In one of my previous articles (Why Philosophy), I briefly mentioned a book: A Brief History of Thought, a philosophical guide to living, by Luc Ferry. Now I have finished reading it and would, therefore, like to share my thoughts on it in more detail. A very short summary of my impressions, however, is this: it is an enlightening book, read it! Even if you are not too interested in philosophy, this book is not a simple account of who said what and when but offers insights into why it was said, what influence did it have and where can we go now.
What is this book about? Put simply, it is about the development and main milestones of Western philosophy. However, this is indeed too simply put. The author takes his readers on a journey, starting from the Ancient Greece to contemporary thought, during which we are invited to be not merely tourists who are told what to look at and what to think about it but rather – true travellers. We are encouraged to engage in mental dialogues both with and through the author. In the end, one feels as if having returned from an exciting expedition, not with cute magnets for the fridge, but with broadened thinking and enlarged horizons. It is not always easy on such an expedition, mind you, but it is always illuminating, even if only to start waking up to the existence and meaning of other worldviews than one’s own.
Interestingly, the author came to write this book as a response to the challenge of his friends – “to improvise a philosophy course for adults and children alike.” In my opinion, he succeeded. Admittedly, I do not think that children would find this book particularly interesting (no pictures!) and some messages are still a little difficult to grasp for a beginner like myself but overall the author indeed manages to bring all the main “truths” across in a manner understandable (and captivating) for a beginner without compromising quality. In my opinion, already this alone merits an acknowledgement and interest in the author’s work. It is, unfortunately, all too often that truly knowledgeable people, experts, are not the best communicators of their messages to the broader audience. With Luc Ferry in this book, it is definitely not the case.
One of the main reasons for which, I think, this book is so enlightening is the method that the author chooses to help the readers on their journey. Namely, he addresses the business of explaining each philosophical “era” and its predominant thoughts always from the perspective of these three fundamental pillars of any philosophy:
- Theory – poses the questions of what is there and how can we know it?
- Ethics – poses the questions of how should we live and behave?
- Salvation (Wisdom) – poses the questions of why does it all matter and what lies beyond?
The first two are hardly surprising while the third one could cause some (or many) to wonder – what does salvation have to do with philosophy? Isn’t it under the “jurisdiction” of religion or, more generally, spirituality? I was also surprised when I first read about salvation in the context of philosophy but I will not spoil it for anyone and will refrain from explaining it in greater detail here. This is yet another very good reason to read the book. For now, suffice it to say that the question of salvation has everything to do with thoughts on how can we overcome the fear of death.
Using the above-mentioned three philosophical pillars and their fundamental questions are signposts, the author illustrates the hows and the whys of the most crucial Western philosophical thoughts up to our modern times. In addition, Luc Ferry demonstrates how each influenced the other and where we can find the connections still nowadays, as well as what could be considered as driving forces behind some of our contemporary realities.
Just as an example, I found the author’s interpretation of Heidegger’s idea that ours is a “world of technology” extremely eye-opening. To remind, I am still a beginner in the world of philosophy, but I was astonished by the modern-day relevance of this Heidegger’s idea that in a technological world the means (technology or “technique”) become ends in themselves while the ends (meaningful purposes, higher values, ideas) are no longer important. Examples are everywhere to see around us, just think about all those people queuing in lines to buy the latest smartphone or the businesses that must grow every year simply for the sake of growth itself, because it no longer seems possible to ensure survival differently.
It is therefore not surprising and, I believe, many of us feel it with increasing intensity, that toward the end of the book its author offers following interpretation of our modern world’s most dire challenge that finds its roots in the retreat of meaning:
“For the first time in the history of life, a living species holds the means to destroy the entire planet, and this species does not know where it is going.”
However, I would like to finish on a more optimistic note. In the hopes that we humans still have a chance and want to learn not to be and behave like “a giant with the faculties of an infant”, I recommend this book of Luc Ferry to anyone who thinks it is important to take a step outside of their familiar situation and enlarge their horizon of thought. The way I see it, it is definitely worth it!