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A Sample Contents

Here are the readings, in the order we’ll encounter them.

We open with some “Socratic Lives” – that of Martin Luther King, Jr., and that gadfly on which King in part modeled himself: Socrates. Each in his way, these thinkers were doers. Challengers of the status quo beliefs, they called for rational consistency and for justice. Each in his way created a situation of what King called “constructive tension,” in which we – as individuals and as “society” – must confront ourselves, and respond to the challenges of consistency and justice. (Warning: Carrying such a message can be dangerous.)

We turn next to Socrates’ direct philosophical descendants – his disciple Plato, and Plato’s student, Aristotle – for a tour of Big Ideas: ethics, social philosophy, metaphysics, beauty, the meaning of life, and the role of friends in it.

What can we expect from life? What are our prospects for happiness and for knowledge? The Epicureans, Stoics, and pessimists counsel that we reckon with death, desire, and everything in between – and each diverges as to how we should calibrate our expectations. Apropos of the modern period, Marx, Sartre, and Kierkegaard present penetrating analyses of the aspects of contemporary existence that undermine happiness and especially meaningful lives – and each presents a redeeming response of sorts.

In contrast to Kierkegaard’s call to deepen our lives through commitment – focused more on our subjective attitude toward the world than on our objective knowledge of it – we probe our prospects for knowledge. In the thirteenth century, Aquinas drew on the ancients, especially Aristotle, for rational proofs that God exists; but by the seventeenth century, the devout Pascal concluded that the arguments were inconclusive (and incidentally, despite his contributions to science, he was an apt precursor of Kierkegaard in his emphasis on faith, as opposed to rational proof).

If knowledge of God is perhaps out of reach, certainly we can know something, whether mundane or magnificent. Descartes certainly made an unparalleled effort – one that was to shape philosophy for hundreds of years after his death. But Hume’s careful and perhaps more circumspect reasoning turned up much less of a foundation for knowledge: Our beliefs are at best probable, and based as much on custom as on rigorous reason. It is particularly fascinating in this light to consider the challenge of Alan Turing – the grandfather of artificial intelligence – against those who claimed to know that a machine could not think, and generally, could not be a person. Turing argued that the evidence potentially available to us in making such an assessment would hardly be worse than that on which we rely when we take each other to be “people.”

This raised the metaphysical question, What is a person? And although Wittgenstein would probably not dream of answering such a question definitively, his account of language as an interwoven series of games will kick up plenty of dust. We close near where we began – in a kind of constructive tension that confronts us with the deepest questions we can ask about ourselves. It’s a tension each wave of which also leaves us with a choice: How shall we then live?

It’s our move.

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