Philosophy in Seven Sentences

I’ve previously presented a brief review of Christian Apologetics (which seems to have vanished… I will have to write a second one or re-publish it). From the same author, InterVarsity Press has recently published Philosophy in Seven Sentences. Now that I’ve read the book (twice), I feel compelled to share it with my readers.

I love teaching/tutoring, especially audiences yet uncorrupted by academic ignorance and apathy. A few years ago, I taught a series of philosophy classes to a local homeschool group. It was well-received, it payed the bills, it gave both myself and my audience a newfound appreciation for the science and art that is philosophy.

The average age of the class was somewhere in the vicinity of thirteen or fourteen years of age, so they were largely unaware of philosophy altogether (which is a shame). I had four lectures with which to cover all the bases of “Philosophy 101” in a manner amenable to a young audience. Ultimately, I decided on pulling four themes/philosophers from history and simply walking the class through a philosophical exercise of exploring those themes. Almost the entirety of my preparation time was spent choosing the four themes. Ultimately, I think I chose Plato’s (Socrates’) apology, Aristotle’s categories (basic logic), Descartes’ cogito, and Kant’s categorical imperative. Of course each philosopher served as a foil for their contemporary history of philosophy and their inheritors, thereby covering the bases of philosophy’s history. Having taken two Philosophy 101 classes (from two different schools, long story), I get a feeling this is a popular way to teach such courses.

All this dry nostalgia is to set the stage for a brief overview of “Philosophy in Seven Sentences”. Typically, this would be a full-on “teaching from the text” post, but this book is literally fresh off the presses and both you and Douglas Groothuis would be better served if you ponied up the small amount of money required to acquire the text itself. That said, I do intend to give the text its due justice.

In eight short chapters, averaging about sixteen pages each, Groothuis takes one sentence per chapter (plus a short challenge at the end) and gives an excellent introduction to both the tools and traditions of philosophy. Typically, such a text will either attempt to impress its readers with technical terms, obscure references, and complicated methods of presentation or it will be written so casually and simplistically so as to render a rich and beautiful tradition banal and empty. Groothuis manages to dance a fine line between condescension and elitism, speaking plainly and straightforwardly but also challenging even seasoned readers to step up to his level of mastery concerning the material at hand.

I genuinely enjoy reading primary sources which, I guess, makes me weird; secondary and tertiary sources are generally less appealing to me, but I read any material with a sufficient insight-to-page-count ratio. As a case-in-point, I’ve already read many of the texts referenced in “Philosophy in Seven Sentences”. Even so, Groothuis manages to take a broad array of information, presumably acquired through extensive reading, discussion, and lecturing, and distill it down to one of the highest insight-to-page-count concentrations I have seen, even for someone with reasonable familiarity with the material presented.

The seven sentences in question are well-selected: spanning history and traditions from ancient Greece with Protagoras, Socrates, and Aristotle, to the early Church with Augustine, to the enlightenment with Descartes and Pascal, to modern existentialism with Kierkegaard. While I may have selected a couple different sentences (exchanging Paschal for Nietzsche and Kierkegaard for Camus or Sartre), Groothuis tells a progressive narrative which begins, dialectically and historically, with Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things,” and concludes with Kierkegaard’s pointed and melancholy “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.”

Readers who have no prior exposure to philosophy proper should, at least, recognize three or more of these quotes, as they have become memes referenced and repeated throughout popular culture. “Man is the measure of all things,” “I think, therefore I am,” and “The unexamined life is not worth living,” are referenced in popular films, shows, books, and songs. Descartes’ contribution, in particular, is the subject of a great many common jokes. I once owned a t-shirt which read “I drink, therefore I am.”Groothuis does an excellent job of setting misconceptions concerning these sentences without becoming a party-pooper.

Usually, a book I enjoy reading is full of highlights, annotations, and sticky notes. Every page of Human Action and Existentialism is a Humanism has some sort of mark on it. One would expect, then, that an unmarked book would be a sign of disinterest and, typically, one would be correct. In the case of “Philosophy in Seven Sentences”, though, nearly every line would be highlighted (defeating the purpose of highlighting) and there is no need for annotating the text; it is clear, concise, and wastes no time or space in exploring, if not the history of philosophy, a powerful narrative through the tradition of philosophy.

