More about philosophy

Philosophy is traditionally defined as the search for what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful. Technical terms for those topics are “metaphysics” (the search for what is true, or real—which is followed by “epistemology,” determining how we know what is real), “ethics” (the search for what is good), and “aesthetics” (the search for what is beautiful, and how we recognize what is beautiful). Some twentieth-century philosophers willingly surrendered these searches to other disciplines that had branched off from philosophy. They conceded the search for what is true to science, accepting that whatever scientists recognize as real should be considered real. They conceded the search for what is beautiful to the arts, accepting that whatever artists recognize as beautiful should be considered beautiful. The question of how we know what is real was bestowed upon psychologists, and the question of what is good was bestowed upon sociologists. After all, perception is done in the mind, and psychologists study the mind. Ethics are governed (if not formed) by groups of people, and sociologists study groups of people.

What, then, is left for philosophy to consider? With philosophy left only as a branch on the limb of “liberal arts,” much of the work of modern philosophers concerns language and communication. This is, indeed, a fertile field to plow and plant and tend. The signs and symbols used to communicate ideas fascinate philosophers. Take the idea of 2, which can also be represented as II. It can be called two or deux or dos or zwei. For English speakers, it must be distinguished from the preposition “to” or the synonym of “also,” “too.” Once considered or communicated, though, this sign or symbol represents a powerful idea, an idea that contains more than two apples or two triangles. Philosophers even ask whether the number two exists apart from two apples or two triangles. If it exists as a pure idea, what makes that idea real? Would the idea of “two” exist without a mind to consider the significance of “two” beyond its representation in any pair of objects in the universe?

These questions restore philosophy’s function as a search for truth. Thinkers trained in a scientific approach may fail to appreciate the importance of determining whether the idea of “two” exists apart from the observer or exists only in the mind of the observer. For that matter, philosophers should ask whether science can observe and measure and comprehend everything that is real. Science does a good job studying those things it is designed to study, but other existing things may retain their being outside the reach of science.

Likewise, sociology is not equipped to determine whether a rule or requirement is good. Observing groups of people all over the world, sociologists might report that nearly all groups of people frown upon murder and stealing. That, in itself, does not make those actions bad. A scientist might weigh each individual in a group of people, then establish an average, or normal, range of weights, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that would not mean that the median weight was the healthiest weight for those people. A sociologist might closely observe a group of people and count the lies told by those people, then establish an average, or normal, number of lies told each day, with abnormal extremes at both ends of the spectrum, but that does not mean that the median honesty was the most ethical honesty for those people.

In short, philosophers never should have limited themselves to studying language and communication, even though that topic is fascinating. Ancient Greeks made the same mistake when philosophy degenerated into sophistry, promising to teach speakers how to be convincing, no matter which side they took in a debate. The career of Socrates helped to correct that mistake. Philosophers need to keep asking the big questions: What is true? What is good? What is beautiful? Information from other specialties assists philosophers in their search for answers. Scientists and artists, though, cannot replace philosophers in the realm of human thinking. J.

The Second World War, part one

A few historians suggest that the two world wars were, in reality, one war of roughly thirty years, with a treaty separating the earlier hostilities from the final stage of the war. Their model for this suggestion is the Hundred Years War between England and France. That war began in 1337 and extended until 1453, but it consisted of three stages of fighting and two truces—one of roughly ten years and the other of nearly twenty-five years.

Both at the time and in retrospect, one could defend the proposition that the Second World War picked up where the first World War ended. But unlike the Hundred Years War, in which the governments of England and France both remained stable (even as kings died and were replaced), the governments that brought about the Second World War were largely different from those that had fought in the Great War. Hitler and the Nazis had little connection to the Kaiser’s government in Germany or that of the Emperor of Austria. The Italy of Mussolini was far different from Italy of the Great War, an Italy which joined the Allies to battle against Germany and Austria. The Czar of the Soviet Union had been displaced by Stalin and the Communists. Even Japan—which, for the most part, sat out the Great War—was changed. At the height of the Victorian Era, Japan consciously imitated the most successful policies they saw in Europe and North America. During the Great Depression, Japanese leaders saw more hope in imitating (and joining with) Hitler and Mussolini. All these nations embraced totalitarianism, and a totalitarian government needs continual enemies to battle, or the nation’s people will rise up against their government and overthrow it.

Therefore, Italy under Mussolini and the Fascists first invaded their neighbor, Albania, and then set out to colonize Ethiopia. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Italy quit the League of Nations. Japan provoked an incident in China, using it as an excuse to invade and colonize northeastern China. When the League of Nations criticized these actions, Japan quit the League of Nations. With help from Stalin’s Soviet government, Hitler rebuilt Germany’s armed forces. He expanded German national power by absorbing Austria in the Anschluss, a union which many Austrians welcomed. Hitler then moved to claim a section of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that German-speaking people lived there. The British government was ready to challenge this expansion; instead, negotiators decided to appease Hitler, assuming that giving him what he wanted would keep him quiet. (Try this sort of appeasement with a five-year-old child in the grocery store!) Hitler then concluded that the rest of Czechoslovakia was too weak to survive, so he placed that land under German control as well.

