Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

Cary Nederman introduces us to his piece on Niccolò Machiavelli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy thusly:

Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’

Learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli:

The Inverted Advice of Niccolò Machiavelli – by William J. Connell for the Times Literary Supplement

Machiavelli and the Italian City States – Melvin Bragg in conversation with his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine

Niccolò Machiavelli – by Cary Nederman for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli: Italian Statesman and Writer – by Harvey Mansfield for Encyclopædia Britannica

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Ludwig Wittgenstein!

Drawing of Ludwig Wittgenstein by Christiaan Tonnism, pencil on board 1985, Creative Commons

In honor of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s birthday, Apr 26, 1889, let me share four fascinating discussions about the great philosopher’s life and ideas.

The first is by philosopher Stephen West for his podcast Philosophize This!, in which he discusses ‘…the limitations of language as described by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein played a central, if controversial, role in 20th-century analytic philosophy. He continues to influence current philosophical thought in topics as diverse as logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture….’ (this episode is only the first West will create about Wittgenstein)

The second is from the BBC series Great Lives, hosted by Matthew Parris and featuring guests Raymond Tallis and Ray Monk. In this program, Parris, Tallis, and Monk discuss ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, the fascinating and misunderstood genius who changed the course of philosophy…’

The third is from the BBC series In Our Time, hosted by Melvin Bragg and featuring guests Ray Monk, Barry Smith, and Marie McGinn. In this program, Monk, Bragg, Smith, and McGinn discuss ‘…the life, work and legacy of Ludwig Wittgenstein… Wittgenstein is credited with being the greatest philosopher of the modern age, a thinker who left not one but two philosophies for his descendants to argue over: The early Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my mind mean the limits of my world”; the later Wittgenstein replied, “If God looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of”. Language was at the heart of both. Wittgenstein stated that his purpose was to finally free humanity from the pointless and neurotic philosophical questing that plagues us all. As he put it, “To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” How did he think language could solve all the problems of philosophy? How have his ideas influenced contemporary culture?…’

The fourth is by Ian Ground for the Times Literary Supplement, an excellent piece I recommended here at Ordinary Philosophy last fall. In it, Ground discusses ‘why writers and artists have found him an object of fascination and inspiration. He is the subject of novels, poetry, plays, painting, music, sculpture and films. In the arts and the culture generally, Wittgenstein seems to be what a philosopher ought to be.’

Enjoy, and be inspired, awed, puzzled, and enlightened!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Michel de Montaigne!

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Michel de Montaigne, born on February 28, 1533, was a thinker after my own heart.

Montaigne was a deeply philosophical thinker, though he never developed a complete philosophical system or moral theory. He invented, or at least popularized, a revolutionary way of writing: the essay. In his essays, he wrote about anything and everything he found interesting enough to observe and think deeply about which was …well, just about everything, especially his inner life. His Essays are a rich source of wonderful philosophical and moral insights. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes: “… under the guise of innocuous anecdotes, Montaigne achieved the humanist revolution in philosophy. He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment’. Judgment, in this sense, involves applying both our cultivated moral sense and our reason, enriched with knowledge, to navigating the complexity and variety of situations we face throughout our lives; it also refers to the expansive, tolerant attitude we should display towards each other and towards the whole of reality.

While Montaigne highly valued education, he also recognized that it can be overemphasized to the detriment of learning from our own experiences. In his day, education often consisted largely, even mostly, of rote memorization of a vast quantity of facts. This learning method can stifle our ability to exercise practical judgment and serve to blunt social skills as well, preventing us from learning from and about each other, which is essential for cultivating moral understanding. We should learn as much about the world and each other as possible, Montaigne thought, through interpersonal interaction as well as through more formal types of education.

Montaigne also thought that sometimes, our big, smart brains can even hinder our quest for wisdom. For example, we can become ashamed, insecure, even hateful of our own bodies when we contrast the refinements of education and the arts to the material, often messy, even disgusting reality of caring for the body and satisfying its needs. This distaste for our bodies is ungenerous and ungrateful, said Montaigne, considering how we rely on our bodies for so much. In fact, even to this Catholic Christian man who believed in the soul, we are our bodies in an essential way. Our bodies are much more than just meat that our souls inhabit, they are intimate partners of souls, and together, they comprise whole human beings. As such, our bodies deserve our compassion, gratitude, love, and respect.

