Philosophy Stories

Tales from the lives of Western Philosophers

abdukhalim asked: First of all allow me to admire your outstanding efforts on this rich blog! Regarding your answer to Stoicmike's question about Nietzsche's classification of Jewish history. Well its the first time to read about it but I think history of nations can be divided into eras as Ibn Khaldun & Hegel have classified it to 3 stages; birth - zenith - death. Thus, if Nietzsche has actually said that it would be a good point to research.

Thank you! And posting this publicly :)

Stay around because there’s going to be something special soon…

Why in the world shouldn’t they have regarded with awe and reverence that act by which the human race is perpetuated. Not every religion has to have St. Augustine’s attitude to sex. Why even in our culture marriages are celebrated in a church, everyone present knows what is going to happen that night, but that doesn’t prevent it being a religious ceremony.

(Here’s a little something anyway whilst on hiatus.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein was walking with his friend Drury, who had expressed disappoval at a depiction of an Egyptian God with a large, erect penis. (If my memory serves, the god was trying to ejaculate into a bowl.) He retorted in this manner.

Hiatus

Going on hiatus because I’m graduating, moving house, and moving back to the other side of my country.

I’ll be posting again when I can, but I’m going to be away for awhile.

Next post should be on Bertrand Russell, and how religious Americans forced a court case to ban him from lecturing in America, for being, in their eyes, a morally dubious atheist.

Philosophy Stories #11 - The Murder of Descartes?

René Descartes (1594-1650) is said to be the father of Western Philosophy. It was Descartes contributions to philosophy which started the modern Western tradition. He asked major questions which still occupy philosophy today - how can we know anything, seeing that our senses may deceive us? (A contribution which also led to the creation of The Matrix.) Also, what is the mind, and how does it relate to the body? He also made major advancements in mathematics and significant contributions to science.

By 1646 René Descartes had earned a reputation as a skilled scholar and philosopher. He had earned so much esteem that the Queen of Sweden, Christina, had began writing to Descartes. She asked for a copy of his most famous work, The Meditations on First Philosophy, and discussed with him topics like love and hate. Impressed with Descartes, she invited him to Stockholm in 1649 to tutor her in philosophy, and where she also gained an insight to Catholicism. (It is said that she had an interest in converting to Catholicism.)

They became friends, despite the fact that Descartes had a daily schedule of getting up at 11am daily. Christina got him to wake up at 5am daily for her, forcing himself to handle the climate of Sweden which Descartes was unaccustomed to. Some have suggested that Descartes found some warmth by resting in a warmed bread oven. (Something he also apparently did in France.)

Descartes ended up dying in Stockholm from pneumonia. Queen Christina ended up feeling a heavy head of guilt for Descartes death. The scepticism she picked up from the Catholic Descartes also led her to become sceptical to religious claims.

There is, however, an alternative account to Descartes death. Theodor Ebert, a Cartsean scholar, has argued that Descartes may have been poisoned and killed with arsenic by a Catholic missionary in Stockholm called Jacques Viogué. Viogué believed Descartes was a heretic, and that Descartes’ theological ideas may have prevented Christina from converting to Catholicism. Descartes doctor found what he believed to be blood in Descartes’ urine. This is not a symptom of pneumonia, according to Ebert, but consistent with Descartes being poisoned by arsenic.

This was picked up by a different scholar, Nina Rosenstand, who blogged about an interesting alternative account in opposition to Ebert’s. According to Rosenstand, the idea that Descartes was actually poisoned has been knocked around since ‘at least since 1980’.

The prevailing theory was then*, to my understanding, that Descartes was murdered by Protestant bishops, not a Catholic missionary, for precisely the opposite reason: The conversion to Protestantism in Sweden had been long and bloody, and Protestant bishops feared that Queen Christina would revert back to Catholicism, helped along by what they perceived to be a very Catholic French philosopher. Hence the plot to get rid of Descartes.

*The prevailing theory has always been that Descartes was poisoned by arsenic. But then again, the prevailing reason given to Nietzsche’s madness was syphilis. We have already seen in this blog that this was false.

I can’t find further details about Ebert’s case because he’s a German academic, and I can’t read German. (As of yet!). The key piece of evidence though is probably the blood in the urine.

