Luc Ferry’s a Brief History of Thought recently caught my eye as I wandered through a local bookstore. Not only did it promise an entire history of the human ability to think, it promised to do it briefly. How is that not a win/win? It’s a bold endeavor, claiming to give perspective on the effectiveness and impact of 5 key philosophical eras in human history, beginning with the Greeks. The strength of the book is Mr. Ferry’s ability to summarize complicated worldviews in a way that is accessible and interesting. The weakness is perhaps inseparable, as a philosophical overview for a mass audience is a tough venue to accurately capture philosophies that have transformed the world.
I will do my best to summarize both his claims and my reasons why I think that, while insightful, Mr. Ferry’s conclusions fall short of being convincing, particularly when it comes to his view of Christianity.
Lest there be any confusion about what weight philosophy carries in certain circles, Mr. Ferry opens his book with boldness:
“The quest for salvation without God is at the heart of every great philosophical system…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 an our innate faculty of reason.”
In spite of both aspiring to the same end – salvation – Mr. Ferry firmly believes that faith and reason are incompatible means in their efforts to achieve this goal.
Philosophy starts with the natural sciences – physics, mathematics, biology – then searches for causes and limits. Once philosophers reach the limits of science, they presses on with logic and reason. The conclusions must be anchored in reality, not dependent on wishful thinking about what one hopes to be true or the untestable truths that the Other (God) offers. Religion, says Mr. Ferry, is “too good to be true,” and offers comfort but not lucidity, serenity but not clarity.
From this starting point, Mr. Ferry begins a tour of five pivotal movements in the history of philosophy.
To the Stoics, the essence of the cosmos (kosmos) was harmony, rationality, truth and beauty, or the logos of existence. The logos was both imminent (it existed in the fabric of existence) and transcendent (it existed apart from humanity). They sought to find the universal logos behind the kosmos, so that their individual lives could be as ordered as the universe. The Logos would direct their path.
After death, people became an oblivious fragment absorbed into the impersonal order of the kosmos, no longer self-aware but nonetheless existing as part of the order.
One need not fear death, as it could be overcome through a form of immortality found through having children and doing great deeds, which carried their legacy on forever.
Christianity moved in and absorbed the language of the Stoics. Christians agreed the universe was rational and harmonic, and to some degree did embrace philosophy in a way that was “subordinate and modest, certainly, but nonetheless real.” Christian and Stoic philosophy had in common the desire for immortality, though their explanations were very different.
The Logos was no longer an impersonal, pantheistic force; the Logos solidified in a man – Jesus Christ. He melded the immanent and the transcendent dichotomy of the Stoics. He also promised an afterlife in which there was not only existence, but one in which personal identity and awareness remained.
“It is no less than the transition from an anonymous and blind doctrine of salvation to one that promises not only that we shall be saved by one person, Christ, but that we shall be saved as individuals in our own right: for what we are, and as we are.”
Christianity elevated the individual far more than the Stoics did, because now the actual person, not just their deeds, truly lived on for eternity. From this radical shift sprang a philosophy of human rights that still impacts the world.
Mr. Ferry allows for a weakened form of reason to coexist with faith, since the presence of a Christian command to “love God with all our mind” is certainly reflected in the Bible and Christian history. The Apostle Paul insisted there is a place for both faith and reason in his Epistles. He also notes the contribution of Thomas Aquinas, Justin Martyr and many others to the Christian philosophical endeavor.
He notes that, in the end, “the truths revealed by faith take precedence of those deduced by reason.” Believers are required to “let go of our own thinking faculty, to forsake reason for trust, so as to make place for faith.” Christian philosophers, of course, would claim that faith carries us onward when we reach the limits of what reason can do. This is hardly a subjugation of reason, but an honoring of its proper place.
Mr. Ferry struggles to make his starting presuppositions about faith hold up. He notes that religion should have a stranglehold over thinking, which then ought to be revealed in Christian ethics, but (oddly enough) that has not happened. Turns out the world owes its democratic inheritance, as well as the human rights that stem from the Christian claim that all people are of equal worth, to Christianity. The Christian concept of liberty rather than the cold, calculation fatalism of the Stoics became the foundation of morality. The French Revolution borrowed and then poorly executed Christianity’s egalitarian ideal (pun intended). Furthermore, Christians moved the ethical discussion beyond merely actions by claiming that thought and intent matter in addition to outward obedience. Those are some significant accomplishments for a movement full of unthinking, irrational people. Perhaps the Other is more capable than Mr. Ferry believes.
