"The unexamined life is not worth living."
                         — Socrates, Apology

Raphael - The School of Athens (c. 1511)
Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, The Vatican
(see Stanze di Raffaello)

What Is Philosophy?
by Will Durant

More articles by Will Durant

There is a pleasure in philosophy, and a lure even in the mirages of metaphysics, which every student feels until the coarse necessities of physical existence drag them from the heights of thought into the mart of economic strife and gain. Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, "that dear delight"; when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious, incomparably, than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. "Life has meaning," we feel with Browning — "to find it's meaning is my meat and drink." So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-cancelling vacillation and futility; we strive with the chaos about us and within; but we would believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand; "Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with"; we are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov, "one of those who don't want millions, but an answer to their questions"; we want to seize the value and perspective of passing things, and so to pull ourselves up out of the mealstrom of daily circumstance. We want to know that the little things are little, and the big things big, before it is too late; we want to see things now as they will seem forever — "in the light of eternity." We want to learn to laugh in the face of the inevitable, to smile even at the looming of death. We want to be whole, to coordinate our energies by criticizing and harmonizing our desires; for coordinated energy is the last word in ethics and politics, and perhaps in logic and metaphysics too. "To be a philosopher," said Thoreau, "is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live, according to it's dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." We may be sure that if we can but find wisdom, all things else will be added unto us. "Seek ye first the good things of the mind," Bacon admonishes us, "and the rest will either be supplied or it's loss will not be felt." Truth will not make us rich, but it will make us free.

Some ungentle reader will check us here by informing us that philosophy is as useless as chess, as obscure as ignorance, and as stagnant as content. "There is nothing so absurd," said Cicero, "but that it may be found in the books of the philosophers." Doubtless some philosophers have had all sorts of wisdom except common sense; and many a philosophic flight has been due to the elevating power of thin air. Let us resolve, on this voyage of ours, to put in only at the ports of light, to keep out of the muddy streams of metaphysics and the "many-sounding seas" of theological dispute. But is philosophy stagnant? Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science — problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death; so soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation it is called science. Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as is metaphysics), or the inexct known (as in ethics or political philosophy); it is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory; and behind it are those secured regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed; but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description, philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things, nor into their total and final significance; it is content to show their present actuality and operation, it narrows it's gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are. The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev's poem: he is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact; they wish to ascertain it's relation to experience in general, and thereby to get at it's meaning and it's worth; they combine things in interpretive synthesis; they try to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart. Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rates in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom —desire coordinated in the light of all experience— can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science; to criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy: and because in these days our means and instuments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and sythesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom!

The School of Athens, detail

Plato and Aristotle


Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy commonly associated with such philosophers as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus.

The school was organized in Athens in the early third century BC (beginning c. 301 BC) by Zeno of Citium. The Stoics provided a unified account of the world that comprised formal logic, materialistic physics, and naturalistic ethics. Later Roman Stoics emphasized more exclusively the development of recommendations for living in harmony with a natural world over which one has no direct control.

The Stoic philosophy developed from that of the Cynics whose founder, Antisthenes, had been a disciple of Socrates. The Stoics emphasized ethics as the main field of knowledge, but they also developed theories of logic and natural science to support their ethical doctrines.

Holding a somewhat materialistic conception of nature, they followed Heraclitus in believing the primary substance to be fire. They also embraced his concept of Logos which they identified with the energy, law, reason, and providence found throughout nature.

They held Logos to be the animating or "active principle" of all reality. The Logos was conceived as a rational divine power that orders and directs the universe; it was identified with God, nature, and fate. Human reason and the human soul were both considered part of the divine Logos, and therefore immortal.

The foundation of Stoic ethics is the principle, proclaimed earlier by the Cynics, that good lies in the state of the soul itself, in wisdom and restraint. Stoic ethics stressed the rule "Follow where Reason leads"; one must therefore resist the influence of the passions-love, hate, fear, pain, and pleasure.

Living according to nature or reason, they held, is living in conformity with the divine order of the universe. The four cardinal virtues of the Stoic philosophy are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, a classification derived from the teachings of Plato.

A distinctive feature of Stoicism is its cosmopolitanism. All people are manifestations of the one universal spirit and should, according to the Stoics, live in brotherly love and readily help one another. They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Thus, before the rise of Christianity, Stoics recognized and advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings. Stoicism became the most influential school of the Greco-Roman world and produced a number of remarkable writers and personalities.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Free Dictionary  (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)


Philosophy Pages - Hellenistic Philosophy

The Meditations - Marcus Aurelius

Works by Epictetus


Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Epicureanism is a system of Hellenistic philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus (341 BC - c. 270 BC), founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus —about whom we know very little— Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek pleasure. This doctrine is also known as hedonism.

For Epicurus, pleasure was obtained by knowledge (freedom from fear), friendship, and living a virtuous and temperate life. Epicurus did not articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived.

Epicurean (and later Lucretian) materialism is presented very simply, but anticipates a great deal of later scientific discovery in important respects. Dalton's atomic theory and Darwin's theory of evolution can both be seen in Epicurean writings.

Epicurus' school, called "The Garden," seems to have been a moderately ascetic community which rejected the political limelight of Athenian philosophy. They were fairly cosmopolitan by Athenian standards, including women and slaves, and were probably vegetarians.

Epicureanism was the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics and as such was never a major philosophy. After the death of Epicurus, its main proponent was the Roman Lucretius. It had all but died out by the end of the Roman Empire, and was again resurrected by the atomist Pierre Gassendi during the Enlightenment.

In modern popular usage, epicureanism implies a love or knowledgeable enjoyment of good food and drink — see: gourmet.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — Lucretius

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — Epicurus

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — Lucretius

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — Epicurus


The Catholic Encyclopedia

The Free Dictionary  (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)



Philosophy Pages — Hellenistic Philosophy

Epicurus — Letter to Herodotus

Lucretius — On the Nature of Things

Lucretius Links

Works by Epicurus


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