R. C. Sproul surveys history’s greatest philosophers and thinkers, helping readers understand the ideas that have shaped the worldand continue to shape nearly everything we think and do.
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About the Author
R. C. Sproul (1939–2017) was founder of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian discipleship organization located near Orlando, Florida. He was also founding pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor ofTabletalk magazine. His radio program, Renewing Your Mind, is still broadcast daily on hundreds of radio stations around the world and can also be heard online. Sproul contributed dozens of articles to national evangelical publications, spoke at conferences, churches, colleges, and seminaries around the world, and wrote more than one hundred books, including The Holiness of God, Chosen by God, and Everyone’s a Theologian. He also served as general editor of the Reformation Study Bible.
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The First Philosophers
The origins of Western philosophy are rooted in the ancient Aegean world. A sharp distinction between science and philosophy was unknown to thinkers of that day. The word science in its etymology simply means "knowledge," and the term philosophy derives from "love of wisdom." As ancient man sought to understand himself and the world around him, knowledge and wisdom were interrelated ideas. He was concerned about the nature of things.
Philosophy was born in the ancient quest for ultimate reality, the reality that transcends the proximate and commonplace and that defines and explains the data of everyday experience. Three burdens dominated the thinking of the original philosophers: first, a quest for "monarchy"; second, a quest for unity in the midst of diversity; and third, a quest for cosmos over chaos. Though these quests may be distinguished at one level, at a different level all three involve the search for a metaphysical answer to the physical world.
What is meant here by monarchy may be understood by a brief analysis of the word's original meaning. The term monarchy is made up of a prefix and a root. The prefix mono means "one, singular." The root, which is more significant, is arche, which means "chief, beginning, or root." It is often used as a prefix in English, as in archbishops, archenemies, archetypes, archheretics, and archangels. Here arch means "chief, ruler." An archangel is a chief or ruling angel, as an archbishop is a chief or ruling bishop. The later connotation of monarch as a political figure rests on the idea of one chief ruler.
In the ancient quest for monarchy, philosophers sought the chief or ruling substance, or arche, of which all things are made or from which they exist. It was a search for the supreme essence or substance of things, a quest for the ultimate "stuff" of the real world.
One of the most vexing problems encountered by the ancient thinker (a problem that remains vexing today) was that of unity and diversity, or of "the one and the many." It was a matter of discovering sense amid vastly different manifestations of reality:
How do all things fit together in a meaningful way?
Today we speak, often somewhat glibly, of "the universe." The term universe is something of a mongrel, in which the words unity and diversity (the one and the many) are jammed together to coin a single word. Institutions of higher learning are often called "universities" because there the various elements of the universe are studied.
The so-called "analytical method" of the Enlightenment reflected this ancient quest as it sought the "logic" of the facts — that is, as it sought to deduce laws or universals from the raw data of the particulars. It used the scientific method of learning that combines the tools of induction (observing and collecting data) and deduction (drawing logical inferences and conclusions from the data). The logic was that which gave sense, coherence, or unity to the diversity.
In his famous book Cosmos, drawn from the television series of the same name, Carl Sagan begins by affirming that the world is cosmos, not chaos. A cosmos is orderly, chaos is not. Chaos is the archenemy of science. If reality is ultimately chaotic, science itself becomes a manifest impossibility.
Perhaps you have heard of "chaos physics." This name suggests a kind of commitment to chaos, but the opposite is the case. Chaos physics probes elements of apparent chaos in order to discover patterns of order that lurk beneath the surface. These physicists study such things as the dynamics of fluid motion, the topography of seacoasts, the structure of snowflakes, and the patterns of wind currents that influence weather. In some respects modern chaos theory recapitulates in a more technical and sophisticated manner the pursuit of cosmos by ancient philosophers.
Thales of Miletus
When asked about the ultimate stuff of which humans are composed, we may answer that boys are made of "frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails," while girls are made of "sugar and spice and everything nice." This children's ditty may amuse, but as a scientific analysis of the real differences between the sexes, it obviously does not suffice.
When we look at Thales' answer to the question of ultimate reality, we may conclude that he too was spinning a childish ditty.
Thales argued that all is water. Everything that is is composed of water, and water serves as the unity, the archei, of all things.
Before dismissing Thales to the land of fairy tales and mythology, however, we must afford him the benefit of a second glance.
