This book is a good overview of the history of western thought. It’s good for those who are interested in philosophy, but are not interested in dedicating too much of their life to it. I would also suggest that it’s a good book for any western pastor to read as well.
The author is clearly a gifted teacher. He does a good job of explaining the material and repeats himself well to get the main points across. He anticipates the reader’s questions and addresses them clearly.
The book starts with an explanation of what philosophy really is: not just a bunch of ideas on how to live life or how to do things, but rather, it is all about salvation—not salvation from without (i.e. from God), but from within.
He starts off by looking at Greek philosophy, mainly Stoicism. Stoicism saw the divine (God, but not a personal God) or the Cosmos as being good, and the physical/material world as bad. Salvation for a Stoic comes through striving for the divine by denying himself the passions of the material world. Don’t love your children too much for one day you’ll die, or worse they will die. Live in the moment. Don’t be chained to the past or have hope for the future, for those things don’t exist. If you are successful you will be content in this life, you’ll never be caught off guard when something bad happens, and when you die, you will live on forever as part of the perfect Cosmos. This kind of thinking is very similar to what Buddhists still believe today.
The next section deals with Christianity. Although Christianity is not a philosophy, the author insists it needs to be studied in a book addressing the history of philosophy since Christianity blew away all the philosophical/salvation ideas that came before it. This section of the book is very good. The author is not a Christian, and he gets the point of Christianity wrong in many ways, but I think his explanation of how Christianity displaced the main way of thinking in the Greek/Roman world is excellent.
Christianity took the Logos and made it personal: Jesus. The Greeks, while seeing the Cosmos as divine and seeing the Logos as the divine principle that holds the Cosmos together, did not believe in a personal God. Then along comes John who starts his gospel off by saying that the Logos was in fact Jesus–a personal, knowable Saviour. The Greek philosophers believed that the Logos was “the sum-total and free exercise of the divine energies; so that God (an impersonal being), so far as he reveals himself, is called Logos; while the Logos, so far as it reveals God, is called God.” (Vincent Word Studies) The apostle John said, “Hey you guys got it right! His name is Jesus.” Christianity brought in a “philosophy” which was based on love–love for a knowable God, and love for each other. Christianity also promised eternal life–in a resurrected body, as an individual. Greek thought only suggested eternal existence as an “un-individual” part of the Cosmos.
We know that Christianity dominated the western world for the next 1500 years, even while it was corrupt. During those years philosophy wasn’t given as much attention to. In the book the author skips ahead to what’s called the “Modern Era” and “Humanism”.
After the Reformation, philosophy resurfaced as a means to salvation without God. Humanism was born. The author explains how humanism is basically an idea where mankind is the author of its own future, meaning in life is found in things we make for ourselves (eg living/dying for your country), and morality is summed up as: “If it feels good, do it–but your freedoms end where my begin.” If you want to understand humanist philosophy just watch a show like Star Trek. There you have a future where humanity has solved all its own problems, we are evolving to a higher state of being, and we live in a society that has no need for money as everyone simply works to better themselves.
But then along came a man by the name of Friedrich Nietzsche and the next section of the book dealing with Post-Modernism. Nietzsche’s message basically said: “If we’ve done away with God, good! But all that you modernists have done is replaced God with a bunch of self-made false gods, idols. You are all still just looking to something higher than yourselves to find happiness, meaning, and salvation in your lives. You’re all just a bunch of nihilists!”
“A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist. According to this view, our existence has no meaning…” (Nietzsche) Nietzsche’s message was to stop looking for something higher than yourself and start looking at what’s right in front of you, all around you, in the earth, right now accessible to you. This is where you’ll find meaning (if there is such a thing). This is called “deconstruction” philosophy, or as Nietzsche called it “philosophizing with a hammer.” Smash your idols and live in the “earthy place”. Love the real as it is. No regrets, no hope. Amor fati: love your fate.
The author then enters the last section of the book which looks at contemporary philosophy and asks the question: “What’s next? Where do you go after Nietzsche?” If all attempts to find meaning and salvation without looking to something higher than ourselves are meaningless, then what can be done? There’s no answer to that question given by any modern philosopher of course. All that’s suggested is let’s love each other and find a higher meaning within ourselves (not in materialism, false gods, or the real God). So, nothing new.
And it’s interesting how modern philosophers are criticizing the belief in evolution. Not evolution itself (life changing into other forms over long periods of time), but the idea that the human race is evolving into something better than what it is now. They are saying: “There is no reason to believe that we’re becoming something better. Just look at our history. In fact there’s no reason to believe that the human race will even exist 300 years from now”. Notice all the mass-destruction movies lately? Natural disasters, asteroids, zombies, whatever–modern philosophy doesn’t have much hope for the human race.
I used to own a four volume “History of the World” written by a British historian in the early 1900’s. In his conclusion in the last book, he wrote how the future was bright for mankind. Religious superstition would soon be gone, war would be gone, poverty would be gone. We were about to enter a new era of worldwide peace and enlightenment (he attributed this all to the expansion of the British empire of course). But what’s fascinating is that on the page before his conclusion, in his description of then modern Europe, he described in detail the events which led to World War One. Of course he didn’t know that, and the book was published the year WWI began. That’s Humanistic prophecy at its best. Perhaps modern philosophers are beginning to see that now.
The author makes this statement near the end of the book:
“I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting (than Stoicism or Buddhism)–except for the fact that I do not believe in it. But if it were to be true I would certainly be a taker.” (pg 263)
That’s a hopeful statement.
As I wrote above, I would suggest western pastors read this book. You don’t have to become a full time philosopher–as a pastor that would be a contradiction anyways as philosophy tries to find salvation without God. And if you think understanding modern philosophical ideas is a waste of time–the Apostle John obviously didn’t.