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.