I have never before encountered a book better suited to serve as a textbook for an intro to philosophy class. Admittedly, this book would likely be better received in a Christian institution than elsewhere but, even elsewhere, it far outstrips and conspicuously secular text as far as both demonstrating the techniques of the philosophical exercise as well as exploring the philosophical tradition. I guess I’ve been salivating over this book long enough and ought to move on to “teaching”.

The general plot of the book begins with Protagoras’ exploration of subjectivity. Given that the pre-socratics are the progenitors of western philosophy, it makes perfect sense that one would start the narrative there. With a quick glance over extant pre-socratic works, one largely has a choice between the Zenos’ contributions of stoicism and obnoxious math problems, Pythagoras’ trigonometry, Heraclitus’ almost Buddhist sense of impermanence and meaninglessness, or Protagoras’ relativism. While Zeno (either one), Pythagoras, Heraclitus, each contributed quite a lot to philosophy as a whole, Protagoras sets a particular stage for Plato and Aristotle to get the show really going.

“Man is the measure of all things,” could easily be the opening lone of a stage play concerning the history of philosophy. I know from firsthand witness that phrase has hung on the wall of many dorm rooms that have borne witness to activities often reserved for cheap motel rooms outside of town; it has also, quite contrarily, remained very near the heart of philosophical discourse for over two millennia.

Such a mentality is easy for the philosophically-minded to slip into. As the exercise of philosophizing often consists of comparing and contrasting (AKA “measuring”) experiences, narratives, and ideas, it’s a natural temptation to declare oneself (or one’s kind) “the measure of all things”. Given the absence of an immediately apparent alternative to man, as far as measuring is concerned, Protagoras can’t really be blamed for making such a claim. Groothuis does an excellent job of exploring Protagoras’ position, the rationale behind it, what such a position means, and the ultimate results of a position. I don’t have the ability or word count to do so.

Moving on, a younger and arguably more famous contemporary of Protagoras is reported to have said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Of course, if man is the measure of all things, then such an examination is likely to be very short in duration. Groothuis shows the tension between Socrates/Plato’s views on the transcendental nature of reality and Protagoras’ more materialist understanding of reality. While also setting up an opposition between Protagoras’ camp and the Socratic camp (which remains in the narrative all the way through Kierkegaard), he describes Socrates and his basis for such an extreme statement as “The unexamined life is not worth living,” in its own right as well. Admittedly, I feel that, despite explicitly addressing the key issue in interpreting Socrates (he didn’t write anything down, so all we have is other peoples’ accounts of what he said), Groothuis blurs the line between Socrates and Plato as far as their ideas are concerned.

Regardless of whether Plato or Socrates ought to get the credit allotted by Groothuis, they effectively prepare the stage for Aristotle who begins the discussion of man’s nature. Ultimately, the issue of man’s nature is what Augustine, Descartes, Pascal, and Kierkegaard are called to opine upon. Each one comes from a particular philosophical school and era in history and, therefore, has something unique to contribute to the discussion and Groothuis demonstrates a depth and breadth of knowledge on both the philosophers and their ideas.

This book is a must-read and must-have for anyone who is even fleetingly interested in matters beyond dinner, dates, and this week’s sportsball game. This goes for the engineer who did everything in his power to avoid liberal arts as well as the philosophy masters’ students who may need a reminder on the basics, a reminder of where philosophy 101 students stand, or as a textbook from which to teach. This book is one of the few secondary sources I will suggest, and I plan on snagging a few of the books listed in the bibliography for my personal extra-credit.

TL;DR; Philosophy in Seven Sentences, by Douglas Groothuis, is a paradigm example of how the more knowledgeable one is concerning a particular subject, the better one ought to be at explaining it in terms everyone can understand and, hopefully, enjoy. Derived from a popular introductory lecture style, Groothuis’ work takes seven deep, meaningful, and crucial sentences from the history of philosophy. While I may have chosen sentences from Nietzsche, Rousseau, ort Sartre instead, I would not have been even remotely capable of laying out so much information in so concise and readable a narrative. If anyone has a hard time keeping up with the terminology or argumentation in this blog, “Philosophy in Seven Sentences” is my most highly recommended starting place (followed by Liberty Classroom).

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