The study of philosophy has as its purpose to know…the truth about the ways things are.” Thomas Aquinas
This is the sixth and most recent volume in the “50 Classics” series edited by Tom Butler-Bowdon and published by Nicholas Brealey. It is also the most ambitious in that the authors and works discussed are, in my opinion, among the most challenging as well as the most rewarding in print. In terms of their timeline, the “classics” range from Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in 4th century BC to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick in 2011.
The 50 are organized in alpha order of their authors’ names but can also be viewed as “classics” in one or more of four separate but related fields: Thinking (analysis, cognition, the limits of what can be known, the sense of self); Being (opportunities and choices for happiness and a life of meaning and purpose, free will, and autonomy); Acting (power and its uses, liberty and justice, fairness, ethics, morality), and Seeing (Plato’s cave and perception/reality, linguistic challeges, quality of life in a media world). Butler-Bowdon devotes a separate chapter to each of the 50 and employs a common format: representative quotation(s), “In a nutshell” representative insight, “In a similar vein” authors and works, and a four-page introduction to the author and work.
As I began to work my way through the sequence of commentaries, I was again reminded of an incident years ago at Princeton University when one of Albert Einstein’s faculty colleagues pointed out to him that he asked the same questions every year on his final examination. “Quite true. Each year the answers are different.” Consider the enduring questions to which thoughtful persons have responded throughout several millennia. “Who am I?” for example, and “What is wisdom?” There may be a general agreement about nomenclature but seldom a consensus on definitions. There is even widespread disagreement about subjectivity.
Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now offer a few of the dozens of Butler-Bowdon’s erudite observations that caught my eye:
On Aristotle: His “pleasing conclusion is that happiness is not predetermined by fate or the gods, but can be acquired habitually by consciously expressing a virtuous life through work, application, or study. ‘[We] become builders,’ he says, ‘ by building and we become harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, then, we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.’ In other words, we become a successful person through habit.” (Page 25)
On Jeremy Bentham: “On a purely personal level, asking ‘What would benefit the most people, in the best way, as far as possible into the future?’ is surely a good way to approach life and its decisions. Bentham assumed that most people were self-interested, but all religions, and many kinds of moral philosophy, attest to the benefits of cultivating the direct opposite state: thinking of the good of others first is actually the one thing we can count on to deliver our own happiness.” (54)
On Cicero: “Cicero is an enigma. On one hand, he is the great defender of the Roman Republic and its ideal of the rule of law; on the other, he sentenced several conspirators to death without trial. Though at the time Rom e was operating under martial law, the conspirators were still citizens, and many thought the act unforgivable. One cannot doubt his influence, though. He was instrumental in bringing Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato, to the educated Roman classes. His outlook was adapted by Christian philosophers, notably Augustine, whose life was said to have c hanged after reading Cicero’s Hortensius (a work now lost), and his ethics and concept of natural law were foundational to medieval Christian philosophy.” (78-79
On Confucius: He emphasized patience in building a community or state. Instead of rule by personal whim, one should wish for things to happen at their natural pace. Such a long-term view enables the interests of all to be taken into account, including future generations, and acknowledges the progress that has been made in particular areas by ancestors and past administrations. In a time of war and upheaval, this vision of long-term peace, prosperity, and justice in the state was highly appealing to governors.” (84)
On René Descartes: “Contemporary philosophers like to gloss over or deprecate Descartes’ metaphysical side, seeing it as the blemish on an otherwise brilliant conception of the world. Textbooks tend to `forgive’ his desire to provide proofs of God, pointing out that this most rational of men could not escape the religious nature of his times. Surely, if he were alive today, he would not even dip his feet into such metaphysical murkiness? Let’s not forget that Descartes’ `tree of knowledge’ has metaphysics as its very trunk, from which everything else spreads out.” (90)
On Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What is the relationship between Emerson`s earlier essay, Self-Reliance, and Fate? It would be tempting to say that the later work reflects a wiser Emerson who was more attuned to the power of nature and circumstance in people’s lives. It is almost as if he is challenging him self to believe his earlier, more forthright essay on the power of the individual…But having noted [an] apparent determinism, and just when one thinks that Emerson has finally sided with fate, he says that this beautiful necessity (nature, God, law, intelligence) `solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipoe3tnce.'” (96)
On Daniel Kahneman: “Thinking, Fast and Slow’s focus on a great array of biases and failures in human thought does not mean that the book has a negative tone. Rather, it offers hope, because many of these thinking black spits were once hidden or unconscious – and so we were at their mercy. Now, we can factor them into any rational decision we need to make or theory we wish to develop. Philosophy is as vulnerable to these cognitive mistakes as any field, and to think it is above them is hubris.” (155)
On Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was shocking in its suggestion that science does not take humanity on a neat, linear path toward some objective truth about the reality of the world via the accumulation of empirical observations (what can be called the Enlightenment view), but is in fact a human creation. If science is an attempt to make our theories fit nature, then it is human nature with which we have to contend first.” (176)
On Jean-Jacque Rousseau: “Whereas Hobbes thought that people had to make a choice between being ruled and being free, Rousseau said that it was possible to have both; you could remain free if your `ruler’ was yourselves (in the form of an assembly of citizens set up to make laws). Critics have said that while this might have worked in the Swiss cantons with which Rousseau was familiar in his youth, such optimism was less suited to the real world. Nevertheless, his overall vision remains powerful.” (252)
The other 40 philosophers include Heraclitus, William James, John Locke, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Those who read this book with appropriate curiosity and care will be generously rewarded in one or more ways: they will be introduced to thinkers and works about which they knew little (if anything) previously; and/or, their own reasoning skills will be strengthened significantly as will their understanding of specific issues of greatest interest and value to them; and/or, thanks to Butler-Bowdon, they will become motivated to read or re-read one or more of the 50 works within a wider and deeper frame-of-reference. Now sold by Amazon for only $12.36 (only $9.95 in the Kindle version), this volume offers remarkably inexpensive (and tasty) “appetizers.” A sequence of gourmet feasts then awaits – in the form of the 50 primary sources – for those who love wisdom as much as Tom Butler-Bowdon does.
When concluding the final chapter, “Promise and Peril,” Ryan observes, “Humanity faces the risk of ruining the Internet even before it becomes a mature technology, before its benefit as a global commons can be fully realized. It must weigh the prospect of failure.” I am curious to know what Ryan thinks now, about three years after composing that passage.
No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that Johnny Ryan provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of him and his work. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how the information, insights, and wisdom could perhaps be of substantial benefit to them and to their own organization.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.