Introspection vs. Contemplation

Ancient philosophers seemed to do a lot more than their modern counterparts. Zeno wandered around Greece with a tin cup, making witty remarks. Pythagoras taught from behind a curtain and told his students not to eat kidney beans. Socrates had public fights with his wife and beat the system by drinking hemlock before he could be executed.

Modern philosophers smoke cigarettes and stare at the camera with brooding angst. They have bad hair and dress in black. They write books. They drink to excess. They probably don't get along with people very well and can't speak without using big words and profanity. They're never seen eating and many of them melt in sunlight.

When did things change, and who changed them? Of course modern philosophers are just as human as ancient ones, but philosophy did take a weird turn somewhere, and it's never recovered. Originally philosophers argued about the unifying element of the universe (was it earth? water? mind-fire?), the nature of the good life, and the best way to argue. Since the 17th century they've developed elaborate terminology to discuss esoteric concepts. What happened?

There was once a philosopher named Rene Descartes. He lived in France and read novels instead of learned works. He wore fashionable clothes, which was generally considered unfashionable among philosophers. The important part, however, was his way of proving things. Before him, truth was universal. Appeals in defense of new theories were made to truth, because it had no human arbiters. All individuals were subject to the supremacy of truth. It was a very outward-looking approach.

Descartes changed all that by looking inside himself for answers to his questions. His first problem was whether he existed, but instead of appealing to universal truth he used the fact of his own thoughts as his starting place. His famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) was a foray into solipsism (one can only prove one's own existence), and the start of modern philosophy. Man was now the arbiter of truth because it began in the individual; if man must first prove himself before he can prove God or truth, there is no centralized point of reference for mankind in general.

The primary act of ancient philosophers was contemplation. Built on observation and association, contemplation is an outward-focusing act designed to understand the world and its operations. Modern philosophers are mostly introspective, looking inside themselves for answers to man's questions. Since they are men attempting to answer questions about mankind, they rely on experience and perception to obtain knowledge. Observation is still key, but it is inward rather than external.

Both approaches to philosophical endeavor are appropriate. Christian thinkers have long understood the need for both contemplation and introspection (or meditation), realizing that as Christians they need to understand God, mankind, and self in order to be fully balanced.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.


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