History + Philosophy

The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in the hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory; and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. 


“Do you know,” asks Emerson, “the secret of the true scholar? In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him; and in that I am his pupil.” 


“If what you have seems insufficient to you, then, though you possess the world, you will you be miserable.” — Seneca 


The war over, Athens turned her navy into a merchant fleet, and became one of the greatest trading cities of the ancient world: a busy mart and port, the meeting place of many races of men and of diverse cults and customs, whose contact and rivalry beget comparison, analysis, and thought. 


Traditions and dogmas rub one another down to a minimum in such centers of varied intercourse; where there are a thousand faiths we are apt to become skeptical of them all. The traders were the first skeptics: they had seen too much to believe too much. 


The political problem: Men are not content with the simple life: they are acquisitive, ambitious, competitive, and jealous; they soon tire of what they have and pine for what they have not. The result is encroachment of one group upon the territory of another, the rivalry of groups, and then war. Trade and finance develop and bring new class divisions. 


But even democracy ruins itself by excess — of democracy. Its basic principle is the equal right of all to hold office and determine public policy. This is at first glance a delightful arrangement; it becomes disastrous because the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best rulers and the wisest courses. The crowd so loves flattery, that at the last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the “protector of the people” rises to power. (Consider the history of Rome).


Plato complains that whereas in simpler matters — like shoe-making — we think only a specially-trained person will serve our purpose, in politics we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a state. When we are ill we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence — we do not ask for the handsomest physician or the most eloquent. Why, then, when the whole state is ill should we not look for the service and guidance of the wisest and the best? 


“Ruin comes when the trader, whose heart is lifted up by wealth, becomes ruler, or when the general uses his army to establish a military dictatorship. The producer is at his best in the economic field, the barrier in battle. They are both at their words in the public office.”


Aristotle — metaphysics and nature of God


Yet there is a God, though not perhaps the simple and human god conceived by the forgivable anthropomorphism of the adolescent mind. Aristotle approaches the problem from the old puzzle about motion: How, he asks, does motion begin? He will not accept the possibility that motion is as beginninless as he conceives matter to be: matter may be eternal, because it is merely the everlasting possibility of future forms; but when and how did that vast process of motion and formation begin which at last filled the wide universe with an infinity of shapes? Surely motion has a source, says Aristotle; and if we are not to plunge drearily into an infinite regress, putting back our problem step by step endlessly, we must posit a prime mover unmoved. 


Ethics and nature of happiness


Youth is the age of extremes: if the young commit a fault it is always on the side of excess and exaggeration. The great difficulty of youth is to get out of one extreme without falling into its opposite, whether through over-correction or otherwise. 


Communism and conservatism 


Communism breaks down because it provides no adequate incentive for the exertion of superior abilities. The stimulus of gain is necessary to arduous work; and the stimulus of ownership is necessary to proper industry and care. When everybody owns everything nobody will take care of anything. 


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