Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, translated by Paulette Møller, 2/5
The most thought-provoking aspect of this reading experience was simply trying to understand how a book featuring such peculiarly bad writing could be published at all, much less become an “international bestseller.” Half of it consists of dialogue between two-dimensional characters, so stilted and unnatural it has to be read to be believed. The other half reads like increasingly vague course descriptions for philosophy classes taught by someone who considers Wikipedia articles to be the pinnacle of literary accomplishment through the ages. In my experience, fiction writing this bad generally relies on themes like sex, mystery or fantasy to attract readers, so I guess in a twisted way this book’s very existence is a testament to the powerful appeal of philosophical ideas and the ubiquity of existential angst.
Why I read it: recommended to me by a gym friend.
The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, translated by Sir David Ross, 3/5
It took several attempts over a span of many months for me to get through this short book, in which Aristotle addresses topics of timeless interest, such as happiness, virtue, and friendship. The difficulty of this book lies, for me, not so much in the complexity of the ideas but in the general lack of reasoning provided to support them. A few moments of profundity are obscured by mundane observations, personal opinions (unsupported by fact) and attempts to force nebulous concepts into various organizational schemes. At first, I felt frustrated and disappointed that the Nicomachean Ethics, similar to Plato’s Phaedo, did not meet my expectations. However, after reading the Wikipedia article and a helpful lecture on the topic, it became clearer to me that this book’s value is more in the framework it provides for discussion and thought than for any definitive claims it makes. To me, it represents just the beginnings of thought on a complicated topic, made more remarkable by its age and practical, community-centered perspective on morality. Though its broader themes are difficult to grasp, it does reward a casual reading with the always-fascinating insight that human nature has not changed over thousands of years, and occasional gems like this:
But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything (265).
Why I read it: C.S. Lewis referenced it in The Abolition of Man so I recognized the title while book shopping in Wales.
Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1/5
Nietzsche’s opinions are as monstrous as his ego and as depressing as his life. With supreme self-confidence, he makes sweeping statements about human nature, existence, and philosophy, while generally avoiding any in-depth analysis or reasoning that might substantiate his sensational claims. His writing is so bizarre and baseless that I felt compelled to look him up on Wikipedia and try to figure out why on earth he gained so much credibility in the philosophy world. The exercise was unreassuring. It seems that Nietzsche’s primary life experiences were academic, he was socially isolated, addicted to drugs, extremely resentful of his religious upbringing and was actually residing in a mental institute when this book was published. Not exactly the sort of person you’d want to turn to for theories about life, the universe and everything. Usually, I’d try to write more specifically about the contents of this book so that I could remember it, but in this case, I’d be more than happy to forget that this particular collection of ravings even exists.
Why I read it: Recognized the title while browsing in the thrift store.
The rare combination of humility and genius is as beautiful as it is surprising, especially when encountered in one of the greatest physicists of the modern age. These three lectures, given at the University of Washington in 1963, explore a variety of unscientific topics–from politics to religion–and surprisingly, do not provide any answers. What they do give, however, is the opportunity to see non-scientific issues from the point of view of a scientific genius. This point of view is very different from the arrogant, condescending, closed-minded attitude that comes across from many figures in popular science, who seem to feel that their expertise in a narrow field qualifies them to make pronouncements on everything. In fact, the emotion that stands out most in these lectures is doubt. Not a lazy, depressing, hopeless sort of doubt, but a humble, searching doubt that fuels relentless curiosity. Feynman seems unwaveringly respectful of opinions and beliefs that contradict his own, while applying a formidable intellect and rational approach to the less scientific aspects of human existence.
Why I read it: I’ve enjoyed the two other books by Feynman I’ve read (QED and Six Easy Pieces) and jumped at the chance to read a less challenging book by him when I came across it in Henderson Books.
Decrying modern science and philosophy’s complete inadequacy to answer such endemic existential questions as “What does it all mean?” or “What am I supposed to do with my life?”, Schumacher creates a short but convincing argument for a more spiritual approach to life that transcends fact-based logic and the “nothing-but-ness” that characterizes modern thinking.
The backbone of the book is Schumacher’s categorization of “levels of being” into four vertical dimensions and the human experience into four “fields of knowledge” as follows:
Four Levels of Being:
Mineral = m
Plant = m + x
Animal = m + x + y
Man = m + x + y + z
(Where m=physical existence, x=life, y=consciousness and z=self-awareness)
Four Fields of Knowledge:
I–inner; that is, “what do I feel like?”
The world (you)–inner; “what do you feel like?”
I–outer; “what do I look like?”
The world (you)–outer; “what do you look like?”
As I understand, Schumacher basically argues that the mysterious, fundamental differences between levels of being, which science is unable to explain or reproduce, are evidence that life is bigger than logic and man is more than a favorable arrangement of atoms and random chemical reactions. He points out that by allowing science to overstep its bounds by making philosophical, ontological claims, and by limiting philosophy to proof-based, rigorously logical, “dead” arguments, human existence is robbed of richness and mankind renders itself unable to realise its full potential and humanity. According to Schumacher, an enlightened person who believes that “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things” (3) is more equipped to deal with the many and varied divergent problems in life (“divergent” meaning polarizing issues for which logical solutions are difficult or impossible to find).
