In 1974, an unstable and unknown man called Robert Pirsig finally got a publisher to agree to publish his strange, unwieldy manuscript. And 2024 will thus be the 50th anniversary of the best-selling philosophy book in the USA of all time: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values.
But why is this book important now? Why is philosophy important now?
To explain, let me begin with Hindu cosmology. According to this cosmology, we are currently in the Kali Yuga, the age of vice and misery, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy, an age of discord and strife. Is this literally true? Personally, I don’t believe in Hindu cosmology, but really, who knows?
What we do know is that a few years ago, a strange virus spread through the world, killing millions, shutting life down for years. We know that the planet is burning and that climate catastrophe is already here. We know that as I write this, and most likely as you read it, there are bombs falling in Ukraine and the Middle East. We know that innocent people are being tortured and babies are being killed.
Regardless of whether we put in terms of Hindu cosmology or not, we know that the world is troubled and that times are tough. We live in a time of profound suffering.
And it is also a time of deep uncertainty. What is the world going to look like in 10 years? What is going to happen with Artificial Intelligence? With climate change? With wars and conflicts? No one knows, and anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something.
We are living at an inflection point in human history. Everything is in play, even such fundamental questions as the future of the human world and what it means to be human at all.
In such times, what we need more than anything else is wisdom.
I say wisdom deliberately. We do not need more intelligence, more smartness, more technology, more life-hacks, more money, more gadgets. The need of the hour is instead something much more basic and much more profound―we need to investigate what really matters, what is truly important, we need to figure out what it means to be human and what it means to live a good life.
Philosophy, as you will know, literally means the love of wisdom, and that is exactly what we need now. But true philosophy is surprisingly hard to find. There is no shortage of people pretending to be philosophers, because there is always money and status to be gained by peddling fake wisdom to the suffering masses. But true philosophers, people animated by a genuine love of wisdom and for humanity, people who search relentlessly for the truth about what matters, about what the world is and how we should live in it… such people are very rare indeed.
Robert Pirsig was a true philosopher. His book is a serious, sustained and passionate “inquiry into values”. With burning intensity, with transparent sincerity, he asks: what is really valuable? What truly matters?
You do not have to agree with his answers. In fact, I suspect he would prefer it if you didn’t, because a true philosopher doesn’t want people to agree with what he says―a true philosopher wants people to think for themselves. But his work, and the work of all the other philosophers we discuss in this issue, are essential reading for anyone searching for wisdom in this Kali Yuga.
THE LONGING TO BE WHOLE
To the extent that these things can be judged objectively, Robert Pirsig was objectively a genius. When he was nine, they tested him and found he had an IQ of 170. He jumped several grades at school and started college at 15. He saw military service in Korea and came back to study at the University of Chicago. His studies led him to a fascination with India and ancient wisdom, and he arranged to spend time studying in Banaras (at a time when this was still a very rare thing to do for a westerner). When he completed his studies, he taught at a couple of universities in the American Midwest.
But intelligence does not mean success or comfort. Pirsig struggled professionally and with his (mental) health. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic depression) and was given shock therapy. He could not keep his jobs. Eventually, he found a job he could keep, and did it―all the while waking up at 2am so he could write Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before he had to go work.
When completed, it was around 8,00,000 words long. He sent it to publishers. With a wonderful unanimity, all of them declined to publish it. Eventually, it was rejected by 121 publishers. But then one said yes, and published the book in 1974―at which point this novelised autobiography became an overnight success.
On one level, the book is the story of a 17-day road trip that the narrator takes with his son and two friends. But as millions of readers have discovered over the last 50 years, what it really about is… Well, in order to say what it is really about, we will have to go back to Plato, one of Pirsig’s major inspirations and someone he writes about extensively in this book.
Plato’s Symposium is the story of a bunch of men getting drunk and talking about love. We’ve all been there. Drink makes people sentimental. One of the people there is the playwright Aristophanes. He’s really wasted, which is unsurprising; he’s a writer, after all. But he will have his say.
Fighting his hiccups, he announces that human beings were originally round, ‘with back and sides making a circle, and with four arms, the same number of legs.’ And these round freaks ‘were awesome in strength and might, and their ambition was great, too. They made an assault on the gods.’
Naturally, the gods did not like this. They gathered on Mount Olympus and discussed what to do about this insolence. Just killing off human beings was ruled out because that would put ‘an end to the worship and sacrifices they received from human beings’. But they had to do something.
‘I think I have a plan,’ said Zeus. ‘I shall split each one of them in half, and that will make them weaker.’
He did this. And ever since, says Aristophanes in his drunken speech, the soul of a human being has been split in two, and we wander around the world searching desperately for the other half, for the part of our soul that will make us whole.
That, says Aristophanes, is what love is, and that is why humans hunger for it: “For each of us is a mere tally of a person, one of two sides of a filleted fish, one half of an original whole. We are all continually searching for our other half.”
On one level, Aristophanes’s myth of the divided soul is of course ridiculous. But golly it gets at something. Who amongst us has not felt the pain of not being whole? Of not being fully what we are supposed to be? The pain of absence, of something missing, of a rent in our souls that we frantically try to either patch or ignore? And who has not felt the necessary corollary of this pain, which is the longing for unity? The longing to be whole, to be restored to the integrity of our original selves?