One reason Thales is regarded as the father of Western philosophy is that he distanced himself from traditional mythology and poetry. He sought instead a scientific answer to the nature of things. Nor can Thales be dismissed as a primitive blockhead with no eye or brain for real science. Thales can be regarded as a pre Renaissance Renaissance man whose diverse achievements are comparable to those of Leonardo da Vinci and rival those of Archimedes.
Thales solved engineering problems by diverting the flow of a river. He devised a system of measuring the heights of Egyptian pyramids based on the movement of their shadows. He developed techniques of navigating by the stars and created an instrument for measuring distances at sea. But his crowning scientific achievement was his accurate prediction of a solar eclipse that occurred on May 28, 585 B.C. So much for puppy-dog tails!
Although the original writings of Thales have been lost, some of his thought can be reconstructed by way of anecdotes told about him by other ancient writers, their quotations from his writings, and their allusions to his ideas. We do not know the full measure of his argument that water is the ultimate reality. Water has several factors to commend itself as the ultimate reality. First, the three great mysteries of ancient (and contemporary) science are life, motion, and being. The third is the issue of metaphysical essence. Thales noted that all things he observed in this world come in innumerable sizes, shapes, and colors, and that they all appear in one of three possible states: liquid, gas, or solid.
To reduce reality to a single element, Thales looked for one that manifests itself in all three states. The obvious choice is water, which appears as liquid, steam, or ice. From here it is a short speculative step to consider all liquids as particular forms of water, all gases as particular forms of steam, and all solids as particular forms of ice.
What about the mystery of life? Thales could easily see that living things are dependent on water. He knew he could not live long without it. And if he wanted to grow grass from seed, he knew he had to water the seed. Ancient people linked their survival to the presence of rain and the absence of drought.
Finally, Thales faced the problem of motion: How does one explain the origin of motion in light of our understanding of the law of inertia — that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest unless acted on by an outside force? The obvious question is, What set that outside force in motion? (The quest for an "unmoved mover" did not begin with Aristotle.)
To solve this part of the puzzle, Thales needed an automobile. No, I do not mean a Buick. Thales sought something that was hylozoistic, something that has the capacity for self-motion (auto-mobile). He needed something that can move itself without being acted on by something else. As he observed the flow of rivers and the constant motion of the tides, water again became an enticing candidate. Before dismissing Thales as being "all wet" for not perceiving the forces of gravity, especially as exercised by the moon on the ebb and flow of tides, we owe him the benefit of the doubt.
Thales was the first philosopher, but by no means the last. He was succeeded by others who sought to correct or refine his theories. The pre-Socratic philosophers can be organized into four distinct camps, depending on their view of the nature of ultimate reality: 1) corporeal monism, 2) incorporeal monism, 3) corporeal pluralism, and 4) incorporeal pluralism. These four categories can be reduced to two crucial issues: 1) Is ultimate reality physical (corporeal) or nonphysical (incorporeal)? 2) Is ultimate reality one (monism) or more than one (pluralism)?
Thales, seeing water as the one ultimate essence, was a corporeal monist. He was succeeded by his student Anaximander, who rejected the theory that reality can be reduced to one specific element. Anaximander looked for something even more basic, something that rises above or transcends the arena of this world, a world with chronological and spatial boundaries. He searched for a boundless, ultimate realm from which all things come. It is the realm of what he called the apeiron or the indeterminate boundless, what we might call the infinite.
Anaximander had a young associate named Anaximenes, who was the last of the group known as the Milesian philosophers. Dissatisfied with the vague idea of a mysterious "boundless," Anaximenes sought to bring philosophy back to earth by combining or synthesizing some of Thales' concerns with those of Anaximander. Anaximenes looked for something that is both specific and spread everywhere. This he found in air. Air has many of the same advantages as water: it has different states of rarefaction and condensation, is essential to life, and appears to have the power of self-motion when the wind blows.
One of the most fascinating groups that preceded Socrates and Plato was the Pythagoreans, people who clearly influenced Plato.
Every high-school student who has taken geometry has heard of the Pythagorean theorem. Pythagoras migrated from Samos to southern Italy, where he developed his theory of numbers. He had a spiritual and religious interest in mathematics by which mystical significance was assigned to numbers. He considered the number ten to be the perfect number. In the study of math, the formal (pertaining to form or essence) becomes more important than the material, the intellectual or spiritual more important than the physical. For Pythagoras and his followers, mathematics is a matter of the soul.
Pythagoreans held music in high regard because of its therapeutic value to the soul. To them music is what "soothes the savage beast." They developed a mathematics of harmony, seeing that sounds can be broken down into numerical ratios or mathematical proportions. Our modern scales owe their origin chiefly to the insight of the Pythagoreans.
