A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry [Book Summary – Review]

For those beginning with philosophy, it’s common to feel discouraged. The use of complex language, lengthy sentences, and a tangle of abstract concepts can usually cover valuable understandings of the essence of human existence and the principles guiding our lives – just like attempting to appreciate a beautiful view through an unclean window.

However, the following chapters present a clear and straightforward route through this confusing terrain. Using the most complicated and essential concepts from Western thought into language that is understood by everyone. Beginning with ancient Greek perspectives of the universe and concluding with the emergence of contemporary humanism, these chapters guide you through the key stages in the development of Western philosophy.

Furthermore, these chapters demonstrate how various philosophical schools have practically used their wisdom, allowing their followers to confront the fear of death and lead happier, more content, and more significant lives.

In this book, you’ll discover

  • the similarity between philosophy and religion;
  • the reason why Christianity superseded Greek philosophy; and
  • how Friedrich Nietzsche played a pivotal role in introducing a new era of thought.

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Chapter 1 – Philosophy encompasses three fundamental aspects.

To talk about the history of philosophy, it is crucial to know about it, how it functions, and what its aim is.

Therefore, what exactly is philosophy?

Regrettably, there is no universally agreed definition, as philosophers are known for their opinionated views and contentious groups. However, through thoughtful consideration, we can arrive at an adequate definition.

To start with, in philosophical terms, humans are finite beings: mortal entities taking up a confined span of space and time. Different from other animals, we are mindful of these limitations. For example, a dog or lion lacks foreknowledge of their demise; they are solely focused on the present moment. In contrast, humans live with the awareness that both they and the people they love will certainly die.

The looming presence of death compels us to ponder on how to make the most of our temporary time on Earth. Simultaneously, it infuses us with profound fear— fear of losing those we cherish, fear of the unknown, and fear of the void.

This anxiety hinders us from living a completely contented life filled with love and fulfillment. From the outset, both philosophy and religion have sought to help us in overcoming this fear; however, they take completely different paths.

Religion, and especially Christianity, pledges to alleviate our fear of death through faith. It asserts that placing our trust in God will result in salvation, taking us to heaven where we can be reunited with our loved ones forever.

In contrast, philosophy vows to provide salvation through our logical reasoning. By seeking to comprehend ourselves, others, and also the world we live in, philosophy aims to defeat the fear associated with death.

With this goal in mind, philosophical thinking has three stages.

The first stage is theory.  This entails profound thinking about the nature of reality. However, our understanding of reality is shaped by the tools we employ to understand it, and hence theory observes those tools as well. How do we identify what causes natural phenomena? What are the criteria for deeming a statement “true”? These questions constitute the second aspect of the theory.

The second stage is ethics which adopts a more pragmatic approach and focuses on the study of humanity. Specifically, it explores how people should act and coexist with each other.

The third stage is wisdom or salvation. This is the main goal of both religion and philosophy. It asks what – if there is any meaning to life and how one can lead a fulfilled existence free from the overwhelming dread of death.

Stoicism was the early philosophy to adopt this three-stage framework.

Chapter 2 – Stoicism sought to describe the operations of the universe and the role of humans in it.

Stoicism was one of the most significant philosophical movements in ancient Greece, established by Zeno of Citium in the third century BC. To explain it, we will adhere to the three phases of philosophy discussed in the former chapter: theory, ethics, and salvation.

As stated by the Stoics, the universe was related to an animal, with each component serving as an organ particularly designed to contribute to the overall functioning of the whole entity. They believed in a harmonious, predetermined natural order governing every aspect of the universe. This order, they believed, constituted the entire nature or essence of reality, which they referred to as “kosmos.” Unlike the concept of a transcendent God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the Stoics maintained that this order resided within the universe itself.

To look at an illustration from the Stoics’ view, take a lot at the human body and the natural environment. From their perspective, the body and our surroundings were flawlessly made to furnish us with the whole thing we require. Eyes and legs enable us to see the world and walk through it, our intelligence to defeat challenges, and natural resources exist to sustain, clothe, and shelter us.

Because this natural order is already flawless, humanity’s main objective is merely to discover its rightful position in it. This brings us to the realm of ethics.

