I’m always surprised by the reactions I get when I tell people my interest (and sincere trust) in philosophy as a means of understanding the world and getting at the real truth. A lawyer friend told me an introductory university philosophy class convinced him there are no objective truths (that’s the same conclusion Steve Martin drew from his college philosophy courses). A former colleague disparaged Aristotle — one of the greatest philosophers, and the originator of syllogistic logic — as absurd because of the Greek philosopher’s flawed physics.
Sadly, contemporary philosophy does the discipline few favors. The academy has made philosophy about as arcane as possible, persuading many that it is impractical and irrelevant for everyday purposes. The philosopher of public imagination is a pretentious, condescending windbag, enamored with his own supposedly clever use of six-syllable words; or, perhaps, more charitably, a well-intentioned ideological zealot who believes it her mission to regularly remind everyone that they have terribly misunderstood themselves, each other, and the world.
It’s all too bad, really. Our society, government, and economy, not to mention every single human institution, all exist, function, and perpetuate themselves based on various philosophical premises — whether about ourselves, the natural order, or how we acquire knowledge. We’re all doing philosophy (either well or poorly) all the time: every time we articulate an argument, conduct research, or even weigh options for spending our money. So it would certainly be nice if someone could help us better appreciate the connection between philosophy and our actual everyday experiences. Thankfully, venerable philosophy professor and prolific author Dr. Peter Kreeft has done just that with his new four-volume series, Socrates’ Children: An Introduction to Philosophy from the 100 Greatest Philosophers.
What Makes It Different
Don’t let the title fool you — this is no kitschy compilation of the author’s favorite subject matter, soon to be thrust into a bookstore’s “bargain deals” box. Rather, Kreeft explains:
I decided to write this book when the umpteenth person asked me the following question: ‘Could you recommend just one book that covers the whole history of philosophy that beginners can understand and even get excited about?’
Socrates’ Children is intended for beginners, who have little, if any philosophical background. It’s also a direct refutation of the aforementioned esotericism that has so plagued philosophy over the last century. “Traditionally, philosophy was about life, and it was something to be lived,” writes Kreeft. That changed, however, following the writings of people like Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and A.J. Ayer, who aimed to model philosophy after scientific and mathematical thinking, creating what we call today “analytic philosophy.”
Kreeft favors the more ancient, venerable understanding of the philosopher’s craft: to engender wonder that ultimately leads to wisdom. And, as good teachers know, the best means of accomplishing that is through captivating storytelling. Thus Kreeft’s approach: introducing readers to not only the thoughts of the great thinkers of human history, but also their lives. To help the reader appreciate the interrelatedness of these philosophers, Kreeft presents their stories and ideas as part of a “great conversation” spanning more than three millennia.
The four-volume series also serves as an excellent resource to inspire further study, with Kreeft suggesting “easy, short” books and “hard, long” books from many of the thinkers he discusses, including Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Descartes, Hume, and Marx. His introduction includes a “doable do-it-yourself course in the classics of philosophy” with recommended readings, as well as a short list of recommended other histories of philosophy. All that aside, one could easily spend a third of a year, each day reading one of the chapters of Kreeft’s book, and be more knowledgeable and better equipped to understand philosophy’s real value to our lives than the vast majority of anyone you’ll ever debate about, well, just about anything.
Leaving No Stone Unturned
The book presents a remarkably diverse set of characters that demonstrates both Kreeft’s breadth of knowledge but also his willingness to make this compilation a truly global study. The first section of the first volume, “The Sages,” features two Jews (Solomon and Jesus), three Indo-Aryans (Zoroaster, Shankara, Gotama the Buddha), and three Chinese (Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Mo Tzu). Though Kreeft is himself a Catholic, he exemplifies a veritable scholarly impartiality; for example, he writes of Confucius’s thought: “It was human and humane, and therefore worked for human beings, leading them to live more human and happy lives. Can philosophy do anything more important than that?”
The next section of the first volume, featuring more than 20 Greeks, makes clear the real origins of intellectual energy in the ancient world. And, as the book’s title suggests, the font of that energy is Socrates. His greatest student, Plato, describes him thus in his Symposium:
When you listen to Socrates’ talk it seems at first to be silly. … Donkeys and blacksmiths and shoemakers and tanners are what he talks about, and he always seems to be saying the same things and the same words, so that the ignorant and foolish would laugh at them; but when they are opened out and you get inside them, you find his words full of more sense than anyone else’s, and the most godlike, and full of the best images of virtue, and reaching the farthest into what is the most profitable.
This is what philosophy is supposed to do to us, to appeal to our own experiences and senses to help us see ourselves, the world, and truth more clearly, dispelling the impressions and deceits that so often cloud our thinking, and giving us a template for a better life.
The fourth and final volume on contemporary philosophers points to how this broke down. It is by far the largest of the volumes, and contains thinkers that even professional academics have difficulty interpreting: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Husserl. “Of the one hundred philosophers in this four-volume work, none has demanded of me as much qualitative rethinking and reappraisal, and as much quantitative expansion of pages, as Wittgenstein,” Kreeft explains. More arresting than that comment is the fact that Wittgenstein, who boasted of never having read a single word of Aristotle, was embarrassingly ignorant of everything that intellectually preceded him.
Wittgenstein’s hubris is not uncommon among analytic philosophers. Kreeft describes the intellectual movement thus:
…It claims to be a cure for the intellectual diseases and errors of past philosophy. Yes, and that is precisely the problem: the arrogance, the dismissal of centuries of great minds by decades of little ones. For the bottom line of all the founders of this movement is that philosophy in the traditional sense, philosophy as nearly all great philosophers have conceived of it for twenty-four centuries, is fatally diseased. The business is bankrupt. The enterprise is dead. … Analytic philosophy is a viral infection: just as deadly, but boring.
Though analytic philosophy was quixotically supposed to be the decisive intellectual system that transcended the seemingly irresolvable debates of the past, Kreeft wryly observes “there is as much disagreement among analytic philosophers as there ever was among other philosophers.”
Why It’s a Masterpiece
Kreeft’s incisive criticism of analytic philosophy shows that Socrates’ Children is far more than a simple summary of the great philosophers. It has them — and Kreeft — insightfully and charitably engage with one another, which helpfully exposes various strengths and weaknesses. Interspersed throughout is the forthright commentary that makes Kreeft such a delight to read. For instance, in Kreeft’s estimation Leibniz was one of the top five most intelligent men ever; Kierkegaard has been the most brilliant Protestant philosopher; Nietzsche is the most radical of thinkers.
Few attempts have ever been made to accomplish what Kreeft has done in this book — in the past I’ve recommended the very good textbook Images of the Human as something similar, though Socrates’ Children is far more comprehensive and digestible. Indeed, the attributes that commend this book are difficult to number. There are fascinating biographical anecdotes, instructive diagrams, and lists within lists of whom Kreeft deems to be the most important thinkers to know. And, of course, it has provocative controversies, including the jarring fact that there is not a single female included among the 100 philosophers.
I’m sure many familiar with the history of philosophy will find more than that “patriarchal” decision to provoke them, including who makes the cut in this contentious list. Regardless of whether one is a novice, or someone like me with multiple graduate-level philosophy courses under his belt, there is much to learn – and live by – under Kreeft’s gracious tutelage.