Meanwhile, the League of Nations was also too weak to prevent civil war in Spain. The Spanish government first was overthrown by Communist forces, supported by the Soviet Union, who declared Spain a Republic. But, with help from Germany and Italy, General Franco struck back at the Republic, invading his own country from north Africa. Most other countries, including the United States, remained officially neutral, although some American volunteers did serve in Spain—helping the Communist Republic defend itself against Franco’s Nationalist forces. The war in Spain allowed both sides of the coming World War to test new technology that had not existed in 1918. Franco eventually won the war, and his Fascist government remained in power until his death in 1975.

Where and when did the Second World War begin? European historians point to the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the incursion of German troops into Poland on September 1, 1939. But, since the war ended with the surrender of Japan, historians increasingly look to the Japanese invasion of China in 1936 to identify the beginning of the war. As Japan sought to increase its power at the expense of China, it changed a set of regional conflicts into a world-wide conflict. Germany’s successes in Europe enabled Japan to seize British and French colonies in eastern Asia. Even though the largest empire in history, counting only dry land, was the Mongolian Empire of Genghis Khan around 1225, if one includes control over ocean regions the Japanese Empire in 1942 was marginally larger than the Mongolian Empire.

Germany’s invasion of Poland caused France and the United Kingdom to declare war. The next year, Denmark and Norway both fell under German control, and the Germans then repeated their effort of 1914 to strike France quickly through the Netherlands and Belgium. This time, German forces made it to Paris. Motorized military vehicles overcame the risk of trench warfare which had happened in 1914. Germany’s Blitzkrieg, or “Lightning War,” seemed effective in overwhelming the opposition. In fact, Blitzkrieg was the only kind of fighting Germany could afford; a protracted bout of fighting would have driven the nation into insolvency and defeat. The United Kingdom managed to survive the Battle of Britain, and if Hitler had been satisfied with his gains in the early stages of the war, the course of history from that time until the present might have been far different.

Two things changed the course of the war. First, Hitler turned against his ally to the east and invaded the Soviet Union. He thought that the Blitzkrieg would work as well in eastern Europe as it had worked in Poland and in France. Hitler also hoped that Japan would invade the Soviet Union from the Pacific, forcing the Russians to fight on two fronts. Japan elected to wait and see before committing itself to battle the Soviets. Instead, six months after Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, Japanese forces bombed American positions at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan hoped to prevent American interference in its Pacific empire. Instead, by bringing both the Soviet Union and the United States into the World War, Germany and Japan guaranteed their eventual defeat. J.

Branches of philosophy

Although some early Christians rejected all secular philosophy, many other Christians found philosophy a useful tool to understand creation and to communicate with people living in the world. Church leaders came to regard philosophy as “the handmaiden of theology.” God and his revelation took first place, and the teachings of philosophy were not allowed to contradict the Word of God. Beyond that, philosophy had an honored place in the toolkit of Christian education, and also that of Jewish education and Muslim education.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy and education were expressed in what then were called the seven Liberal Arts. These began with the “trivium”—Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These studies are in no way trivial: they remain the foundation of thinking and communication, including written composition and public speaking. The other Liberal Arts were Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music. A solid basis of knowledge in these areas prepared any student to specialize in other fields of knowledge, research, and understanding.

During the Enlightenment, appreciation of knowledge, understanding, and education underwent further revision. By modern times, two major boughs had grown on the tree of knowledge. They were called Science and the Arts. Even today, most colleges and universities grant degrees that are designated as either science or arts.

Branches on the bough of science begin with mathematics. This is the purest science, dealing only with numbers. Two is always two, whether it is represented by two apples, two triangles, or the two Natures of Christ. From the branch of mathematics grow further branches, including arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and calculus. Practical mathematics also are taught, such as accounting and statistics.

Physics is a second branch of science. Physics studies objects in the material world and analyzes their qualities and their movement. Astronomy was recognized as a branch of physics once Isaac Newton demonstrated that the heavenly bodies obey the same laws as earthly bodies. Nuclear, or subatomic, physics are another branch, one in which the geometry of Euclid and the physics of Newton no longer apply. Practical physics are found in the various departments of engineering.

Chemistry has become its own branch, although chemistry might be viewed as a more complicated field within physics. Alchemists began with a theory of four elements (air, earth, fire, and water). They eventually discovered a far more complicated table of elements. Theoretical chemistry and practical chemistry are not as easily distinguished as in mathematics and physics.

Biology is the next branch of the sciences. Biology studies living things, whether plants or animals or microscopic forms of life. The most important practical biology is medicine.

