What is Modern Philosophy?
In 1972, I was asked to give an appreciative talk on modern philosophy at our high school’s Arts and Humanities Festival. It was an evening program for interested students, parents, staff, and community members. What follows is that presentation, which, as will be apparent, is a young man’s take on modern thought and represents his best efforts at conveying, in a spirit of empathy, what he felt modern philosophy is about.
One derives little comfort from modern philosophy. Anyone wanting from its pages a certainty, a reassurance, an answer will go away hungry. But were one to reseat oneself at its table, it would be less to satisfy one’s hunger for answers to the enigmas of life than to cultivate a deeper understanding of those enigmas obscured by those answers. The answers, if there are any, will come unbidden if they come at all, which would be a pity for it’s the enigmatic that keeps us alive.
It has been said that the truth is sometimes sad. Now, who is there who can say that modern philosophy is true, but for those who believe that it is, there is much sadness. In fact, it were as though certain experiences had driven them to a point where they needed to understand modern philosophy to understand themselves, as if, contrary to what is usually supposed, it is not the mind that seeks understanding, but the heart.
One can enjoy a prodigious verbal command over modern thought, a pyrotechnically dazzling mastery of its works and ideas, and an unrivalled grasp of its intricacies, yet still be denied entry, for modern philosophy is less an invitation to intellectual discovery than a primordial night sea journey into uncharted waters. Conventional charts, maps, and treatises offer little assistance in finding one’s way around its questions, whose answers may lead into desolate regions where resilience of spirit is needed even to listen to, much less accept, what one hears.
To those for whom the inherited answers of Western civilization still are intact; for whom the religious interpretation of the universe with its eternal verities of the existence of God and the comforting solace of an afterlife still reign supreme; for whom traditional religion with its immutable absolutes and the moral grandeur of its divinely bestowed laws still pulsate as a sustaining force in their lives, bringing peace and security, certainty and comfort; for all these believers, modern philosophy is and, of necessity, will remain a sealed book forever. For they will read its pages less to understand than to refute, forgetting that what is written from an experience of loss can never be refuted.
Not that what was lost was lost suddenly. There were six centuries of preparation: the gradual breakdown of the medieval synthesis, which had given Western believers a fixed place in the universe for over 1500 years; the Renaissance, which enabled men and women to rediscover themselves as something new, self-sufficient, and beautiful; the Age of Discovery and Exploration, which shattered the insular and self-confident view of a European world in having to confront all manner of troubling theological questions about how to account for all those previously unknown and different peoples on the other side of the world where, by rights, they shouldn’t have been at all;
The social and political convulsions of Europe’s Wars of Religion, which taught that little, if anything, in theology could ever be proven, as each denomination exposed the weaknesses of its opponents’ doctrinal systems; the rise of 17th-century Rationalism and Empiricism, which shook the metaphysical foundations of Western philosophy and theology; the Enlightenment’s Scylla and Charybdis, Voltaire and Hume, whose jaded mockery and urbane eviscerations of everything that had once seemed so unassailably true still trouble readers; the hallowed phenomenon of Immanuel Kant, whose epistemological critiques about what could and couldn’t be known about this world and beyond have yet to be answered;
The Four Horsemen of the Modern Apocalypse — Copernicus, who overturned the centuries-old geocentric view that this Earth was not, after all, the center of the universe, but an insignificant planet revolving about a minor star in one of a myriad of galaxies; Marx, who suggested that philosophies and value-systems, far from emerging from a dispassionate search after truth, simply arise as weapons to legitimate or challenge a ruling elite’s view of the world; Darwin, who posited that the first human being was not fashioned from the clay of the earth, but blindly evolved, without purpose, from lower life forms; and Freud, who believed that reason was not humanity’s crowning possession, but the puppet of blind passion and unconscious promptings.
These four seminal thinkers, as well as the social sciences of history, depth psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, biblical criticism, and comparative religions with their positivistic and historicist underpinnings all culminated in the anguished cry of Nietzsche’s “God is dead!”
However, few have understood this cry or felt the profound sense of grief out of which it arose. Certainly not those for whom modern philosophy is but the empty prattle of the cocktail hour with its glib familiarity with fashionable clichés.
Unaware of this six-centuries-long historical process that led to the breakdown of traditional certainties, many have dismissed these three words as the delirious ravings of a madman; the sacrilegious blasphemy of a crazed creature railing against his Creator; the sound of the gauntlet thrown down in hubristic challenge to usurp the Divine Throne, whereas, in fact, it was none of these.
