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The Great Philosophers

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School of Life blog.

The Great Eastern Philosophers: Confucius. The Great Eastern Philosophers: The Buddha. The story of the Buddha’s life, like all of Buddhism, is a story about confronting suffering.

The Great Eastern Philosophers: The Buddha

He was born between the sixth and fourth century B.C., the son of a wealthy king in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. It was prophesied that the young Buddha — then called Siddhartha Gautama — would either become the emperor of India or a very holy man. Since Siddhartha’s father desperately wanted him to be the former, he kept the child isolated in a palace with every imaginable luxury: jewels, servants, lotus ponds, even beautiful dancing women. Young Prince Siddhartha with his bride and servants For 29 years, Gautama lived in bliss, protected from even the smallest misfortunes of the outside word: “a white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, and dew.” A Chinese painting from the Tang Dynasty shows Buddha discovering illness and old age Gautama tried to learn from other holy men. The Great Philosophers 10: Martin Heidegger. The Great Philosophers 11: Emile Durkheim. Emile Durkheim is the philosopher who can best help us to understand why Capitalism makes us richer and yet frequently more miserable; even – far too often – suicidal.

The Great Philosophers 11: Emile Durkheim

He was born in 1858 in the little French town of Epinal, near the German border. His family were devout Jews. Durkheim himself did not believe in God, but he was always fascinated by, and sympathetic to, religion. The Great Philosophers 12: Augustine. Augustine was a Christian philosopher who lived in the early 5th century AD on the fringes of the rapidly declining Roman Empire, in the North African town of Hippo (present day Annaba, in Algeria).

The Great Philosophers 12: Augustine

He served as Bishop for over thirty years, proving popular and inspirational to his largely uneducated and poor congregation. In his last days, a Germanic tribe known as the Vandals burnt Hippo to the ground, destroyed the legions, made off with the town’s young women but left Augustine’s cathedral and library entirely untouched out of respect for the elderly philosopher’s achievements. He matters to us non-Christians today because of what he criticised about Rome, its values and its outlook – and because Rome has so many things in common with the modern West, especially the United States, which so revered the Empire that it wanted its capital city on the Potomac to look as if it might have been magically transported from the banks of the Tiber. i: Earthly Happiness ii: A just Social Order ii.

The Great Philosophers 13: John Ruskin. John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the most ambitious and impassioned English social reformers of the 19th century.

The Great Philosophers 13: John Ruskin

He was also - at first sight - a deeply improbable reformer, because he seemed to care mostly about one thing - beauty - which has a reputation for being eminently apolitical and removed from ‘real life’. And yet the more Ruskin thought about beauty - the beauty of things humans make, ranging from buildings to chairs, paintings to clothes - the more he realised that the quest to make a more beautiful world is inseparable from the need to remake it politically, economically and socially.

In a world that is nowadays growing not only ever more polluted and more unequal but also, though we seldom remark upon it, uglier, Ruskin’s emphasis on beauty and his understanding of its role in political theory make him an unusual yet timely and very necessary figure. The Great Philosophers 15: La Rochefoucauld. There’s a belief that philosophy, when properly done, should sound dense, forbidding, a little confusing, as if it might have been awkwardly translated from the German.

The Great Philosophers 15: La Rochefoucauld

But at the dawn of the modern age lived a French philosopher who trusted in a very different way of presenting his thoughts, a man who wrote a very slim book, barely 60 pages long, that can deservedly be counted as one of the true masterpieces of philosophy, a compendium of acerbic, melancholy observations about the human condition, each of them only a sentence or two long, that retains an exceptional number of timely, wise and oddly consoling lessons for our morally confused and distracted age. The Great Philosophers 16: John Rawls. Many of us feel that our societies are a little – or even plain totally – ‘unfair’.

The Great Philosophers 16: John Rawls

But we have a hard time explaining our sense of injustice to the powers that be in a way that sounds rational and without personal pique or bitterness. That’s why we need John Rawls (1921-2002), a twentieth-century American philosopher who provides us with a failproof model for identifying what truly might be unfair – and how we might gather support for fixing things. The Great Philosophers 1: Plato.

Athens, 2400 years ago.

The Great Philosophers 1: Plato

It’s a compact place: around 250,000 people live here. There are fine baths, theatres, temples, shopping arcades and gymnasiums. Art is flourishing, and science too. You can pick up excellent fish down at the harbour in Piraeus. It’s warm for more than half the year. This is also home to the world’s first true – and probably greatest – philosopher: Plato. The Great Philosophers 2: The Stoics. ‘Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society.

The Great Philosophers 2: The Stoics

It had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain. We still honour this school whenever we call someone ‘stoic’ or plain ‘philosophical’ when fate turns against them: when they lose their keys, are humiliated at work, rejected in love or disgraced in society. Of all philosophies, Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful for our uncertain and panicky times. Many hundreds of philosophers practiced Stoicism but two figures stand out as our best guides to it: the Roman politician, writer and tutor to Nero, Seneca [AD 4-65]; and the kind and magnanimous Roman Emperor (who philosophised in his spare time while fighting the Germanic hordes on the edges of the Empire), Marcus Aurelius [AD 121 to 180]. 1. 2. 3.