From the Stoic viewpoint, ethics was quite specific. Meaning, that anything that conflicted with the cosmic order was deemed wrong and bad, while those that aligned with it were considered right and good. To be an ethical individual, one needs to act in harmony with the overarching order and fulfill the responsibilities of their designated place, regardless of what that position might entail. However, from a modern view, this notion raises certain concerning social and political repercussions. For instance, according to the Stoics, if someone was born as a slave, that was their designated place in the cosmic order, and their duty was to take it.

The Stoics also presented their interpretation of salvation. By considering the natural order of the universe and living by it, they aspired to comprehend that death did not exist – at least not an ultimate end. Rather, they thought that upon death, individuals transitioned from one state of being to the other in the natural order. This order, eventually, is everlasting, and individuals persist as a part of it after they die. Thus, instead of an ending, death is viewed as a transitional point in our path through the cosmos.

Chapter 3 – Christianity supplanted Greek philosophy and revolutionized human thinking.

Even though Christianity is not a philosophy since it highlights faith over reason, it nonetheless constitutes a system of thought that replaced Greek philosophy and left a memorable effect on history.

How did that happen? Once again let’s trace it through the phases of theory, ethics, and salvation.

First and foremost, Christian doctrine repositioned logos—universal, indisputable logic and reason—away from the setting of the whole world. Rather, logos became personified in an individual: Jesus Christ. This marked a huge transformation. All of a sudden, logos wasn’t confined to a detached and stern setting but resided in one extraordinary person.

Moreover, theory also examines the methodologies we employ to comprehend reality. In this regard, Christianity brought about a paradigm shift in thinking. It asserted that faith, instead of reason, was needed to understand the true nature of existence. Christians were urged to put their faith in Jesus, the hub of logos and the voice of the supreme creator.

Christianity reshaped ethical concepts in three key ways, starting with a rejection of the Greek concept of a natural hierarchy. According to this concept, nature bestows unequal gifts such as strength, beauty, and stature. According to the Greeks, this uneven allocation of gifts gives evidence that some individuals are destined to lead while others are destined to follow.

However, Christianity asserted the insignificance of these inequalities. Instead, emphasis was placed on the choices individuals made with their endowed gifts. Thus, everyone possessed the liberty to determine the quality and virtue of their lives through their choices.

This idea of freedom of choice marked the initial invention that Christianity took to Western ethics. This brought about Christianity’s second innovative concept: prioritizing the significance of the inner spiritual realm over the external realm of nature. This perspective led early Christians to willingly face martyrdom for their faith, deeming the outer world of humanity inferior to the inner realm of God.

The third ethical advancement introduced by Christianity was the modern concept of humanity. With logos now personified in Christ and the Christian belief in the equality of all as “creatures of God,” it became conceivable to envision a universally equal human race.

Lastly, Christianity introduced a new doctrine of salvation. It offered believers a personal form of eternal life—an individual immortality within the Kingdom of Heaven. This enabled Christians to overcome their dread of death by trusting that, after death, they would retain their identities and consciousnesses, reuniting with their loved ones.

Chapter 4 – The scientific revolution gave rise to systems of thinking that paved the way for modern philosophy.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, humanity went through a profound shift of reality. For instance, astronomers and mathematicians such as Nicolaus Copernicus introduced models of the universe where Earth was not the center, but rather part of an infinite void. Subsequently, following the emergence of theories created by physicists such as Isaac Newton, individuals came to see the universe as operating under forces that could be accurately quantified and predicted.

Understanding the deep fear this shift likely evoked in people of the era is challenging. With the universe appearing infinite and governed mechanically, there is a need for humans to revise the ethical framework and reevaluate humanity’s role within the world. Moreover, the realization that the afterlife might not exist as previously thought necessitated an alternative form of salvation.

Through the introduction of modern philosophy, the French philosopher Descartes played a crucial role in assisting individuals in accomplishing these goals.

Descartes harnessed the uncertainty released by the scientific revolution and transformed it into an instrument for philosophical exploration. In his pursuit of undeniable truth, Descartes approached reality by using critical thinking and radical skepticism. This approach gave rise to a fundamental aspect of modern philosophy: named the critical spirit. Descartes adopted the concept of tabula rasa, or a blank slate, to look at reality. He discarded all preconceived ideas and embarked on his inquiries with a fresh perspective.

