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Ancient and Modern Philosophy

by Martin O'Hagan


As one who has come late to philosophy I find it shocking how the discipline which once occupied a central position in western culture is now increasingly marginalised. I somehow nestled the notion that maybe I would find that my otherwise meaningless existence would make sense to me.

It now appears no longer fashionable to consider the big questions of why we are here or what is this life all about. Indeed mere contemplation of such notions is to expose erring thinkers to the run of the intellectual gauntlet. Modernist secular heresy is frowned upon and labelled naive at best. The desire to try and find an answer to haunting questions is branded romantic nostalgia and a longing for a world that is gone and never to return.

Indeed the idea of a big truth in the absence of an omniscient and omnipotent God, the post-Enlightenment and gigantic advances in physics and the other sciences has reduced that truth to private belief. Pragmatism of a sort signals that whatever works for the individual must be true. Here there is more than a faint echo of Protagoras coming across the centuries that the atomised individual is the measure of all things...

Anglo-American philosophy has perfected an academicism in which issues that matter to most human beings are largely ignored. English language philosophy rarely amounts to anything more than an exhibition of the masterly and often dazzling skill that is the devil in the small detail of form. Nowhere does this undoubted ability seek to inform.

I am reminded of Thoreau's comments in the opening chapter of 'Walden' which he wrote 150 years ago. He was bemoaning bourgeois lives of 'quiet desperation' and commented that, "There are only Professors of Philosophy but no philosophers."

This distinction was originally formulated by the Stoics but accepted by the majority in the ancient world. They realised it was folly to ignore the relationship between theory and practice.

The Stoics separated philosophy as a way of life from philosophical discourse. Elements of Stoical discourse, physics, ethics and logic were part of a theory. In contrast, philosophy as a way of life is not a divided and structured theory but an unitary act which consists of 'living the theory'. For example in logic, the Stoics would argue, once we have studied the theory of speaking and thinking we no longer continue to learn but instead we speak and think well.

Even Polemon, one of the heads of the Old Academy wrote, "We should exercise ourselves with realities and not with dialectical speculation."

Five hundred years later Epictetus wrote, "A carpenter does not come up to you and say, 'Let me discourse about the art of carpentry,' but he makes a contract for a house and builds it. Do the same thing yourself, eat like a man, drink like a man...get married, have children, take part in civic life, learn how to put up with insults and tolerate other people."

Philosophical theories were in the service of philosophical life. Such systems were a highly concentrated nucleus, capable of exercising a strong psychological effect. They were not intended to provide an explanation of the whole of reality but to provide the mind with a small number of principles linked together to give persuasive force and provide a mnemonic device.

Christian philosophy within the monasteries became the Christian way of life; it was not a theory or a way of knowing but a lived wisdom. In contrast, medieval universities were to eliminate the early contrast between philosophy by reason, and theology based on faith. St Thomas Aquinas insisted that philosophy was now the handmaiden of theology.

Education was no longer directed towards developing the fully human being. In many respects it was similar to the Sophistic use of education as a means toward achieving some ulterior objective. In this case it was eternal life. The universities became institutions whereby specialists trained specialists. Scholasticism, as a philosophical tendency, begun at the end of antiquity, developed in the Middle Ages and still has a presence today. It was essentially a closed system designed to uphold current theology.

Furthermore, it was no accident that the major advances in genuine creative philosophy would develop outside the university. Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche and Leibniz were to run the gauntlet of religious disapproval.

In opposition to scholastic discourse, the new philosophy moved forward only to again settle within the precincts of the university and became indissolubly linked to the university. With the exception of thinkers such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, philosophy developed in a different atmosphere and environment from that of the ancient philosophy.

Boorish Schopenhauer remarked that university philosophy is mere fencing in mirrors. He insisted that, "its goal is to give students opinions which are to the liking of ministers...as a result this state of financed philosophy makes a joke of philosophy."

This is not to say that modern philosophy has not discovered some of the existential aspects of the ancients. There are many invitations to radical personal change of our lives. Descartes' 'Meditations' corresponds to the work of St Augustine and Spinoza's 'Ethics' is similar to the discourse of the Stoics.

Under the influence of Hegel, Marx and the young Hegelians accepted the necessity of uniting theory and practice. It is ironic that in the years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and some would say Marxism, Marx's famous dictum that "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it" has taken on a much broader meaning than that which was previously understood by the official Marxists of the Third International. The dictum not only emphasises the creativity of human labour but also its potential for changing world views.

Indeed, many leftists swamped by the rising tide of a global economy made possible by the advances in communications lost sight of a better world. Many fell victim to the apparent optimism of US President Bush's New World Order. Indeed, even the terminology of the left was usurped by the Thatcherites who spoke about revolution as if the new world situation meant things really were going to get better.

With an increasingly fragmented and specialised world perhaps the most profound difference between the ancient and modern philosophers is their respective attitude towards those considered 'philosophers' and the rest of humanity.

Rab C. Nesbitt's pronouncements on the state of his world are always prefixed with 'working class' or 'street' philosophy to set it apart from philosophy proper. The ancients such as Epicurus or Chrysippus, to mention only two, are accepted philosophers in the modern sense because they developed a discourse. But for these same ancients every person who lives according to the moral instructions of philosophy was every bit as much of a philosopher as they.

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor, soldier and family man was a philosopher in the ancient sense because he practised and lived according to the ideals of Stoic wisdom. This was his way of being human; of living according to reason within the cosmos and along with other human beings. It is doubtful if today he is considered anything other than a dabbler.

In short, what ancient philosophy proposed was an art of living. By contrast, modern philosophy appears as structured technical jargon in the positive sense reserved for an elite inside the hallowed walls of Academia. Yet this elite doesn't even feature among the pathfinders of science. Mention you are a philosopher and it is bound to get a bemused look.

Today, the professors of philosophy have abandoned the big questions that once gave their discipline its point and meaning. Philosophy now finds itself in the midst of a self-imposed crisis. This calls for a radical avant gardism that won't be a return to some religious formula but one that helps us mortals find meaning in an increasingly disenchanted and alienated universe.

© Marie O'Hagan 2001

Martin O'Hagan IN MEMORIAM