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7 Philosophers You Should Know (And Probably Don't)

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There's a Monty Python sketch where German philosophers face off against Greek philosophers in a soccer match. When the whistle blows, they all wander around the field scratching their chins. The announcers excitedly speculate if anyone will ever kick the ball.

The sketch is obviously a criticism of how philosophy is out of touch with life, but it also strikes me as a send-up of how professors generally present the history of philosophy. It's like they're calling Monty Python's bizarre soccer match! Plato thinks of the ideal pass to Aristotle, who conceives four causes of sending it to Aquinas. Suddenly Descartes realizes that he exists! The rationalists and the empiricists debate at midfield until Kant drives a phenomenal ball forward, while leaving the ball-in-itself unmoved. Marx stands Hegel on his head and decides that the workers should kick the ball. But Nietzsche declares that soccer is dead, and various twentieth-century philosophers struggle in vain to get off the field.

I think that this history distorts and diminishes what philosophy is really about. Philosophy in the full sense is the attempt to cut through the crap, see what's true and good, and live accordingly. It is very much about kicking the ball.

I doubt if I'll convince the academics to modify their historical parade of lofty world views. But who cares? Real philosophy has always flourished outside institutional walls.

Here are seven philosophers who rarely appear on the official reading list, but who help us to revive the Socratic art of playing on the pitch of human existence. As one of them says, "Socrates, you might say, knew how to play ball. Only the ball in his case was life."

Epicurus (c. 342 - 270 BC)
After the death of Socrates, various philosophical schools devoted themselves to finding and living a meaningful life. Perhaps the one that speaks most pressingly to our harried, consumerist culture is the school founded by Epicurus. Though the term "epicure" suggests indulgence, Epicureanism is really about living simply. A thoroughgoing materialist, Epicurus shows how a meaningful life is actually enhanced by believing that now is the only time we have. More than any other philosopher, he teaches our materialistic age how to wise up.

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Epictetus (c. 55 - 135)
I often hear people recommend some form of "Eastern" thinking as a healthy alternative to "Western" philosophy. But to find the wisdom of Daoism and Zen Buddhism you need travel no farther east than ancient Rome, where Epictetus gave rich expression to a philosophy called Stoicism. Though he was born into slavery and lived through one of the most turbulent times in the Roman Empire, Epictetus developed a celebratory philosophy that connects us to the flow of existence. He used to say to his students, "If I were a nightingale, I should be singing as a nightingale; if a swan, as a swan. But as it is I am a rational being, therefore I must be singing hymns of praise to God."

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (c. 1058-1111)
Philosophy students are invariably subjected to Descartes's Meditations. Skip it, and read Deliverance from Error by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Five centuries before Descartes doubted everything and rebuilt knowledge on "I think; therefore, I am," al-Ghazali doubted everything in the same way and rebuilt religion on an experience of God, the great "I am that I am." Deliverance from Error is a passionate spiritual-philosophical autobiography that narrates a medieval Muslim's self-doubts (even to the point of atheism) and how the mystical tradition of Sufism guided him to find in himself the universal desire for God.

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Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
Socrates famously declared that "the unexamined life is not worth living." If you're wondering what the examined life looks like, read Michel de Montaigne. In essays like "Of Thumbs" and "Against Do-Nothingness," he explores every aspect of the human condition, constantly shuttling between the extraordinary and the ordinary, in hopes of understanding what life is all about. In light of his unequaled scrutiny of human existence, you'll come to find real profundity in lines like, "Radishes I first found to agree with me, then to disagree, now to agree again."

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
Philosophical enthusiasts generally know of Pascal's wager, the idea that it's a better bet to believe in God than to be an atheist. But that's the least interesting thing in the Pensées, the name given to the miscellaneous "thoughts" that Blaise Pascal left behind when he died. You read something weird like, "The beak of the parrot, which it wipes, although it is clean." Then you're suddenly hit with a lightning bolt like, "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing." The book is a cubist portrait of human nature itself. Strange as it is, you never forget that Pascal is desperately trying to think and live honestly.

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William James (1842-1910)
Even on purely hedonistic grounds there's no reason to deny yourself the pleasure of reading William James, whose prose--especially his "popular philosophy"--is as life-affirming, pluralistic, individualistic, and soulful as anything in American literature, on par with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Though James wrote masterpieces on psychology and epistemology, he never forgot that "the philosophy that is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means."

Hans Jonas (1903-93)
Martin Heidegger, one of the greatest twentieth-century philosophers, was largely blind to ethics and politics, as evidenced by his infamous sojourn into Nazism. Hans Jonas, one of his great students, joined with a Jewish brigade in the British army during World War II and returned as a conqueror to Germany, where he learned that his mother had been killed at Auschwitz. Taking up the insights of his great teacher, Jonas makes philosophy bear the weight of the Holocaust. In books like Morality and Mortality: A Search for the Good after Auschwitz and The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age, he explores the crises of our time in light of his own tragic experience.

Scott Samuelson is the author of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone [University of Chicago Press, $22.50].