Wednesday, June 12, 2002

I have tried for the most part not to take up questions asked on other blogs, because a lot of the blogosphere feels like a snarky high school for the gifted, where students are constantly mislabeling each other’s acids and bases, hoping to create havoc in the chemistry class. After playing around at this myself in my first days of blogging, I have grown weary of it.

I make an exception, however, for other bloggers’ contests, and for questions that are both excellent and easy. The Volokh Conspiracy asks, “Why do we even read old philosophers?… Maybe my philosophy friends might tell me what we gain today from reading Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, or Nietzsche. Or is philosophy these days just a fancy term for intellectual history?”

Nietzsche isn’t fit to unstrap Plato’s sandals, but he is worth reading as a context for much of the moral heinousness of the twentieth century, just as you can’t understand the French Revolution without knowing something of Les Droits de l’Homme (or however one spells that cheese-eating language). Voltaire, Rousseau, Hegel, Nietzsche and many other post-Reformation philosophers fall into the Intellectual History category, useful not so much for their ideas as for the results of those ideas.

Plato, Aristotle and other ancients are still read simply because what they wrote was true, or true enough. In math, one need not read Pythagoras to learn his eponymous theorem; a trig text takes it as true, and builds upon it. In philosophy, objective truth has often been discarded, and so one cannot find it in very many modern texts. One can read Aquinas, of course, and learn all one needs to know about Plato (or most of it, anyway), but Aquinas was a religious person and so can’t be taught in a secular world without arousing the ACLU. If one wants to know the truth the ancients taught in philosophy, for the most part one must read the ancients.

Philosophy in the modern academy has so completely sold itself out to its destructors, that it actually teaches that it is the creation of whim and prejudice. (How one could have taught logical positivism with a straight face is beyond me!) But the consequence of this is that the truths of ancient philosophers are not for the most part used as building blocks for more recent ones; the builders have rejected the cornerstone. Since one cannot find it in the edifice, one must return to the original quarry to look for it.

The question that prompted this discussion was about why we read biographies of philosophers. I am not nearly so persuaded that this is important, especially because of the purpose such biographies seem to have. A biography which asks, as a many do, “What historical trends led inevitably to certain prejudices being written in this manner?” (A sort of Hegelian/Marxist approach to biography) is of absolutely no use, because it is principally concerned with assuming the conclusion that no real truth is or can be found in the philosopher’s writing. A biography that seeks to understand how the philosopher himself understood his teachings might have some value, but I haven’t come across any such work.


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