"To live alone one must be an animal or a god—says Aristotle. There is yet a third case: one must be both—a philosopher."
Most people aren't animals or gods and therefore have little patience with philosophers. Along with theology, politics, and Peter Jackson, they consider philosophy best left undiscussed in polite society. The only philosophers most people remember are the ones who lose their minds and end their days playing Chopin with their elbows.
High-profile philosophers often try to make their profession a spectator sport. Kant wore little springs in his pockets to keep his stockings from falling around his ankles. Descartes bragged that he slept late and only read novels. Diogenes went about his daily business in the city square—all of it. John Cage, a musical artist heavily influenced by philosophy, wrote a cello suite to be played naked at the bottom of a swimming pool—then had it performed by a young woman. And these aren't even the weird examples.
Philosophy is "love of wisdom" (from the Greek words phileo for "love" and sophia for "wisdom"). Philosophers often describe their job as wooing "Lady Wisdom," though non-specialists usually find this a cheap attempt at romanticism. In its broader sense, philosophy is the attempt to construct a practical and consistent approach to life. To understand the importance of philosophy, however, we need to get rid of some common prejudices. Philosophers aren't (for the most part) a bunch of wackos, unable to function outside the library or study. The purpose of philosophy is to bring us to understanding so we can live the "good life." It isn't intended to be merely intellectual; its intellectualism is a groundwork for understanding that leads to better living.
Conversation is the heart of philosophy. It shouldn't be surprising that Socrates, the father of philosophy, introduced his ideas through dialogue. When we talk honestly to people about ourselves and life we are engaging informally in philosophy. Open-minded philosophical discussion leads to the free flow of ideas. Ideas aren't something we should be afraid of. The history of man is full of ideas that keep it from being static, a mere linear trudge through the years.
The American Revolution, for instance, wasn't just a practical reaction to unfair taxes and perceived oppression—it was the result of Enlightenment ideas concerning the equality of man and societal progress through universal education. Thomas Jefferson's vision of an America populated by educated gentleman farmers was directly influenced by Rousseau's Social Contract with its emphasis on humanistic solutions to social problems.
Of course, Christians should approach ideas differently than secularists. Many secular thinkers view ideas simply as intellectual play—they throw them around for fun like irresponsible man-children, completely disregarding implications. We need to be careful not to accept ideas that may seem logical if they don't measure up to a biblical standard.
Lady Wisdom has a distinct form. She appears in the book of Proverbs, which is more or less a philosophical work. Men are instructed to find her, not so they can show off their knowledge, but so they can live the good life, enjoying and glorifying God.
Some Christians assert that philosophy is a waste of time or even dangerous. They claim that it leads people astray from their faith and plunges them in godlessness and immorality. A favorite verse is Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." While some undoubtedly apostatize from their faith as a result of undisciplined study, this isn't Paul's point. He isn't saying we should abandon philosophy, only that we shouldn't be fooled by bad philosophy. Ungodly philosophies are everywhere, influencing people's behavior; our best defense against them is to know what they are and why people follow them.
Philosophy must be approached carefully. We can't plunge into it with our guard down, expecting to easily resist all the arguments we encounter. The best defense is to be thoroughly grounded in the Word of God. However, to be ignorant of secular philosophies is not the answer to refuting them. Ideas are dangerous things—even if they are good ones, human beings have a tendency to bend them out of all recognizable shape and use them for their own purposes. That doesn't mean we should stem the flow of ideas; it means we should be all the more devoted to using them to God's glory.
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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