It appears, in fact, that this is the original human condition. The ancient mythologies of both ‘the Orient and the Occident’, says Joseph Campbell, had a ‘shared mythological image of the first being, who was originally one but became two.’
Which is to say: In the beginning was not the Word.
In the beginning was the Division.
It is this division and the consequent longing to be made whole again that is the fundamental theme of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Robert Pirsig tells the long, painful and intoxicating story of recognising the division of his own soul―and of how he managed to overcome it. He offers us an example of salvation and holds out the prospect that we may all one day be able to find the missing parts of our own souls.
Pirsig frames the division in terms of a traditional conflict between “classical” and “romantic” modes of approaching and understanding the world. This is reminiscent of Nietzsche, and his distinction between Apollo and Dionysus―Apollo is the god of order, of reason and sense, while Dionysus is the god of excess, of intoxicated emotion, of drunkenness, of the mad chaos that engulfs us. To put it less poetically, the classical mode is more or less the way of rationality and the romantic mode is the way of feeling.
Pirsig struggles existentially and intellectually with the question: How are the two to be reconciled? Can they even be reconciled? In a series of passages which read as though they had been wrenched out of the depths of suffering, he thinks through the question, and he describes what appears to be a descent into insanity as the problem consumes him.
Pirsig arrives at what sounds like a version of enlightenment; at any rate, he describes an experience which appears to be either an enlightenment-experience or madness (the line between the two is rather blurry sometimes). The answer, he sees, and tries to make us understand, is that there is something underlying all these distinctions and dichotomies, something underneath the divisions that is unified and One.
The Socratic Method
In an irony that the man himself would have appreciated, let us begin our list of the most important philosophy books of all time with someone who never wrote a book at all―Socrates, the man acknowledged by all western philosophers as the father of their tradition.
Socrates was born in Athens in 469 BC. The son of a stonemason, he refused to take his father’s profession and instead devoted himself to philosophy: to learning how a man should live. He wandered the agora, the Greek marketplace, speaking to whoever crossed his path, trying to find out from them what was good and wise.
He did this for many years but without much success. The more he looked for answers, the fewer he found, and all he was left with were questions and doubt.
At this point, Chaerephon, a boyhood friend of Socrates, had travelled to Delphi. For the Greeks, the centre of the world, the navel of the universe, was at Delphi. And at the centre of the world stood Apollo’s temple, tended to by his high priestess, the Pythia, otherwise known as the Oracle of Delphi.
Chaerephon had travelled to Delphi to ask the Pythia a simple question: Who was the wisest of men?
Socrates, she answered.
When Socrates heard this, he was baffled. He was the wisest of men? But he knew nothing!
At the same time, the oracle never lied. If the god had told her that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece, then Socrates was indeed the wisest man in Greece. But… what?
The wisest of men? It did not make any sense to him. He decided to investigate it further.
First, he went to “one of those who had a reputation for wisdom, thinking that there, if anywhere, I should prove the utterance wrong and should show the oracle. ‘This man is wiser than I, but you said I was wisest.”’ He talked with this man, he examined him, and he concluded that the man was not actually wise.
So then he went to another one of those with a reputation for wisdom, and conducted the same kind of inquiry. There too, he found that the reputation was unearned.
Then he went to another, and another, and another still, and he kept finding the same thing: none of these men were actually wise!
Then, having exhausted the “public men”, Socrates went to the poets and then to the hand-workers, and in both cases, in all cases, he continued to be disappointed. These men, who thought themselves so wise, were not wise at all!
From these continued disappointments, Socrates eventually generates an answer to the riddle of why the oracle had called him the wisest of men. The point, says Socrates, is not that he, Socrates, knows more than other men.
Rather, “it is likely that the god is really wise and by his oracle means this: ‘Human wisdom is of little or no value.’ And it appears that he does not really say this of Socrates, but merely uses my name, and makes me an example, as if he were to say: ‘This one of you, O human beings, is wisest, who, like Socrates, recognises that he is in truth of no account in respect to wisdom.””
What Socrates is telling us, what he is trying to teach us, what true philosophers always try to teach us, is this: one of the biggest obstacles to wisdom is thinking that we already have it.
Socrates devises a method to help us ordinary people learn that we do not know―the famous Socratic method. At its most philosophical, the aim of the Socratic method is not to learn something or arrive at some belief. Rather, the aim is to bring the interlocutor to a realisation of their ignorance. It is to bring the student to the point where she recognises just how ignorant she truly is, just how little she truly knows.
It is a dangerous thing to try to teach people. In the end, Socrates paid for it with his life. He was convicted of the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens and put to death for it in 399 BC. There is nothing more glorious in the history of philosophy than the story of how Socrates accepted his death, but that is a story for another time.
Plato was born in around 429 BC the child of two aristocrats. A time arrived when his parents decided that he needed more teaching and education than they were capable of giving him. One morning, his father, Ariston, took the little boy to the Master they wanted for their son. They arrived as he was talking to a group of people, so Ariston stood quietly at the back, waiting for him to finish.
