Based on an advanced reader’s e-proof courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers, I read A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide on Living, Luc Ferry‘s accessible dive into philosophers and their ideas. Professor Luc Ferry teaches philosophy at the Sorbonne Universityin Paris. From 2002 to 2004 he served as French Minister of National Education. Ferry earlier wrote books like French Philosophy of the Sixties: an essay on Antihumanism, The New Ecological Order and Man Made God: The Meaning of Life. In A Brief History of Thought, Ferry seeks to satisfy two needs: that of an adult who wants to know what philosophy is about, but does not necessarily intend to proceed any further; and that of a young person who hopes eventually to further their study, but does not as yet have the necessary bearings to be able to read these challenging authors for herself or himself.
Philosophy, according to Ferry, starts from a very simple proposition, one that contains the central question of all philosophy: that the human being, as distinct from God, is mortal or, to speak like the philosophers, is a ‘finite being’, limited in space and time. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable. And, naturally enough, he is inclined to turn first of all to those religions which promise ‘salvation’. Faced with the supreme threat to existence – death – how does religion work? essentially, through faith. By insisting that it is faith, and faith alone, which can direct the grace of God towards us. The philosophical pride: the effrontery evident already in the earliest philosophers, from Greek antiquity, several centuries before Christ. Unable to bring himself to believe in a God who offers salvation, the philosopher is above all one who believes that by understanding the world, by understanding ourselves and others as far our intelligence permits, we shall succeed in overcoming fear, through clear-sightedness rather than blind faith.
Greek thinkers like Epicurus and his disciple Lucretius started to explore this idea. Later Plato and Aristotle followed. And Epictetus, one of the greatest representatives of another of the ancient Greek philosophical schools – Stoicism – went so far as to reduce all philosophical questions to a single issue: the fear of death. Christianity won over Greek Philosophy, thanks to Paul and apologetical Church Fathers in the first centuries AD.
Humanism gave birth to modern philosophy. Ferry explores the three dimensions of every philosophy: world view (paradigm, theory), ethics and the quest for salvation. He looks into the writings of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Descartes. Kant and Rousseau wrestled with the distinction between man and animal. Jean-Paul Sartre said that if man is free, there is therefore no ‘human nature’, no human ‘essence’, no definition of humanity which precedes and determines his individual existence. This paradigms have had their impact on morals and ethics.
Postmodernity: Nietsche further deconstructed philosophical world views, still distorted by, or based on Christian fundamentals. If the world’s a chaos and morals and ethics are bound to individuals, this gives way to a whole new approach of salvation: by nationalism, socialism, communism, etc. With Stalin and Hitler we saw the effects in the 20th century. A doctrine of salvation without Gods or Idols. It was to provide a response to this question that Nietzsche formulated the doctrine of eternal recurrence; to afford us quite simply a criterion, of a terrestrial and this-worldly kind, finally, for deciding what is worth living for, and what is not. For those who are believers, this will naturally go unheeded. But for philosophers like Luc Ferry, who no longer believe in another world, or for whom this-worldly engagement of whatever kind – political activism, for example – no longer suffices, Nietzsche’s answer is worth hearing.
If the doctrine of eternal recurrence echoes that of amor fati, the latter in turn culminates in the ideal of an existence entirely free of guilt. Unlike the Stoics, clearly, Nietzsche does not believe that the world is harmonious and rational; the transcendence of the cosmos no longer holds.
Why not stay with Nietzsche and his corrosive lucidities? Why not rest satisfied, as many have done, with developing his project, with filling the still empty compartments of his thought, and elaborating upon the theses that he has handed down to us? And if we do not like some of them, if we find that his thought flirts uncomfortably with cynicism and with fascist ideologies why not rewind a little, to the Rights of Man, to the idea of the Republic, to the Enlightenment? Enter Contemporary Philosophy. Heidegger saw Nietzsche as the ‘thinker of technology’, the first philosopher to destroy – entirely and without leaving the smallest trace – the notion of ‘purposes’: the idea that there was a meaning to be sought for in human existence, objectives to pursue, ends to achieve. No more discussion of meaning, or of what constitutes doing and living well, or the nature of wisdom, or (even less) of salvation! Everything that for several millennia had constituted the essence of philosophy would seem to have been written off, to leave room only for erudition, for ‘reflection’ and ‘the critical spirit’. Not that these attributes are not qualities, but in the end, as Hegel said, ‘erudition begins with ideas and ends with ordures’.
But the 20th century also learned, that Materialism failed. Everyone recognizes the richness of Carpe Diem, moments of grace, beauty and signals from another world. What meaning can the imperative of amor fati have confronted with the fact of Auschwitz? And what value can our revolutions and our acts of resistance have if they are inscribed for all eternity in the real, alongside and undifferentiated from everything to which they are opposed? I have yet to encounter a materialist, ancient or modern, who was able to provide an answer to this question.
Ferry seeks transcendence, but keeps rejecting the idea of a God or supreme Being. The beauty of a landscape or a piece of music imposes itself, ‘bowls him over’, transports him, irrespective of choice. Beyond the three great axes of enquiry, the dream of an enlarged thought also allows Ferry to perceive differently – bypassing scepticism and dogmatism – the enigmatic prospect of there being a plurality of philosophical truths.