Introduction To Philosophy
A poverty of proper philosophy is the ruin of the West. The medievals long believed theology to be the queen of the sciences; thus philosophy is truly the prince. Theology (soul) + Philosophy (mind) = Christian living at its best. After all, did not the greatest philosopher himself—in the guise of a carpenter from Nazareth—exhort us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, strength, soul and mind?
To richly receive the due benefits of this master craft called philosophy, one needs a master craftsman. Thus, we present to you the greatest philosopher of this past century in the heralded Dr. Peter Kreeft. Author of over 90 books, and professor of philosophy at Boston College for almost 60 years running, there is no greater mind or authority on the subject than this prodigious practitioner.
The tools of the philosopher are reason, logic, propositions, definitions, clarity and coherence; and the canvas of philosophy is most often found in literature. Because of such, Dr. Kreeft studiously presents twelve books that have philosophically transformed the world over. From Plato to Dostoyevsky, and Aquinas to Lao Tzu, from Augustine to Boethius, to Aristotle and Tolkien, you will learn to drink via the best works, written by the best authors, taught by the best teacher, to satiate your thirsty soul and parched mind with rivers of truth.
Ravishingly immerse yourself in Dr. Kreeft’s tour de force in this Introduction to Philosophy. Prepare to be intellectually stimulated, soulfully aroused, and mentally stretched, because we promise you with confidence that you will not be the same afterwards.
1. THE BOOK OF JOB
There are many answers from philosophers to the fundamental religious problem and the strongest argument against God, namely the "problem of evil," why bad things happen to good people. Here is God's answer.
The answer is not what we expect. God is not a philosopher. He is a lover and an artist. He is wildly unpredictable and mysterious. He does not explain Himself to Job; He does better than that: He presents Himself. He did that same thing most completely in Christ.
God's answer here is essentially the two points He made in my favorite sermon of all time, one He preached to St. Catherine, in a vision: "I'm God, you're not." And that is surprisingly comforting. "Hush, child, you could not possibly understand. You must trust Me."
2. Plato's REPUBLIC
It is the most well-known book in the history of philosophy, by the first (and best) philosophical writer (Plato), but most readers miss its main point, which is not politics but ethics: that "justice (which for Plato is the master moral virtue) is always more profitable than injustice," for individuals as well as for states. In other words, to be happy you have to be good: the most basic point of ethics. Plato proves it with a wealth of political analogies and details, many of them controversial and radical.
Plato also gives us in this book the world's first psychology, or map of the psyche, with its three powers of thinking, willing, and feeling or desiring, which has become nearly universal. Even Freud, who disagrees with Plato on nearly everything else, inherits Plato's threefold powers of the psyche, though radically reinterpreted as super-ego, ego, and id.
And it contains the single most memorable and influential passage in the history of philosophy, Plato's "Cave" metaphor for both mystical experience and rational education (for which Plato also invented the world's first university, the "Academy."
Alfred North Whitehead wrote that "the best summary of the history of Western philosophy would be a series of footnotes to Plato."
3. Aristotle's NICOMACHEAN ETHICS
This is the classical defense of an ethic of a "natural moral law," based on the needs of human nature and on our natural knowledge of its principles, virtues, and vices. The single most radical social change in history has been modern Western civilization's increasing ignoring or abandoning of this idea of a natural moral law that is universally true and universally known.
Because it is "natural," Aristotle's ethics is also supremely commonsensical. He almost always steers between opposite extremes. Ordinary people, the poor, and the uneducated understand it better than the over-educated who are uprooted from their common nature and common sense. I met a man who lives with the "street people," the homeless, and teaches them philosophy; he said this was their favorite book.
Its main point is the nature of the "greatest good," the end for which all other goods are means, viz. happiness, which is primarily due not to chance or good luck ("hap" in Old English) but to virtues (good moral habits). Aristotle inherits the idea of the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice) from Plato and adds many more, and more practical psychological details.
4. Lao Tzu's TAO TE CHING
It is only 81 short poems but it is the most read and most translated book in the Orient, loved by believers in all religions. It is the classic ("Ching") about the spiritual power ("Te") of the "Tao" or "Way"
(a) of the wise, who read and follow the "way"
(b) of nature, which in turn manifests the "way"
(c) of ultimate, indefinable Reality.
What is common to all three is a kind of cosmic charity or selflessness, typified by water, which flows to the lowest places and nourishes and gives itself to all living things. This book has been called the closest thing outside of Christianity to the Sermon on the Mount.
It thus integrates the three levels of reality: man, nature, and God. It is a human ethic that learns from the one book that God wrote and gave to everyone, namely nature. It is from a Christian point of view the heart of natural revelation. It shows that "agape" love is cosmic.
And it is practical. It is testable. It works in human life. It explains why selfless saints are happy and wise.
5. Augustine's CONFESSIONS
This is the best known and loved Christian book outside the Bible for good reason. It is amazingly modern: introspective "depth psychology," ruthlessly honest in both head and heart because it is written to God, as a prayer; we are privileged to overhear it.
Its unifying thread is the famous quotation at its beginning: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and (therefore) our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." It is from and about the heart as well as the head, about love, which Augustine says is his identity and destiny and "gravity.'
Augustine shows us, from his own concrete experience, how all other loves simply do not work. This is lived philosophy, dramatic philosophy.
6. Boethius, THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY
My students are always surprised by this synthesis of classical wisdom (Stoicism, Aristotle, Plato, and above all Socrates), which is almost wholly unoriginal: they find it very original, because the most radical option in our culture, which has abandoned its tradition, is tradition.