All these are pure sciences or natural sciences. On the same bough of sciences are the social sciences, beginning with psychology. Once uniquely identified with philosophy, the study of the psyche—or the self—was transferred to the sciences in the twentieth century, beginning with the work of Sigmund Freud. Along with psychology comes sociology. Psychology looks at human beings as individuals, while sociology studies people in groups. Among the practical branches of sociology are law, politics, and economics. Some schools even treat history as a social science, although most schools consider history one of the arts.

The bough of arts on the tree of knowledge divides into fine arts and liberal arts (also called humanities). The fine arts include visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, and music (which involves hearing rather than seeing). If fine arts involve the senses, then baking and cooking might also be listed as fine arts. But the fine arts also include literature—poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. History might also land here, as one of the literary arts, a branch of non-fiction. Drama also is a fine art, which branches further into the categories of theater and film

The liberal arts, or humanities, complete the major branches of the tree of knowledge. Most schools include history among the humanities. Other humanities involve the study of languages and the study of cultures. Religious studies are also included among the humanities. Ironically, the study of philosophy—once the essence of the entire tree—has now become a department within the humanities or liberal arts, merely one branch among the many branches of the tree.

Arguments for a third bough of the tree become increasingly common in the late twentieth century and twenty-first century. This third bough consists of vocational education, which focuses on neither science nor on the arts. Modern society needs plumbers, electricians, carpenters, auto mechanics, truck drivers, and hair stylists. Food preparation and service falls into the same category. Even many workers in health care receive vocational training rather than scientific or artistic education. One does not require knowledge of algebra or drama or history to be effective in any of these jobs. Debate continues, though, about how much exposure to science and the arts helps people to be fully human and to be happy in their vocations while living among their common human beings. J.

The Great Depression

The label “The Great Depression” applies largely to world-wide economic conditions after the Great War. France and Russia were badly damaged by the war (and both Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued to experience wartime conditions for several years after the Armistice). Germany was economically devastated and was further stifled by required reparation payments to France and Great Britain. Inflation in Germany was so bad after the way that Germany money was—literally—less valuable than the paper on which it was printed. The British Empire also required time to recover from the cost of the war in lives, dire medical conditions, industries that had been converted to wartime production, and disrupted transportation of raw materials and goods around the world.

The United States’ economy was booming from the economic benefits of a world war. Food, cotton, and many other products had been very profitable during the war and immediately after. But in the 1920s, customers did not always exist for American productivity; food and cotton and manufactured supplies began to pile up in warehouses. The problem worsened as European economies recovered from the war. Surpluses grew, prices fell, and jobs began to be cut. Powerful flooding further aggravated agricultural concerns in 1927. The historic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 was merely the final dramatic symptom of a Depression that had already begun. The banks that collapsed due to the stock market crash were already teetering on the edge of failure. In many parts of the country, the stock market crash was not even front-page news.

But economic depression was not the only kind of depression that the world faced in the 1920s. The Great War undercut everything that Europeans and North Americans had been saying about science and technology since the Enlightenment. Victorian optimism about an improving world was crushed by the War. Supposedly the most civilized and educated leaders had caused the war and had failed to stop it once it started. Science and technology had been used to cause and increase suffering. Optimism about solutions to all the world’s problems had been misplaced. Survivors of the Great War lacked the hope and encouragement that their parents and grandparents had invested in the future.

Some elements of this depression began during the Victorian Age. Cameras made naturalistic painting unnecessary, so painters began to experiment in abstract art, such as impressionism.  After the war, further adventures in art were explored, such as expressionism and cubism. All of these reflected, to a degree, rejection of the schools of art that had dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Likewise, in music, the change began during the Victorian Age. Especially in France, which lost a brief war to Germany in 1870, rejection of German music led to a new style of music which was also called impressionism. After the war, more jarring forms of music emerged, discordant and irregular in rhythm. Pessimism and absurdism began to emerge in literature and theater after the war. Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald described the darker side of life, while other writers went to greater extremes to reflect their depression, turning away from the confident optimism that prevailed from the Enlightenment through the Victorian Age.

Science contributed to the depression. For several generations, it had seemed that science had achieved all its major discoveries; it appeared that science would now simply define its procedures, making knowledge more complete and more reliable with each new generation. Einstein’s theories of relativity changed all that. Suddenly it was seen that Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics only apply to the world we move through in our common experience. The rules are not the same at the very large or at the very small. Subatomic particles follow rules that seem to defy everything we thought we know about the real world. In biology, the prevailing theory of evolution presented men and women as nothing more than animals which were a little more successful than other kinds of animals. Now Sigmund Freud added to the recipe for darkness, arguing that strange and mysterious things are happening in our minds beyond the thoughts of which we were already aware.