The Master appeared to be telling the group about a dream he had had the previous night. A baby swan, the bird of Apollo, the god that the Master felt bound to, had flown onto his lap. Immediately, the cygnet grew into a full-blown swan and it flew into the sky, extending its wings to the heavens, singing a full-throated song of the purest sweetness.
Suddenly, the Master stopped.
“Come here,” he said.
Without hesitation, the little boy stepped forward.
“Here,” said the Master. “Here is the swan I met last night.”
And that was how Plato met Socrates and became his disciple.
Plato loved Socrates.
The love was not uncomplicated; it never is, between a parent and a child, between a teacher and disciple. As Plato learned, he began to disagree, he began to find flaws. He grew, as he saw it, beyond Socrates, because he had an answer where Socrates only had his holy ignorance.
But all of that is consistent with love, and Plato loved Socrates.
When Plato was on his deathbed, Plutarch says, he looked back on his life and was grateful for three things above all:
“Plato, when he was now at the point of death, lauded his guardian genius and Fortune because, to begin with, he had been born a man and not an irrational animal; again, because he was a Greek and not a Barbarian; and still again, because his birth had fallen in the times of Socrates.”
Socrates was Plato’s teacher, his initiator into the holy rites, the man who had lifted Plato out of the world and set him on the sacred path that had led to the divine.
And so, when Plato saw Socrates put to death by the mob of Athens, it was too much for him. He left Athens. He went to Megara to meet his friend, the philosopher Eucleides. He went to southern Italy to meet the disciples of Pythagoras. He went to Egypt and travelled throughout the Persian Empire.
Plato wandered the world, he suffered, endured, and learned. The Pythagoreans opened their mysteries to him. He was initiated into the ancient rites of the Egyptians. He was instructed in the words of Moses. He studied Zoroastrianism from the Persian Magi.
And all the while, he thought of the murder of Socrates. He would never forgive. But he was beginning to understand.
In 387 BC, twelve years after Socrates was murdered by the tyrants and the mob, Plato returned to Athens. He bought a piece of land just outside the city walls. The land was called the Academy because it was dedicated to the ancient hero Akademus. And on this land, Plato began the work he had been born for. He talked and taught, held informal classes and discussions with whoever was interested. They would meet in the olive grove and talk long into the night, the air turning cool and the sky glittering with a hard light.
And 12 years after that, Plato wrote the Republic. This book, the culmination of the last 30 years, and arguably the crowning literary achievement of his philosophical life, had one fundamental question: What is justice?
All of you living in this city, in our Republic, are brothers, says Plato. You are one blood, bound to one another through life and death.
Brothers, repeats Plato, the olive trees murmuring in the breeze. Do you understand what it means?
They nod, slowly, uncertainly, thinking they understand, not entirely sure.
Before I say anything more, understand this: You were all made by the same gods. You are all the children of the gods. Do you understand?
Yes, someone says quietly, and again that uncertain nod spreads.
In some of you, the god has mixed some gold; in others, some silver; and in others still, some bronze. The ones with gold―you are the ones equipped to rule. The ones with silver―you are the ones equipped to fight. The ones with bronze―you are the farmers and the other craftsmen.
In our city, in the noble Republic of our dreams, each of you does what the god has created you to do. The ones with gold in them rule. The ones with silver in them fight. The ones with bronze in them farm.
In our Republic, the rulers will rule not because they love power but because they love their brothers. They will rule because they will understand that they are the best at ruling and so it will be best for the city if they rule. And so with the others, the men with silver and bronze in them.
That is what justice is. Each doing what they are meant to do, each doing what the god has intended for them― and doing it like brothers: doing it for each other, with love for each other, living and working like brothers, because that is what they are.
In a city like this, Socrates would not have been murdered.
3 Rene Descartes
Meditations on First Philosophy
On November 10, 1619, a young French soldier called Rene Descartes was returning from the coronation of the emperor to the army. But the beginning of winter stopped him and compelled him to take refuge in a little town in Bavaria. He knew no one in the town and there was nothing to do. So he spent the whole day by himself, alone in his stove-heated room, with nothing but his own thoughts for company.
In this situation, you and I might think about that show we saw last night on Netflix, or what we would have for dinner, or whether tea was better than coffee. But Rene Descartes, thankfully for the fate of modern science and, in fact, modern humanity, too, was not you or me.
Descartes spent the whole day thinking about… everything. He thought about his life, about what he wanted to do with it, about whether he should fulfil his family’s expectations or whether he should follow the impulse inside him that was driving him elsewhere. He thought about responsibility and passion, about the difference between a job and a vocation. He thought about philosophy, about how much he had read and studied, and how uncertain it had left him about everything, about how his reading had shown him that “nothing can be imagined which is too strange or incredible to have been said by some philosopher.”
Thinking about all this, he realised something that is necessary to realise if you want to think new thoughts: he had spent his years studying “the book of the world”. He had examined other people’s thoughts, other people’s customs, other people’s opinions. It was time, he realised, to stop studying other minds and start studying his own.
As he paced up and down that small stove-heated room, he came up with a personal manifesto: “As for the opinions I had accepted up to then, I couldn’t do better than to undertake, once and for all, to reject them all. I could replace them afterward, either with better ones or with the very same, after I had adjusted them to the level of reason.”
