P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 20
25th November 2001
I. 'Ancient and Modern Philosophy' by Martin O'Hagan
II. Gallery of Philosophy Lovers
III. Pathways Online Conference: Last chance to join
I. 'ANCIENT AND MODERN PHILOSOPHY' BY MARTIN O'HAGAN
As one who has come late to philosophy I find it shocking how the discipline
which once occupied a central position in western culture is now increasingly
marginalised. I somehow nestled the notion that maybe I would find that my
otherwise meaningless existence would make sense to me.
It now appears no longer fashionable to consider the big questions of why we
are here or what is this life all about. Indeed mere contemplation of such
notions is to expose erring thinkers to the run of the intellectual gauntlet.
Modernist secular heresy is frowned upon and labelled naive at best. The desire
to try and find an answer to haunting questions is branded romantic nostalgia
and a longing for a world that is gone and never to return.
Indeed the idea of a big truth in the absence of an omniscient and omnipotent
God, the post-Enlightenment and gigantic advances in physics and the other
sciences has reduced that truth to private belief. Pragmatism of a sort signals
that whatever works for the individual must be true. Here there is more than a
faint echo of Protagoras coming across the centuries that the atomised
individual is the measure of all things...
Anglo-American philosophy has perfected an academicism in which issues that
matter to most human beings are largely ignored. English language philosophy
rarely amounts to anything more than an exhibition of the masterly and often
dazzling skill that is the devil in the small detail of form. Nowhere does this
undoubted ability seek to inform.
I am reminded of Thoreau's comments in the opening chapter of 'Walden' which he
wrote 150 years ago. He was bemoaning bourgeois lives of 'quiet desperation' and
commented that, "There are only Professors of Philosophy but no philosophers."
This distinction was originally formulated by the Stoics but accepted by the
majority in the ancient world. They realised it was folly to ignore the
relationship between theory and practice.
The Stoics separated philosophy as a way of life from philosophical discourse.
Elements of Stoical discourse, physics, ethics and logic were part of a theory.
In contrast, philosophy as a way of life is not a divided and structured theory
but an unitary act which consists of 'living the theory'. For example in logic,
the Stoics would argue, once we have studied the theory of speaking and thinking
we no longer continue to learn but instead we speak and think well.
Even Polemon, one of the heads of the Old Academy wrote, "We should exercise
ourselves with realities and not with dialectical speculation."
Five hundred years later Epictetus wrote, "A carpenter does not come up to you
and say, 'Let me discourse about the art of carpentry,' but he makes a contract
for a house and builds it. Do the same thing yourself, eat like a man, drink
like a man...get married, have children, take part in civic life, learn how to
put up with insults and tolerate other people."
Philosophical theories were in the service of philosophical life. Such systems
were a highly concentrated nucleus, capable of exercising a strong
psychological effect. They were not intended to provide an explanation of the
whole of reality but to provide the mind with a small number of principles
linked together to give persuasive force and provide a mnemonic device.
Christian philosophy within the monasteries became the Christian way of life;
it was not a theory or a way of knowing but a lived wisdom. In contrast,
medieval universities were to eliminate the early contrast between philosophy
by reason, and theology based on faith. St Thomas Aquinas insisted that
philosophy was now the handmaiden of theology.
Education was no longer directed towards developing the fully human being. In
many respects it was similar to the Sophistic use of education as a means
toward achieving some ulterior objective. In this case it was eternal life. The
universities became institutions whereby specialists trained specialists.
Scholasticism, as a philosophical tendency, begun at the end of antiquity,
developed in the Middle Ages and still has a presence today. It was essentially
a closed system designed to uphold current theology.
Furthermore, it was no accident that the major advances in genuine creative
philosophy would develop outside the university. Descartes, Spinoza,
Malebranche and Leibniz were to run the gauntlet of religious disapproval.
In opposition to scholastic discourse, the new philosophy moved forward only to
again settle within the precincts of the university and became indissolubly
linked to the university. With the exception of thinkers such as Schopenhauer
and Nietzsche, philosophy developed in a different atmosphere and environment
from that of the ancient philosophy.
Boorish Schopenhauer remarked that university philosophy is mere fencing in
mirrors. He insisted that, "its goal is to give students opinions which are to
the liking of ministers...as a result this state of financed philosophy makes a
joke of philosophy."