In all this doubt and uncertainty—but especially in the turmoil of the economic Depression—large numbers of people put their trust in the power and authority of politicians and government to provide answers. Out of this misplaced trust came totalitarian governments—political powers that exercised control over vast portions of citizens’ lives. Modern technology made this kind of control more possible than ever before. Governments began by controlling communication—newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, and other way people shared thoughts and ideas. The same governments also controlled education. Stalin and the Communist Party gained that kind of power in the Soviet Union, followed by Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. In each of these countries, competing political parties were outlawed. Disagreeing with the government was not allowed. A person who spoke a contrary idea might be jailed as a criminal, or might be hospitalized as mentally ill (only released when that person was “cured” and agreed with the government), or might simply disappear. The government announced its economic successes, and no one was in a position to contradict those announcements. Even after the Second World War, an entire generations of historians continued to report that under the Fascists the trains ran on time. Finally, researchers took the trouble to fact-check that claim and to prove it false.

People from the United States visited the Soviet Union. They saw the new factories, they read the government reports, and they met no one who dared to seem unhappy with the new system. Therefore, they returned to the United States saying, “I have seen the future, and it works!” A Communist Party grew in the United States during the Depression, while other citizens advocated other forms of socialism. The Republicans in power seemed unable to help American citizens, especially when a devastating drought struck the central farmlands of the country in 1930 and 1931. Despairing voters turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, hoping that the promises of a New Deal could be kept.

Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that some problems are so big that only the government is big enough to solve them. New Deal programs included several government ages that hired workers—building schools and parks and armories, paving roads, digging ditches, and contributing in other ways to the infrastructure. Artists were hired to paint murals in government buildings, especially post offices. Writers were hired to interview the last surviving former slaves, to record the memories of pioneers, and to pen travelogues of the various states. Women were gathered to sew and to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Social Security was created—collecting a tax from workers and their employers to pay other people (mainly the disabled and the elderly) not to work. Farmers were paid not to plant crops. Lands seized for tax default were offered to homeless farm families under generous programs that helped them to reestablish themselves on the land.

Historians debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression or prolonged it. Since the Second World War ended the economic struggle of the Depression (as well as some New Deal programs), a clear conclusion about the value of the New Deal cannot be found. But Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats did not seek or establish a totalitarian state. They did not outlaw the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party. Instead, Roosevelt spoke in favor of four freedoms: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.” Even while expanding government’s presence and power in the lives of its people, the New Deal continued to focus on freedom for American citizens. J.


One might say that every person is a philosopher, just as every person is a scientist, and every person is an artist. We all seek to understand the world around us and what it contains; with a combination of observation and experimentation, we all try to gain information and clarity about our world. We all express ourselves, from time to time, by humming a tune or doodling a design or telling a story. We all ask the Big Questions, at least once in a while, such as, “Who am I?” and, “Why am I here?”

But only a few become professional scientists, studying a science and earning a degree and taking a paid job to work with science. Only a few become professional artists, making a living in music or painting or storytelling or another of the arts. Only a very few become professional philosophers, and most of them end up teaching about philosophy in universities. In general, people understand why science and the arts should be funded. They don’t always know why philosophers should be paid for what they do.

Probably the earliest humans were scientists and artists and philosophers. The Neolithic Revolution—that time when people began to settle in communities and raise food rather than hunting and gathering food—allowed more specialization in such matters. Stone Age people and Bronze Age people had thoughts and ideas about their place in the world. These thoughts and ideas tended to emphasize relationships. People knew who they were by seeing their place in their families and their communities and by understanding where they stood in relation to their environment and their gods.

About twenty-five centuries ago, after the establishment of the Iron Age, a new wave of thinking arose in the world’s most established gatherings of people. Many of these new approaches are studied today among the world’s religions: from China, Confucianism and Daoism; from India, Buddhism and Upanishad Hinduism; and from Persia, Zoroastrianism. Each of these focused more than earlier teachings upon the human individual as an individual. Each taught followers to look within themselves for virtue and for truth. These new approaches have been described as the Axial Age in religion and philosophy. But the Greek experience of the Axial Age differs in some ways from what was happening at the same time among other cultures.

Greek Axial thinkers approached the world with questions about its nature, and they tried to answer these questions without resorting to religious formulas. The earliest asked about the structure of the world—from what are all things made? One thinker suggested water, another suggested fire, and still another suggested numbers. Thinkers debated whether the true world is always in motion or always at rest. After a time, such discussions degenerated into sophistry, as teachers offered to train their students in rhetoric, promising that they could win any argument, no matter which side they chose to defend. But another series of thinkers broke the pattern of sophistry by asking about what is good. How do we define goodness? How do we recognize goodness? How do we make ourselves good? Socrates and Plato and Aristotle are associated with this approach, and the Greek and Roman worlds were shaped by their thinking and by the generations of thinkers who followed their approach.

