I’ve been listening to this wonderful new series by the always delightful historian and documentarian Bettany Hughes, as she delves into the origins of philosophy.
She tells us the story of three ancient thinkers who remain among the world’s most influential: the Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius. These men, who all lived within one hundred years of each other, formulated their groundbreaking philosophies at a time when new technologies in food production, housing, and travel allowed human beings, for the first time, to form sophisticated, specialized societies. This enabled people to spend a lot less time devoted to mere subsistence and to divert much of their energies into the arts, into thought, and into figuring out how the world works. It also made people ready and able to think of life as something they could improve and control, not merely subject to the whims of nature and of capricious, mysterious gods.
Hughes is not only enamored with these three great thinkers because they are fascinating in their own right, but because she thinks of philosophy as I do: a deeply practical pursuit, in which we puzzle out how to go about living as good a life as we possibly can, as individuals and as societies. As I’ve heard her say, we need to bring philosophy back to the street where it began, where Buddha, Socrates, and Confucius first confronted the world with their ideas, and where it also belongs.