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“The story of philosophy is important because it’s humanity’s story”

“I am deeply pessimistic about the future of Western civilization, but deeply optimistic about humanity and human nature,” says philosopher and author Peter Kreeft.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft

Renowned philosopher and author Peter Kreeft has written a new, four-volume history of philosophy entitled Socrates’ Children. The four volumes span thousands of years, from the ancient world through to today (the four volumes are: Ancient Philosophers, Medieval Philosophers, Modern Philosophers, and Contemporary Philosophers).

The series is written in Kreeft’s signature pithy style, with short and informative sections. A decades-long career in philosophy and teaching has given Kreeft the ability to hold his reader’s attention and effectively impart a “love of wisdom.”

Dr. Kreeft recently spoke with Catholic World Report about Socrates’ Children and the importance of philosophy, particularly for Catholics.

Catholic World Report: Tell us how these books came to be.

Peter Kreeft: The book came to be as all my books do: in a way I do not know. How do original ideas arise in minds? Does anyone know? I think angels have more to do with it than we think. The natural, psychological origin was probably many years in coming: I remember a profound (and profoundly German) professor at Fordham, Dr. Balduin Schwarz, telling us that he had always wanted to write a history of philosophy but did not think he would have enough time. He and others made that history fascinating and dramatic to me, and I always wanted to tell that story. At one point (why then? I don’t know), I started one and it worked, because I am not a great scholar who has to do elaborate research and include thousands of details, but a lazybones who easily gets bored (I have ADD) so I am reluctant to bore others. This results in short books.

CWR: How long was this in the works?

Kreeft: In the sense above, the book was “in the works” of my subconscious since I was a student at Fordham. I’ve always loved the history of philosophy as drama, and find students are more interested in that dimension of it than in “analytic” philosophy, the careful logic of arguments—which is fine, but not the average person’s cup of tea. Once I decided to write it, I approached St. Augustine’s Press and they said “yes.” I’ve only twice had it work the other way, a publisher asking me to write a book (Back to Virtue and Making Sense Out of Suffering), both of which have sold well for a long time.

CWR: You are an incredibly prolific as a writer. Is this your first foray into a history of philosophy?

Kreeft: This is not my first foray into the history of philosophy, since I wrote a number of imaginative dialogs between Socrates and important modern philosophers after they die. It’s their Purgatory and his Heaven. I imagined Socrates meeting Descartes, Hume, Kant, Machiavelli, Marx, Freud, Sartre, and Kierkegaard.

CWR: Why did you do Socrates’ Children as a look at 100 different philosophers, rather than a typical narrative of the history of philosophy?

Kreeft: I did it on 100 philosophers because most people like many shorter stories more than one long, connected story. But I surround each philosopher with the “metanarrative” of the history of philosophical consciousness for the last 2,500 years or more. The Deconstructionists and Postmodernists who forbid “metanarratives” don’t know that life itself is a story (which is why storytelling is the single most universal and ancient art).

CWR: Why is it important for people to understand how philosophy has developed and how it has changed over the years?

Kreeft: The story of philosophy is important because it’s our story, humanity’s story, our ancestors’ story. Philosophy seeps down into the masses (and also up from them); only recently, with the “analytic philosophers,” has philosophy become something only philosophers do, thus making philosophy irrelevant to ordinary people. The “existentialists” are pretty much the only ones that have preserved this popular dimension. Once before, philosophy became so technical that ordinary people dismissed it, with fossilized Scholasticism at the end of the Middle Ages. It was a cause (and an effect) of the decline of that culture.

CWR: Is it important for Catholics, in particular, to understand this? Why or why not?

Kreeft: Catholics should be especially interested in the history of philosophy, first, because they played such a central role in it. Augustine and Aquinas, clearly the two greatest Christian philosophers of all time, are near the beginning and end of the greatest era of Catholic culture, the marriage of faith and reason, biblical and classical culture. We’ve been in an increasing divorce for the last 500 years. Second, Catholicism has a high regard for reason (in the broad old sense that is more than calculation) and for philosophy as “the love of wisdom” since it is part of God’s image in us, and in fact wisdom is a divine attribute and a self-justifying goal for mankind according to the Scriptures.