He thought and thought and thought, and arrived at methods and principles, at a way of proceeding, at a procedure for thinking that would once and for all eliminate uncertainty and establish “the foundation of the wonderful science”.
He went to bed “completely filled with his enthusiasm”. And that night, he had three dreams. We will pass over the content of the dreams here; suffice it to say that Descartes interpreted them as visionary dreams. The dreams were messages from the divine, thought Descartes, and they were warning him of his old ways and telling him to be true to the new method and the new way that he had found. That way, said the dreams, lies truth. Do not betray it.
The next day, Rene Descartes woke up and set to work.
The most glorious fruit of that work is the book Meditations on First Philosophy. Published in 1641, it’s astonishingly short, barely 100 pages (even fewer in some editions), but in those 100 pages it manages to overturn philosophy completely and to set the agenda for philosophising for the next 400 years. And while doing this, it also manages to kill the Aristotelian system of physics and replace it with what would eventually become modern science.
Descartes begins by asking the question: How can we know anything? Indeed, can we? How can we be sure that we aren’t being deceived by an evil demon? How do we know we aren’t dreaming? How can we know that an external world exists?
Descartes is determined to believe only what is absolutely certain, and so he rejects everything that isn’t, no matter how plausible. But he is no sceptic. He uses his famous method of doubt not because he wants to destroy knowledge but because he wants to put it on a more secure footing.
Does he succeed? It’s debatable, and philosophers have debated it ever since. But what isn’t debatable is that this is one of the single most important books in the entire history of humanity.
4 Baruch Spinoza
Baruch means blessed in Hebrew, and when it came to natural gifts of intellect and personality, Baruch Spinoza was indeed a blessed man. He is the philosopher’s philosopher, renowned for the subtlety of his thought and the startlingly beautiful clarity of his metaphysical system. In addition, he was by common consensus also a great man; as Bertrand Russell says, he was ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers.’
Baruch Spinoza was born in 1632 in Amsterdam. He was a talented student, but had to leave his studies at the age of 17 to work in his father’s business. And then, on July 27, 1656, when he was 24, “Spinoza was issued the harshest writ of herem, ban or excommunication, ever pronounced by the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam; it was never rescinded.”
Why? It has never been exactly made clear. But the best educated guess is that it was because of his philosophy, and specifically because of the arguments and claims that he would shortly publish in the Ethics.
All great philosophy is ambitious. But even by those standards, the Ethics is astonishing in its ambition. As the writers of a scholarly introduction to the Ethics put it, ‘it addresses every area of philosophical inquiry…: ontology, philosophy of mind, physics, epistemology, the study of emotions, social philosophy, political philosophy, meta-ethics, moral philosophy and, finally, the consideration of ‘final things’ such as freedom, happiness and eternity.”
Despite its ambition, the central message of the Ethics, at least as Spinoza saw it, is clear and simple―it is a message about the good life for a human being and how we can be happy.
We will never find happiness, Spinoza argues, in the fleeting and transitory things we normally chase. More money, a better job, status, good food, sense pleasures, social pleasures… none of them will give us the happiness that we long for.
Now, if we accept that and decide to look for happiness somewhere else, the immediate and obvious alternative is religion. Organised religion is after all presented as an alternative to our usual worldly concerns, and the priests of religion are not shy in telling us that theirs is the road to joy.
But Spinoza rejects this, too. For Spinoza, organised religion is nothing other than a jumble of superstitions held together by habit and fear. (This view is the most likely reason he was excommunicated by the Sephardic community.) Rather than salvation, we will only find more suffering there.
We must instead, says Spinoza, turn to God, and God is a very different thing from religion. Religion, at best, is a system created for human beings to approach God (at worst, it is a system exploited by human beings to gain power and riches at the expense of others). It is at best a sign―post to the destination―Spinoza is telling us we need to go directly to the destination.
Spinoza’s God is not the God of the Abrahamic religions. It is not the God that men create in their minds, a God who in the end is nothing more than this mental creation, a God who is therefore limited by the limits of men’s own minds. Spinoza’s God is instead startlingly similar to the Absolute that certain Hindu systems propose: Spinoza’s God is the infinite, necessarily existing substance of the universe. There is, in fact, nothing else. Everything in this universe is this substance: everything, in other words, is God.
The only happy life for a human being consists of coming to know this God as living in God.
A few years after he was excommunicated, Spinoza left Amsterdam altogether and settled down in a town called Rijnsburg. There, he lived a quiet and simple life, content in the company of a few free-thinking friends, all of whom saw Spinoza as their spiritual master and were devoted to him. He made no noise and he sought no worldly favour. A king offered him a professorship at the University of Heidelberg but he rejected it, preferring his independence. He worked as a lens-grinder, a craft that was important and valued and resolutely ordinary. The dust from polishing lenses was unhealthy, and at the age of 44 Baruch Spinoza contracted tuberculosis and died from it.
But rather than ending with his death, let us end with a little anecdote. Once, when Spinoza was still rather young himself, a student asked him why he thought his philosophy was the best one.
“I do not presume to have found the best philosophy,” replied Spinoza. “I know that I understand the true
5 David Hume
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
The French called him le bon David― the good David.