The Greek word for this kind of thought is “philosophy.” Literally, that word translates into English as “love of wisdom.” But the translation only requires us to define two words instead of one. “Philo” denotes love as in friendship or loyalty; it is neither the erotic love of romance and marriage nor the “agape” love for God and for one’s neighbors. “Sophia” as wisdom is not the ability to learn and retain a list of facts, nor is it the mechanical ability to use those facts to shape and change the world. Wisdom is not even the steady and helpful thought process that has been mislabeled “common sense.” Wisdom is a broader understanding—but an understanding of what? The most helpful description of wisdom is to view it as pursuit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

For Greek philosophers, wisdom was distinct from religious knowledge and comprehension. Earlier thinkers in Israel had said the opposite. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the Bible says in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 14 adds, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Wisdom, as described in the book of Proverbs, resembles what the apostle Paul would call “faith.” For this reason, James wrote, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5). Thus, we encounter two competing paths to wisdom—one which has the thinker look within, seeking the Good and the True and the Beautiful; and the other looking to God, hoping to find in God the Good and the True and the Beautiful. Which is fascinating, since one of the major questions asked by those on the first path is, “Does God exist?” J.

Aftermath of the Great War

The Great War devastated the countries involved, both winners and losers. Nearly ten million soldiers were killed and another twenty million were wounded, not counting civilian deaths due to the war of another 7, 700,000. Battlefields became ugly scars on the land, and the emotional reaction to the war was equally scarred. Nearly the only reason for optimism after the war was the hope that it would be the last war of history, the war that ended all wars.

Because they called for an armistice before enemy soldiers had crossed the borders of their land, Germany and Austria (along with their allies Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) expected to approach the negotiating tables as equal partners with the Allied nations. Instead, Britain and France were determined to make their wartime enemies suffer, to make them pay the cost of the war. Meetings were scheduled in five suburbs of Paris, France: German representatives were sent to Versailles, Austrian to Saint Germain, Hungarian (being separated from Austria) to Trianon, Bulgarian to Neuilly, and Ottoman to Sevres. All these nations lost territory. All were required to reduce the size of their military strength. Germany and Austria in particular were required to pay penalties—reparations—to Britain and France. These large financial payments not only crushed the economies of Germany and Austria in the short term; they also hindered their ability to rebuild after the war for the long-term benefit of their citizens.

What could the representatives of these governments do? They were unable to return to the battlefield and continue the fight. Given no option, they signed the agreements they were handed and returned home. In the following months, the Ottoman Empire ended in civil war, producing the modern country called Turkey. Many of their west Asian possessions were put under the control of Britain and France. Meanwhile, leaders from the United States were equally disappointed by the injustice of the treaties written by Britain and France. The only American goal that was accepted in Europe was the concept of the League of Nations, an institution where nations could bring international problems for reconciliation without warfare. Britain and France and Italy all joined. Germany and Austria and the Soviet Union eventually joined. Most of the other countries in the world joined the League. But the United States Senate refused to ratify the treaty that would have included the United States in the League of Nations. Partly, the Senators’ refusal stemmed from disapproval of the negotiations. Largely, they resulted from “Isolationism,” determination not to become entangled in the problems of other nations. Ironically, the one American proposal that was accepted in Paris and put into practice by much of the world was refused and renounced by the government of the United States

Another aftermath of the Great War was an influenza pandemic. A new variety of the flu virus arose in the central agricultural section of the United States, probably in Nebraska or Kansas. Conscripted soldiers carried the virus into training camps, from which it spread to American cities. Then the soldiers brought the disease to the European battlefields, from which the new form of flu traveled to all the countries of the world. The disease, which became known as the Spanish Flu, killed more people than the war killed. It remains the most serious and deadly spread of disease in modern times.

The Great War also contributed to the Russian Revolution which produced the Soviet Union. Russian government had reformed after a revolution in 1905, but the war destabilized the Russian economy and politics, enabling a second revolution. Karl Marx had predicted that workers would rise against industrialization and capitalism, beginning where those phenomena had first appeared. Instead, the first Marxist government was formed in Russia. Lenin first called his party the Bolsheviks, which means majority (although they did not include, by far, a majority of the Russian people). They later changed their name to the Communist Party. They offered, not Communism, but Socialism, with a Marxist dream that sometime in the future the government would disappear and true Communism would emerge. The Revolution was not over in Russia when the Great War ended; fighting extended in some parts of Russia into 1923. By that time, even Lenin was willing to reconsider some of the socialist grabs of economic power and to allow some private ownership of property. But after Lenin died, Joseph Stalin emerged as a stronger and bolder leader. He placed the Soviet Union on a track of centralized government control, one of several totalitarian states established in Europe due to the aftermath of the Great War.

In general, the Great War led to an economic decline that was difficult to reverse. The pain was not felt at first in the United States, which benefited greatly from wartime sales of material even before American formally entered the war. A decade later, the United States also fell into Depression, a consequence of overproduction of materials for a world that was unable to buy what America had to sell. But the Great Depression was more than an economic upheaval. Depression of various kinds struck human society through the catastrophic destruction of the Great War. J.