Following these groundbreaking innovations emerged Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a profoundly influential philosopher and pioneer of modern humanism. Rousseau put humans at the center of his inception of the universe. He believed that by knowing ourselves, we could gain insight into the world around us.

Rousseau didn’t merely regard humans as a different animal; he emphasized that what made us unique was our perfectibility.

Rousseau posited that animals work within predetermined behavioral patterns dictated by nature. This is the reason cats won’t consume grass or the reason giraffes will not consume meat. Conversely, humans possess a significant ability to transform and improve themselves throughout their lives. For instance, we can decide to be a vegetarian or shape our narrative.

However, humanists also require a form of salvation.

To attain this, certain individuals sought solace in religions of earthly religions, focusing on humans instead of deities. Movements such as scientism, communism, and patriotism serve as examples of these earthly religions, offering us utopia. To their followers, these ideologies offer significance to human existence by presenting overarching objectives considered more essential than individual lives.

Chapter 5 -Immanuel Kant embraced Rousseau’s principles of humanism and utilized them in ethics.

Rousseau’s revolutionary approach to human freedom sparked an inquiry that laid the groundwork for fresh perspectives on ethics. This inquiry pondered how individuals, with such abundant freedom at their disposal, could structure their conduct in alignment with clear ethical principles.

In the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher looked at this question, formulating an ethical theory tailored to a world where humans were seen as free actors. From his reflections emerged two pivotal conclusions that would profoundly shape modern thought and serve as the cornerstone of modern humanism.

Firstly, Kant posited that ethical behavior is dependent on actions that are not of personal and selfish motives, termed “disinterested actions.”

Human beings, similar to other animals, are born with innate urges propelling us to fulfill our desires. However, unlike other creatures, we possess the capacity to overlook these impulses, enabling us to act without personal gain.

According to Kant, an action that is truly ethical – and truly human – needs us to disregard our selfish impulses and embrace a mindset of disinterestedness. We have to strive for this in our daily lives and do that freely. Should we be compelled to act, the ethical essence of the action is compromised.

Second, Kant emphasized that an ethical action is oriented towards a universal, collective good. 

This implies that ethical conduct is not tied to the interests of one’s family or country, but rather to a shared humanity.

By focusing our actions toward a shared good, we exercise our freedom to make disinterested choices that promote the welfare of humanity. By doing this, we separate ourselves from our primal, egoistic urges and draw closer to the entirety of humanity.

In Kant’s ethical framework, different from that of the Stoics, there is a departure from attempting to adhere to the “natural” order of things through our actions. In fact, by overriding our innate desires, we actively oppose it. Kant termed this obligation to prioritize humanity over nature as a categorical imperative, signifying an unquestionable commandment.

The necessity for such an order arises from our endeavor to resist our natural urges. Indeed, if humans were inherently fixed to prioritize humanity over themselves, there would be no need for such instruction.

These concepts laid the groundwork for modern humanism—a basis that would be challenged by Friedrich Nietzsche in the eighteenth century.

Chapter 6 – Friedrich Nietzsche deconstructed humanism and paved the way for the era of postmodern philosophy.

Until now, numerous pivotal moments have shaped Western thought, yet discussions on philosophical revolutions inevitably circle back to the profound impact of Friedrich Nietzsche, the German thinker.

Nietzsche’s philosophy can be interpreted as a relentless battle against what he referred to as nihilism. According to him, all belief systems—be it Christianity, humanism, or socialism—imply the existence of a superior realm to strive for, thereby downplaying the significance of the present moment. They each pursued utopian ideals and cherished entities such as God and humanity over mundane existence, which Nietzsche perceived as detrimental, disregarding the significance and worth of life as it exists. For Nietzsche, nihilism constituted a denial of life.

Throughout his lifetime, Nietzsche dedicated himself to exposing the emptiness of nihilism. His philosophy asserts that there exist no utopian ideals or values capable of giving meaning to life. Rather, he posits that the significance of life lies within itself; it does not rely on any external entity or superior force to give it purpose but rather generates its meaning autonomously.

Additionally, Nietzsche perceived the world as having two distinct forces: reactive and active. Furthermore, he viewed these forces as tumultuous and in constant conflict—that the world could ever align with the Greek concepts of harmony.