The Great Philosophers 3: Epicurus. The Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was born in 341 BC, on the island of Samos, a few miles off the coast of modern Turkey.

The Great Philosophers 3: Epicurus

He had an unusually long beard, wrote over three hundred books and was one of the most famous philosophers of his age. What made him famous was his skilful and relentless focus on one particular subject: happiness. The Great Philosophers 4: Nietzsche. The challenge begins with how to pronounce his name.

The Great Philosophers 4: Nietzsche

The first bit should sound like ‘Knee’, the second like ‘cher’: Knee – cher. Friedrich Nietzsche was born in 1844 in a quiet village in the eastern part of Germany, where – for generations – his forefathers had been pastors. He did exceptionally well at school and university; and so excelled at ancient Greek (a very prestigious subject, at the time) that he was made a professor at the University of Basel when still only in his mid-twenties. But his official career didn’t work out. He got fed up with his fellow academics, gave up his job and moved to Switzerland and Italy where he lived modestly and often alone.

The Great Philosophers 5: Adam Smith. Adam Smith is our guide to perhaps the most pressing dilemma of our time: how to make a capitalist economy more humane and more meaningful. He was born in Scotland in Kirkcaldy – a small manufacturing town – near Edinburgh in 1723. He was a hard working student and very close to his mother. In his childhood, he was briefly kidnapped by gypsies. The Great Philosophers 6: Hegel. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770. He had a very middle-class life. He was obsessed by his career path. He was a newspaper editor and then a headmaster before becoming an academic professor. He fretted all his life about his income. He never quite got his hair under control. Hegel has had a terrible influence on philosophy.

Important parts of ourselves can be found in history Hegel was rare among philosophers in taking history seriously. But Hegel preferred to believe that every era can be looked at as a repository of a particular kind of wisdom. So, for example, we might need to mine the history of Ancient Greece to grasp fully the idea of what community could be; the Middle Ages can teach us – as no other era can – about the role of honour; an inspiring vision of how money can pay for art is to be found in the Florence of the 14th century, even if this period featured appalling attitudes to children and the rights of women. Progress is never linear.

The Great Philosophers 7: Jean-Paul Sartre. Jean-Paul Sartre was born in 1905. His father, a navy captain, died when he was a baby – and he grew up extremely close to his mother until she remarried, much to his regret, when he was twelve. Sartre spent most of his life in Paris, where he often went to cafes on the Left Bank and sat on benches in the Jardin du Luxembourg. He had a strabismus, a wandering eye, and wore distinctive, heavy glasses. He was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for literature, but refused it on the grounds that the award was capitalist and bourgeois. He was very short (five feet three inches) and frequently described himself as ugly. Sartre became famous as the key figure in the philosophical movement known as Existentialism. The Great Philosophers 8: Theodor Adorno. Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno was born in Frankfurt in 1903 into a wealthy and cultured family. His father, a wine merchant, was of Jewish origin but had converted to Protestantism at university.

Teddy (as his closest friends called him) was an extremely fine pianist from a young age. Until his twenties, he planned for a career as a composer, but eventually focused on philosophy. In 1934, he was barred, on racial grounds, from teaching in Germany. So he moved to Oxford and later to New York and then Los Angeles. The Great Philosophers 9: Max Weber. The Great Philosophers: Alexis de Tocqueville  Democracy was achieved by such a long, arduous and heroic struggle that it can feel embarrassing – even shameful – to feel a little disappointed by it. We know that at key historical moments people have made profound sacrifices so that we can, every now and then, place a cross next to the name of a candidate on a ballot sheet. For generations across large parts of the world democracy was a secret, desperate hope. But today, we’re likely to go through periods of feeling irritated and bored by our democratically-elected politicians. We’re disappointed by the parties and sceptical that elections make a difference.

And yet not to support democracy, to be frankly against democracy, is not a possible attitude either. That’s why de Tocqueville went to America: to see what the future would be like. The Great Philosophers: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Great Philosophers: Karl Marx. Most people agree that we need to improve our economic system somehow. It threatens our planet through excessive consumption, distracts us with irrelevant advertising, leaves people hungry and without healthcare, and fuels unnecessary wars.

Yet we’re also often keen to dismiss the ideas of its most famous and ambitious critic, Karl Marx. This isn’t very surprising. In practice, his political and economic ideas have been used to design disastrously planned economies and nasty dictatorships. The Great Philosophers: Matthew Arnold. The Great Philosophers: Michel de Montaigne. The Great Philosophers: Thomas Aquinas. The Great Philosophers: William Morris. The Great Philosophers.