Nigel Warburton
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I stumbled this book by accident. I never attended Philosophy classes neither read any related material before. But I always had those lost in thoughts moments when reading quotes by the likes of Voltaire, Mill, Rousseau, Marx, Russel, Sartre and Arendt. They seemed to defy common sense and pushed me to think deeper about hard issues. You can’t be indifferent when you read that there is “no way to escape the weight of responsibility that comes with being human.”

I felt compelled to read it. The author does an impressive job telling the almost 2.5 thousand years history of the Western Philosophy. He tries to show each philosopher’s main contribution to the field, explaining in understandable terms and with care regarding the historical context.

It is the only book I read on the Little Histories series and I found it an engaging and joyful reading. 51 philosophers are introduced in the book’s 40 brief chapters (6 to 10 pages each.) For sure, some people may complain about the shallow introduction of some of the philosophers while other can question the presence or absence of certain historical character. I would like a chapter about Bertold Brecht, because I appreciate his words on the political illiterate. But this is a matter of perspective and expectancy. For what the series/book proposes, it delivers successfully.

Be aware that “an unexamined existence is all right for cattle, but not for human beings” (Socrates, chapter 1) and give this book a chance. At least, you’ll have new ideas to reflect while cultivating your garden.

Some quotes

The word ‘philosopher’ comes from the Greek words meaning ‘love of wisdom’.

Life, he (Socrates) declared, is only worth living if you think about what you are doing. An unexamined existence is all right for cattle, but not for human beings.

Unusually for a philosopher, Socrates refused to write anything down. For him talking was far better than writing. Written words can’t answer back; they can’t explain anything to you when you don’t understand them. Face-to-face conversation was much better, he maintained. In conversation we can take into account the kind of person we are talking to; we can adapt what we say so that the message gets across.

Sceptical questioning of this sort is at the heart of philosophy. All the great philosophers have been sceptics in this sense. It is the opposite of dogmatism. Someone who is dogmatic is very confident that they know the truth. Philosophers challenge dogma. They ask why people believe what they do, what sorts of evidence they have to support their conclusions.

It’s far better to live in a simple way. If your desires are simple they are easy to satisfy and you will have the time and energy to enjoy the things that matter. That was his (Epicurus) recipe for happiness, and it makes a lot of sense.

The next move he made led to one of the best-known lines in philosophy, though many more people know the quotation than understand what it means. Descartes saw that even if the demon existed and was tricking him, there must be something that the demon was tricking. As long as he was having a thought at all, he, Descartes, must exist. The demon couldn’t make him believe that he existed if he didn’t. That’s because something that doesn’t exist can’t have thoughts. ‘I think, therefore I am’ (cogito ergo sum in Latin) was Descartes’ conclusion.

What philosophers usually admire in geometry is the way it moves by careful logical steps from agreed starting points to surprising conclusions. If the axioms are true, then the conclusions must be true. This sort of geometrical reasoning inspired both René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes.

His (Locke) view that we have a God-given right to life, freedom, happiness and property influenced the founding fathers who wrote the United States Constitution.

At a deeper level, though, cultivating our garden, for Voltaire, is a metaphor for doing something useful for humanity rather than just talking about abstract philosophical questions. That’s what the characters in the book need to do to flourish and be happy. But, Voltaire hints strongly, this isn’t just what Candide and his friends should do. It’s what we all ought to do.

If you asked most people, they’d prefer not to have to pay high taxes. In fact that is a common way for governments to get elected: they simply promise to lower the rate of taxation. Given the choice between paying 20 per cent of their earnings as tax and 5 per cent of their earnings as tax, most people would prefer to pay the lower amount. But that is not the General Will. What everyone says they want if you ask them is what Rousseau would call the Will of All. In contrast, the General Will is what they ought to want, what would be good for the whole community, not just for each person within it thinking selfishly.

If you do something just because of how you feel that is not a good action at all. Imagine someone who felt disgust when they saw the young man, but still went ahead and helped him out of duty. That person would be more obviously moral in Kant’s eyes than someone who acted from compassion. That’s because the disgusted person would clearly be acting from a sense of duty because their emotions would be pushing in the completely opposite direction, encouraging them not to help.

Mill argued in The Subjection of Women (1869) that the sexes should be treated equally both in law and in society more generally. Some around him claimed that women were naturally inferior to men. He asked how they could possibly know this when women had so often been prevented from reaching their full potential: they were kept away from higher education and many professions. Above all, he wanted greater equality of the sexes.

For Marx, the whole of human history could be explained as a class struggle: the struggle between the rich capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) and the working class or proletariat. This relationship stopped human beings achieving their potential and turned work into something painful rather than a fulfilling kind of activity.

For Russell there was no chance of God stepping in to save humanity: our only chance lay in using our powers of reason. People were drawn to religion, he believed, because they were afraid of dying. Religion comforted them. It was very reassuring to believe that a God exists who will punish evil people, even if they get away with murder and worse on earth. But it wasn’t true. God doesn’t exist. And religion nearly always produced more misery than happiness. He did allow that Buddhism might be different from most other religions, but Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism all had a lot to answer for. These religions throughout their histories had been the cause of war, individual suffering and hatred. Millions had died as a result of them.

There is no way to escape the weight of responsibility that comes with being human. (Sartre)

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir gave this existentialism a different twist by claiming that women are not born women; they become women. What she meant was that women tend to accept men’s view of what a woman is. To be what men expect you to be is a choice. But women, being free, can decide for themselves what they want to be. They have no essence, no way given by nature that they have to be.

Language is public, and it requires publicly available ways of checking that we are making sense. When a child learns to ‘describe’ her pain, Wittgenstein says, what happens is that the parent encourages the child to do various things, such as say ‘It hurts’ – the equivalent in many ways to the quite natural expression ‘Aaargh!’

But now in Jerusalem, Arendt was to meet a very different sort of Nazi. Here was a rather ordinary man who chose not to think too hard about what he was doing. His failure to think had disastrous consequences. But he wasn’t the evil sadist that she might have expected to find. He was something far more common but equally dangerous: an unthinking man.

Rawls’ stroke of genius was to come up with a thought experiment – he called it ‘The Original Position’ – that plays down some of the selfish biases we all have. His central idea is very simple: design a better society, but do it without knowing what position in society you’ll occupy. You don’t know whether you’ll be rich, poor, have a disability, be good looking, male, female, ugly, intelligent or unintelligent, talented or unskilled, homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. He thinks you will choose fairer principles behind this imaginary ‘veil of ignorance’ because you won’t know where you might end up, what kind of a person you might be. From this simple device of choosing without knowing your own place, Rawls developed his theory of justice. This was based on two principles he thought all reasonable people would accept, principles of freedom and equality.

Philosophy, after all, thrives on debate. It thrives on people taking positions against each other and arguing, using logic and evidence.