Philosophy 101: The Ideas of Today are the Ideas of Old

Book referenced to: Samuel E. Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond in Philosophy: History and Problems, Stumpf and James Fieser, 6th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill,  2002. 398 pp.

That which has been is that which will be,
         And that which has been done is that which will be done.
         So there is nothing new under the sun.”  Ecc. 1:9, NASB

Solomon’s words are just as true today as they were when he penned them.  In our consumer-driven society, advertisers are constantly promoting the latest, greatest new thing.  “Revolutionary!” they may say, or “Never before seen!”  Yet, in all honesty, these things are not new and original – never before seen – as they have been influenced and based upon, in some degree, upon past and existing products, inventions, etc. 

The same can be said of the reigning ideas and philosophies of our day.  Evolution is king in science (and in so many other disciplines) and relativism of truth and morals is the reigning worldview of many.  But, are these ideas and other prominent philosophies fairly new to the scene in regards to human history?  Has it been only since the Enlightenment that reason, empiricism, evolution and such have been held to such high standards?  Many, I am sure, think so; I, until recently, thought as such to a degree.  This, however, is far from the truth.

Enter in history.  Despite the bad rap many give the subject of history, when taken seriously, it teaches us much from the past that can aid us in understanding today’s world.  A survey through the history of philosophy illustrates the fact that many of today’s reigning ideas are often yesterday’s thoughts re-worked and re-packaged.  The following brief sketch is taken from Samuel E. Stumpf’s Socrates to Sartre and Beyond.

Evolution: Charles Darwin brought the idea of evolution into the spotlight with his theory of natural selection.  When learning evolution in science class at the public school, Charles Darwin is the first name that pops into most minds.  Yet, is he the first proponent of evolution?  No.  One must go all the way back at least to the 6th Century B.C. to find the first known major proponent of evolution (and one may go further back to the Syrians, but my knowledge of this stops here.  Further study for another time is required.).  Anaximander, pupil of Thales, proposed that all life found on dry land actually originated in the sea before moving onto land.  Human beings, he suggests, evolved from animals of a different kind (Stumpf, 9).

Natural Law: When the subject of natural law is discussed, Thomas Aquinas’ name is more than likely to be mentioned in association with it.  Yet, there were those before them who helped pave the way towards the idea of natural law, one of whom is Heraclitus (he of “the only constant is change” fame) in the late 6th Century.  Mr. Heraclitus, in short, saw Fire as basic reality and as the One, or God.  This Fire/God is in everything and its/his chief activity of is wisdom/thought.  Since humans are part of Fire/God, their chief activity is wisdom/thought as well.  Thus, Reason is universal and all operate under this universal law.  This understanding of reason serves as a forerunner of natural law as understood by recent philosophers (Stumpf, 15-17; Class notes, Dr. Cabal, 8/21/07).  Heraclitus is also a strong empiricist, relying on evidence based on his senses – he sees change and observes that nothing stays constant, so therefore, all things change (granted, this is a very simplified statement of his view) (class notes, 8/21/07).

Rationalism: We in the modern world like to think that, as products of the Enlightenment, we are above those in pre-Enlightenment times, for we as a culture are no longer foolish enough to believe in religious myths and other trappings of pre-Enlightenment cultures, and to allow these myths to determine our worldview.  Instead, Reason is our guide, our only source to truth.  While this thought may be flattering to some, the modern culture is not unique in its adoration of reason.  Parmenides (born around 510 BC) countered Heraclitus’ views of change by stating that there is no change or movement; such things are allusion.  Following logical reasoning alone and ignoring his senses, Parmenides claimed that “something is, or something is not.”  The only possibility from this statement is the first part, for one cannot think of something that is not – it is impossible.  Also irrational is the idea of non-being to being back to non-being, i.e. the idea of birth and death, one is not, then is born and later dies.  According to Parmenides, this is irrational and thus illusion.  All of this is said to hightlight Parmenides complete reliance on reason at the expense of experience and the senses.  Today’s culture will laugh at his conclusions, yet his reliance on reason alone is mimicked today by many.

There are many more ideas from the classics that have influenced thought throughout the centuries (the Atomists believed that the atom was the most basic reality, serving as the building block of all that exists; the Sophists taught that there was no truth – truth was relative to each person).  Yet, just these few sketches provide a glimpse of how today’s leading philosophies are ultimately yesterday’s news.  As Christians, we are called to be ready to give an account for our faith  (1 Peter 3:15), and one way we can be effective in doing so is by understanding the prevailing worldviews of today. One of the best ways of understanding these worldviews is by studying their history and development. 

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