I recently finished a philosophy course and my goal for the next few journal entries is to carefully dissect the concepts of philosophy and integrate them into the Christian faith. There is a strong possibility that I may repeat certain ideas in different entries, but that is only to emphasize the points that I am making. This first entry gives a general overview of what philosophy is about and includes excerpts from the book, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins.

In his Meditations, Rene Descartes declared, “It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had believed to be true since my earliest youth. And since that time, I have been convinced that I must once and for all seriously try to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and begin to build anew, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure for my beliefs.” Socrates once said that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates based his philosophy on the need to “know yourself” and on living the “examined life,” even though the height of wisdom, according to Socrates, was to know how thoroughly ignorant we are. He was condemned to death, refused all opportunities to escape or have his sentence repealed, and accepted the cruel and unfair verdict with complete dignity and several brilliant speeches, dying as well as living for the ideas he defended.

We read in Psalm 111:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise. Wisdom is a practical and down to earth lifelong quest. It teaches us how to live by combining understanding with discipline with a healthy dose of good common sense that has never been common. How do you become a wise person? You must first begin to listen. Wisdom is freely available to those who will stop talking and start paying attention to God and His Word, to parents, to wise counselors. Anybody can become wise according to the book of Proverbs. Wisdom is not reserved for the intellectual elite, however, becoming wise requires self-discipline to study and humbly seek wisdom at every opportunity.

Wilhelm Frierich Hegel and his students felt confident, even cheerful. Why? Because they had a philosophy. They had a vision of themselves and the future that allowed them to face the loss of their jobs, even the destruction of their society and the considerable chaos that would follow. Their ideas inspired them and made even the most threatening circumstances meaningful. The word “dull” seemed to summarize the world; others spoke of “crisis” and “despair.” One said that life was “absurd” and another that it was “meaningless.” When asked why, they answered that gasoline was expensive, that most of them weren’t getting the job interviews they really wanted, and that television programs were bad. If so many of us can get so melodramatic about computers, television, and the Internet, how would we react to a real change in our lives? In the book of Job 28, in the midst of one of his most beautiful speeches, Job included a self-contained poem on wisdom. It uses the analogy of mining precious metals to make the point that wisdom cannot be found by any amount of search. God alone knows where it dwells. In the rest of the poem, Job admitted some things were beyond his understanding, and then lapsed into a reminiscence of what life was like before his time of trials.

Ideas give life meaning. Our minds need ideas the way our bodies need food. We are starved for visions, hungry for understanding. We are caught up in the routines of life; distracted occasionally by those activities we call “recreation” and “entertainment.” What we as a nation have lost is the joy of thinking, the challenge of understanding, and the inspirations as well as the consolations of philosophy. We recite ideas that are two hundred, in some cases two thousand, years old without any attempt to understand them, without any awareness that many men and women have lived and died for them, or to work them into our vision of the world. But these ideas are philosophy. Philosophy is simply thinking hard about life, about what we have learned, about our place in the world. Philosophy is, literally, the love of wisdom. But thousands of students, not trained in hard thinking but starved for ideas and understanding, will retreat to the easier alternatives—pop philosophies of self-help, exotic religious practices, extreme politics…if the hard thinking of philosophy does not address the big questions, then perhaps these easier alternatives will. The difference between philosophy and the popular alternatives is ultimately one of quality—the quality of ideas, the thoroughness of understanding. Because we all live by our ideas anyway, the choice becomes not whether to do philosophy or not do philosophy, but whether to accept a cheap and unchallenging substitute or to try the real thing.

The desire to lead a philosophical life springs from the darkness in which the individual finds himself, from his sense of forlornness when he stares without love into the void, from his self-forgetfulness when he feels that he is being consumed by the busy-ness of the world, when he suddenly wakes up in terror and asks himself: What am I, what am I failing to do, what should I do? That self-forgetfulness has been aggravated by the machine age. With its time clocks, its jobs, whether absorbing or purely mechanical, which less and less fulfill man as man, it may even lead man to feel that he is part of the machine, interchangeably shunted in here and there, and when left free, to feel that he is nothing and can do nothing with himself. And just as he begins to recover himself, the colossus of this world draws him back again into the all-consuming machinery of empty labor and empty leisure. But man as such inclines to self-forgetfulness. He must snatch himself out of it if he is not to lose himself to the world, to habits, to thoughtless banalities, to the beaten track.

