Learning to Live / A Brief History of Thought, by Luc Ferry

I recently spotted a tweet in which Tim Keller was quoted as saying “If you only read one book on culture, read this one.” That got my attention.

The book to which he referred was by the French Politician and Philosopher Luc Ferry. Published under two names – Learning to Live: A User’s Manual or A Brief History of Thought – this is a great introduction to the history of philosophy, which has the benefit of being significantly shorter and more accessible than Bertrand Russell’s tome, which has been weighing down my shelves for years and has been firmly relegated from “must read right through” to “for reference”!

The book is built around five great moments in the development of philosophy, highlighting some of the major ‘transforming visions of the world’ and crucially explaining how the world transitioned from one to the other.

This, for me, was one of the strengths of the book. There are plenty of histories of philosophy that document the different systems of thought and even compare and contrast them. But it is rare to find a book that so clearly maps out the transitions: what made this philosophy kill off this one? And how did this way of seeing the world unwittingly lay the foundation for this one?

After an introductory look at what philosophy is, Ferry addresses in turn: The Greek miracle; the victory of Christianity over Greek Philosophy; Humanism, or the birth of modern philosophy; postmodernity: the case of Nietzsche; and then finally he offers his own view in the chapter entitled ‘After Deconstruction: contemporary philosophy.’

The unifying factor to each of these thought-systems is that they aim to tackle a question that is at the heart of philosophy: ‘How can I be saved from death? Or at least from the anxiety of death?’ To quote Montaigne’s famous adage:

To philosophise is to learn how to die

For Ferry, religions offer a promise of Salvation whether through the ideas of quasi-divine order (the Greeks) or a personal God (Christianity) and philosophy also offers ‘a doctrine of salvation (but without the help of a God).’ (p6) He writes,

All philosophies, however divergent they may sometimes be in the answers they bring, promise us an escape from primitive fears. They possess in common with religions the conviction that anguish prevents us from leading good lives: it stops us not only from being happy, but also from being free […] The question becomes one of how to persuade humans to ‘save’ themselves

Salvation must proceed not from an Other – from some Being supposedly transcendent (meaning ‘exterior to and superior to’ ourselves) – but well and truly from within. Philosophy wants us to get ourselves out of trouble by utilising our own resources, by means of reason alone, with boldness and assurance. (p10)

Whilst having a good deal of respect towards religion in some forms and Christianity in particular, it’s clear that Ferry sees philosophy and religion as being strongly opposed. Whilst he argues that Christianity does have strong place for reason, its emphasis on ‘faith’ makes it inescapably anti-philosophical.

Still, refreshingly he spends a good deal of time wrestling with the influence of Christianity, since he recognises that we cannot understand developments in history, culture or ethics, without considering the contribution of Christ and his followers.

His history begins with the philosophies of Ancient Greece, and in particular those of the Stoics and Cynics. This is a really helpful chapter, and if you are familiar with the New Testament, you will already pick up resonances in many of the ancient texts he quotes. If you are planning to preach on John’s Gospel, or incarnation, or resurrection, or if you want to understand some of the foundations for the gnostic heresies of the early first centuries, this chapter will be very helpful.

Next, Ferry went on to show how Christianity displaced Greek philosophy. This chapter was both elucidating and infuriating. Infuriating because, whilst sympathetic to Christianity, the author had a strange, generalised and often skewed view of what Jesus taught.

This took various forms, from the somewhat trivial to the more fundamental. For example: he creates too strong a distinction between faith and reason, as if faith is trust-without-evidence, rather than trust-rooted-in-evidence (e.g. p63). Linked to this, he sees the promise of resurrection as a doctrine developed in order to ‘exploit a weakness in Greek wisdom’ (p53) rather than as a future hope rooted in an historical act: Jesus’ own resurrection. He makes curious statements such as claiming that Jesus raised Lazarus ‘in order to prove that, as he puts it, “love is stronger than death”’ (p3) despite the fact that Jesus never put it like that at all, and if anything he saw the reason for Lazarus’ resurrection as demonstrating the glory of God and validating his own ministry (John 11:40-42). Or his bizarre reconstruction of John 8, where Jesus says to the crowd wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery that if they were to examine their own hearts they may find that they are no better than this woman ‘who, perhaps, has sinned only through love’ (p75); a phrase I cannot imagine on Jesus’ lips and which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scenario in question!

But in many ways this chapter was elucidating. Ferry argues that in contrast to Greek thought, Christianity placed a unique emphasis on the value of the human person, because of the doctrine of the incarnation. The Logos – the divine ordering principle of Stoic philosophy – has in Christianity been embodied in one person. And although Ferry stops short of articulating what Christians actually claim – namely that Jesus was God incarnate – and instead he regularly refers to him as being ‘an exceptional man’, he rightly recognises how revolutionary this claim would have been for its early hearers. He also helpfully extrapolates how this resulted in a re-evaluation of the human person and laid the foundation for a philosophy of human rights. With Christianity we move from an ‘aristocratic’ to a ‘meritocratic’ universe:

…a world which first and foremost values not natural or inherited qualities, but the merit which each of us displays in making use of them (p72)

I was also really encouraged that Ferry understood something about the Christian hope for an embodied future. At a time when so many Christians teach a wooly and unbiblical form of eschatology, which imagines that we will float off to heaven to exist forever in a disembodied state, it was refreshing to read an atheist clearly articulate Paul’s vision of a physical bodily resurrection modelled on Christ’s own resurrection. Of course he doesn’t believe it – he thinks it’s too good to be true – but he got it! And he got the implications. The fact that it is not simply the soul that is revived, but the ‘soul-body’ in its entirety, again makes an interesting contribution to the philosophical understanding of what constitutes a person. I was glad this chapter picked up on that important element.

I could continue, but this review is already longer than intended. These first three chapters alone were worth the cost of the book, and they were undoubtedly my three favourite chapters. But the others that followed were also very important, as Ferry moved on to look at the ways modern philosophy developed and moved away from both Greek and Christian principles. The chapter on humanism was strong; I found the chapter on Nietzsche hard going, since I’ve not read too much of his writing, and it appears that in a few areas I may have misunderstood the little I have read; and I found the concluding chapter quite unsatisfactory… but then again I would if I believed, as I do, that history had been torn in two by the raising of one man from the dead! But just as I benefitted from reading about how Christianity was able to turn the tide of philosophy away from the influence of the Greeks, so it is important to recognise the weaknesses in Christianity’s self-portrayal and to understand the reasons – philosophical, historical and cultural – why humanism has, in many areas, become so prevalent.

If you want a shortish, engaging introduction to the history of philosophy, I highly recommend this book. If you want to have a more rounded idea of how culture works, how big ideas have shifted over the centuries, and the kind of salvation-promise humanism has to offer, check it out.