Why study philosophy?


We have an urgent need for the study of the major ancient, modern and contemporary philosophers for two main reasons.

The first reason derives from the character of the modern world. The central characteristics of modernity are the results of a project launched by the early modern or enlightenment philosophers. The understanding of science as instrumental technology and the understanding of justice as human rights are only the two most prominent institutions that emerged from the writings of the philosophers of the 15th to 17th centuries. These thinkers were the first to proclaim that society could live in the light of the truth, a truth furnished by the newly re-founded natural and human sciences. Our present dilemmas are all  demonstrations of the great but partial success of this movement. The manifest benefits of modernity have been accompanied by wars and political crimes committed both in its name and in reaction against it, crises rendered the more catastrophic because of the power of modern science. Our current dilemmas, such as prosperity versus the degradation of the environment; advancing individual rights versus alienation or the breakdown of social institutions; national sovereignty versus the rights of immigrants and refugees; and so on, are all aspects of the initial modern founding of a new understanding of human nature and community. To understand the problems and paradoxes of the present age (including its dependent offshoot, post-modernism) we need to understand their roots in the teaching of modern philosophers such as Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and others. But these thinkers cannot be fully understood without recovering the teachings of the classical philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, whose thought they intended to supersede. Reconsideration of this quarrel between the ancients and the moderns is the focus of our teaching practice.

The second reason emerges from this recovery of the classics of philosophy. The classics taught that the ability to speak intelligibly or to reason is the distinctive mark of the human being and that the discovery of the truth is the key to our happiness and excellence. By contrast, the moderns as a whole make such activity instrumental and they tend to subordinate happiness and excellence to other goals of the state or society. Our School is intended to provide a place where the fundamental principles of human existence can be examined with the assistance of the necessary texts in order to put our leisure to its proper use, to cultivate our minds. As Aristotle puts it, if the activity of the intellect is only a part of us, “it exceeds everything else in power and dignity. And this activity would seem to be what each person is, since it’s the authoritative and better [part]. It would be strange, therefore, if someone were to choose to live not their own life, but the life of someone else.” (Nicomachean Ethics 1177b34-1178a4). The School is designed to provide an opportunity for participants to come to their own mind about the fundamental questions.

The original illustration accompanying Swift’s work,  The Battle of the Books , a satire on the quarrel between ancient and modern philosophy

The original illustration accompanying Swift’s work, The Battle of the Books, a satire on the quarrel between ancient and modern philosophy