The Story of Philosophy | Will Durant

Summary of: The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers
By: Will Durant


Embark on a profound journey through the history of Western philosophy in this summary of ‘The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers’ by Will Durant. Discover the fascinating lives, opinions, and legacies of prolific thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Gain insights into their groundbreaking ideas, from Socrates’ Socratic method to Nietzsche’s superman, which have shaped modern thought. This summary delves into the lessons we can learn from these great minds and their divergent views on morality, religion, politics, and human nature.

The Evolution of Western Philosophy

The story of Western philosophy began in ancient Greece, where thinkers were mostly concerned with questioning the nature of the physical world. However, Socrates changed the course of philosophy by focusing on moral and psychological questions. Socrates developed the Socratic method, which is still widely practiced today, and he believed that a state run by intelligent individuals would save Athens. Sadly, these beliefs led to his death. Plato, his famous pupil, followed in his footsteps by proposing a utopian political regime ruled by philosopher kings in his best-known work, The Republic. Plato rejected both democracy and aristocracy, arguing that the former was too unrestricted and that the latter was corrupted by greed and luxury. Instead, he believed in a democratic aristocracy run by a small class of philosopher kings who are identified and trained based on talent and intelligence.

Aristotle: Founder of Logic and Biology

Aristotle, one of Plato’s pupils, was called upon by King Philip of Macedon to tutor Alexander the Great. After returning to Athens, he established the Lyceum, specializing in biology and natural sciences. His written works, including up to a thousand volumes, classify as logical, scientific, aesthetic, and philosophical, showing a stylistic unity that suggests his partial authorship. Aristotle’s greatest accomplishment was founding the new science of logic, which he experimented with syllogisms – logical arguments based on two true propositions. On the other hand, he failed to observe evolution, unlike previous philosopher Empedocles. Nonetheless, Aristotle advanced biology more than any other Greek thinker and made early discoveries such as classifying birds and reptiles’ structural similarity and discovering humans’ mammal group ancestry.

Francis Bacon: The Revolutionary Philosopher and Politician

Francis Bacon, born in London in 1561, rejected scholasticism, the traditional medieval philosophy of the Catholic Church. Bacon became a politician and dedicated himself to reconstructing philosophy. He used inductive reasoning to lay the foundation for the scientific method in his book Novum Organum. His contributions to advancing human knowledge included inventing the science of social psychology and arguing that friends are a means to power. Bacon’s reinterpretation of methods for natural philosophy from scholasticism to pragmatism set the tone for modern science and inspired many of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment.

Spinoza and his Unorthodox Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza was an Amsterdam-born Jew with a profound philosophical inclination and interest in religion. He broke with the Jewish community and authored several written works on thought, religion, and state. In his Treatise on Religion and the State, Spinoza asserted that an allegorical interpretation of religious texts is in keeping with reason. In his pivotal work, Ethics, Spinoza challenges ordinary human conceptions by debunking the relevance of our perceptions of good and evil when compared to God’s greater order of the universe. Spinoza maintained that there is no difference between the mind and body, and that desire propels our actions and thoughts because our instincts relate to our desires.

Voltaire – From Prisoner to Philosopher

Voltaire’s life shaped by criticism, imprisonment, and transformative journey

Francois Marie Arouet was born in Paris in 1694 but adopted the pen name Voltaire after being arrested and imprisoned over poems critical of the Regent. His life’s work included plays, novels, poems, histories, essays, and scientific expositions, which left a profound impact on the French Enlightenment. During his imprisonment at the Bastille, Voltaire gained an appreciation for political liberty while in England. There, he studied Bacon, Locke, Hobbes, and other philosophers and, upon his return to France, criticized France’s tyranny as laid out in Letters on the English.

When a publisher released Letters on the English without his permission, Voltaire escaped to Switzerland and started to challenge religious and metaphysical orthodoxy. He gained fame and received visits from skeptical priests, enlightened rulers, and liberal aristocrats. His focus later shifted to the Church’s tyranny in France, following an earthquake in Lisbon that killed 30,000 people, as he penned his magnum opus, Candide, to critique medieval theology.

Voltaire’s life was marked by imprisonment, criticism, and a journey of transformation. He instigated change by emphasizing the need for political and religious reform, which laid the groundwork for the French Revolution. Voltaire left behind a legacy as a critical thinker who used his pen to fight against oppression and corruption, ultimately shaping the course of history.

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