This is not to say that modern philosophy has not discovered some of the
existential aspects of the ancients. There are many invitations to radical
personal change of our lives. Descartes' 'Meditations' corresponds to the work
of St Augustine and Spinoza's 'Ethics' is similar to the discourse of the
Under the influence of Hegel, Marx and the young Hegelians accepted the
necessity of uniting theory and practice. It is ironic that in the years since
the collapse of the Berlin Wall and some would say Marxism, Marx's famous
dictum that "Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to
change it" has taken on a much broader meaning than that which was previously
understood by the official Marxists of the Third International. The dictum not
only emphasises the creativity of human labour but also its potential for
changing world views.
Indeed, many leftists swamped by the rising tide of a global economy made
possible by the advances in communications lost sight of a better world. Many
fell victim to the apparent optimism of US President Bush's New World Order.
Indeed, even the terminology of the left was usurped by the Thatcherites who
spoke about revolution as if the new world situation meant things really were
going to get better.
With an increasingly fragmented and specialised world perhaps the most profound
difference between the ancient and modern philosophers is their respective
attitude towards those considered 'philosophers' and the rest of humanity.
Rab C. Nesbitt's pronouncements on the state of his world are always prefixed
with 'working class' or 'street' philosophy to set it apart from philosophy
proper. The ancients such as Epicurus or Chrysippus, to mention only two, are
accepted philosophers in the modern sense because they developed a discourse.
But for these same ancients every person who lives according to the moral
instructions of philosophy was every bit as much of a philosopher as they.
Marcus Aurelius, Emperor, soldier and family man was a philosopher in the
ancient sense because he practised and lived according to the ideals of Stoic
wisdom. This was his way of being human; of living according to reason within
the cosmos and along with other human beings. It is doubtful if today he is
considered anything other than a dabbler.
In short, what ancient philosophy proposed was an art of living. By contrast,
modern philosophy appears as structured technical jargon in the positive sense
reserved for an elite inside the hallowed walls of Academia. Yet this elite
doesn't even feature among the pathfinders of science. Mention you are a
philosopher and it is bound to get a bemused look.
Today, the professors of philosophy have abandoned the big questions that once
gave their discipline its point and meaning. Philosophy now finds itself in the
midst of a self-imposed crisis. This calls for a radical avant gardism that
won't be a return to some religious formula but one that helps us mortals find
meaning in an increasingly disenchanted and alienated universe.
(c) Martin O'Hagan 1998
There is a 'Memorial' to Martin O'Hagan on the PhiloSophos web site at:
II. GALLERY OF PHILOSOPHY LOVERS
There is no more effective impulse to philosophize than the example and the
infectious enthusiasm of others. That is the simple idea behind the Philosophy
Lovers Gallery. It is a place to find yourself, by meditating on what you have
in common with others who share the same interests. On a practical level, it is
a place to visit when you are stuck with an essay or notebook page to write,
feeling your motivation begin to evaporate or the ideas begin to run dry.
It is only two weeks since the Gallery was launched on the PhiloSophos web
site, and already I am delighted with the quality of the 'post cards' that have
been submitted. With more submissions promised, this has the potential to be a
rich and inspiring resource. Long may it continue.
The Philosophy Lovers Gallery is not the place for boasting, 'Look at me, I am
a philosopher,' but rather an opportunity to share the philosophical muse that
speaks through each of us students of philosophy. It is a simple, direct way
of helping and encouraging one another, and also a celebration of what
continues to bring a sense of meaning and purpose into our lives.
If you are interested in contributing to the Gallery, all you need to do is
send me an e-mail of around 300-400 words with an attached JPG or GIF image.
Don't forget to say where you are from (town or city is optional). If you are
still not sure what to do, have a look at the examples on the PhiloSophosweb
site (URL below).
A sincere 'Thank you' to all those who have taken the initiative and helped to
break the ice. You have done a superb job.
III. PATHWAYS ONLINE CONFERENCE: LAST CHANCE TO JOIN
As reported in Issue 18 of Pathways News, the Pathways Online Conference is
about to start up again. I am still taking names of Pathways News subscribers
interested in joining the Conference as an active participant, or wishing to
have restricted access to the Conference as an observer. At the end of next
week the names will be forwarded to Dr Martin Gough, who is running the
conference on the server at the Institute of Education, London University.
What is an internet conference? It is simply a way for people anywhere in the
world to express their ideas, exchange views and dialogue with others who have
similar interests. You write something and post it on the conference, just as
if you were sending an e-mail. Others respond to what you have written and so
the discussion proceeds.
For those who are new to this idea, have a look at Issue I of Pathways News,
which can be found on the Pathways web site at:
This is the last chance to get on the next Round of the conference, so don't
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