Philosophy is reflection. It is stepping back, listening to yourself and other people (including the great philosophers), and trying to understand and evaluate what it is that you hear, and what it is that you believe. Articulation—spelling out our ideas in words and sentences—is the primary process of philosophy. Arguments serve the purpose of testing our views; they are to philosophy what practice games are to sports—ways of seeing just how well you are prepared, how skilled you are, and, in philosophy, just how convincing your views really are. It is by doing philosophy, articulating and arguing your views, instead of just reading about other people’s philosophy books, that you make your own views genuinely your own, that is, by working with them, stating them publicly, defending them, and committing yourself to them. That is how the philosophies of the past become important to us and how our own half-baked, inarticulate, often borrowed, and typically undigested ideas start to become something more. Philosophy, through reflection and by means of articulation and argument, allows us to analyze and critically examine our ideas, and to synthesize our vision of ourselves and the world, to put the pieces together in a single, unified, defensible vision. Such a synthesis is the ultimate aim of philosophical reflection, and scattered ideas and arguments are no more philosophy than a handful of unconnected words are a poem.

Philosophy is the attempt to state clearly, and as convincingly and interestingly as possible, your own views. That is doing philosophy, not just reading about how someone else has done it. To do philosophy, to state what you believe, using the great philosophers and the great ideas of the past as inspiration, as a guide to ways of putting together your own views, and to provoke the present alternatives that you may not have thought of on your own. To force you to think through your ideas, connect them, confront alternative views, and understand what you prefer and why you prefer it. This kind of integrative critical thinking—putting it all together—is essential to what you will be doing all through your life; keeping your priorities straight, knowing who you are and what you believe. Our ideas are inevitably more complex than we originally think they are. It is the effort to appreciate the differences between one’s own views and other’s views, to be able to argue with someone who disagrees and resolve the difficulties that they may throw in your path. Indeed, a belief that can’t be tied in with a great many other beliefs and that can’t withstand criticism may not be worth believing at all. Socrates used to say that his truest friends were also his best critics. Indeed, we would distrust a friend who was never critical and never argued. Criticism does not necessarily mean negative remarks about someone or something; it means carefully examining a statement, testing it out, seeing if in fact the arguments for it are good ones. It is important to find out what is wrong with them so that they can be corrected or strengthened. “No one knows anything for certain,” a familiar response might be to hold up your hand, stick out your thumb, and say, “here is a thumb: I know that for certain.”

In the book, War and Peace, a Freemason pointed out to Pierre the following: “The highest wisdom and truth is like the purest dew, which we try to hold within us. Can I hold in an impure vessel that pure dew and judge of its purity? Only by the inner purification of myself can I bring that dew contained within me to some degree of purity. The highest wisdom is founded not on reason only, not on those worldly sciences, of physics, history, chemistry, etc., into which knowledge of the intellect is divided. The highest wisdom is one. The highest wisdom knows but one science—the science of the whole, the science that explains the whole creation and the place of man in it. To instill this science into one’s soul, it is needful to purify and renew one’s inner man, and so, before one can know, one must believe and be made perfect. And for the attainment of these aims there has been put into our souls the light of God, called the conscience. Look with the spiritual eye into thy inner man, and ask of thyself whether thou art content with thyself. What hast thou attained with the guidance of the intellect alone? What art thou? You are young, you are wealthy, you are cultured, sir. What have you made of all the blessings vouchsafed you? Are you satisfied with yourself and your life? Thou hatest it; then change it, purify thyself, and as thou art purified, thou wilt come to know wisdom. Look at your life, sir. How have you been spending it? In riotous orgies and debauchery, taking everything from society and giving nothing in return. You have received wealth. How have you used it? What have you done for your neighbor?”