Medicine, for Pythagoreans, was also subject to mathematics. They saw bodily health in terms of balance or harmony between such opposites as hot and cold and among the body's chemical functions, anticipating the current biomedical concern for hormonal balances.
Pythagoreans applied mathematics to astronomy, seeking the "harmony of the spheres" in an effort to plot and predict the motion of heavenly bodies. This was no mere exercise in speculation; ancient people depended on the stars not only for navigation but, even more importantly, for measuring time (calendars) so they could plant and harvest their crops at optimum times.
That math has served as a crucial handmaiden to advances in natural science is documented by history. Advances in mathematical theory have ushered in several revolutions such as the Copernican revolution, the revolution initiated by Isaac Newton with his physics, and the revolution in our day of nuclear science.
Two philosophical giants in the pre-Socratic era were Heraclitus and Parmenides. Some have said that all philosophy is nothing more than footnotes to the thought of Plato and Aristotle; one could also argue that Plato and Aristotle were but footnotes to the thought of Heraclitus and Parmenides.
Heraclitus is sometimes called the "father of modern existentialism" because of his attack on essences. His thought is summarized with the Greek phrase Panta rhei, "All things are flowing." According to Heraclitus everything is always and everywhere in flux. To introduce an important philosophical concept here, this means that all things are in a state of becoming as distinguished from being.
For Heraclitus, whatever is is always changing. He illustrated this by declaring that you "cannot step into the same river twice." If you put one foot into a river, by the time you can put your other foot in the river has flowed on. It has changed. Its banks, due to imperceptible erosion, have changed, and you yourself have changed — if in no other way than that you are a few seconds older.
Nevertheless, whatever is changing is still a something. Reality is not pure diversity; there remains an abiding unity. Heraclitus looked to fire as the basic element in things because it is constantly in flux. Fire must be constantly fed, yet it constantly gives off something — smoke, heat, or ashes. It is always "in process," always being transformed.
For Heraclitus the process of change is not chaotic but is orchestrated by "God." I put God in quotes because for Heraclitus "God" is not a personal being but more like an impersonal force. Flux is the product of a universal reason Heraclitus calls the logos. Here we see the philosophical roots of the logos concept that the apostle John appropriated to define the preexistent and eternal person of the Godhead who became incarnate. It would be a serious mistake, however, simply to equate or identify John's use of logos with that of Greek philosophy, because John filled the term with Hebrew categories of thought. At the same time it would be an equally serious mistake to separate completely John's use of the term from Greek thought.
Heraclitus was looking for a principle of telos, a teleology or purpose that would give order and harmony to things in flux, that would give unity to diversity. For him the logos is the universal law that is immanent in all things. In the final analysis it is Fire with a capital F. His system is at root a kind of pantheism.
In examining the presence of flux in all things, Heraclitus sought to account for the reality of strife, which he located in the conflict of opposites. Just as fire works through the conflict of opposites, where nothing is ever lost but only changes its form, so all conflict ultimately is resolved in the overarching fire or the logos of things.
Parmenides, a younger contemporary of Heraclitus, founded the Eleatic school of philosophy (so-named for Elea, Italy, where he lived). I first heard of Parmenides while in college. My philosophy professor quoted Parmenides' best-known assertion, "Whatever is, is." I laughed and blurted out, "And he's famous?" With this verbal ejaculation I revealed myself as the quintessential sophomore. I assumed that Parmenides had done nothing more than stutter.
As I reach my twilight years, perhaps the last three holes of the back nine, I have lost the omniscience I briefly enjoyed as a college sophomore. On reflection I can think of no concept I learned in philosophy that has provoked more thought than Parmenides' "Whatever is, is." It forces me to contemplate being itself, which has the salutary benefit of stretching my mind to consider the things of God himself. What I once ridiculed now absorbs me and carries me to the brink of holy apprehension, where I tremble at my own inadequacy.
For Parmenides, if anything exists in an absolute way, it cannot change ("Whatever is, is."). It cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way. If it is becoming, it cannot be being. If it is not being, it is nothing. It must be absolutely or not at all.
This raises the ultimate philosophical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? If indeed there is something, then there must be being, for without being nothing could be. At the same time, Parmenides understood the principle Ex nihilo, nihil fit, "Out of nothing, nothing comes." The idea that something could come out of nothing or that nothing could give rise to something Parmenides rightly considered to be absurd. Manifestly, if ever there were a time when there was nothing, then there would be nothing now.