As the author of the definitive biography of Hume says, “the epithet cannot readily be translated into one English word. To call Hume good would be misleading, for he was certainly no saint. In many ways, however, he was good: he was humane, charitable, pacific, tolerant, and encouraging of others, morally sincere and intellectually honest.”
Perhaps we can sum it up by saying that David Hume was the very model of a civilised man. Calm, collected, possessed of a worldly wisdom and serene temperament, witty but not too much, committed but not fanatic. He ate well, drank well, enjoyed life and participated fully in it. At the same time, he kept a judicious distance from life’s turmoil and he maintained his equanimity under all circumstances.
This same man was one of history’s greatest revolutionaries.
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which is unquestionably one of the most important and influential philosophy books ever written, David Hume manages to dethrone the god of the philosophers: rationality. In this book, he systematically demolishes fundamental beliefs that human beings have forever cherished. Causation? Not a real thing. The self? Ditto. Inductive reasoning? Sorry, doesn’t work. Even if you don’t agree with his arguments, read them to be shocked out of complacent belief.
Let me quickly sketch one of his most influential arguments, namely the one he made against induction.
We think the sun is going to rise in the east tomorrow. Why? Because that’s how it’s been for the last million years.
Being technical, what you’re doing is making an inference―you’re starting from the million years of prior sun-rising, and from that you’re inferring that it will do the same tomorrow.
Now Hume asks: can you justify that inference?
According to Hume, there are only two types of arguments.
One is what he calls demonstrative reasoning. This type of argument depends purely on how we define the concepts we are using.
For example, the concept of “bachelor” is defined as meaning “unmarried man”. If someone were to say, “My sister is a bachelor”, we could use conceptual argument to demonstrate that they were mistaken. This is why Hume calls it demonstrative reasoning―in this type of argument, you can demonstrate that something is right or wrong.
Can you use conceptual argument to demonstrate the truth of the inference that today’s piece of bread will nourish you? No, says Hume, you cannot. Why not?
Because in conceptual argument, the only way you can establish an inference is by showing that it would be a contradiction to deny the inference. You can establish that your sister is not a bachelor because it would be a contradiction to claim that she is a bachelor.
There is no contradiction in saying: tomorrow the sun won’t rise. So you cannot establish the inference through this type of conceptual argument.
Fine. So now we have the other type of argument. Unsurprisingly, given that this is so often how human beings divide the world, Hume says the alternative to conceptual argument is empirical argument. This is a fancy name for a simple idea―you look at the world, and from it, you make arguments about what is or will be the case.
Can you use empirical argument to establish the inference that the sun will rise tomorrow? No, says Hume, you cannot. Why not?
All empirical arguments depend on one key assumption: “that the future will be conformable to the past”. It is only when we make this assumption that we are able to use what has happened before―ie, the past―as a guide to what will happen in the future.
But, continues Hume, when we try to make an empirical argument that the sun will rise tomorrow, what we are trying to establish is exactly that the future will be conformable to the past!
So we can’t use empirical argument to establish this, because it would be circular―we would be justifying the claim that the future will be like the past on the basis of the assumption that the future will be like the past.
In order to understand how huge this is, we need to zoom out a bit. In fact, we need to zoom out a lot, all the way to science and the scientific method.
At the most abstract level, science works by finding patterns: when thing A happens, then thing B also happens. For these patterns to be useful, to result in what we call scientific knowledge, we have to be able to rely on them being stable―whenever thing A happens, then thing B will also happen.
In its essence, that’s what a law of nature is: a statement of what will always happen when another thing happens. So for example, an object will remain at rest or in a uniform state of motion unless that state is changed by an external force. That’s a statement of a pattern that is always stable.
What Hume has done, though, is show us that at the bottom of this is an assumption, namely: the future will be like the past. And he has shown us that this assumption cannot be rationally defended. We can believe it, but we cannot rationally argue for it.
Now, science is one of the grand achievements of human reason, and it is where capital-R Reason derives much of its prestige from. What Hume has just told us is: Reason relies on something that cannot be justified with reason. Reason is dependent on assumptions that are not reasonable!
And if we think a moment longer, we will see that it must be so. As soon as we ask, can reason justify itself, we see that the answer must be no―any justification of reason that uses reason will be circular.
This is simply the barest taste of the brilliance contained in the pages of the Enquiry. Read it, and be amazed.
6 John Stuart Mill
James Mill had certain ideas about education. When his son was 3, he started him on learning Greek. Soon after, little John was reading Aesop’s Fables in the original. Naturally, John also read English, and when he was 4 he started going on long walks every day with his father. On these walks, John talked to his father about the books he was reading, for example the whole of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
When Mill was 7, he read six of Plato’s most important dialogues (obviously also in the original). By the age 8, he had read the whole of Herodotus and large chunks of Xenophon and Diogenes Laertius’s biographies of philosophers. When he was 8, his father started him on Latin. I have left out many details, but I think this suffices to get the general idea.
It will not surprise you to hear that at the age of 20, John Stuart Mill had a full and comprehensive nervous breakdown. He describes it in his autobiography, where he writes that “the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down... I seemed to have nothing left to live for.’’
