Philosopher Profile: René Descartes (1596-1650)

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Descartes, 1648

“I think, therefore I am.” It is probably the most famous statement in philosophy, and René Descartes was the man who wrote it. Born in France on the 31st of March 1596, he was educated at the Jesuit College Royal Henry-le-Grand at La Fleche, and then in canon and civil law at the University of Poitiers at a time when the medieval worldview was giving way to the science of the Enlightenment. Continue reading “Philosopher Profile: René Descartes (1596-1650)”

Playtime: ‘Waiting for Godot: a tragicomedy in two acts’ by Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot 3My latest area of exploration is the classics of theatre and, as with opera and ballet, I’m using the internet to compensate for the lack of conveniently live performances. My first ‘outing’ is Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), which premiered in 1953.

It’s a play where nothing happens. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are waiting for Godot. He did not come yesterday. He will not come today. But tomorrow, assuredly, he will come. Except that that’s the way it was yesterday, and the day before that, and, odds are, the way it will be tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after… Continue reading “Playtime: ‘Waiting for Godot: a tragicomedy in two acts’ by Samuel Beckett”

Philosopher Profile: Plato (c.428-348 BCE)

 

Plato
Plato

“So,” the Significant Other asked me recently, “now that you’ve finished reading ‘The Republic’ when are you going to do a blog post on Plato?” It’s a fair question: Plato, along with Aristotle, who studied under him, effectively laid the basis for Western philosophy and was also massively influential in the development of Christian theology.

 

And yet in terms of biography we don’t really know a great deal about him. Even his name is only a nickname, meaning ‘broad’, and possibly referring to the shape of his head. His real name might have been Aristocles, but then again it might not. He was born into an aristocratic Athenian family. His family may have expected Plato to enter into politics himself, but instead he became a student of Socrates. Continue reading “Philosopher Profile: Plato (c.428-348 BCE)”

Philosopher Profile: Socrates (470-399 BC)

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Bust of Socrates

While to date I’ve read very little actual philosophy – I’m up to Book 5 (‘chapter’. They’re chapters) of Plato’s Republic, and that’s about it – I’ve already read enough about the history of philosophy to know that while there have been many distinguished philosophers in both the Eastern and Western tradition only a small handful of these have been the true giants, the people who shaped the thinking not only of their time but of subsequent generations up to the present day.

These guys, then, deserve special attention, and first on the list is Socrates who, as one book I read on the history of philosophy said, influenced ‘everyone who came after him’. Continue reading “Philosopher Profile: Socrates (470-399 BC)”

Paintings You Should Know: Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-1511

With my nascent interest in the world of philosophy now seemed like the perfect time to write about the Renaissance masterpiece which is The School of Athens. The painting is a fresco, part of a series commissioned for the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. Regarded as Raphael’s masterpiece, it captures the Renaissance fascination with the philosophy of the Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) world.

raphael-school-at-athens

Continue reading “Paintings You Should Know: Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-1511”

Why I Want to Know More About Philosophy

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If you’ve glanced through my most recent reading list you will have noticed that it includes a book called ‘The Story of Philosophy’. Philosophy is a subject about which I know very little, but just enough to know that I want to know more.

As I understand it, philosophy at its heart represents a particular way of looking at and understanding the world, one which is focussed primarily on the use of human reason. It asks questions such as ‘how can we know what we know?’ ‘What is good? What is right? What is just?’ ‘How can we establish the truth of a statement?’, and seeks to answer them not through appeal to divine revelation, nor through observation and experimentation, but rather through discussion and reflection.

At a time when radicals on both sides are keen to portray a false dichotomy between religion and science, and to stoke the fires of conflict which such dichotomies all too easily produce, I see philosophy as having a valuable contribution to make in bridging the emerging gulf between those who feel compelled to choose one side or the other.

In this I must freely acknowledge my bias. I am a Christian, a sincere believer that Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher who lived two thousand years ago, was no ordinary man but was rather, in some mysterious way, both truly God and truly Human, and begotten by the one true God who made heaven and earth, all that is, and all that ever more shall be.

We offer thanks and praise to God… for science and discoveries, for our life together, for Aotearoa, New Zealand.

– Eucharistic Liturgy of Thanksgiving and Praise, from ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book’

The claims of my religion are rooted in history but they contain much which can never be historically verified. Does God exist? Was Jesus truly divine? Was he a madman, a conman, or a myth? Are the things he taught and did relevant to us today? If so, how? Reasoned arguments can be made both for and against all of these positions, but in the twenty-first century reasoned arguments can be few and far between.

But my interest in philosophy is not primarily focussed on defending (or testing) my faith. I am genuinely curious to know what the great thinkers of history have thought about, and how, and whether and how those ways of thinking might be relevant for my life. And so, philosophy.