Change is for Parmenides an illusion. The very concept of change is unthinkable; that is, we cannot really think of it. We cannot think of change because there is no "it" to think about. If something is changing, then in reality it is not an "it." To think of change would require us to think of something in terms of what it is not, which is impossible.
For Parmenides, not only can something not come out of nothing, but also, something cannot arise out of being. If something arises out of being, it already is. Here we see the folly of any concept of self-creation, which requires something to be before it was and which therefore defies all logic. The law of non-contradiction declares that something cannot be what it is and not be what it is at the same time and in the same sense.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Consequences of Ideas"
Copyright © 2000 R. C. Sproul.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS,
INTRODUCTION: Why Philosophy?,
1 The First Philosophers,
2 Plato: Realist and Idealist,
3 Aristotle: The Philosopher,
4 Augustine: Doctor of Grace,
5 Thomas Aquinas: Angelic Doctor,
6 René Descartes: Father of Modern Rationalism,
7 John Locke: Father of Modern Empiricism,
8 David Hume: Skeptic,
9 Immanuel Kant: Revolutionary Philosopher,
10 Karl Marx: Utopian,
11 Søren Kierkegaard: Danish Gadfly,
12 Friedrich Nietzsche: Atheistic Existentialist,
13 Jean-Paul Sartre: Litterateur and Philosopher,
14 Darwin and Freud: Influential Thinkers,
CONCLUSION: Gilson's Choice,
FOR FURTHER READING,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Consequences of Ideas Review The Consequence of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World by R. C. Sproul is a 226 page book in the Christian theology genre. It is published by Crossway Books and was released on June 30, 2009. To purchase your copy, click here. Overview Sproul's survey of the ongoing impact of history's most influential philosophies urges readers to take prevailing cultural mind-sets seriously… because ideas do have consequences. The greatest thinkers of all time are impacting us still. From public-policy decisions and current laws to world events, theology, the arts, education, and even conversations between friends, history's most influential philosophies have wrought massive consequences on nearly everything we see, think, and do. Thus it is critical for Christians to understand the ideas that are shaping them. The greater their familiarity with the streams of thought that have saturated Western culture through the ages, the greater their ability to influence this culture for Christ. With The Consequences of Ideas, now in paperback, R. C. Sproul expertly leads the way for thoughtful readers. Tracing the contours of Western philosophy from the ancients to the molders of modern and postmodern thought-including Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, and Freud-Sproul proves that ideas are not just passing fads; they endure for generations to come and demand our serious attention. My Two Cents The Consequence of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World is an important book in understanding where many of the thoughts that now pervade our culture of thinking originated. Sproul here, as always, provides an excellent history, explanation, and commentary on many of the heavy hitters of philosophy and their ideas. He warns that the content is not always easy to understand, but he takes the time to present the difficulty of philosophical thinking in such a way that every lay-person would benefit from, especially those who interact apologetically with individuals highly involved in philosophy. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars. I give it this rating because the philosophical content is difficult to follow, yet presented in the best way possible. In addition to the philosophical explanation the reader is given a clear history of philosophy as it occurs in the historical timeline. About the Author R. C. Sproul (Drs, Free University of Amsterdam) serves as senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, and is the founder and president of Ligonier Ministries. He has taught at numerous colleges and seminaries, has written over seventy books, and is featured daily on Renewing Your Mind, an international radio broadcast.
Does anything begin without first being an idea? A thought? How have ideas shaped the world we know today? That’s what R. C. Sproul sets out to explain in this book. Going back to the days of Pythagoras, Sproul gives us an introduction to the ideas and theories of many of the greatest thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, and others. We watch as a world where theology and philosophy are the chief sciences gives way to thinkers who seek to remove theology from all thought. As these ideas shift, we can see how they have changed the way societies behave. R. C. Sproul is a noted theologian, and in the introduction of this book he explains that he was a philosophy major at twenty years old. So, he is more than knowledgeable enough in both areas. It’s a great introduction to several of the most notable philosophers throughout history. While Sproul takes the time to explain both philosophical and theological terms, the subject matter can be a bit difficult. Sproul says in the introduction, “This book is written not for philosophy scholars but for laypersons–albeit educated laypersons.” It explains, but never talks down. If the words “I think, therefore I am” have never caused you to stop and ponder, then this book may not be for you. However, if you’re interested in the basics of the history of philosophical thought, this is an excellent start. I received a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes from Crossway.