Rather, it was a clinical description that, as far as many 19th-century Western men and women were concerned, God was dead as a psychological fact, dead as a meaningful Presence in their lives, dead as a result of this six-hundred-year-long period of disintegration. But the irony of it was that Nietzsche’s contemporaries hadn’t yet realized what had happened or what it portended for religious belief. Allow me to quote Nietzsche himself in abbreviated form as he relates this transfixing tale of the “Madman” in all its soul-stirring pathos:
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and incessantly cried: “I seek God! I seek God!” As many of those who didn’t believe in God were just then standing by, he provoked much laughter. Did he get lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Thus did they shout and laugh.
The madman jumped into their midst and riveted them with his eyes. “Where did God go?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? Do we hear nothing yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? God is dead. And we have killed him.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in amazement . . . “I have come too early,” he said. “My time has not yet come. This tremendous event is still on its way; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder take time . . . .
Modern philosophy takes this cry of desolation and moves beyond it by exploring the implications of this cataclysmic event for the modern soul. For if God is dead, if insofar as Western civilization is concerned there is no God, afterlife, or moral order as the expression of God’s will, what would this mean for living our lives? Would everything stay the same or be changed beyond recognition? Would we look at life differently, live our lives differently, carry on as if nothing had happened, or create for ourselves a new vision of life? These are the concerns of modern philosophy in relation to which all else is trivial.
Modern philosophy is then an attempt at reorienting ourselves to living in a new mental, emotional, and psychological landscape, with everything we had ever known, felt safe with, and were certain about suddenly gone and having to make our own way forward, alone. It introduces us, perhaps for the first time, to life’s ultimate questions, but leaves us to find our own answers, rather than inheriting them with little reflection from the family and culture into which we were born.
The meaning of life would no longer be given to us as a book of instructions passed down from one generation to the next, but be something we’d have to create on our own.
We’d have to confront human existence in all of its mystery as once did the Greeks as they stood upon the shore of the Aegean and, looking up into the dark night of a mysterious universe, felt its crushing vastness with its terrifying silence and grandeur. Transfixed by the unimaginable scale of it all and the searing awareness of their own insignificance, they were overwhelmed by the enigmatic, an experience so rarely felt in our modern world of practicality, distraction, noise, and sick hurry.
Perhaps it is only youth that can relate to this wonder that lies beneath the surface of things, since the young are still young and not yet benumbed by the dead hand of custom. The riddle of life would not come pre-interpreted for them to save them the trouble of becoming adults, but would be born afresh in each of them to find their own meaning as thinking, searching, and inquisitive beings. This, at least, would be the ideal.
As we age, however, in this workaday world, we are no longer given to such vaulting inquiry, for to continue interrogating the universe about the meaning of things is to risk losing our certainties. Our inherited beliefs, truths, and values, all the things we hold most sacred might sadly prove false; everything we believed was fixed, secure, and meaningful might lack foundation and set us adrift in an eternal night as Nietzsche suggested.
And who is there who dares face this when one’s entire life might lose direction? How go on without immutable standards, a guiding North Star, when one’s beliefs and values might be irretrievably lost, and in their place the indifference of a silent universe that mutely looks on? To expose oneself to this vertigo risks everything, perhaps even oneself! Small wonder then that, for many, modern philosophy isn’t true, cannot be true, for the simple reason that it dare not be true!
Consider for a moment Matthew Arnold’s memorable poem “Dover Beach” of 1867, a staple of every high school British literature course. It reveals how a serious poet like Arnold was himself reeling under the impact of a skeptical Zeitgeist that was slowly unfolding in Victorian England and casting doubt upon the inherited view of the world. Or Thomas Hardy’s poem “Hap” written at the same time, with an even darker message.
But why bring up those Greeks as they contemplated a mysterious universe? Because many of them no longer believed in their ancient myths but were ready for a deeper understanding of the enigma of life. This was precisely what Greek drama gave them in profoundly moving experiences in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
Especially Euripides, with his iconoclastic view of the myths! These playwright-theologians invited their audiences to explore life’s enigmas in their retelling of the myths that went far beyond their literal meanings that no longer spoke to their modern times.
What was happening on the Greek stage was also occurring in the Athenian marketplace with Socrates as a one-man Enlightenment, asking questions, exposing fallacies, challenging, confounding, provoking, infuriating, delighting, inspiring, liberating, and talking to everyone who needed a physician of the soul.