Boethius writes from prison, awaiting execution for crimes he did not commit, and seeks wisdom about the problem of evil (why do bad things happen to good people?). The answer he gets from Lady Philosophy (Wisdom personified, who asks him Socratic questions) is close to the idea of divine Providence working all things, even evils, for good, and he gets this from universal human reason, not merely Christian faith. (The book is "The Consolation of Philosophy," not theology.)
He also rationally reconciles the apparent contradiction of human free will and infallible divine foreknowledge by describing God's life as a timeless present rather than a foreknowledge or predestination- an answer which became standard for subsequent centuries of Christian thought.
7. St. Anselm, PROSLOGIUM
This little book is famous for the most argued-about argument in philosophy, the "ontological argument" for God's existence from the premise that "God" means "all conceivable perfections" plus the premise that real, as distinct from merely mental, existence is a conceivable perfection.
But it is much more than that: it is a short summary of much of Christian theology written in charmingly Augustinian style which is both poetically beautiful and rationally clear. It includes a rational reconciliation of mercy and justice.
And it concludes with a profound and moving account of our supreme good, the joys of Heaven.
8. St. Thomas Aquinas, SUMMA THEOLOGIAE
St Thomas is, to my mind, clearly the greatest philosopher (as well as the greatest theologian) of all time. He combines clarity and profundity as no one else ever has. The "Summa" summarizes an astonishing questions in astonishingly few words. For instance, the "problem of evil" and its solution:
"If one of two contraries is infinite, the other has no room to exist. But 'God' means infinite goodness. So if God exists, evil could not exist. But evil does exist. Therefore God does not exist." Its solution: "God would not allow any evil to enter any of His works unless His power and wisdom were able to bring out of it a greater good."
St. Thomas shows the harmony between the thousands of truths revealed to faith by Christian theology and the millions of truths revealed to natural human reason, and he does this in more detail, more clarity, and more rational force than anyone else in history.
This tiny sample of the "Summa" focuses on (a) St. Thomas's famous five arguments for God's existence as the First Cause and (b) his arguments for union with God as our final end and good, as well as refuting the most popular alternative answers to that second question (e.g. wealth, power, fame, honor, pleasure, natural moral virtue). Both profound questions are treated with an amazing clarity and economy of words.
(severely abbreviated version, A SHORTER SUMMA, edited and footnoted by Peter Kreeft)
9. Kierkegaard, EITHER/OR
Kierkegaard, usually called the father of existentialism, saw himself as the Christian Socrates, making thought and life more difficult rather than easier with challenging questions- practical ones about life, not just theoretical ones about thought.
EITHER/OR, his first and most famous book, is about the first two of the three basic "ways of existence" or "lifestyles" that he distinguished: the "aesthetic" or sensory-hedonistic, the "ethical," and the "religious." It consists in an imagined set of letters between Don Jan the Seducer and the maturer Judge William. College students "relate to" and see themselves in both characters. Rather than arguing, Kierkegaard shows, like a novelist, the initial attractiveness and the long-range emptiness of pleasure-seeking, and the deeper joy of commitment and responsibility. Judge William reminds me of Jordan Peterson today. He is more a depth psychologist than a preacher. His style is seductive rather than deductive: tricky, engaging, witty, and very human.
Kierkegaard also wrote the most incisive comparison between the philosophies of Jesus and Socrates, the two most influential persons in history, on the question of how truth is found, in his PHILOSOPHICAL FRAGMENTS.
10. Pascal, PENSEES
Pascal is really the first modern "existentialist." He is a great psychologist and an honest chronicler of human vanities and miseries: the "bad news" that makes the "good news" of the Gospel stand out more clearly, especially the typically modern love of "diversions" and "indifference." lifestyles at the root of contemporary subjectivism and relativism. He is as ruthlessly honest as Augustine, who is his chief influence.
He stands at the junction of pre-modern (classical and Christian) and modern (post-Christian) philosophy, offering ancient answers to modern questions in modern terms. He is the single most effective Christian apologist I have ever found for typically modern pagans if they are honest and thoughtful.
His most famous idea, "Pascal's wager," I find is the most effective argument, to many skeptics, for believing in God even if He can't be proved. But it is usually misunderstood as merely a clever calculation, omitting its psychological surrounding texts.
11. J.R.R. Tolkien, THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Four reader polls picked this as "the greatest book of the 20th century." Many of its readers reread it many times, even though it is 1500 pages long. It totally transformed the genre of epic fantasy from "out in left field" to "the most imitated," though none of the hundreds of Tolkien imitators has ever come even close to his level of realism, detail, and identification with characters like elves, ents (talking trees), wizards, and hobbits.
Its central theme, the addictions of the Ring of Power, are central and germane to our society's worship of technology. Its intent is not to be an allegory but it has many contemporary applications. This myth is an escape from unreality, not from reality.
It also has real heroes -a rarity in our culture. (The movie reduced the stature and virtue of every one of the characters significantly.)
12. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV
This very philosophical novel is to my mind (and many others) simply the greatest novel ever written. Its characters are all "eccentric" yet close to home: Dostoyevsky shows us our own suppressed eccentricities of both good and evil. He draws us both up and down into the Heavens and Hells in our own hearts. Reading him is like a roller coaster ride into a hurricane.
It also shows us things we probably never dreamed of, such as "sobornost," the mystical but very real spiritual gravity between souls both for good and evil, and its insistence that each of us is responsible for the sins of all of us, as well as the joy that ensues from that honest confession.
It also contains the strongest argument for atheism (by Ivan, the moral and sympathetic atheist) in all of human literature--written by a passionate Russian Orthodox Christian (Dostoyevsky)! And many pages of philosophical wisdom by its guru, the mystic and saintly Fr. Zossima, that are far from familiar and expected platitudes.