Cover of Learning to Live

Learning to Live: Philosophy for Beginners by Luc Ferry (Canongate)

A diligent reader of this lucid and committed book, by French philosopher and former Minister of Education Luc Ferry, will garner much profit from its second half once he has untangled the absurdities of the first half. This will involve discounting the tortuous schema imposed by Ferry on the history of Western philosophy. For in offering a non-technical introduction for schoolchildren and interested adults, Ferry describes philosophy as an alternative to religion, and specifically as offering an alternative to religion’s promise of “salvation” understood as “escape from death”.

Philosophical offers of salvation are, he says, like religion in premising theories of the world and of morality, and therefore one can characterise every philosophical and religious outlook according to this threefold schema. In them all the key is the desire to escape death: and through this lens – in fact, through the lens of Ferry’s account of Christianity as what he supposes to be a highly innovative solution to the salvific quest – he sees all of Greek, modern and postmodern philosophy. This involves him in an increasingly painful Procrustean task of torturing the account to fit the mould.

And Ferry commits the all-too common sin of over-generalising and simplifying popularisers, which is to attribute to individual thinkers (in his case Descartes, Rousseau and Nietzsche) the transformation of entire cultures of thought, as if absolutely everyone had read them, agreed, and shifted their thinking en masse accordingly.

But first let us applaud the good bits. Ferry’s exegesis of Nietzsche is rewarding, his strictures on the scholasticism of contemporary philosophy are accurate, and his championing of philosophy as humankind’s required conversation about good and meaningful lives is welcome. Ferry ends by seconding Andre Comte-Sponville’s recommendation that we “hope less and love more” (on the grounds that hope is the emotion of dispossession and frustration), adding that although we must grasp the day (carpe diem) and love the world as it is (amor fati) – these tags giving us a materialist, secular spirituality – we must also recognise that there is much in the facts that is disagreeable, and we have to brace ourselves for misfortune. To do this effectively, we should accept that there are two kinds of transcendence: the transcendence of liberty within and objective value without. Indeed we cannot do without these transcendences, for we cannot think about ourselves and our lives without them.

One might cavil over the necessity of Ferry’s use of Hegel’s “transcendence within immanence” to give credibility to his claim, surely unexceptionable whatever grounds are adduced, that the fundamental human values are (they certainly include) truth, beauty, justice and love. The patchy and ephemeral realisation of all but beauty, and even there the louring counterweight of ugliness in the world, might make one less cavalier about downgrading hope as a virtue; but still, one can agree with Ferry that the objectivity of these values can be demonstrated from self-knowledge, and from reflection on the experiences of love and mourning, together with a Kantian “enlargement of thought” which other philosophers might describe as taking things (we are in the realm of tags) sub specie aeternitatis.

But to enjoy all this one has, as mentioned, to shut one’s eyes to the first half. To caricature the whole of classical thought as if it amounted to those bits of late Stoicism (Epictetus and Aurelius) which, in the interest of life, advise indifference to death, and to describe Christianity as an original outlook – Christianity being a syncretistic amalgam which over centuries grafted so much Neoplatonist metaphysics and Stoic morality to its Jewish roots, and filched so much from Mithraism and Orphism and other mystery cults – is to miss an awful lot of relevant points, and thereby to distort the history of thought massively.

The problem is of course Ferry’s antecedent commitment to the threefold salvific schema, which at the end of the book returns with redoubled improbability, and renders the whole imperfect. There is a better book within, though; and that is the one to enjoy.