This renaissance of the spirit continued into the next generations with Plato, Aristotle, and their successors. This unprecedented ferment in the theater and philosophy became for generations of Greeks the intoxica-ting new wine that inspired them to more reflective lives and altered the sensibility of the ancient world.
What was happening during that halcyon high noon of classical Greece has also been occurring in Western culture for the past few centuries when, for some, traditional answers to the eternal questions no longer ring true. Instead, they have turned to modern philosophy and its attempt to answer those questions in a way that speaks to their times and view of the world.
We have then two dramatically different outlooks on life. The traditional understanding believes in a Heaven, Hell, and this earthly life as a testing place, a time of trial, a preparation for the life to come. It is as if they were saying:
We must be on our guard against this world, for it is strewn with temptations, snares and delusions. While being in this world, we must never be of it lest we lose our way in its worldliness.
If we are good, we shall go to Heaven; if not, to Hell! The afterlife is, after all, our sole reason for living, the stage on which we work out our salvation. If there weren’t an afterlife with God, this life wouldn’t make sense.
There would be no point to living or being good. To die without reward after a good life or without punishment after a bad one wouldn’t be fair. There would be no justice in the universe!
Why even be born unless to go on to the afterlife, without which this life would have no meaning or purpose. It is only the hope of Heaven and the fear of Hell that keep this world from becoming a jungle. As Ivan Karamazov said, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted!”
This world would be an unbearable nightmare if, after so much suffering and struggle to lead a good life, everything ended in the grave! The human heart cries out that there must be something after death! This world cannot be our home but merely a place of exile where we are but pilgrims passing through to our heavenly home above.
The afterlife gives us instant perspective on the trials of this life because everything that happens has a divine plan and purpose. God will give us the strength to endure whatever he sends us, and by accepting it as his will our burden will be lightened, and we shall enjoy a peace passing all understanding. Attitude is everything, and seeing whatever happens through the eyes of eternity is the most potent medicine against despair.
This majestic narrative is compellingly set forth in the 15th-century morality play of Death summoning the Rich Man to give an accounting of himself in Everyman, a work that shows the vanity of this world and the meaning of life. It is a moving work that nourished the devotion of generations in the Western world, and a German reworking of this play, Jedermann, is still yearly staged before Salzburg Cathedral.
John Bunyan’s immortal 17th-century classic Pilgrim’s Progress is also a guide through the thickets and brambles of this world. Its message is still captivatingly haunting in its allegorical, charmingly old-fashioned style and riveting in its single-mindedness. It is a work that stirred the Western imagination until a few generations ago, and is still a cherished possession that touches the hearts of many as an eloquent commentary on the meaning of life.
Modern thought, on the other hand, believes that:
This earthly life is all there is, with nothing after death, and that life’s only meaning is what we ourselves give it. The purpose of life lies in the living of it; there is no other purpose, and if we don’t find it in the here and now, we’ll never find it anywhere.
It’s precisely the brevity of this life that makes it so precious, and life’s tragic beauty is that it does have an end. This is why we love it so dearly because it’s all that we have, and parting with loved ones will be forever. We anticipate the heartbreak of this everlasting farewell by appreciating all the more deeply those few brief moments we have now together.
The first step toward maturity is accepting the universe as it is, not as we would wish it to be; that it doesn’t have to conform to our wishes or sense of justice; and that it’s indifferent to us and our feelings. It was here first for billions of years before we were born, and will remain billions of years after we’re gone. Once we grasp this, we see how insignificant we are in the overall scheme of things.
God and the afterlife as simply figments of our imagination. If you have a sense of adventure, try to internalize this feeling over the next several days. If this little exercise starts to change your sensibility, you’re beginning to understand modern philosophy.
Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, said the Roman poet Horace. Seize the day, trusting not in tomorrow! Live in the now, which is all that we have and find fulfillment and happiness in this life alone. When we die, we’ll cease existing, body and soul. Knowing this, we’re not torn between this life and the “next,” but are rooted in this life alone, expecting no reward since this life is itself the reward.
Living life deeply, intensely, and reflectively is all that matters; experiencing as much of this life as we can, since the secret of life resides in the moment; loving this life no matter what happens; facing it head-on, not running from it, not sugar-coating it, but affirming it in all its confusion and turmoil, the good and the bad, embracing its mystery wherever it leads.
Nor is our life part of some grand scheme, purpose, or Providence, however flattering this may be to our ego, for we aren’t the main character in some cosmic drama. Life simply happens, point-blank, blindly, randomly, without plan or design. We accept this and find the strength to do so in ourselves and our family, the only source of our courage.
