*Editor’s note: This book, written by an French secular humanist, does not fall in our normal devotional content. We have included it in the Summer Reading Series to frame the assumptions of contemporary culture and offer context as you converse about faith with friends and coworkers.
Excerpt from Chapter One: What is Philosophy
I am going to tell you the story [of] the history of philosophy. Not all of it, of course, but its five great moments. In each case, I will give you an example of one or two transforming visions of the world or, as we say sometimes, one or two great ‘systems of thought’.
I suggest that we accept a different approach to the question ‘What is philosophy?’ and start from a very simple proposition, one that contains the central question of all philosophy: that the human being, as distinct from God, is mortal.
I will show how religions have attempted to take charge of the questions [the need for salvation] raises. Because the simplest way of starting to define philosophy is always by putting it in relation to religion.
Faced with the supreme threat to existence – death – how does religion work? Essentially, through faith. By insisting that it is faith, and faith alone, which can direct the grace of God towards us. If you believe in Him, God will save you.
The religions demand humility, above and beyond all other virtues, since humility is in their eyes the opposite – as the greatest Christian thinkers, from Saint Augustine to Pascal, never stop telling us – of the arrogance and the vanity of philosophy.
Philosophy also claims to save us – if not from death itself, then from the anxiety it causes, and to do so by the exercise of our own resources and our innate faculty of reason. Which, from a religious perspective, sums up philosophical pride: the effrontery evident already in the earliest philosophers, from Greek antiquity, several centuries before Christ.
Unable to bring himself to believe in a God who offers salvation, the philosopher is above all one who believes that by understanding the world, by understanding ourselves and others as far our intelligence permits, we shall succeed in overcoming fear, through clear-sightedness rather than blind faith.
In other words, if religions can be defined as ‘doctrines of salvation’, the great philosophies can also be defined as doctrines of salvation (but without the help of a God). Philosophy wants us to get ourselves out of trouble by utilizing our own resources, by means of reason alone, with boldness and assurance. The quest for a salvation without God is at the heart of every great philosophical system.
Summer Reading Series
A Brief History of Thought
Harper Perennial, 2011
Summer Reading Series
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