Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Who Cares about Ancient Western Philosophy?

Welcome to the first in a series of explanations of ancient western philosophy. I hope you find these articles helpful and thought provoking.

You are probably wondering why read about ancient western philosophy. This knowledge does not add practical value to your life nor is it entertaining. In fact, there seems to be no value in thinking about ancient western philosophy.

Since you are still reading you may find it worthwhile to spend a couple minutes thinking about the reason for learning about ancient western philosophy. Perhaps you can’t put your finger on it, but you have an inkling there is worth in pursuing knowledge of ancient western philosophy. Intuition is not enough. The skeptic’s attack drowns out the hint. The skeptic’s claim is: 

Ancient western philosophy is not a worthwhile investigation. It does not add to our lives. Our time and energy is best spent on things of pleasure and practical value.

At first glance this claim seems to take the wind out of our sails, and we haven’t even left the harbor. Certainly, the “pleasure objection,” as we will call it, has some force. If I have a choice between reading Plato and taking in the aroma of facebook, I often choose facebook. Likewise, cats chasing lasers tastes better then reading Zeno. Yet, this is not what the pleasure objection is saying. It is saying that ancient western philosophy is worthless.

The irony of the pleasure objection is that it follows the path it objects against. By offering the claim ancient western philosophy is worthless, it is promoting a specific philosophical position that lies within the tradition of ancient western philosophy. Really, the objection is saying that it thinks itself has no value. That is a self-defeating claim.

A Stronger Objection

Perhaps we can salvage the pleasure objection. We will call it the sophisticated pleasure objection. It goes something like this. Humanity has gone beyond ancient philosophy. Technology and science are the foundation. Man is becoming more and more sophisticated and the world a more complex place. Ancient western philosophy is no help because we live in such a different world. In other words, there is no longer a need to study ancient western philosophy because it is obsolete.

We are forced to concede something. First, we agree that the world is much more complicated then it was back when ancient western philosophy wasn’t ancient. Furthermore, Western society no longer functions even just a 100 years ago, much less over 2,000 years. The foundational principles of the west have eroded away. A pseudo-postmodernism reigns triumphant. We see it in art, movies, and culture. At its foundation lies trust in science and technology to solve problems and make sense of the world around us. This we are forced to concede.

Yet, we are not forced to concede to the objection if we can show on the contrary that ancient western philosophy is not obsolete.

We can’t stop people from thinking but we can stop people from thinking poorly.

Good thinking doesn’t come naturally. It comes from constant hard practice and from a teacher. That’s what philosophers do. They teach us how to think well. When you read and consider Plato’s forms, you are not just figuring out if he has gotten it right but being taught how to think from one of the influential minds of the west. Over time, it will rub off on you if you are committed to constant hard practice.

It is not an easy task nor is it for the faint of heart. Careful thinking requires diligent labor. It’s long and hard labor that takes years before fruit begins to grow. The fruit is well worth the wait. So join me in this summer of reading about ancient western philosophy. I think you will find it to be profitable.

A Story for Your Consideration

A couple weeks ago I was discussing with my students the ethics of the Opium Wars between China and the British Empire. I asked my students whether countries are ethically obligated to stop trading a good if the other country asks them to stop. Our discussion naturally revolved around today’s drug wars. One of my classes took the discussion in an interesting direction.

Two claimed it is not possible to answer the question. They said there is no one who can say there is right and wrong, “it’s all just our opinion.”  My response was that there seems to be universals about what is right and wrong. My two students interjected that there are multiple opinions about morality and we can’t clearly see these universals throughout all cultures. “It’s just too hard to figure it out,” said one. Quickly I pointed out that they would agree that actions of genocide and rape are wrong, have always been wrong and will always be wrong. There is no context, for instance, where the Holocaust can be ethically justified. One conceded but the other did not.

He spoke tentatively. “Yeah, the Nazis saw what they were doing to be right and good. So it was right and good for them. How can I figure out how they are wrong?” Sadly, I never answered his question.

What was troubling about the discussion was not my student’s positions but their lack of reasoning. They found the very existence of a contrary moral claim to be evidence that moral intuitions are inherently defective. One student was even willing to go as far as to say he couldn’t find reason to claim the Holocaust is wrong. Clearly one could argue, as the Nazis did, such treatment is justified, but there are a host of reasons to confidently disagree.

Though you might take my student’s position about the relativity of ethics, I hope you can see the shallowness of my students thinking. They hadn’t rubbed shoulders with powerful arguments and claims of thoughtful writers. He probably never will. How do you know you’re not in the same position? It is worth reading about ancient western philosophy because it forces us to think and even to think carefully. So, join me in this blog series on ancient western philosophy.

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