Nor is there a cushion to soften life’s sorrows. We suffer because we must. We have no other choice, and its only meaning is what we ourselves give it. Suffering can ennoble, embitter, or even destroy us, so it is very important how we accept it, for it will determine how we’ll live the rest of our lives.
However, if we let it, suffering can make us sympathetic to the suffering of others. When we see someone in pain, we’re on holy ground, and do all that we can to lessen their pain, even that of innocent animals. All of us are here together until death claims us all, who share the same fate and vulnerability.
Keats says in one of his letters, “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” Pain gives us eyes to see with the heart and not be indifferent to the pain of others. Accepting pain in this way can make us less self-centered, help us to grow, and be a comfort to others.
Nor is there an eternal moral order that pervades the universe, no cosmic “oughts,” “shoulds,” or “Thou shalt not’s.” Life simply is, and wisdom consists in accepting this. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own moral code. In fact, we reject Ivan Karamazov’s view that if God didn’t exist, then everything would be permitted because this assumes that the only reason for being good is that Someone above is watching, and if we’re bad will punish us.
Fear of punishment is a primitive reason for being good, since there are mature motives that have nothing to do with reward or punishment. Being good isn’t lacking the opportunity for being bad, being afraid of getting caught, helping someone for selfish reasons, or not hurting someone, but not even wanting to.
Perhaps you recall Plato’s famous story of the magical Ring of Gyges in Book 2 of his Republic. This ring could make you invisible, so that you could do whatever you wished and never get caught. If you had such a ring, would you still be good? Oh, you have to read Plato while you’re young or young at heart if you want to be swept up into the glorious realm of philosophy.
The Golden Rule is still the best guide for being good because what it’s saying is common sense. If you’d wanted help were you in someone’s position, then that’s what you should do for them. All morality can be reduced to these three simple words, Do unto others.
You don’t help people because it pleases God or it gets you a higher place in Heaven, or are afraid of getting a lower one if you don’t help them, but because they need help and you are there and can help them. They’re your fellow human beings. You don’t walk away even though you think there’s no God!
However, to be fair, Ivan was still a young man when he made that unfortunate statement and probably regretted saying it later in life.
Finally, because this life is all there is, we feel a special urgency to rid this world of social injustice. Accepting injustice as part of God’s will is wrong since such thinking only perpetuates injustice, makes people despair and be passive, and plays into the hands of oppressors.
Once you realize this, you seethe with anger and distrust the powerful, who always succumb to the lust for more power. We should never accept our lot in life because contentment makes us lose heart and retire from the battle. If we want to improve this world, we never wait for Godot.
In broad outline, this is the worldview of modern philosophy, and it goes without saying that those who see the world in this way also lead lives of integrity, but without the traditional motivations of love of God, hope of heaven, or fear of hell. Modern philosophy for them is not some cerebral affair of discussing esoteric “problems” around a university seminar table or writing technical papers for some learned guild hermetically sealed from the pain of the world.
Rather, it is a way of life, an ethical journey, a lifelong endeavor of self-overcoming and living a good life without God. Nor does it see why God is needed for living a good life or making the world a better place when natural reasons alone suffice.
At times, these modern believers may falter in living up to their lofty ideals as do their comrades-in-arms, religious believers, but this only binds them together in human solidarity. Humbled by failure, they never despair but continue the struggle.
Believers in modern philosophy continually wrestle with questions: If modern philosophy is true, how can I lead a meaningful life without God? If I believe I cannot, have I been told so often that I can’t that I’ve convinced myself of its impossibility?
How do I remain true to myself in a world that is blind to everything I cherish? Do I need the approval of others to be validated in my own eyes? Are there objective answers to the questions of life, or must I create them myself in a world where there seem to be no answers at all?
Are beliefs true if they don’t make me grow or bring some measure of happiness? Does wisdom consist in following tradition, or is this mindless conformity? When can causes, loyalties, and ambitions keep me from becoming who I am or striving to become?
Should I be ashamed of my failures or use them as stepping-stones to become someone better? Why shouldn’t I give up after so many failures, or is this the only real failure?
How much of my life is theater, pretense, and ritual? How much of my relating to others is sincere or keeping-at-bay? Do I talk and talk and talk so as not to have to reveal myself? When can my position, role, image, or “best interests” take over my life? How much of the world am I responsible for? Must I succeed or only try to improve my corner of it? How do I know when I’ve done enough?
