Open Eye: Dead Philosophers' Society ; Studying Philosophy's Past Is Not at All like a Visit to a Museum of Failed Ideas: Those Thinkers Still Speak to Us Today, Says Nigel Warburton
Warburton, Nigel, The Independent (London, England)
As Alain de Botton's best-seller and TV series on Channel 4,The Consolations of Philosophy, have shown, philosophers can stimulate thought hundreds, even thousands, of years after their death. De Botton has concentrated on the idea that philosophy can be a form of self-help. If you suffer from anger, learn from Seneca that it's a useless emotion, and pick up tips on how to control it; if you're unhappy in love, learn from Schopenhauer that sexual attraction is all about biology and not about fulfillment.
This image of philosophy as psychotherapy is not a new one: it dominated Roman philosophy. But it's not the only way that dead philosophers can speak to us today. One of the most exciting aspects of studying philosophy is the way in which its past can reinvigorate the present. The past of philosophy isn't like the past of science: a series of sometimes brilliant but now refuted attempts to explain the nature of the universe. Philosophy is not progressive in that way. Studying philosophy's past is not like a visit to a museum of failed ideas; it is more like the study of literature: who would say that Samuel Beckett had made Shakespeare or Chaucer obsolete?
Similarly, Plato and Aristotle, two of the earliest and greatest philosophers, have much to teach us, more than 2,000 later. In fact, in recent years one of the important developments in ethics has been a return to and development of Aristotelian ways of understanding human action and moral education.
Philosophers challenge assumptions that most people take for granted. That is why throughout history they have been considered dangerous - subversive even. Socrates was executed for corrupting the youth of the city and failing to show appropriate deference to the gods. Since then many philosophers, particularly those whose work has political implications, have been persecuted. Many have felt safe only in exile. Of the six major thinkers studied in the new OU course Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill, Machiavelli was tortured and sent into exile, Hobbes was at times in danger for his ideas, Locke fled England to Holland, Rousseau was hounded from country to country fearing for his life, and Marx spent most of his life in exile. Mill was the only one to have lead a relatively tranquil life.
What is truly surprising is the degree to which their ideas can still challenge and surprise. …