A few months ago I picked up the French Philosopher Luc Ferry’s recent A Brief History of Thought: a philosophical guide to living. Ferry is a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and was for a couple of years the French Minister of National Education. He is an important figure in French intellectual life, and an influential national leader. His intentions are lofty.
He wants to cover the “truly indispensable in the history of thought,” as well as show how “philosophy is the best training for living, better even than history and the human sciences,” all in under 300 pages. This is essentially what a professor does in an introductory course in philosophy or history, or perhaps any of the disciplines. As professors, we want our students to understand the core of the discipline, and why it is important to their lives. I suspect Ferry has drawn on his life-time of teaching and we see the fruits of many years of experience. I pick up these kinds of books not just out of personal interest, but out of professional as well. I want to keep up with what is happening in my disciplines, and in a case like this, I have the opportunity to see how a prominent professor and philosopher has approached the field, explained, and applied it.
It is a unique or at least a current movement in France and elsewhere to understand philosophy as “a way of life,” or at least pre-modern philosophy in this way. A prominent voice in this interpretation is another French philosopher and historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot (who has also written on ancient Christian thinkers). In What is Ancient Philosophy? Hadot approaches more systematically the subject of his earlier essays gathered in Philosophy as a Way of Life.
In the Anglo-American philosophical world we have others who have worked to make philosophy relevant to our daily world. I think of Martha Nussbaum on the emotions, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s writing on St. Augustine and politics, or Charles Taylor on ethics. A few years ago we had former Notre Dame Philosophy professor Tom Morris speak at our Business Forum. He introduced himself as ‘our philosopher for the day,’ and set about helping us understand what it is to be truly successful, using ancient and modern philosophers to do so. I have used his The Stoic Art of Living when I have taught business ethics.
But I fear now that I have done the professorial wandering that students delight it leading us into. I have taken off on a tangent from the real intent of this piece. And I really only wanted to make a simple observation. In a very provocative way Ferry describes philosophy as a way of salvation, but one that is purely human, a preparation for death, a calming and satisfying readiness for death without fear through reason and understanding. He contrasts this with religious way of salvation which is irrational and allows one to pass one’s fears of death onto a fiction, the belief in God.
In the early chapters he outlines ancient philosophers and in particular Stoic though, and quotes them effectively. As he does so however he has to explain away their references to the divine and God in order to make them fit his understanding of philosophy as a purely human, rational affair. He comments that “theory” has its roots in Greek terms that mean literally “I see the divine.” He quotes one of the early Stoic philosopher who says “…the universe must be wise, and nature which holds all things together in its embrace must excel in the perfection of reason; and therefore the universe must be a God.” Ferry then says that the intent of this is simply to point out harmony in nature; this is what they meant by divine.
Surely the quote does not describe God as would the early Christians, but they too noted that God endowed the universe with reason, logos, a reflection of himself. And the Stoics themselves spoke of this divine universe as having intention, and desiring and providentially guiding it for the ultimate good of all. They saw attributes of persons (God) into the divine universe. Some of our standard and best interpreters of Stoic wisdom, Christian and non-Christian, explain the Stoic God or divine in nature in just this way. Yet Ferry explains the words themselves away as a simple harmony in nature.
Now it seems to me that either the quote was perhaps an ill-chosen illustration, or more likely a typically modern misreading of the tradition of philosophy and its origins. It is not readily apparent why we would define the goal of philosophy as learning to live without religious or theological beliefs or commitments and then quote a philosopher who speaks of God as the source of wisdom.
In the modern world, philosophy or even just clear thought or understanding is conventionally understood as purely this-worldly, and of purely human origin, without recognizing human experience of the divine, transcendence, or God. But in the ancient world, among the Stoics whom Ferry quotes, the Platonists and Aristotelians, to name the most prominent schools, philosophy and human understanding more broadly as well was understood and experienced as a divine gift, one given to us to lead us back to God.
Christian thinkers in the ancient and medieval world recognized this, and so could use this divine gift in the development of theology, in preaching, and in understanding the way of life Moses, the Prophets, Jesus and Paul had called them to through the scriptures. Today in our Evangelical and Anabaptist schools we would call this the “integration of faith and learning,” but for the ancient Christian thinker there was no need to integrate. Our desire for learning and for faith came from the same source, and led back to it. God was the source of both reason and faith, his gifts to us.
If Ferry misreads (I realize it is presumptuous to claim this of a professor from the Sorbonne, but let that go for now), we too can misread. Christian thinkers today and in the ancient world can misread in the opposite direction. We can claim that all knowledge must be religious, or the answers to all questions, be they about science, psychology, leadership, or all choices in life must come from the Bible. Sometimes we speak of the Bible as if it were a textbook, THE textbook, and maybe the only textbook. But this too, I think, is a misreading. The Bible itself does not represent itself in this way.
Paul for instance, and some of the other New Testament writers, like unknown writer of Hebrews and John, adopt philosophical terms, images and arguments and develop their theological teaching by adapting and elaborating them. They do not do this in all cases, but they do it often enough to give us a good model for the use of human knowledge, and as they do so they and we must be good thinkers, in search of deep understanding. They seem to understand that knowledge comes to us in many ways, while showing at the same time the authority and supreme wisdom in the revelation that God has given us. We are left with the responsibility to develop and gain knowledge and understanding in our academic disciplines and in many other areas of our experience. In other words, God has left us with a big task. We of course can misread, as can those who take a different path in life.
I am reminded of warnings by theologians and other Christian thinkers that if we do not engage the minds of our young students in the most serious of ways, we will lose them. They will recognize that we do not have answers, and maybe do not know how to seek answers to the questions they raise. People of faith are also people of reason. Part of our work as professors in a Christian university is to engage these questions in all of our disciplines and guide our students through them. At least this is one way to think of our task, one that has helped guide me through my years as a professor.