What assures me that every question must have an answer, or that only one answer is right and not a succession of answers for life’s different stages? Or that these answers aren’t the creations of my own needs, or is this the only sound basis for answers?
Religious believers also ask many of these same questions and have been for centuries, but with different motives. These questions and others like them are simply an old-fashioned examination of conscience that allows both groups to focus on the essentials of life while reminding them of their weaknesses, the recognition of which is the first step toward self-overcoming and keeping close to their souls.
Like the intrepid Ulysses, both groups stop up their ears lest they become bewitched by the siren call of an escapist, one-dimensional culture which would keep them on the surface of life. Like the Greek Stoic Epictetus, they cannot choose their external circumstances, but they can choose their response to them. Both live “the examined life” by taking different paths to the mountaintop where they live their lives before God or without him.
We have then two different visions of life with the same concerns and struggles. Does each have a blind spot which the other can heal? Does each embody the other’s self-doubt? Does modern philosophy entail more faith, and religion more doubt than either would care to acknowledge? Is doubt a sign of weakness or strength? Does it matter what one believes as long as it’s done with integrity?
Or is modern philosophy, like traditional thought, even true, or does it need to be true for its believers to grow? Could illusion bear fruit in their lives? Is it the truth of a belief that helps one to grow or the belief in that truth? Is suffering for a belief more important than its truth since suffering develops character?
Modern philosophy might very well be false and yet be very important as its believers’ only possible form of integrity. Their disbelief in God would preclude traditional spirituality, but they possess their own by living “the examined life,” keeping first things first, helping others, showing compassion, standing up for right, and practicing the only religion they understand — kindness to others, which is dogma-free.
They have natural, not religious, motives for living a good life: doing the right thing because it is the right thing; helping others out of human compassion, not because it’s God’s will. They don’t drink, do drugs, or dissipate themselves not to please God, but to keep themselves from an early grave.
They’re modern-day Pelagians, those 5th-century “heretics” who refused to accept that human nature was “innately depraved” and that God’s grace alone could make them good rather than their own human effort. They believe that telling people they are inherently evil is so destructive that it creates self-fulfilling prophecies that cause them to become the very thing they are warned against.
They read the lives of their saints — Socrates, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Voltaire, Hume, Orwell, and Camus among others. They take their inspiration from wherever they can find it — from living their lives, talking to others, walking in nature, going to plays, listening to music, playing with their pet, doing everyday things that make life worth living, so as to live their lives with integrity.
Religious believers could see in their shared values and example another way of living one’s life that had no less integrity than their own and that could foster ecumenical discourse. They could also accept natural reasons for leading good lives and revisit as adults their inherited beliefs learned as children.
Modern philosophy helps us rediscover our traditional beliefs in a larger context by considering the role of chance in our lives. We are taken aback when realizing that we could just as easily have been born in a different time and culture with different beliefs, which we would have held just as fervently as we now do our own. However, it just so happened that we were born in this culture with its beliefs. Is it Providence or Chance that rules our lives?
Modern philosophy invites those who desire to live “the examined life” to become what philosophy had always intended its initiates to become 25 hundred years ago in the Golden Age of Athenian Greece — “φιλόσοφοι,” “lovers of wisdom,” philosophers. They pursued their calling not only as a way of earning their bread, but also of living noble lives by adopting, after a critical review of the evidence, a personal vision of what they believed was true, instead of subscribing to a fixed canon of beliefs of some school, institution, or tradition.
Modern philosophy, as philosophy of old, still engages in this love affair with wisdom, still learning to love the old, but eternal questions by encouraging its followers to become young again, young enough to pursue the beautiful, the elusive, and the mysterious with an open mind and heart.
In conclusion, let me end with an extended quotation by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German author of the 18th century. “The true value of a man is not determined by his supposed or real possession of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth.
It is not possession of the Truth, but rather its pursuit which broadens his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession of the Truth makes one passive, indolent, and proud.
If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent striving for Truth, although with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one — pure Truth is for You alone.”
“Well, this is all very well and good,” someone might say, “but what if modern philosophy is wrong and there is a God, an afterlife, and an eternal moral order as traditionalists think? Wouldn’t a believer in modern philosophy then be in trouble with the Lord — and, not to put too fine a point on it, wouldn’t there be hell to pay?”
Not at all! For if on the Last Day this person found himself before the Judgment Seat of the Almighty, the Lord would simply look into his heart and, seeing his sincerity, beckon him into Heaven, for the Lord wouldn’t be the Lord if he weren’t more open-minded than this poor erring creature who had only followed his conscience and thought he was doing right!