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June 19, 2017

The early Fathers of the Church asked, ‘What has Rome to do with Athens?’ Well, quite a lot of this handy little book tells you enough about the ancient philosophers to help you see how they shaped theology.

And, unlike others in the series, this book has a useful index.

This would have been handy to give to my A’ level students.


In the introduction to his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell points out that philosophy straddles the fields of science and theology, attempting to apply human reason to speculations in areas where definite knowledge is not yet avail­able. The fascinating thing is that, as more knowledge becomes available, the questions still remain. Which is fine, because there’s nothing like a bit of healthy speculation — as long as you are well informed.

Thales(c. 624—c. 545 BC) the world had an underlying unity, something physical that could be pinned down, studied and understood rationally, in order to identify how it had come into being. Of course, there was one small snag: they had no idea what this miraculous substance was.

There would be plenty of false starts, but the search itself signalled a move away from mythology as an explanation for events. Rather than looking to the frankly irrational behaviour of the gods to answer questions about why things were as they were, these early philosophers attempted to come up with systematic accounts of the visible world in straightforward descriptive and analytical terms.

Pythagoras (c. 570—c. 490 BC) went on to assert that mathematics lay at the heart of reality ‑not water, not air, but numbers…. From here, Pythagoreanism developed as much as a way of life as a philosophy. Its adherents favoured a contemplative,

abstemious lifestyle, living communally, with men and women

treated equally and property held in common. They were seeking their own form of earthly harmony through moral asceticism and ritual purification of the body (beans were strictly off limits, as was meat) and the soul. Pythagoras held that all living things were related and believed in the transmigration of souls.

Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC) Heraclitus is best known for his rather baffling assertion that everything exists in a state of permanent flux, so it is little wonder that he gained the nickname ‘The Obscure’. As he explained it, you can never step into the same river twice for the simple reason that the water you dip your toes into on the second occasion is not the same water you touched the first time round. The world might appear to be a stable, unified whole — which was what prompted Thales, Anaximander and others to look for a single unifying component — but Heraclitus felt that this was to miss the point. Rather than seeing permanence and stability, he declared that, beneath the surface, the world could be under­stood in terms of a continuous struggle between pairs of opposites. The examples he gave ranged from the fairly pedestrian — up/down, hot/cold, wet/dry, day/night — to the down­right extreme: life/death, war/peace, famine/plenty. Although each part of the pair was separate, neither could exist without the other, as both were merely extreme aspects of the same thing. These opposites shared a common structural feature, which Heraclitus called logos (reason), and it was this that, like a form of eternal cosmic justice, maintained some sort of balance and regulated the continuity of change.

Protagoras is best known for his relativism and his agnosti­cism. With his assertion that ‘Man is the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not’, he was signalling his belief that there were no fixed, objective standards — Parmenides, eat your heart out — but rather that things varied with the individual and with circumstances. So while I might well feel hot on a summer’s day in northern Europe, someone used to living in the Sahara would most likely find it rather nippy. Protagoras took this approach a step further, pointing out that it was equally appli­cable to matters of beauty, virtue, truth and justice; essentially, it’s all relative.

Protagoras presumably saw this relativism in a positive light, as a break from the constraints of existing philosophy and reli­gion, opening the way for democratic debate. However, he was later criticized for allowing more unscrupulous people to play with words, making ‘the worse case appear better’ — which explains today’s negative connotations of ‘sophistry’, using clever-clever arguments without ethical constraints.

According to Plato, Socrates always claimed that he himself knew nothing. Rather than imposing his own views on others, he challenged people to defend the logical basis for their ideas, the theory being that this would force them to confront contradictions in their own arguments.



On the one hand yes, but on the other no. Hedonism is the ethical doctrine proposing the pursuit of pleasure as the aim of life and is certainly linked with Epicurus. Indeed, according to the Roman philoso­pher and statesman Seneca (see p.49), a sign at the entrance to Epicurus’ school read, ‘Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure’. So far so good …

But of course it all depends on what you mean by pleasure. Somehow you can’t help thinking that the aims of a modern hedonist might well differ from those of the followers of Epicurus, for whom pleasure was not a fortnight’s drug-fuelled clubbing in Ibiza but a state of tranquillity achieved through the absence of pain and anxiety.

As to being an epicurean, again, it’s all in the name. Today an epicure is someone with a pronounced inter­est in fine food and wine. Pleasurable, sure, but not in the way that the great man — who was remarkably abstemious — intended.

Sartre attempts to provide answers through plays such as No Exit (1944) and novels such as the Roads to-Freedom trilogy 1 (1945-9). As he made clear in What is Literature? (1947), he saw writing not as an activity for its own sake, a simple 1 description of characters and situations, but as a way to tackle 1 issues relating to human freedom. Literature must be commit­ted, since artistic creation is a moral activity. This means writers have a duty to participate in social and political issues, which explains Sartre’s involvement with Marxism and then the radical New Left in France.

During the 1930s, Ayer had attended meetings of the Vienna Circle (see p.158) and in his first book, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), he presents the classic English version of logical positivism. He makes it clear that there are only two types of knowledge: knowledge that is empirically verifiable (it can be tested by observation) and knowledge that is analytic (it is true by definition, according to linguistic rules). Scientific statements and statements of everyday fact are examples of the former, while mathematical statements and statements of logic are examples of the latter. Ayer takes the argument further by saying that, if propositions fall into neither camp, they must be devoid of meaning, boiling down to mere expressions of personal opinion. To this category he consigns religious and metaphysical statements such as ‘God exists’ — or, equally, ‘God does not exist’ — as well as the idea that there is a realm of things out there, existing beyond phenomena.


Derrida’s approach was not universally welcomed in academic circles. When Cambridge University wanted to award him an honorary degree in 1992, there were protests from a number of leading academics, who claimed that Derrida’s contributions amounted to ‘little more than semi-intelligible attacks upon the values of reason, truth, and scholarship’. Meanwhile, Chomsky accused him of using ‘pretentious rhetoric’ as a way of masking the simplicity of his ideas, and even Foucault (see p.169) was moved to say that Derrida wrote so obscurely that you couldn’t follow what he was saying half the time, and that even if you did, but then criticized him, he would accuse you of being too stupid to understand.

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