Our big brains can make also make us too proud, unable to recognize wisdom in humble or unexpected places. Those of little or no education, Montaigne maintains, sometimes display more wisdom than the most rigorous scholar. This includes animals, who, especially, are sometimes wiser than we are; for example, they live their whole lives with the natural, unembarrassed, proper attitudes towards their own bodies that allows them to unapologetically enjoy the pleasure of being alive. Montaigne believed that we should learn from them and imitate them in these respects. Those who have the most wisdom to teach us, then, can come from all walks of life, and the wisest person will be receptive to the lessons that can be learned anywhere.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t limit our exposure merely to our own cultures, but should learn about as many other cultures and beliefs as possible. Montaigne, like Confucius, believed that before you can be a philosopher or a moral theorist, you must first be an anthropologist. A wide-ranging education and exposure to the world has two major advantages. First, the information you have to work with will be much more vast, your scope much wider, than if you merely stuck to the received wisdom of your own culture. Secondly, you will cultivate in yourself the very virtues that characterize the wise and moral person: tolerance, benevolence, respect, kindness, generosity, understanding, and so forth. Conversely, narrowness of outlook and xenophobia lead to hatred, violence, and so on, as the horrific stories coming back from the conquest of the New World made him all too aware. Montaigne believed we shouldn’t base our attitudes about right and wrong on habit, which is morally lazy and which a narrow education can easily lead us to do; rather, we should temper our moral attitudes with reason, and our reason, in turn, should be informed by an expansive and ever-expanding body of knowledge.

michel-de-montaigneThis can make Montaigne seem like a moral relativist, but I don’t think that this is so. He was a committed Catholic, which seems to rule that out. Yet he did recognize that some things society traditionally recognized as wrong are in fact both bad and good, sometimes one or sometimes the other depending on the circumstances, sometimes both at the same time. For example, consider drunkenness. It can be bad, such as when it gets you fired or leads you to violence. But, it can also be good, such as promoting sociability or artistic disinhibition. Montaigne recognized that if there are universally true moral maxims, they’re likely to be few. Rather, his approach to philosophy is a skeptical one: he recognized that an attitude of uncertainty and doubt is a fruitful one for gaining wisdom. When you don’t easily accept the first easy answers that come along, when you’re always waiting for more information to come in, when you generally accept that there’s a possibility you are wrong, you are practicing a wise skepticism; otherwise, you cheat yourself out of the opportunity to learn.

Ethically, Montaigne espoused some behaviors as universally preferable: those that are inspired by tolerance, joyfulness, sociability, generosity, benevolence, curiosity, a good-humored attitude towards other people and their varied ways of living, and so on; he specifically denounced cruelty and narrowness in thinking and feeling. He described his ethical theory not by outlining a rigorous system, however, but by enacting and describing a moral attitude that inspired moral behavior in others. In sum, he may or may not have been a relativist when it comes to a specific theory or set of maxims, but he was definitely not relativistic in the overarching value he placed on the art of being a good, complete human being, and on promoting the same in others.

Montaigne’s Essays demonstrate that the most well-reasoned advanced moral theory may never be quite as convincing, effective, or influential when spelled out as that which is lived out. Montaigne showed us how we can all be philosophers, how we can live ethically, and how we can discover it all for ourselves.

Philosophers, if they’re doing it right, will be the happiest of all people since philosophy can and should be a joyful enterprise, and we should all be philosophers.

Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ I wrote this essay in 2012 and edited it substantially for Ordinary Philosophy in 2017

Learn more about this great master of introspection here:

Essays ~ by Michel de Montaigne

Me, Myself, and I: What Made Michel de Montaigne the First Modern Man? ~ by Jane Kramer for The New Yorker

Michel de Montaigne ~ by Marc Foglia for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Montaigne’s life and thought with David Wootton, Terence Cave, and Felicity Green (my Intellectual History advisor!) for the BBC’s In Our Time

Michel de Montaigne ~ from The Book of Life

Michel de Montaigne (1533—1592) ~ by Christopher Edelman for Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) ~ by Terence Green for Philosophy Now

Michel de Montaigne: French Writer and Philosopher ~ by Tilde A. Sankovitch for Encyclopædia Britannica

Montaigne on Death and the Art of Living ~ by Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Can We Have More Than One Friend? According to Montaigne, No ~ by Manuel Bermudez

Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness – Montaigne on Self-Esteem ~ by Alain de Botton

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Frederick Douglass at In Our Time by BBC Radio 4 with Melvin Bragg and Guests

Two portraits of Frederick Douglass from the Hutchinson Family scrapbook at the Lynn Historical Society & Museum, photo by Amy Cools

I’m particularly excited to share this new episode of In Our Time because it’s on a subject particularly dear to my heart and stimulating to my mind: the life and ideas of the great human rights advocate Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in Maryland in 1818, his story as a self-made man starts with refusal: refusal of enforced ignorance; refusal to be cowed and beaten; refusal to stay in a situation where anyone claimed a right to own his person; refusal to stay silent about abuses against his fellow black humanity and against women, immigrants, and the poor; refusal to allow white abolitionists to tell him what to believe and how to present himself. In sum, Douglass refused to be anything other than or less than what he believed he could and should be.

Douglass went on to have one of the most impressive, distinguished, thoughtful, and dogged careers fighting for the rights of everyone that he perceived suffering under the worst excesses of human greed, bigotry, and moral passivity. He did so with passion and exceptional oratorial skill. All in all, I find Douglass to be one of the most memorable and inspiring human beings to ever have lived.

In their discussion on Douglass, Melvyn Bragg and his guests Karen Salt,  Nicholas Guyatt, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, the University of Edinburgh’s own Professor of Black Studies in the English Department with fill you in on many fascinating details about his life, work, and thought. I’m pleased and excited to say that Professor Bernier has recently invited me to join her in-progress project Our Bondage and Our Freedom in celebration of the bicentennial of Douglass’ birth.