Should Christians avoid philosophy? Is the practice of philosophy one of the dark arts, like sorcery? To answer this question, one might quote Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [or principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.” That is, in fact, the only verse in the Bible that uses the word “philosophy,” although Acts 17:18 does mention the philosophers addressed by Paul in Athens.

If philosophy is worldly and evil—part of the human world that is opposed to God’s Truth—then Christians should indeed beware. One cannot walk through mud without getting dirty, and one cannot dabble in worldly affairs without becoming tainted by the sins of the world. Yet many things in the world are good and God-pleasing when used rightly but dangerous and harmful when used wrongly. Water sustains life, but it also drowns. Fire keeps a person warm, provides light, and cooks food, but fire can also destroy property and cause great harm to the human body. Money can be used wisely to serve God and to help one’s neighbors, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10). Before rejecting all philosophy, a Christian must ask what is meant by philosophy and whether it is all the same. When Paul writes to the Colossians about human tradition and about elemental spirits or principles, is he hinting that some sorts of philosophy are dangerous but that a different philosophy might be beneficial? Is it possible to have a philosophy that is, as Paul says, “according to Christ”?

I maintain that Christians can be philosophers. Christians can read what philosophers have written, can evaluate those writings, and can benefit from those writings without being harmed. Christians can sort through the concepts and the methods of philosophy, approving what is used “according to Christ” while setting aside what comes from merely human tradition or from elemental principles of the world. For the God who created us gave us minds to think, minds to question, minds to explore and learn and grow. In his teaching, Jesus did not hand out answers to every question. Often he arranged that those who heard his teachings had to think about them, consider what he said, and put his words into perspective. God thinks, and people are made in his image. We are meant to think. Philosophy proposes questions and seeks answers. So long as the questions and answers do not separate the thinker from Christ, the Lord cannot disapprove of our philosophical efforts.

We ask many questions. “Why am I here? What should I be doing? What is this world around me? Can I trust my senses and what they tell me about the world, or is there more around me than I can see and hear and feel? How does it work that a series of sounds or marks on a page or screen can transmit thoughts from one mind to another? And what is it that makes some sights and sounds and scents and flavors more beautiful than others?”

We ask questions, and we search for answers. We search in our own minds and experiences. We search the opinions of other people we trust. We search the opinions of recognized experts, and then we think some more. The same apostle Paul who warned us about philosophy also encouraged us to think. He wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). That is how the Bible instructs Christians to think. And that, my friends, is philosophy. J.

The Great War

The Great War was not great in the sense that it was good. It might better be called the Great Big War. It was a world war, involving not just European governments but people from Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well. Battles were fought in places colonized by the Europeans, and millions of Africans and Asians were brought from the colonies to support troops in Europe. But the Roman numeral was not assigned to the first World War until it had been over for a time—not until the second World War was clearly about to begin.

Everyone knows that the spark that ignited the Great War was the assassination of an Austrian archduke visiting Sarajevo. The fuel for the explosion, though, had been gathering over time. That fuel included the balance of power in Europe, the ideology of Nationalism, and the increase of technology that contributed to the war effort.

A century before the Great War, the wars of Napoleon were concluded and settled by the Congress of Vienna. Diplomats at that Congress recognized that power must be balanced among nations, with no single nation allowed to overwhelm the others. Five great powers were recognized: Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Over the next hundred years, these five powers coexisted in creative tension. They dealt with the rest of the world from a position of power—sometimes claiming land for their own colonies, and sometimes working with existing governments in the western hemisphere and in eastern Asia. Prussia consolidated pieces of the defunct Holy Roman Empire because of Nationalism—because they had a common German language, culture, and history. Bavaria wavered between joining Prussia and Austria, finally selecting the former; Bohemia, part of the Austrian Empire, hoped for independence but was denied its dream until after the Great War.

Austria and Russia had both been gaining land and population at the expense of the declining Ottoman Empire. Nationalism inspired eastern Europeans to prefer independence over a transfer from one empire to another, and Russia urged people in Austrian-held lands to keep the flame of nationalism burning, to take pride in their Slavic heritage. Nationalism united the several small portions of Italy under one government, leaving the Pope only a few acres within the city of Rome (Vatican City, still an independent country today). The consolidation of Germany was completed through three swift border wars with Austria, Denmark, and France, all of which Germany won. The German government, led by Otto von Bismarck, declared itself satisfied and rededicated itself to maintaining a balance of power. Representatives of European governments even met in Berlin to divide Africa among themselves, preventing conflict between the European nations, but failing to ask the opinions of any Africans.

European governments used the latest military technology to maintain control in their colonies. Machine guns were particularly effective at ending native uprisings. To maintain the British Empire (upon which the sun never set), Great Britain strengthened its navy, building larger and more powerful battleships. Germany competed with Britain, building its own battleships and also a fleet of submarines. Other inventions that would complicate the Great War included barbed wire, poison gases, armored vehicles, and aircraft. Aircraft would be used more for observation of enemy positions than for offensive capabilities, but the dogfights between pilots of different nations became part of the legend of the Great War.

