Reader, people who are probably too good to have to exist in a world with jaded cynics like me -- it will no doubt hit the spot and inspire many fruitful conversations. Such people probably never even ask themselves why writers with a penchant for the word "vibrant" invariably write prose that isn't.

Which brings me back to Russell: While a Socrates Cafi may provide some philosophical seekers with a chance to bounce their theories on the meaning of life off of a cross-section of fellow citizens, some of us would rather get our metaphysical kicks from bumping up against a truly remarkable mind. There's not much to stretch the brain in "Socrates Cafi," but even when he's being snobby, Russell does get your synapses firing. Here's his consideration of Xenophon's description of Socrates (the only substantive one we have besides Plato's):

There has been a tendency to think that everything Xenophon says must be true, because he had not the wits to think of anything untrue. This is a very invalid line of argument. A stupid man's report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy.

To read Russell feels like sitting down with a genius to a long, wine-soaked and gloriously frank tête-à-tête. Gottlieb's book isn't quite so splendid, however more agreeable it may be ideologically to some contemporary readers. He writes the way a favorite professor lectures: with vigor, clarity and engagement, and the occasional cheeky wisecrack popped in at just the right moment (as when he describes Empedocles' version of the cosmos as "a mixture of the physics of Stephen Hawking and the romantic novels of Barbara Cartland"). Phillips' book, alas, is a bit like sitting in on the monthly meeting of a well-meaning community group.

Russell is the smartest and the best writer of the three, and yet, as recent biographies have demonstrated, not a very good person at all, particularly in the marriage department. Gottlieb writes beautifully enough to make me fear for his character and the peace of mind of his intimates, while Phillips seems devoted to his wife and a path of laudable public service. Hmmm. One of Socrates' favorite theories concerns how wisdom is identical with virtue; the more a man understands what virtue is, the more virtuous he must become, for no man would knowingly harm his own soul by doing wrong. Not being a writer himself, and rather disapproving of writing as a means of communicating ideas (you can't question a printed page, after all), Socrates would probably be unperturbed by this apparent disparity between literary and intellectual ability and personal virtue. He would no doubt consider it proof of the unreliability of fetching rhetoric rather than a knock to his own theory; to write well about wisdom, he'd probably say, doesn't necessarily make a man wise. Perhaps the term "sophistry" would be bandied about. As Phillips would say, "It's something to keep thinking about."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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