Reactive forces operate solely by negating and suppressing other forces. Religion, science, and modern philosophy, for instance, assert their superiority by purporting to embody ideal truths that transcend human experience, thus reacting against the ordinariness of everyday life. Essentially, to work well, these systems of thought devalue our daily realities. Similarly, emotions such as pity, regret, and doubt thrive by diminishing life itself, essentially reacting against it.

Conversely, active forces do not have to repress other forces. Art, in particular, serves as a natural habitat for active forces as it introduces fresh perspectives without having to invalidate its predecessors. While one can argue for the validity of communism over racism, it would be nonsensical to assert that Picasso was right while Monet was wrong.

However, Nietzsche didn’t advocate for the eradication of reactive forces in favor of active forces. Rather, he argued for the necessity of balancing these two types of forces. According to him, achieving this balance enhances life’s vibrancy and intensity. Nietzsche termed the active pursuit of this equilibrium the “will to power.”

When our active and reactive forces learn to collaborate, life is lived intensely and completely, free from the internal conflicts caused by feelings of regret and self-doubt. Nietzsche referred to the achievement of this state as the “grand style,” his interpretation of salvation.

Due to his inclination to develop a new philosophical course diverging from the principles of modern humanism, Nietzsche can be regarded as the founder of postmodern thought. Nevertheless, even the ideas of this esteemed philosopher would eventually face scrutiny and questioning over time.

Chapter 7 – Contemporary humanism provides a path beyond the skepticism inherent in postmodernism.

One critique directed at Nietzsche is as follows: If we always strive to deconstruct our entire values and belief systems and assert that nothing is higher than the present moment, what direction are we heading in? The postmodern perspective influenced by Nietzsche runs the risk of idealizing and idolizing the tangible world.

However, there is a different route. We can leverage the understandings acquired from postmodernism to reassess humanism, giving rise to contemporary humanism.

In light of the insights offered by postmodernism, contemporary humanism departs from the conventional humanist ideologies centered on earthly salvation. Yet, it diverges from Nietzsche’s claim that only the tangible realm of experience holds significance. Rather, it suggests that certain aspects transcend, external and higher than us.

To illustrate this point, Edmund Husserl the German philosopher employed a straightforward metaphor that involves a matchbox.

We understand that a matchbox comprises six sides, yet regardless of how we hold it, we can only perceive three sides simultaneously when holding it up to our eyes. This also applies to reality, wherein no matter which perspective we adopt, some aspects remain unseen, some of which possess a transcendent nature. The presence of one aspect implies the absence of another—regardless of how we think about reality, we can never completely understand it.

Transcendence, in this context, differs from the abstract ideal presented in classical humanism; it manifests as an undeniable reality inherent in our everyday existence. We can term this phenomenon “transcendence here-and-now.”

Acknowledging this reality also entails recognizing the limitations of human knowledge, and refuting the notion of omniscience. This departure from classical humanism involves denying the concept of “absolute knowledge” and blind faith in human science.

Concrete examples of transcendence are evident in phenomena like truth and beauty. Humans do not create the truth that 1 + 1 equals 2; similarly, a painter does not create beauty within her artwork.

Contemporary humanism provides a different set of ethics as well.

Nietzsche advocated for the rejection of any values considered superior to life itself. This perspective has left a mark on today’s Western democracies, where few individuals are willing to lay their lives as sacrifices for God or a communist government.

Contrary to classical humanism, contemporary humanism does uphold values; however, these values are centered around life. These newly defined transcendent values are not hierarchical, such as patriotism, but rather horizontal. Contemporary humanists adopt a collective perspective on humanity, and their values revolve around their fellow humans rather than abstract ideals deemed “superior” to them.

However, contemporary humanism cannot provide the kind of salvation offered by Christianity, where the fear of death is alleviated. Rather, it acknowledges this fear and uses it as a driving force to determine actions necessary to do at the moment for humanity at large.

A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living by Luc Ferry Book Review

The history of Western thought can be roughly classified into five pivotal stages: Greek philosophy, humanism, postmodernism, Christianity, and contemporary philosophy. Each of these marked a significant divergence from the principles of its forerunners, introducing distinct concepts across the three primary phases of philosophy: theory, ethics, and salvation. In the present day, contemporary humanism seeks to assert its relevance by presenting a compelling blend of classical humanism with the perspectives of postmodernism.

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Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/106467014-sava-ate

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