Mill recovered, and re-embarked on a busy and dazzlingly successful career. One could choose different books as representing the crowning point of his intellectual work. A logician might pick A System of Logic, published in 1843 and one of the foundational and most important books in the history of logic. A political theorist might pick On Liberty, published in 1858, which is a foundational liberal text that is still referred to today in real-world disputes over free speech.
I, however, think of Utilitarianism as his classic work. Published in 1861, and developed and written very closely with the love of his life, Harriet Taylor, this short book is the seminal statement of a moral theory that is perhaps the most influential any philosopher ever developed. Even today, when philosophers teach introduction to moral theory, the tradition that Mill developed is taken as one of the three essential moral theories to teach; more impressively, the theory itself has had enormous real-world implications. To take the most recent: utilitarianism is the inspiration behind the movement of effective altruism, which is the movement so closely linked to Sam Bankman-Fried and the collapse of FTX.
But I digress. To come back to the book itself―Mill proposes a simple criterion for judging when an action is right: An action is right when it causes the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
That’s it. That’s the principle. Today, one may look at it and think, oh? What’s the fuss? Seems pretty obvious.
But that’s precisely the point. It seems obvious now because Mill presented and developed it in such a way that it has come to seem an entirely common-sense position.
In order to begin to understand how much of a revolution it was to propose the greatest happiness principle as the principle of morality, it is necessary to transport ourselves back into time a little. Today, many of us, perhaps all of us, worship happiness. But it was not always so. Mill was writing at a time when the dominant theories of morality all promoted something else. Christianity promoted being Christian. Society, still largely feudal, promoted everyone knowing their place and obeying their superiors. Moral philosophers promoted discharging duties to God/family/community.
In such a context, it was a revolutionary thing to say: The thing that matters is happiness. That’s what is fundamentally important, that’s what everything else is about, happiness is the only thing worth aiming for.
7 Immanuel Kant
Critique of Pure Reason
This is a piece about Kant, not about me. But allow me to be personal, because I find it impossible to talk about Kant and this book without telling you about my first encounter with it.
It was 2010. I had just begun my PhD in philosophy and had been invited to a month-long seminar at the University of Notre Dame by a famous German philosopher. The subject of the seminar was to be Kant and his three Critiques.
The seminar was in July and I started preparing around March. I began with the Critique of Pure Reason, because that was the book Kant had written first, and because it was foundational to everything else. It was the first time I had tried to read Kant.
It was not easy going. It was very hard going. Fairly quickly, about 50 pages in, I was reduced to the following procedure. I bought a new A5 notebook and drew a line down on the middle of each page. On the left, I wrote a sentence of Kant. On the right, I translated that sentence into my own words. I did not allow myself to continue until I could satisfactorily translate that sentence, ie, until I could show myself that I had understood.
This is a crazy thing to do. But I was young and committed and something made me do it. At first, it was simply a sense of duty to the philosopher who had invited me to the seminar. But as I did it, it turned into something to do with Kant himself.
In order to convey at least something of the experience, I have to turn to a much better writer than myself. The English poet John Keats has a poem in which he writes of his experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer for the first time. When he read it, he writes,
Then felt I like some watcher of
When a new planet swims
into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific―and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise―
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
That was how I felt. As I made my way through the pages of the Critique of Pure Reason, I encountered a mind that was far above any other mind I had ever encountered before (or since). On every page, in every sentence, I could feel the movement of an intelligence that was inhuman in its power and its beauty. On every page, in every sentence, I felt a desire for knowledge, a relentlessness, a refusal to compromise, an intellectual honesty and a love of truth that became and has remained for me an ideal, an example of the highest possibilities of the human spirit.
What is the Critique of Pure Reason about? Well, in the end, it’s about the limit of the human capacity to know the world. Kant had read Hume, and said that Hume’s arguments had “shaken him out of his dogmatic slumber”. Hume, as I sketch elsewhere on these pages, had argued that things like inferential reasoning, ideas of causation (ie, that one thing causes another), the concept of a unitary self, induction, etc., were not justified. They were simply convenient. Kant was shaken by this sceptical challenge, and he was right to be shaken, because taken together it amounted to an assault on the possibility of all rational and scientific knowledge.
Kant rescued this possibility, using arguments of splendour and strangely moving beauty. But the rescue came at a price. Against Hume, Kant argued that it was possible to have rational and scientific knowledge―but not because the world was in itself structured rationally. Rather, said Kant, our minds structured how we saw the world, and our minds were rational. Given that the human mind was just like that, it was possible to continue using concepts of causation, induction and all the rest.
But the price of this rescue is clear. Kant has given up on the idea that we can perceive and know the world as it is. For Kant, our perception and knowledge of the world is always mediated by what’s going on in our own heads. There is no independent reality out there; or rather, even if there is, we have no access to it. All we have is what our minds tell us.
8 Friedrich Nietzsche
On the Genealogy of Morality
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in a German village called Röcken. His father was a pastor and a very talented musician, so talented that people would travel from neighbouring towns just to hear him play. Nietzsche was devoted to his father and in turn his father to him―little Friedrich was the only one allowed to be in his father’s study when he was working. And sometimes, when Friedrich would suddenly have a fit of anger and tears, nothing would calm him―not his mother, nor food, nor anything else―apart from his father lifting the lid of the piano and playing some music. But Nietzsche’s father died in 1849 and Friedrich was brought up by his grandmother, his mother, aunts, and his sister, who all doted on him.
