Reading the Story of Philosophy


Indeed, there is a pleasure in philosophy. I started this book in 2016, and in 2020 I finally finished it. I have read it in all the places I have been to, Japan, UK, Europe, Indonesia etc. When I started, my English was poor and every line of the book was passed slowly and not without a dictionary at hand. From Plato all the way to John Dewey, the book is full of powerful words. But unfortunately, what was in the book is hardly in my memory and hence knowledge.

Let me try to distil, from those fragmented and shallow understanding and memory, some wisdom.

The life of philosophers

Some philosophers enjoyed their fame and popularity in their time, such as Voltaire, Kant and Hegel. Some didn’t until decades or even centuries after their death, for example, Socrates and Spinoza. Some saw their fame going up and go to hell; Spence is a good example.

Almost all of these philosophers had a noble family. Their either had a good fortune or a hard-working father to teach them the trade of life. Only Spinoza, a poor and humble thinker suffers from poverty. Kant, though not rich, held a chair in a university and hence lived a decent life. But many, like Spence, Russell, Aristotle, Bacon, Nietzsche, Voltaire were born in rich and aristocratic family. Perhaps it is right that philosophy is only possible after enough food and entertainment. Many without fortune found it hard to philosophize. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people that we consider as poor, today’s world, are too poor to do philosophy.

The ancient times, there were slaves, military draft, depots collecting high tax, poor sanitation and epidemic. Today, we are free, largely, from those things and we enjoy unprecedented freedom. I think almost majority of people living on earth can afford to do philosophy, to read philosophy and think about it. -Of course, those in poverty in Africa may be excluded.

In many cases, philosophers have to print books with their own money. They do tutoring for kids of the ruling class and the rich. Their marriage or sexual life tends to be messed up, if they have; and many philosophers remained single for their whole life, Nietzsche, Spinoza; whereas Voltaire had a good life, with many mistresses and romantic love; Rousseau lived a solitary life but he is deeply romantic. In his book Emile, he portrayed kid as pure and curious and eager.

Their philosophies and society

Ideas are powerful. Mill’s liberty built the foundation of the US constitution, and Spencer’s and Nietzsche’s evolution idea spoke for the Nazis. But of course their philosophes contain flaws inevitably. They tend to be extreme, pushed by their time or temperance. Whenever the book reaches the end of a philosopher, it discusses the inadequacy and flaws of this thinker’s ideas. As deep as philosophers can think, they are still prone to errors. For more or less, they are confined by their time. They build on what is taught to them and expand on it. They cannot go very far from where they are left alone. But no one of them would have written profound philosophy were none of them not deeply concerned with truth and eager to save people from ignorance and darkness.

The writing of the author

This book is not academic philosophy book. It skips the arcane epistemology and scholastic philosophy. It narrates the story of philosophers and is hence immensely interesting and intriguing. Durant has achieved his goal: to humanize philosophy. Philosophy should shed light on life. After reading philosophy, people should go out to life braver instead of using philosophy as an escape from the more colorful world.

The language used by Durant is powerful. Words and sentences are structured to give meaning beyond their simple arrangement. I know it is best if I can give some example here. But I have already forgotten most content.

Its impact on me

This book has had a great impact on me but I can only feel very vaguely its impact. It has made my thoughts more nuanced, subtle and critical. I have learned to read difficult philosophy without too much reluctance.

I should read it again when I turn 30.

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