Despite a powerful opening, I found some parts of the book to be unconvincing and outdated; also, I was hoping to find something a bit more practically helpful than being told that happiness and a rich, fulfilling life can be achieved by cultivating the four fields of knowledge and striving towards levels of being above myself. However, the whole effect was undeniably challenging and uplifting–it is refreshing to read a philosophical treatise written to the end of ennobling man and celebrating the mysterious, temporary and fragile existence we each call life.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Schumacher’s philosophy much more than his economics in Small is Beautiful, so this book sounded appealing.]
Schumacher eloquently weaves together the topics of economics, environmentalism, philosophy and spirituality in a very thought-provoking way. He makes the case for a smaller-scale, more personal, moral, holistic and sustainable approach to the business of business, in contrast to the soul-crushing materialism of a modern society that worships wealth, serves mega-corporations and demands growth at any cost. He envisions a world where men are not unhappy cogs in giant money-making machines, but are engaged in work that is fulfilling, promotes their physical and spiritual well-being, and benefits their communities.
I fear that, in stripping Schumacher’s ideas of context and rationale, my summary makes them sound a bit like trite hippie-talk. They are not so. Schumacher makes an intelligent, efficient case for most of his beliefs and almost every page is quotable. It is because of the vast quantity of insightful ideas and observations that I have refrained from quoting any at all and have instead bought a copy of the book for future reference.
My favourite parts of the book are the more philosophical sections in which Schumacher looks at what it means to be human. (I especially enjoyed Part II, Chapter 1, which focuses on metaphysics.) His visions of a human existence that transcends the rat race is inspiring and encouraging. In general, the author places significant value on both Judeo-Christian and Buddhist morals and makes the kind of powerful case for spirituality that seems to come naturally to intelligent former-atheists like himself. This is refreshing, since society nowadays seems largely unwilling to acknowledge the numerous positive effects of religion, focusing instead on, say, the Crusades or sex scandals involving pastors.
My least favourite parts of the book involved Schumacher’s proposals for actually putting his ideas into action. It is one thing to attempt to influence someone’s personal beliefs and quite another thing to merely inflict your own on them. I believe that the kind of morality and radical changes that the author wishes to see enacted on a massive, economic scale can only come from personal conviction at a grassroots level. Anything else infringes on that necessary human freedom to make your own decisions, even if they are bad ones (addressed by Dostoyevsky in Notes from the Underground). Also, at times, the author seems to wish for a happy, hobbit-like society, where everyone is a subsistence farmer except for Fred, who makes shoes, and Sally, who weaves cloth. He doesn’t seem to leave much room for human nature or for people who think differently than him, such as innovators, scientists, entrepreneurs and visionaries.
[Why I read it: I think I saw the title in an article about The Times Literary Supplement‘s list of 100 most influential books published since WWII.]
This dialogue presents Plato’s account of the philosophical discussions that occurred amongst Socrates and his friends on the night of the former’s death. Never having read the classical philosophers but awed by a vague awareness of their reputation, I expected the main topic of discussion—the controversial idea of the immortal soul—to be proved by the rigorous application of flawless logic, secular rationality and esoteric thinking.
This assumption caused me some problems as I read through the first 3/4 of the book and found many of the arguments it contains to be…well…unsatisfactory. Questionable assumptions were frequently made and used as the basis for further arguments. Often, issues of linguistics and philosophy seemed muddled up together, with shifting definitions leading to unconvincing conclusions. Some lines of reasoning seemed frankly circular and many explanations seemed to create more questions than they answered.
At first, I was very frustrated with myself, thinking my stupidity surpassed lack of understanding to reach actual disagreement! But as I read on, it became more and more apparent that Plato and Socrates must be famous for something other than infallible reasoning about philosophical issues. In his complex “myth of the afterlife” near the end of the dialogue, Socrates finally gives up all pretense of logic, weaving a strange and wonderful tale of rivers and regions of the earth where souls travel after bodily death.
When I finally reached the following quote, I realized that what I had expected to be a grand testament to human intellectualism was in fact something much more touching and powerful: a dying man’s hopeful affirmation of faith that death is not the end.
Now to insist that those things are just as I’ve related them would not be fitting for a man of intelligence; but that either that or something like it is true about our souls and their dwellings, given that the soul evidently is immortal, that, I think, is fitting and worth risking, for one who believes that it is so—for a noble risk it is—so one should repeat such things to oneself like a spell; which is just why I’ve so prolonged the tale (114d).
[Why I read it: my knowledge of Greek literature is lacking, so when I saw this short book encompassing two famous philosophers at the thrift store, I thought it might be a good place to start.]