The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
The single broadest, most intricate, most bitterly disputed area of human thought and conversation. We can knock that out in a few paragraphs, surely.
Philosophy is a slightly strange entry in a list of great ideas. In some sense, shouldn’t it be the list? Then again, recursion isn’t unknown in the Great Conversation—talking about communication or thought itself carries that same sensation of a mirror being suddenly brought face-to-face with another mirror, that dizzying illusion of infinite recesses. But besides that, philosophy can be more properly described as a specific way of analyzing things, or as thinking about certain aspects of things rather than others.* Specifically, it deals with the fundamental elements of reality: things like causality, taxonomy, logic, consciousness, choice, goodness, and beauty.
Like the sciences, philosophy can be divided into sub-fields according to subject matter: metaphysics is concerned with how reality works (as physics is concerned with how matter and energy work), epistemology is concerned with how knowledge works, ethics is concerned with how right and wrong work, and so on. But it is also conventional, as in the arts, to classify philosophies according to larger systems or “styles” that they cluster with. A sufficiently specialized botanist, say, might never venture outside of his sub-branch of biology (and might produce nothing but drivel if he did), but—for better or worse—philosophers don’t typically confine themselves to just one branch of philosophy.
The ancient world saw the beginning of Western philosophy in the Greek colonies of Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor; Socrates, whose career took place a couple of centuries later, rapidly became its central figure after his execution, with multiple schools of thought claiming him as their intellectual ancestor. Most of us are familiar with his pupil Plato, whose somewhat mystical doctrine of the Forms may have been a development of Pythagorean philosophy; less-known today are two other schools that also claimed Socrates, the Cynics** and the Skeptics. The Cynics’ goal was a virtuous life free of ego, delusion, attachment to possessions, and enslavement to convention, which led them to practice poverty, asceticism (though not celibacy), and the deliberate flouting of customs. The Skeptics, who took leadership of Plato’s Academy not long after his death, followed Socrates’ technique of questioning to the conclusion that little or nothing could be known. Some Skeptics therefore sought to avoid forming partisan opinions at all, while those of the Academy devoted themselves largely to the critique of other schools. There were also the Epicureans, a much-misunderstood group: though they did prize pleasure, like the modern hedonists who sometimes bear their name, their idea of what pleasure consisted in was not licentious wallowing. Their real philosophy was, superficially, a little like Buddhism: they viewed moderation, simplicity, and equanimity as the principal means of achieving happiness.
But the pre-eminent school of ancient philosophy was the Stoa (i.e., “the Colonnade” or “the Portico”), founded by Zeno of Citium in the late fourth or early third century BC. The Stoics were like the Cynics in their focus on virtue and self-mastery—they considered virtue both necessary and sufficient to achieve a happy life—but without their hostility to convention or property; Stoicism became successful partly thanks to its harmony with traditional Roman values. (Though a few centuries older and arising in a different context, Confucianism is in many respects akin to Stoic thought.) The Stoics also influenced many Christians of the Patristic period; and here we must turn to another collection of philosophical schools, those that have thriven in Christendom.
The first was Neoplatonism. Pure Platonism, i.e. the system (insofar as it is one system) set forth in the dialogues, has never been a very prominent school of thought—as mentioned above, the Academy itself turned to Skepticism in only a generation or two. Neoplatonism was founded by Plotinus, a third-century scholar from Egypt. His main ideas were Platonist, but he was an eclectic: the term comes from the Greek ἐκλέγω (eklegō), “to choose, pick,” and means a person who freely incorporates ideas from other systems—a good bit of Neoplatonism comes from Stoic or Aristotelian sources. This quality also made it easy to incorporate his philosophical system as the foundation of the Christian theological edifice, and in St. Augustine this is precisely what happened. From the late centuries of the Roman Empire right down to the High Middle Ages, Christianity was almost taken for granted to be Neoplatonic; rival systems (of which more in a moment) came into existence thereafter, but Neoplatonist Christian thought has never been altogether quenched since. Starting in the eighth century, Islam also saw significant influence from Neoplatonic thought, as well as directly from Aristotle and Plato. Some of the most interesting versions of Neoplatonism have come from writers like the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop who denied the existence of matter, George Berkeley†; or the brilliant novelist and playwright Dorothy Sayers, who explained the doctrines of the Trinity and of creation in terms of the artistic creative process.
The second major school of Christian-era philosophy was also a revival and reorganization of a classical philosopher, but, unlike Neoplatonism, it is named not as a new phase of the old school but after its most celebrated mind: a quiet, methodical, remarkably fat friar of the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomism had its forerunners, notably in Maimonides; but St. Thomas’s masterful adaptation of Aristotelian philosophy to Catholic theology was one of the most successful ideological integrations in history, and Thomism remains the single most prominent school of Catholic thought to this day (and one not inhabited solely by Catholics—Anglicans, Lutherans, and even Calvinists have been known to dabble in Thomism).
The Enlightenment, which began in the seventeenth century, introduced a shift in focus for philosophy. Hitherto, from classical antiquity all the way down to the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, questions of metaphysics had been treated as central. The focus now shifted from metaphysics to epistemology—from the light to the eye, so to speak. The change was heralded by René Descartes. Although a devout Catholic in religion, he did not follow the Neoplatonic or Thomist schools of philosophy, choosing instead to begin with radical doubt: he hoped that, by questioning everything he possibly could, he would thereby determine what, if anything was truly beyond question. This produced the famous maxim Cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I exist”), as he found himself incapable of doubting his own existence; from here, he built out a case for the rest of the familiar world, though readers vary as to how persuasive they consider that case. Skepticism proper, which tears down the world (mentally speaking) and does not rebuild it, also revived at this time, its most thoroughgoing partisan being the Scottish philosopher David Hume. But, thanks to the embarras des richesses in our chosen subject matter, we must pause here and resume in …
Aristotle, The Organon
Cicero, The Nature of the Gods
St. Augustine, Confessions
St. Anselm, Proslogion
G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox
Dom David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought
W. W. Tarn, Hellenistic Civilization
*This was not always true. In the ancient world, philosophy (φιλοσοφία, “love of wisdom”) normally meant devotion to knowledge in general, and kept this meaning right down to the eighteenth century. The advent of modern science (science being another hitherto general word—the field used to be called “natural philosophy”!) seems to have been the main catalyst for the “specialist” understanding of philosophy. Still, insofar as it points to something specific—and English does have the word knowledge in any case—the development is a useful one.
**The modern meaning of cynicism (a disposition to doubt or discredit the innocence, goodness, or selflessness of others) did not develop until the nineteenth century.
†Well, sort of. What Berkeley (note: pronounced bark-lee) in fact taught was not that material objects were unreal or illusory, but that all real things, including matter, depend directly upon minds for their existence. In the words of the old riddle: if there really were no one around, not only would a tree falling in the forest make no sound, there would be no forest and no tree. The fact that God’s mind is there to perceive everything does change the practical consequences of Berkeleyanism somewhat.
Gabriel Blanchard may or may not exist independently of your perceptions; according to the words you are now perceiving on your computer screen, he has a baccalaureate in Classics from the University of Maryland and works as CLT’s editor at large.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out the rest of our ongoing series on the Great Conversation: we have essays on art, the four loves, magic, prudence, and much more.
Published on 30th March, 2023.