Interior of the Theological School Library at the University of Edinburgh’s New College

Enjoy!

An update on my own work on Douglass: my Master’s degree studies are keeping me so occupied at the moment that I barely have time for my other research, let alone time to write it all up. At the moment, my Douglass research is taking me to the Special Collections of the Theological School Library, at the New College of the University of Edinburgh. I’m reading through Thomas Chalmers’ papers and other documents pertaining to the ‘Send Back the Money!’ campaign and the Scottish abolitionist movement. So fascinating, and I look forward very much to sharing what I find with you!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Baruch Spinoza!

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Baruch Spinoza was born on November 24, 1632, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He was the son of Michael and Hannah Spinoza, Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity, then imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition, then fled to relatively tolerant Amsterdam. The Spinozas became successful and respected members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community.

Their son Baruch (also called by his Latinized name Benedicto, also meaning ‘blessed’), was a precocious and brilliant boy who became an intellectually rigorous, curious, and free-thinking man. He wrote prodigiously, profoundly, and often obscurely while earning a humble living as a scientific instrument lens-grinder. He was excommunicated for his unorthodox beliefs (rather surprising still given the relative broad-mindedness of that synagogue), shunned and condemned by his fellow Jews and by Christians alike, and lived the rest of his too-short life in near-solitude, though in rich correspondence with a wide circle of friends and intellectuals.

His idea of God as a unified substance which, in some sense, can be understood as being the same as Nature or the Universe itself, is still widely beloved (the great physicist Albert Einstein and eloquent, outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, for example, were among his biggest fans), hated, and debated widely, especially insofar as it can be difficult to grasp the exact nature of Spinoza’s metaphysical and ethical ideas. Spinoza refused to repudiate his ideas despite the intense social pressure he had to deal with for the rest of his life. But however much his correspondents argued, cajoled, threatened with hellfire, or otherwise tried to convince him to abandon his beliefs, Spinoza responded with firmness, constancy, thoroughness, and courtesy.

Learn more about the integrious Baruch Spinoza at:

Baruch Spinoza ~ by Steven Nadler for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) ~ in the Jewish Virtual Library

Benedict De Spinoza (1632—1677) ~ by Blake D. Dutton for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Betraying Spinoza ~ Rebecca Goldstein on her book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Benedict de Spinoza: Dutch-Jewish Philosopher ~ by Richard H. Popkin for the Encyclopædia Britannica

From Baruch to Benedicto! (Spinoza pt. 1) and Spinoza Part 2 ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This! podcast

God Intoxicated Man – The Life and Times of Benedict Spinoza ~ by Michael Goldfarb for the BBC’s Sunday Feature

Spinoza ~ Melvin Bragg discusses Spinoza’s life and thought with Jonathan Rée, Sarah Hutton, and John Cottingham for In Our Time

The Heretic Jew ~ by Harold Bloom, book review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity for The New York Times

The Writings of Spinoza ~ at Internet Sacred Text Archive

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Voltaire!

Voltaire’s statue and tomb in his crypt in the Pantheon, Paris, France

Voltaire was born on November 21, 1694, in Paris, France, where he died 83 1/2 years later. He’s buried in that great city of his birth and death, in a crypt below the beautiful Pantheon. He was a philosopher, playwright, poet, and much, much more; a generally prolific, wide-ranging, and creative writer. In his long life, Voltaire used his wealth of learning, urgent sense of justice, and merciless and ready wit to make the case for religious and intellectual tolerance, forbearance, science, and social reform. He is still considered one of the most influential and memorable thinkers the world has ever seen.

Learn more about the great Voltaire at:

Voltaire – an animated video by Alain de Botton and Nicholas Cronk for The School of Life

Voltaire ~ by J.B. Shank for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Voltaire ~ by René Henry Pomeau for the Encyclopædia Britannica

Voltaire and the One-Liner ~ by Nicholas Cronk for OUPBlog

Voltaire’s Candide ~ Melvin Bragg talks with David Wootton, Nicholas Cronk, and Caroline Warman for In Our Time

Voltaire’s Garden: The Philosopher as a Campaigner for Human Rights ~ by Adam Gopnik for The New Yorker (book review for Ian Davidson’s Voltaire in Exile

The Voltaire Foundation: a world leader for eighteenth-century scholarship

Broken on the Wheel: A Gruesome Legal Case turned Voltaire into a Crusader for the Innocent ~ by Ken Armstrong for the Paris Review

The Philosopher and the Prodigy: How Voltaire Fell in Love with a Remarkable Woman Mathematician ~ by Michelle Legro for Brain Pickings

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

‘Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [born May 3, 1469] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’ ~ Cary Nederman, “Niccolò Machiavelli”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

To introduce yourself to or learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli, read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article linked above and listen to this discussion between one of my favorite broadcasters and public intellectuals Melvin Bragg, and his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!