I am currently reading Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers* by Philip Stokes. This has reminded me, if I needed reminding, that Western philosophy as we know it today began with the Greeks. Since the beginning of the human race, people have investigated and thought about the great problems of existence but it was the Greeks who taught us to think freely, without the constraints and limitations of religious or other prejudices, to argue logically and to base theory on hard evidence, not on empty speculation.
We owe the Greeks an immense debt not only for identifying many of the problems that still preoccupy us and for teaching us how to approach them but also for showing us that philosophy is not a matter for academics comfortably esconced in ivory towers but is something that we all do and which is one of the noblest and most essential of all pastimes. As I pointed out elsewhere, philosophy is not concerned with finding final, unique, “right” answers but with continually examining anew our world and our thoughts about it, questioning what we take for granted and testing what we think we know. In short, the labour of philosophy never ends.
Today is Sunday and in the West, Sunday is traditionally the day when Church-goers pay special attention to their religion and reflect on its deeper meaning. Perhaps philosophers, whether religious or atheist, should emulate this and also take Sunday – or another day of their free choice – as a day to reflect on philosophy, its purpose and meaning, and to review the works of the great philosophical minds of the past and present by reading “good books” of philosophy.
Ancient Greek philosophers, despite tantalizingly little being known about some of them, have sent their names to us echoing down the centuries. This did not happen by accident but because their renown and the originality and power of their thinking drew the attention of the whole world and made them a place in history. We sadly neglect our own education and with it the quality of our lives if we do not pay due attention to their works; if we do not take the lesson and seek to follow, no matter how haltingly, in their footsteps.
I am following my own advice and thinking about Thales, Pythagoras, Socrates, that old “dog” Diogenes, so I am not going the develop a theme today. But I will nonetheless mention one of my own favourites, Epicurus.
Epicurus, to my mind at least, holds a special place among philosophers, being the first who deliberately and publicly sought to “free mankind from the fear of the gods”. He also ennobled and made respectable the search for happiness, ruled by prudence and intelligence, not by fear of divine retribution. Epicurus did believe the gods existed (not to believe was virtually impossible in his day) but he believed they took no interest in human affairs and neither rewarded nor punished us.
Epictetus, a rival, exaggerated Epicurus’ ideas and gave him the reputation of a hedonist that endures to this day. The reality is that Epicurus, a poor man, dogged throughout life by ill health, knew full well that excess and luxury are the enemy of well being. He thus proposed a regime for avoiding pain and maximising pleasure that was one of frugality and simplicity. Looking around us today, and seeing millions on diets and other health “programmes” to undo the depredations of unwise lifestyles, we surely cannot disagree.
*Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers, Philip Stokes, Foulsham (2003, ISBN: 0572029357.