CWR: Philosophy has been called the “handmaiden of theology.” Is this true for non-Christian philosophers, as well, like the pre-Christians, the Jewish and Islamic philosophers, and the atheists?

Kreeft: Of course no agnostic would say philosophy is the handmaid of theology, since if there is no God there can be no theology. But most modern philosophers treat modern science in the same way the medieval treated theology: as their model and master. Everyone has to have some first principle, some absolute starting point, like an uncaused cause. If it’s not God, it’s a substitute.

Jewish and Muslim philosophers are usually less sanguine about human reason’s ability to know God by “natural theology.” Ever since the ninth century the Asha’rites have been the main line in Muslim philosophy. For them God (Allah) is will more than reason. He does not say “Come, let us reason together,” but, “Surrender.” Muslim proneness to military action on Earth stems from a military relationship to God: “ours not to reason why, ours but to do or die.” Anti-Catholic propaganda used to satirize American Catholicism as “just pray, pay, and obey.” That attitude existed, of course, but less in Catholicism than in Protestantism, and more in Islam. There are notable exceptions, of course.

CWR: How do you think Western society has suffered as the general populace has become less and less trained in philosophy and logic? Do you think this can be remedied?

Kreeft: The main theme of modern Western philosophy ever since the late Middle Ages has been the crisis of reason. Faith and reason go together: when either one gets sick, the other catches the infection too. As recently as a century ago the average person (a) cared about and (b) could tell whether something had been logically proved or not. That attitude is rare today. Ideology has replaced rationality. I am deeply pessimistic about the future of Western civilization, but deeply optimistic about humanity and human nature, which was not designed in Harvard or Hollywood but in Heaven. Therefore, it can be remedied, and of course should. Whether it will depends on how many rebels there are.


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About Paul Senz 54 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

4 Comments

  1. Congratulations to Kreeft on a very much needed book! I remember when Pope JP II wrote Fides et Ratio. I realized at the time that hardly anybody understood the points that he made in it. It seems to be an uphill struggle, but the approach of the book sounds very good. Many modern readers seem rather allergic to challenging reading.

  2. Peter Kreeft is both lucid and entertaining…what a gift to his students…among whom I count myself…though I only see him on my bookcase.

    Thank you Lord for such loving teachers!

  3. Philosophy is Humanity’s story because Reason is. Reason discursive by nature due to Man’s physical spiritual nature [unlike the Angelic nature that knows principles of truth directly] anticipates actualization of the intellect in the intuitive knowledge of first principles, intuitive in that subject and predicate are apprehended in one act of knowing. Abandon reason as Kreeft alludes within Islam and the irrational becomes the rule. Akin to a favorite Tolkien quip, When Saruman did you abandon Reason for Madness? At least so on the vital issues of life, good and evil, and God. What distinguishes Man among animals is not the degree of intelligence rather the capacity for reflexive knowledge consequently moral knowledge. In the act of knowing we are conscious of our existence and its distinction from other beings. Reflexive awareness contains the capacity to distinguish between polar opposites such as good and evil allowing our ability to freely decide, liberum arbitrium. The Christ event enhances our humanness by revelation of supreme principles of moral good that are apprehended discursively and philosophically defined.

  4. For bibliography fans:

    Socrates’ Children: Ancient: The 100 Greatest Philosophers ISBN 9781587317835

    Socrates’ Children: Medieval: The 100 Greatest Philosophers ISBN 9781587317842

    Socrates’ Children: Modern: The 100 Greatest Philosophers ISBN 9781587317859

    Socrates’ Children: Contemporary: The 100 Greatest Philosophers ISBN 9781587317866

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