Germany and Austria signed a pact agreeing that, if any nation attacked one of them, both would respond. France and Russia then adopted a similar agreement, fearing the united power of the two German-speaking nations. Italy, fearful of French power, joined the agreement with Germany and Austria, making a Tripartite Pact. Great Britain long remained aloof from these agreements, having no need to rely on other countries for its defense. Eventually, though, Britain entered an agreement with France and Russia.

Then came the assassination. Germany was eager to go to war. The German government had a plan, the Schlieffen Plan, under which they would sweep through the Netherlands and Belgium, entering France by the back door and quickly knocking it out of the war. The Austrian government was not so eager to start a war, but under German pressure they made demands upon the Serbians that could not be met. To support the Serbians, the Russians mobilized their army at the Austrian border. This allowed Germany to mobilize its forces, which then prompted France to do the same. Throughout July, European forces wavered on the brink of war—a war that both sides believed they would quickly win. Finally, at the beginning of August, the Germans took the first step to commit themselves to war. The Schlieffen Plan brought German troops into France, but the Germans did not advance as far as they hoped before French resistance brought them to a halt. Machine guns and barbed war inhibited the charges across a battlefield that were customary in war. Any such charge was disastrous, even suicidal—which did not prevent such charges from being attempted by both sides. Instead of a war rapidly fought and over by Christmas, as both sides expected, the conflict turned into trench warfare that stretched beyond Christmas 1914… and Christmas 1915… and Christmas 1916… and Christmas 1917….

Because Germany began the war, Italy did not feel compelled to join the fighting on the German side. The Tripartite Pact referred only to an attack upon one of the members; it did not require participation if one of the partners began the war. Italy held out for the best offer, and the side of the French and British and Russians made the better offer. They promised Italy new territory in eastern Europe, to be taken from the Austrian Empire, when the war was won. (That promise was not kept after the war.) Meanwhile, Germany and Austria made better progress in the east against Russia than they made against France and Britain. They found, however, that winning battles against the Russian army is not the same as defeating Russia—a lesson already learned by Charles XII of Sweden and by Napoleon. The best move made against the Russians occurred when the Germans located am exiled Russian revolutionary who called himself Vladimir Lenin in Switzerland. They put him on a train that carried him back into Russia. Organizing the soviets (groups of workers comparable to labor unions in the west), Lenin triggered a revolution that overthrew the Czar’s government. His new government pulled Russia out of the war, although Lenin’s government had to surrender control of much territory that the Czars’ armies had captured for Russia over many years.

When the Great War began in 1914, most citizens of the United States were determined to remain uninvolved. A generation earlier, the United States had tasted all-out warfare, and Americans had no interest in committing to a foreign war. True, the United States had (like Bismarck’s Germany) fought a brief and relatively painless war to gain territory: they had battled Spain in 1898, freeing the island of Cuba and gaining Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Hawaii, and other Pacific islands. But the United States was more concerned about a civil war in Mexico. They sent troops to guard the southern border and had no inclination to go farther from home than Mexico. President Wilson even won reelection in 1916 with the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Shortly after his inauguration, however, Wilson changed policies, and the United States entered the Great War.

The British navy had tried blockading Germany to keep supplies (even food and clothing) from reaching Germany. The Germans responded with submarine attacks upon the blockade. Some American ships were lost during these campaigns. But freedom on the oceans was only one issue for Wilson and the Americans. Matters had calmed in Mexico, and the Czar had lost power in Russia. The war could now be portrayed as democracy (of the British and the French) against monarchy (of the German and Austrian). America’s soldiers could “make the world safe for democracy” while tilting the scales to conclude “the war to end all wars.” This hope of reshaping history and civilization brought the United States into the conflict. The difference was not felt immediately, but by the middle of 1918 the Germans and Austrians knew they could not win. Fighting continued while negotiating began. By November, the Germans had overthrown their government, and the new leaders called for an armistice. This armistice—which went into effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11 a.m. November 11) of 1918 was only an agreement to stop shooting, and to sit down and talk. The actual agreements and their enforcement could not take place until 1919. No enemy troops had yet crossed into Germany or Austria when the armistice was declared. The actual agreements established in 1919 would differ greatly from what Germany, Austria, or even the United States expected. J.

The tenth day of Christmas

On this tenth day of Christmas, I realize that I have taken most of the Christmas season off from blogging… which was probably healthy, even though not a deliberate decision. Having entered a new year, I believe that it is time to move forward, to consider where I have been and where I am going, and to make plans in hope and in optimistic Christmas spirit.

We had a lot of family time together for Christmas, which was good… although I also found it necessary to retreat from the crowd and regather my energy. One of my gifts was a splendid commentary on the book of Daniel, and I have already read more than half of it. Other books were also under the tree, plus I invested some of my gift money in books which are on their way to my house. I was asked a second time last month to speak at a funeral. The funeral took place on December 31, so I used the opportunity to talk about last days and about our Christian hope as we live in the last days and look forward to the new creation.