In the end, though he finds Christianity’s promise of salvation and the afterlife compelling, he rejects Christianity for two main reasons. First, he doesn’t believe the evidence supports its truth claims. Second, he believes the “wish fulfillment” of hope in the afterlife proves it can’t be true (more on this later).
Mr. Ferry does have a stellar close to the section:
“The personalizing of the Logos changes all factors in the equation. If the promises made to me by Christ are genuine; and if divine providence takes me in hand as an individual, however humble, then my immortality is finally overcome, and not merely the fears it arouses in me. Immortality is no longer the anonymous and cosmic event proposed by Stoicism, but the individual and conscious resurrection of soul together wit their ‘glorious’ bodies. In this sense, it is ‘love in God’ which confers its ultimate meaning upon this revolution effected by Christianity in relation to Greek thought. It is this new definition of love, found at the heart of the new doctrine of salvation, which finally turns out to be ‘stronger than death.’”
Modern physics apparently crushed the foundations upon which both Stoicism and Christianity rested. It revealed “an infinite chaos devoid of sense; a field of forces and objects jostling for place without harmony.” Now, mankind has found itself alone in a kosmos with no logos of any kind. Reality is now chaos; order cannot be found through study (the Stoics) or contemplation and revelation from God (Christians). “Order, harmony, beauty and goodness are no longer the first principles…it was going to require man himself…to introduce some order into a universe which seemed no longer to offer any of its own.”
Without order and harmony, everything was up for grabs. For the first time, people began to wonder what was separated humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom. And yet the Moderns still wanted to believe people had rights, though it was hard to figure out what those rights were, and why it should matter in a universe in which chaos reigned and animals had become brothers.
Roussseau decided to ground morality not on the kosmos or in religion, but in mankind. What distinguishes us from the animals is that we have liberty; we can “forge a personal history” unlike my dog, which can barely forge his way through snow. Rousseau says we are so free we can choose to do radically good or evil things. But what is evil in universe of chaos, populated by animals and animals with personal history? The solution takes us back to first claim: since we are the ones to impose an arbitrary order to the universe, we “invent ‘ideals’ to choose between good and evil.” Among other criticisms of this position, Mr. Ferry notes that humanism offers no convincing explanation as to what evil is, and why it exists.
Mr. Ferry summarizes the humanist ideal this way:
“In modern life as in the ancient world, it was necessary to devise something – beyond morality – to take the place of a doctrine of salvation. The difficulty is that, in the absence of a cosmos or a God, it becomes especially difficult to think this through. How do we confront the fragility and finiteness of human existence, the mortality of all things in this world in the absence of any principle external to and higher than humanity? This is the problem which the modern doctrines of salvation have tried to solve – for better or worse – and, it has to be admitted, usually for the worse.”
POSTMODERNISM AND NEITZSCHE
Nietzsche dismissed both science and religion. He claimed that only by deconstructing all claims of truth can we learn anything about the world. Since neither science nor religion was willing to relinquish those claims, he viewed them both as equally wrong.
As Mr. Ferry summarizes, “Religion and science…share in common a claim to accede to ideal truths, to intellectual realities, and to notions which do not partake of the corporeal world…we are ceaselessly deluded by them.” Nietzsche loved the arts, because the arts don’t necessarily worry about ideal truths; they impose values and perspectives while bypassing argumentation.
Nietzsche hated the notion of the ideal, and ended up finding the greatest pleasure in the complete negation of the things in which people typically find meaning. At one point, when an earthquake hit the island of Java, he wrote to a friend: “Two hundred thousand wiped out at a stroke – how magnificent!”
Nietzsche’s famous “will to power” seems to be an attempt to exert the ultimate control in a deconstructed universe: the control of the self, not just physically but emotionally and morally. In his ideal world, we never experience fear, regret, remorse, guilt, or strife. Nothing, not even our conscience or internal moral compass, should control us. We live totally in the present, with no desire for things to be different than they are.