It’s also worth noting that stories like this are not uncommon in history - alternative accounts of deaths crop up, especially if there’s at least one fact which might be inconsistent with the usual account of their death. Just last month stories were being cropped again that Stalin may have killed Lenin. Even if this is nonsense though, I find this pretty entertaining nonsense.

stoicmike asked: Nietzsche condensed Jewish history into three periods. A heroic period in which Jews were a strong people (King David, etc). Then a very long weak period (rabbinic). Then a second heroic period beginning with the Enlightenment as leaders of the secular world in almost every field. I like this theory.

(Sorry for the late reply.) I’ve never heard of this, nor do I know much history relating to the Jewish people, but I’m sceptical of it. I don’t think selected periods of history can be given character in that way.

However, I find this interesting in one way. Nietzsche was against anti-semitism in a society which did harbor anti-semitic views and sentiments. For example, he wrote to his sister (in a, to a fair extent, self-serving letter) criticising her for marrying an anti-semite.

You have committed one of the greatest stupidities — for yourself and for me! Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy.

Acknowledging and romanticising the contributions of Jewish people to European advances is a fantastic backlash at anti-semitic sentiments!

(Some of the reasons why Nietzsche is said to be anti-semetic is related to the editing of some of his work by his sister, which was used for anti-semitic purposes. It’s also worth noting that at the start of this enterprise, she hired someone to help her out with this task. The man employed later said it was impossible to actually teach her Nietzsche’s philosophy - she simply couldn’t understand it. She got her intended task done anyway.)

Cheers for the question :)

Philosophy Stories #10 - The Atheist Catholic Priest

The French Catholic priest Jean Meslier (1664-1729) was, quite possibly, the first person in Western philosophy to argue for atheism.

The man lived an unremarkable life until his death in 1729 when his work was discovered. Three copies of a 633 page manuscript, known as Testament, were found with an introductory document. It promoted atheism. He was willing to do this in death, but not in his life, for: ’I did not wish to burn until after my death.’

The Testament rejected the existence of God - not just a loving God, but for any God. For if any being created the world, it had willing allowed pointless suffering into the world, and this was implausible.

He also tackled arguments for the existence of God, such as the ontological argument, and summarily dismissed them. Leaving no stone unturned, he turned to the principle of blind faith, dismissing it as erroneous. In short, he saw no reason to believe in God, and he certainly didn’t.

His work went further than dismissing the existence of God. His employer, the Catholic Church, and the ruling powers of Europe, were seen as exploiters. In an introductory document to his Testament, found in an envelope after his death, he wrote:

You despise the poor, you threaten eternal hell for small sins, and you say nothing against the public robberies, nor against the injustices of those who govern nations, who plunder them, who ruin them, who oppress and are the cause of all evil, and all the miseries that overwhelm people.

Against ruling elites, he called for ‘all the great men in the world and all the nobility [to be] hanged, and strangled with the guts of the priests’.

He was not just a rare pioneering thinker for atheism, but a radical social and political critic, advancing ideas related to anarchism and communism, decades before there were major thinkers in either area in Europe.

Philosophy Stories #9 - Sartre and de Beauvoir, The Non-monogamous Lovers

Sartre and de Beauvoir with Che Guevara in 1960.

Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80) was a French philosopher, author and playwright who coined the term ‘existentialism’. He was influential in existentialist and European Marxist thought. A public intellectual, and a cultural icon and philosophical giant in France, he rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. Arguably, his single biggest contribution to philosophy was claim that ‘existence precedes essence’.

Simone de Beauvoir (1906-86) was one of the first major female thinkers in France, and like Sartre, was also a cultural icon. Her 1949 book, The Second Sex, remains to this day as one of the most highly regarded feminist tracts. She made significant contributions to existentialism, even advancing the ideas proposed by Sartre. Her philosophical strength may also be found inside the works of Sartre, influencing him in conversations and letters between them. Alongside her contributions to feminism and existentialism, she also wrote successful novels which are still read to this day.

Some accounts offer a degree of notoriety to Sartre’s physical attractiveness. (Or possible lack of it.) Under five foot tall, with one eye facing a different direction than the other, he paid little attention to his own personal hygiene. This didn’t stop Sartre from having success with women. He was intelligent and charismatic, and was even successful with young women in his middle age. He was a character who reminds me of a quip by Voltaire: ‘Give me ten minutes to talk away my ugly face and I will bed the Queen of France!’.

