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Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Uncommon Philosopher: Only As Strong As Its Foundation

When  I requested The Uncommon Philosopher by James MacFarlane from The Bookplex my father had passed away six months previously.  He had always been a huge lover of philosophy.  He believed that there wasn't any subject that could be more significant.  Toward the end of his life, he read nothing else.  I myself rarely read philosophy, but my father taught me to respect it.  By the age of sixteen, I had read some of Plato's Dialogues and had written a short play about Socrates.

I thought about my father when I saw the title of this book.  I hoped that he'd be happy that I was reading philosophy and blogging about it now.  This is a little more personal than I normally get on this blog, but a blog can be whatever its author wishes and can evolve over time.

What about the review?  I'm getting to that.  I first want to talk about the title of this review.  A book's concept is its foundation.  The foundation needs to be strong for the book to be a viable one.  The subtitle of The Uncommon Philosopher is The Wisdom of Boethius, Maimonides and Schumacher.  In a book about ideas, a title that includes three thinkers would seem to imply that they are linked in some way, and that the book would deal centrally with what they had in common.  Maimonides was the figure with whom I was most familiar.  From what little I knew about Boethius and Schumacher, any commonalities between the ideas of these three would not be obvious ones.

                                                                 


Boethius was a Roman Christian patrician who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy.  He was exiled and sentenced to death by the Ostrogoth King Theodoric.  (Yes, Goths were once Germanic tribes. Ostrogoths were the eastern Goths.  Visigoths were the western Goths.  The word "Goth" is currently being used by a contemporary subculture.  See Goth Subculture on Wikipedia ) .

Maimonides was a Jewish physician in medieval Spain who was exiled as a result of Spain having less tolerant rulers.  No, they weren't Ferdinand and Isabella.  This was a change in Islamic rule. The rulers of Moorish Spain weren't always tolerant, cosmopolitan and enlightened as the current version of history would have it.  His best known work of philosophy is Guide For The Perplexed.

Ernest Fritz Schumacher was a business consultant and an economist who was interned by the British during World War II because he was a citizen of Germany. He also wrote a book called Guide For The Perplexed.

What do all three have in common?  They had very interesting lives.  They believed in God.  They wrote about religion.  They were unjustly treated by figures of authority. This could be said of a great many historical personages who wrote about religion.  As I said in my review on Amazon, the book could just as well have been about Abelard, Spinoza and Schumacher.

 The philosophical approaches of Boethius, Maimonides and Schumacher could not have been further apart.  Maimonides and Schumacher didn't write similar books.   For one thing, Maimonides was more in tune with science and the scientific perspective than Schumacher.  Maimonides said in his Guide For The Perplexed that it doesn't matter how many people disagree with scientific principles.  They are still the way the universe works. Based on what MacFarlane had to say, it seems to me that Schumacher thought that his discomfort with science somehow made it less true than the pronouncements of the Catholic Church.  Boethius and Maimonides weren't similar in their view of the definition of a good life.  Boethius didn't care about physical comforts.  Being strong in your faith was more important.  Maimonides took a more practical view of life.  As a physician he thought that physical matters were of tremendous consequence.  He thought that people should pay attention to diet and had very particular recommendations about it.   He thought that God would understand if you had to deny your faith to preserve your life.  Unlike Boethius, who calmly faced execution, Maimonides did not believe in martyrdom. Some biographers believe that Maimonides did in fact deny his faith when he briefly lived in Morocco. See the short but excellent biography by medical historian Sherwin B. Nuland.

 There are oceans of time,space and culture separating these thinkers.  If MacFarlane's intent was to show that they were somehow in continuity with each other, he failed to prove his case.   I'm really not sure at all why he chose these particular three figures.

I thought that the most compelling part of  McFarlane's book was the section on E.F. Schumacher.  I wanted to know more about him.  I particularly wanted to know about the differences and similarities between Schumacher and John Maynard Keynes on the subject of economics.  MacFarlane only touches briefly on the relationship that Schumacher's thinking had to Keynes' ideas.  I also wanted to know more about Schumacher's best known work, Small is Beautiful.  The ideas in Small is Beautiful are still very influential. Current urban planners who espouse sustainable growth are influenced by Schumacher whether they acknowledge him or not.  Here's an article by Madeline Bunting that advocates for Schumacher's perspective and shows his contemporary relevance.  I would very much have preferred a book that was entirely about Schumacher.  There are some ways in which he was indeed a very uncommon philosopher.  It doesn't astonish me to learn that there actually is one called Alias Papa written by Schumacher's daughter, Barbara Wood, who is not the same individual as the author of historical romances by the same name.  Find out more at The Schumacher Society Website

                                         

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