Monday, December 14, 2009

Rerun - Philosophy: Because We're Mindless Without It

A blast from the past from March. Enjoy ...

Check out the image on the top right. I can think of no better way to illustrate what this blog, "Knowledge is Necessity," is all about. The guy pointing to the sky is Plato, the one with his palm facing the ground is Aristotle.

The two form part of a much larger painting by Raphael - his masterpiece - entitled "The School of Athens." The canvas portrays more than twenty identifiable Greek philosophers - as well as a bunch of unidentifiable ones - clumped in small groups engaged in enlightened discourse.

What's so important about philosophy? Last year, I happened to catch the first three or four episodes in a 60-lecture video series, entitled, "Great Ideas In Philosophy." Oxford scholar and Georgetown professor-emeritus Daniel Robinson PhD explained that something extraordinary happened in ancient Greece.

Prior to Greek philosophy, Professor Robinson pointed out, thinking was essentially religious. Entire cultures were organized around the principle of encouraging everyone to think the same. No one questioned handed-down beliefs.

What the Greeks did essentially changed everything. Socrates and others urged their followers to think for themselves, to take nothing for granted, to challenge everything. In the face of Socrates' withering inquisitions, lazy thinking didn't stand a chance. Athens, it appears, wasn't quite ready for this, and Socrates paid in full measure.

His student, Plato, managed to die in bed, as did Plato's student Aristotle. Without them, our frontal lobes would have nothing to do. Not only did they turn thinking into a profession, they gave us the tools to think. The world was never the same.

Every field of human enquiry bears their indelible stamp: Science, government, the arts, human nature ...

Even religion. The way we appreciate Jesus is through the intellectual framework built by Plato and Aristotle. "The School of Athens" hangs in the Vatican.

The image that illustrates today's blog post is Diogenes. You might refer to Diogenes as the anti-philosopher. When Plato described man as a "featherless biped," Diogenes handed him a plucked chicken.

In Raphael's painting, Diogenes is seated alone, as if shunned by the others. Diogenes serves as a forceful reminder that even today's bold free-thinking is tomorrow's mind-crushing orthodoxy. This tends to happen when we organize our connected thoughts into schools of thought.

The antidote is to be our own philosopher. We learn, then challenge everything we learn. Then we relearn.

Knowledge is necessity, but knowledge is also elusive. It is something we strive for, rather than possess. If someone claims to have it, and offers you a piece of it - stop, think. What would Socrates do?

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