Sartre fell for Simone de Beauvoir, (who was later also to be known as a seducer of young women), and she fell for him. Outside of the Louvre in 1929, Sartre decided to propose to de Beauvoir whilst sitting on a bench together. There and then, he told her: ’Let’s sign a two year lease.’ She declined, saying that she had no dowry to contribute. Sartre was to propose to her two more times, also to rejections.

Passionate lovers, they remained unmarried. They were also not monogamous.

Sartre offered a fantasy to de Beauvoir of having different women in different instances of passion, full of signification and meaning for each instance. Or, in other words, he wanted to sleep with multiple partners because it’d be rather fun. De Beauvoir agreed to this, and later became incredibly enthusiastic for it. They regarded each other as their foremost lovers. However, they permitted each other to have sexual, and even romantic, adventures with other people. There was only one condition attached: complete honesty, and to hold nothing back. From then onwards, the pair slept with multiple partners other than each other, with frankness and honesty to each other about it.

Hence, they became polyamorous lovers. They even went as far as sharing young female lovers together. Despite jealousy which arose, they were committed friends and lovers throughout their lives. Radical partners in ideas, the pair read over each other’s work, and shared philosophical ideas. The only book that de Beauvoir wrote which Sartre did not read before publication was her final one, Farewell to Sartre. De Beauvoir herself was an invisible editor for Sartre’s work. (Or, in his words, she ‘filtered’ his work.)

Many people may read this tale relatively unremarkable. They may see it as an eccentric, but acceptable adventure in non-conformism. However, Sartre and de Beauvoir entered a polyamorous relationship in 1929 - over three decades before the 1960s. Polyamory may seem a rare curiosity today to more liberal minds, but in the 1920s this was raging against the currents of custom. This was like being an atheist before the Enlightenment.

sdgfsdfdsfsdfdsffdfdf-deactivat asked: You could talk about Kierkegaard's favorite joke of two men on a corner, or him writing reviews of his own work and submitting then different pen names to newspapers. So much to wonder about with him.

The latter is probably quite common today on amazon!

I don’t know much about Kierkegaard I’m afraid. I tried reading some of him once for a friend, and I couldn’t make any sense of what he was trying to convey, and that’s almost my entire experience with him. I’ll probably look him up - it’d be cool to get one story for every major philosopher in modern Western philosophy.

Thank you to new followers!

Quite an influx of followers recently - I now have just as many followers on this blog than I do on my main blog. Thank you! I’m glad people like this blog.

A few messages though!

Firstly, questions are more than welcome. I like questions, they’re fun. You can ask anything you want. Serious.

Secondly, if anyone has any suggestions to the direction of this blog, feel free to contribute. For example, if you’d like me to offer stories from specific philosophers, you could maybe request them. I might have a story about them already. I’m also open to different contributors.

Thirdly, general feedback is welcome.

Finally, I’ll probably do a bunch of stories in a single day sometime soon. Possibly tomorrow. Sartre is bound to come up.

Philosophy Stories #8 - The ‘Madness’ of Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher who made a profound impact on the European continent. To this day he remains a key Western philosopher in continental philosophy. An eccentric and original writer, his works of philosophy can also be seen as remarkable pieces of literature. He famously announced that ‘God is dead’, a remark which has been curiously interpreted by generations of thinkers. Known for his atheism and rejection of Christian values, he was pioneering existentialism before the term had even come about.

Nietzsche before his death went ‘mad’. The first event which has been recorded in this final episode of his life remains uncertain. However, recollections commonly involve him being dismayed at finding two horses being whipped for a carriage. Nietzsche ran up to the horse, holding it, protecting it from lashes, and later collapsed. This was out of his usual character.

He later started sending letters, which have become to be known as the ‘Madness Letters’. These were sent to people he knew, including Wagner. Among these he wrote:

I have had Caiaphas put in fetters. Also, last year I was crucified by the German doctors in a very drawn-out manner. Wilhelm, Bismarck, and all anti-Semites abolished.

Nietzsche also commanded the German Emperor to go to Rome so he could be shot, and asked European countries to wage war against Germany.

He was sent to a psychiatric clinic in poor health, and was later looked after by his sister until his death.

The initial diagnosis was madness induced from syphilis. In more recent times, this has been discredited. Other causes have been suggested, including psychosis from manic depression, frontotemporal dementia, and a stroke disorder with an incredibly long winded name called CADASIL syndrome. (Cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy.)