It was clear from very early on that Nietzsche was remarkably gifted. He had talents in many different directions―music, writing, analytical thinking, creative thinking. He was an outstanding student at school in Naumburg, where his mother had shifted to after the death of his father. In 1858, his mother received a letter from the director of Germany’s best and most famous secondary school, the Pforta boarding school, offering him a place with a full scholarship. Apparently, they had heard of Friedrich’s talents.
Friedrich flourished at Pforta. He took full advantage of the school’s extraordinary intellectual opportunities, and he also enjoyed and became good at activities like swimming and skating. When he left Pforta at the age of 20, he was openly talked about as being one of the best students who had ever studied there; this was akin to being spoken about as one of the best students to have ever been at Oxford.
He went first to the University of Bonn to study classical philology. But after a year he moved to Leipzig when one of the professors he was studying with took up a job at the university there. As always up to now, Friedrich flourished. “His” professor, Paul Ritschl, immediately recognised his talents and encouraged them, meeting him regularly, asking him to write essays for journals he edited, and generally loving and promoting him like a father.
In 1869, a vacancy arose at the chair for classical philology at the University of Basel. The man leaving the chair had read some of Nietzsche’s academic work and wrote to Paul Ritschl to ask him about his student. In his letter, Ritschl wrote that he had ‘never known a young man who has matured so early’ and that Nietzsche was so talented that “he will simply be able to do anything he wants to do”.
On February 12, 1869, Nietzsche was appointed to the position of Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel. He was 24 years old―the youngest professor there had ever been in a German university. He was so young that he still did not have his PhD. No matter―he was awarded one on the basis of his published essays, without having to submit any kind of dissertation. He had also not written his “habilitation”, which is a second thesis that one writes after the doctorate, and which is required by German universities before one is eligible to become a professor. It did not matter. They would still make him a professor.
The stage was set. His career was already glorious and the future stretched out endlessly, full of glittering promise.
But by 1879, a bare 10 years later, Nietzsche had resigned. He spent a decade living a nomadic life, a life of comparative poverty, a life of loneliness and suffering, of illness and pain, and then he deteriorated even further, descending into insanity, and spent his last years being cared for by his fascist sister Elisabeth, unable to any longer speak or think coherently.
And in the brief time he had between destroying his academic career and going mad, Nietzsche changed the world forever.
“God is dead,” writes Nietzsche in one of his books. “We have killed him.” Nietzsche was the prophet of our times, the first to see a decisive shift that we are still dealing with. The traditional biblical God was dead. It was no longer possible to believe in Him after Darwin. This in itself was not a problem. Nietzsche argues, in On the Genealogy of Morality and other places, that the traditional God and traditional morality deserved to die. It was the morality of slaves, he said, the way in which powerless people tried to take revenge on those with more power and life than them.
The problem was not the death of Christian morality. The problem was what to replace it with. Because Nietzsche saw, as we continue to find out, that a belief in God and a belief in religion lay at the bottom of all our conventional values. Once those beliefs were destroyed, so would our conventional values, and what then?
We are still trying to answer that question. We look like we will be trying for a long time to come. And Nietzsche’s book is still the best book to read to understand the problem.
9 Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1899 in Vienna. His father was one of the richest men in Europe and Ludwig was brought up in a luxurious and very cultured milieu. In 1908, he went to Manchester to study aeronautical engineering. But he developed an interest in philosophy and in 1911, resolved to study it, he knocked on Bertrand Russell’s door in Cambridge. Russell reported, “An unknown German appeared… obstinate and perverse, but I think not stupid.”
Russell was later to revise his opinion of Wittgenstein. In his autobiography, he wrote of Wittgenstein: “He was perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating. He had a kind of purity which I have never known equalled except by G.E. Moore.”
Wittgenstein was certainly a genius, and he had the singular originality and independence of genius―what in lesser men is sometimes called madness or eccentricity. In 1913, Wittgenstein’s father died and he was suddenly very rich. He gave away quite a lot of his money to a variety of people, including the world-historical German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. (Eventually, he would give all of his money away to his siblings, and made it a condition of the gift that he could never get it back.) In 1914, despite his astonishing progress in philosophy, Wittgenstein abandoned his formal work and signed up to the army when World War I broke out. He constantly sought out active service, fighting over and over again on the front lines, and was commended by the army for “exceptionally courageous behaviour, calmness, sang-froid, and heroism… [that] won the total admiration of the troops”. When he returned from the war, said Russell later, Wittgenstein had changed considerably, becoming much more mystical and saintly.
There is much more to say about the man, but what about the philosophy? Well, one of the difficulties is that when it comes to Wittgenstein there isn’t a philosophy, there are philosophies. His first published work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, revolutionised philosophy―but then Wittgenstein decided he had been mistaken and went down another route. And all through his working life he kept growing and developing, and it is a famously difficult matter to pin him down to “a philosophy”.
So I won’t even attempt it. Instead, I will pick out one quotation:
“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer… The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the meaning of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that meaning?)”
