“I am increasingly aware that philosophy no longer counts as what is ordinarily thought of as ‘general knowledge’. An educated person is supposed to know his or her national history, a few standard literary and artistic references, even a few odds and ends of biology or physics, yet they most likely have no inkling of Epictetus, Spinoza or Kant. I am convinced that everyone should study just a little philosophy, if only for two simple reasons.
First of all, without it we can make no sense of the world in which we live. Philosophy is the best training for living, better even than history and the human sciences. Why? Quite simply because virtually all of our thoughts, convictions and values exist and have meaning–whether or not we are conscious of it–within models of the world that have been developed over the course of intellectual history. We must understand these models in order to grasp their reach, their logic and their consequences.
Many individuals spend a considerable part of their lives anticipating misfortune and preparing for catastrophe–loss of work, accident, illness, death of loved ones, and so on. Others, on the contrary, appear to live in a state of utter indifference, regarding such fears as morbid and having no place in everyday life. Do they realize, both of these character-types, that their attitudes have already been pondered with matchless profundity by the philosophers of ancient Greece?
The choice of an egalitarian rather than an aristocratic ethos, of a romantic aesthetic rather than a classical one, of an attitude of attachment or non-attachment to things and to beings in the face of death; the adoption of authoritarian or liberal political attitudes; the preference for animals and nature over mankind, for the call of the wild over the cities of man–all of these choices and many more were considered long before they became opinions available, as in a marketplace, to the citizen. These divisions, conflicts and issues continue to determine our thoughts and our words, whether we are aware of them or not. To study them in their pure form, to grasp their deepest origins, is to arm oneself with not only the means of becoming more intelligent, but also more indepedent. Why would one deprive oneself of such tools?
Second, beyond coming to an understanding of oneself and others through acquaintance with the key texts of philosophy, we come to realize tha these texts are able, quite simply, to help us live in a better and freer way. As several contemporary thinkers note: one does not philosophise to amuse oneself, nor even to better understand the world and one’s own place in it, but sometimes literally to ‘save one’s skin’. There is in philosophy the wherewithal to conquer the fears which can paralyze us in life, and it is an error to believe that modern psychology, for example, can substitute for this.
Learning to live; learning to fear no longer the various faces of death; or, more simply, learning to conquer the banality of everyday life–boredom, the sense of time slipping by: these were already the primary motivations of the schools of ancient Greece. Their message deserves to be heard, because, contrary to what happens in history and in the human sciences, the philosophers of time past speak to us in the present tense. And this is worth contemplating.
When a scientific theory is revealed to be false, when it is refuted by another manifestly truer theory, it becomes obsolete and is of no further interest except to a handful of scientists and historians. However, the great philosophical questions about how to live life remain relevant to this day. In this sense, we can compare the history of philosophy to that of art, rather than of the sciences…All [the great philosphers] furnish propositions about life, attitudes in the face of existence, that continue to address us across the centuries. Whereas the scientific theories of Ptolemy or Descartes may be regarded as ‘quaint’ and have no further interest other than the historical, we can still draw upon the collective wisdom of the ancients as we can admire a Greek temple or a Chinese scroll–with both feet planted firmly in the twenty-first century.” (Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, xii-xv)