Philosopher Clancy Martin writes enthusiastically about a new book attempting to engage a popular audience with the continuing relevance of philosophy:
Amid hand-wringing about the decline of the humanities, the philosopher (and novelist) Rebecca Newberger Goldstein can write a book like Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, confident that she’ll find readers eager to turn to philosophers for help in thinking about the meaning of life and how best to live it. Books like Sarah Bakewell’s wildly popular study of Montaigne, How to Live, and the successful New York Times blog The Stone, back her up, as does the Harper’s column Ars Philosopha (full disclosure: I am a frequent contributor to the last).
But Goldstein wisely doesn’t take philosophy’s revival for granted in a culture committed to an increasingly materialistic worldview—materialistic in the philosophical sense, meaning convinced that the scientific study of matter in motion holds the answers to all our questions. The impetus for Goldstein’s ingenious, entertaining, and challenging new book is the theoretical version of the very practical problem I confronted when I graduated from college: Now that we have science, do we really need philosophy? Doesn’t science “bake bread” (not to mention make money) in a way that philosophy never has? Science is responsible for the grand upward march of civilization—so we are often told—but what accomplishments can philosophy claim?
This is great news (says the writer who minored in philosophy in college). Seriously great news. I say that as someone whose mind was set on fire by Dante, and who was able, by the light of that fire, to walk out of the dark wood — and who never, ever imagined such a thing could happen. On my recent travels, I found myself on a couple of occasions having to restrain myself as I started talking one on one to people about The Divine Comedy. I kept saying, in various ways, You have got to read this book! Now, Dante is poetry, Dante is literature, Dante is not philosophy. But the Commedia is suffused with theology and philosophy; it is a poem that’s meant to reveal to the reader how to live a good life. And that will always be relevant, because, as the poet Philip Larkin put it, “someone will forever be surprising/
A hunger in himself to be more serious… “.
As we’ve been reading through Dante’s Purgatorio on this blog during Lent, and I’ve done more reading on the historical context in which the poem emerged, the more relevance I see to our own time. Of course the comparison is limited; we don’t live in a world of warring cities. But the world of Dante’s era was a tumultuous time, in which the old order had passed its ripeness into decay, and a new order was yet to be born out of the world-shaking convulsions in the religious, philosophical, and political spheres. Everything, it seemed, was in flux; it certainly was for Dante, who had been stripped of nearly everything that he held dear. Out of his poverty and exile, he had to find a way back to life. The Commedia is the story of how he did that. It’s a story for the 14th century, and to my very great shock and gratitude, it’s a story for the 21st. It’s a story that I’m hoping to be able to tell in my next book, because people like me — ordinary readers who would normally not think to pick up Dante — need to hear.
But that’s Dante. I am certain that Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is right: philosophy contains truths within it that we need to live by, but that science by its nature cannot discern. We need more books that bring the insights of philosophers down to the level of the ordinary reader, and show him why this stuff is not the province of academics, but of everyday life. We need to steal philosophy (and philosophically informed literature) from the academy, and take it to the streets. Who’s with me?