In his earlier phase, Wittgenstein took this to mean that to ask about the meaning of life was to ask a question that made no sense. But in his later phase, he meant something rather different by this.
When do we ask about the meaning of life? Typically, when something is going wrong or when something really difficult has happened. We ask it when someone we love dies, we ask it when we lose our belief in God, we ask it when we are unhappy, we ask it when we are unfulfilled. We ask it when we are lonely, we ask it when we are tired, we ask it when somehow we are out of sync with the world.
And that is what Wittgenstein is pointing to in this quote. The question of the meaning of life, he is telling us, does not arise when we are living life at its best. That is the answer to the question of the meaning of life―live life, and live it to its fullest, whatever that means to you. The question of the meaning of life is not to be answered with philosophising but with living; the problem is to be solved not by creating a new theory but by creating a new life.
Eventually, Wittgenstein ended up thinking something like this about philosophy in general―the point of philosophy, he argued, was to show us the point at which there was no benefit to thinking any further. Philosophy could show us the limits of our language and the limits of our thought, and by doing so, it could clear the ground for us to live. The point of philosophy was to bring an end to the need to philosophise.
As Wittgenstein himself put it in the Tractatus:
“My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them―as steps―to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.”
On April 26, 1951, Wittgenstein turned 62. Two days later, he died. His last words were: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
10 Albert Camus
The Myth of Sisyphus
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
So begins The Myth of Sisyphus, one of the best and most important works of philosophy in the 20th century. Written by Albert Camus, an Algerian-French goalkeeper, journalist, writer, war hero, serial Casanova and philosopher, this short book, really an essay, deals with the question of whether life is worth living―and it deals with it honestly, in light of the catastrophe of World War II and in light of the death of God that Nietszche had warned the world about.
To see how it still matters today, let me begin with my own life.
Today, I woke up and began my day with a protein shake. I’ve been exercising and eating differently in an effort to lose weight and this is part of that. Shortly after, I went and had a shower. Then I came to the cafe where I’m writing these words. I’ll write some more, edit a bit, worry a bit, and then schedule an email to be sent a few days later.
Allowing for irrelevant variations in detail, this has been my life for the last few months. In fact, this has been my life for the last 30 years. Every day, I get up, do some stuff, feel bad about not doing other stuff, eat a bit, think a bit, feel a bit, piss a bit, shit a bit, sleep a bit. Next day? Same. And then at some point I’ll die.
Most of the time, I’ve had no problem with this. As Camus says, “Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm―this path is easily followed most of the time.”
But, says Camus, “It happens that the stage sets collapse… one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”
I know this experience well and perhaps some of you do, too. The experience of the stage set collapsing, of suddenly getting off the treadmill or even just seeing that it is a treadmill, and wondering: Why? What is the point of doing all this? Why am I bothering?
For whatever reason, we seem to have always been compelled to ask questions like: What does it all mean? Why are we here? What are we here for? What really matters? Does anything matter? What’s the point of it all?
It appears to be a deep and perennial human need to want the world to mean something. We need it to make sense. We need good to triumph and evil to fail. We need there to be something bigger than ourselves―ideas of Love, of God, of Beauty, of Success, of Self-Actualisation, of Progress―that somehow gives a point to the things that we do.
At the most basic level, we need a reason to get up in the morning. And there is no shortage of people and institutions selling us those reasons. The gurus on YouTube, Richard Dawkins, Paulo Coelho, the self-optimisers, the productivity bros, the tech bros, the spiritual bros, the yoga teachers, the chakra activators, priests, philosophers, and Jordan Peterson―all of them, some more honourably than others, are catering to this need and actually only exist because of it.
To find Camus in the midst of all this is to find a spring of the purest Alpine water in the midst of a sea of boiling bullshit. And as you would expect of Alpine springs, the water is freezing cold.
No, says Camus. No to all this bullshit. No to all our desperate attempts to convince ourselves that the world has a meaning. No to God, no to Kierkegaard, no to the deluded narcissists and the snake-oil salesman who prey on human need and pain.
The facts, says Camus, are simple: We long for the world to make sense. But the world does not respond to our longing.
“[Man] feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. We are desperate for meaning and for reasons.”
As most of my romantic life has borne out, to be desperate for something does not mean that we can have it. The absurd is the space between wanting to kiss Chloe Blackburn and knowing that this will never happen. The absurd, says Camus, is neither the desperation nor the impossibility―it is the confrontation between the two.
Why is it impossible for us to satisfy our desperate longing for the world to make sense? After all, there are many people who do satisfy their longing and there are many ways in which they do this―through beliefs in God, science, divine Oneness, nirvana, etc. Isn’t this a refutation of Camus?
Well, says Camus, it’s not impossible per se. But it is impossible if you want to remain within the proper limits of reason. If you refuse to take the leap into the irrational, if you refuse to believe things that reason does not support, then you must accept that your longing for the world to make sense will never be satisfied.
Camus is not a nihilist. He is not saying that the world is meaningless. He is saying rather that he does not know if the world has a meaning or not. And he is saying that as he does not know, he is not going to simply believe that the world has meaning.
“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”
So that is how Camus will live. Without false hope, but without despair, either. He will shake his fist at the unreasonable world, he will live with defiance―and he will be happy.