The last several months I have been writing essays on history, drawing upon lectures I delivered in the college classroom when I was still a college instructor, before COVID hit. I probably have about ten to twelve more of those to write, and I hope to produce one a week for the next three months or so.

Meanwhile, as I have been reading through my philosophy library the past couple of years and have finally reached the twentieth century, I have been developing ideas for a book about philosophy. My thought is that this book will contain some characters and plot and drama—a student working on a doctorate in philosophy while working part-time in a store, a bungled hold-up involving a shooting, then time for recovery, followed by a trial. This plot will introduce opportunities to examine truth—truth as seen from different points of view, and the effort to discover a genuine truth behind those perspectives. But what I will write and post first will be some comments about philosophy that (I hope) will become narrative and conversation in the book, as the main character explains why he is studying philosophy and how it applies to “real” life. My goal is to produce one post a week for this project, and we will see how it goes.

Aside from that, posts will come as they come. They might reflect current events, weather, holidays, or life in general, as the mood strikes me. If I continue taking a break from time to time (as I did in 2021), that will mean that I am busy with other things.

I wish each of you the richest blessings in this new year. May it bring us joy and peace and reasons for hope. J.

A date for Christmas

The Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born. The fact that shepherds were watching their flocks at night may hint that Jesus was born in February, when lambs also are born. This would be fitting, since Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But the shepherds’ nighttime watch could have happened any time of year, as the shepherds worked to keep their flocks safe from thieves and predators.

Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25. Traditionally, that date is the first day of Christmas, a twelve-day season that continues until January 5. Often Christians complain that the world has stolen Christmas from the Church, turning a sacred holiday into a secular orgy of commercialism and worldly excess. Others say that the Church first stole Christmas from the world. In the northern hemisphere, celebrations of the winter solstice were common. Days had been getting shorter and nights longer all summer and autumn; after the solstice, days begin increasing in length. Winter weather continues for a few more weeks, but spring is coming. It’s a good time for a party, although in modern times any excuse will do.

Some Christians become defensive about the holiday and insist that the Church created this holiday apart from pagan or worldly suggestions. Complicated calculations are offered to demonstrate that the birthday of Jesus was known (or assumed) from the date of his death on the cross, a date known to be near the spring equinox because it happened at the time of the Passover. Supposedly, this calculation was done early in Church history and produced Christmas celebrations among even the first Christians. But I have read the writings of the Church Fathers, and I cannot find any discussion of the celebration of Christmas before the fourth century of the Christian (or Common) Era. Moreover, that discussion is based on a misunderstanding of a verse in the Bible, a misunderstanding that the earliest Christians probably would not have made.

A priest named Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple when he saw an angel. This angel promised Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, one who would be an important messenger in God’s plan. (That son is known as John the Baptist.) The birth of Elizabeth’s son was a miracle, because she and Zechariah were beyond the age when people generally become parents. This miracle repeats that of Isaac, who was born to Abraham and Sarah when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety.

Six months later the same angel visited a young woman, probably about fifteen years old, in Nazareth. The angel again announced a miraculous birth. This time the miracle would be conception of a son without the participation of a human father, because Mary was a virgin betrothed (promised or engaged) to a carpenter named Joseph. The angel specifically told Mary that Elizabeth, her relative, was six months into her pregnancy. Mary visited Elizabeth, then returned to Nazareth. John was born to Elizabeth, and six months later Jesus was born to Mary.

Because Zechariah was a priest performing priestly duties in the Temple, some Christians assumed that Zechariah was offering the annual sacrifice for the Day of Atonement in the Most Holy Place within the Temple. Luke does not mention the sacrifice of atonement; he says only that Zechariah was burning incense. Nor does Luke call Zechariah a high priest; he notes that Zechariah was taking his turn to burn incense in the Temple, along with other priests. But, misreading Luke’s account, those Christians deduced that the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and John’s coming birth must have been in September, at the time of the Day of Atonement. Therefore, the announcement to Mary six months later would have been in March, John would have been born in June, and Jesus would have been born in December. These two announcements and two births fall near the two equinoxes and two solstices, allowing for celebrations near these events among Christians (although the announcement to Mary, dated to March 25, is easily overshadowed by the greater celebration of Easter the same time of year).

Does it matter when Jesus was born? The earliest Christians didn’t seem to consider the date important. Christians celebrate, not just a birthday, but the miracle of the Incarnation, the fact that God became human to reconcile humans to God. That miracle merits celebration at any time, but why not observe it after the winter solstice, when the days are becoming measurably longer? As Jesus is the Light of the world, the Light the darkness can neither comprehend nor extinguish, so Christians celebrate their Savior at the same time that other people celebrate for other reasons. J.