Nothing has a say except the self: not the Logos of the universal order; not the incarnated Logos of Christ; not science or reason or any morality. Only the self controls the self, free of any obligation to anything.
Heideggar noted that Nietzsche destroyed the notion that there is meaning in our existence, order in our universe, and purposes to be found for everything. Perhaps the best historical event that can capture the implications of this view occurred when Hitler met Mussolini and gave him a bound edition of all Nietzsche’s works.
Mr. Ferry writes insightfully about the impact of humanism and postmodernism. In a modern/postmodern world, there is nothing mystical or transcendent about nature or people. There is no longer an overarching, universal meaning or purpose for our existence. As helpful as science is, it is only qualified to tell us what is, not what ought to be With no teleos, we are left with finding out what we can do, with no final guideline for what we ought to do. The “proliferation of means, of power and mastery of mankind over nature have become their own finality.” This is not a good thing.
Perhaps humanism/postmodernism has reach these unfortunate conclusions because they are wrong. Materialism, says Mr. Ferry, is so counterintuitive to our experience as to confirm it is not a sufficient explanation for reality. For example, we intuitively know we have freedom of choice. Materialists prove this by constantly passing moral judgments of others, which clashes with the simultaneous claim that there is no order, freedom, or purpose – or even free will.
Close to end, after writing eloquently about the Christian understanding of suffering, grief and Resurrection, Mr. Ferry notes:
“I find the Christian proposition infinitely more tempting [than Buddhism and Stoicism] – except for the fact that I do not believe in it. But were it to be true I would certainly be a taker.”
He also rejects humanism and postmodernism. Instead, he settles for secularized Christianity, which he offers as a humanist idealism: an transcendence of values and meaning that become immanent by residing with us. We are the logos and the cosmos . While he wants truth, beauty, love, and justice,
“There is no longer a heaven of metaphysical ideals, no God – or at least I am not obliged to think so in order to accept the idea that I am in the presence of values that are at once beyond me, yet nowhere to be found except within me.”
Unfortunately, the last section reads like a series of conclusions Mr. Ferry wants to be true rather than a logical, syllogistic argument than builds a case from facts, reason and logic (the tools which Mr. Ferry seeks to use). For example, Mr. Ferry dismisses Christianity because he believes the desire for heaven is “wish fulfillment,” and thus cannot be true. This is bad reasoning all by itself. More to the point, if Mr Ferry wishes to be consistent, he ought to acknowledge that his wish for a humanistic idealism containing a transcendence within immanence is also the greatest argument against its existence.
While he writes winsomely about the need for teleos, kosmos, and logos, his grounding in the vague notion of an immanent, transcendent self did not resonate with me logically or existentially. In other words, I didn’t see how his conclusion followed from his observations in the rest of the book, and I could not find a way to see how his explanation offered a better path to kosmos than the Moderns and Postmoderns. He showed how ideas had real world consequences for all the other systems of thought; I had trouble seeing how his proposal would look in ordinary life, and how it could provide a more obligatory or compelling call to the good life.
Mr. Ferry notes distinguishing characteristics of Christianity that sets it apart from the other systems. He desires teleos and kosmos, so humanism and postmodernism are out. He desires an immanence and transcendence, so Stoicism and Christianity are in. He wants them to be personal, so Stoicism is out – leaving Christianity. He wants a system that leads to good in the world, and through his own writing shows how the Christian ideal transformed the world, while the other three had a real world impact that was not so good.
Upon reflection, it seems that Christianity offers almost everything for which Mr. Ferry is looking. There was a time when immanence merged with transcendence, when logos and kosmos merged, and gave teleos and hope for both this life and the next. In addition, we can test whether or not this is true by studying history, science, philosophy, and reason.
What it does not offer is a salvation grounded in the self. Mr. Ferry’s a priori commitment to Philosophy as Savior (without God, using our own resources and reason) commits the fallacy of “poisoning the well” against Christianity. Frankly, it should poison it’s own well too. Modernism and Postmodernism have not delivered what they promised in terms of an ability to “save” the self and society. Christianity, on the other hand, by Mr. Ferry’s own admission, has offered not only a compelling salvation of the self through the incarnation of immanent transcendence, but has transformed society in ways the other systems have not and can not.
Perhaps the greatest thruths and most compelling hopes can be true, not just because we want them to be, but because they are.