A deliberately provocative title. Salvation, after all, is the heart and soul of Religion, not Philosophy. Religion offers us the possibility, in an imagined afterlife, of being saved from the eternal punishment which a supposedly merciful God has decreed for those who disobey Him and the laws He is believed to have revealed. It is a “possibility” only, because salvation depends on our choices, notably to obey or break His commandments – or, in a notoriously incomprehensible and revolting Protestant version of Christian doctrine, on whether or not we belong to God’s chosen elite, the “predestined”. Philosophy, on the other hand, has to do, in the popular understanding of the word, with thinking about the big questions of life – the meaning of “Being”, “Truth”, “Justice” – not saving us from Hell.
The question in the title makes sense only when we define exactly what we mean by “Philosophy”. My children all had an advantage I didn’t, which is a French High School education. (Later their University studies, different from mine – although theirs and mine were all pursued in France – taught them useful, marketable skills. None of them is a … theologian.) Readers of this Blog – in their vast majority from countries other than France – may not be familiar with the French Exception, which includes Napoleon’s decree in 1809 that adolescents should study “Philosophy” in their final year of High School, to equip them to be able to … vote intelligently. French children ever since have been taught in “Philosophy” classes to be able to compare different opinions, to reflect, to analyse critically and to express their convictions in a structured argumentation.
A distinguished contemporary French philosopher, himself a former Minister of Education, has recently insisted on the difference between this concept of Philosophy taught in High Schools and the true meaning of Philosophy as the “Love of Wisdom”. Luc Ferry’s most recent publication is a series of no less than twenty slim volumes (100 pages each) entitled “Mythologie et Philosophie” (Le Figaro-Plon,Paris, 2015). In his final volume, entitled “Mythologie, Religion et Philosophie”, he develops the differences between Philosophy and Religion, but also how Psychology and Art differ from Philosophy, and examines the question of a so-called “Christian Philosophy”. Few non-French readers would ever have the occasion to read this – for French readers – eminently readable book. The following offers a unique but limited access for many of my other readers.
For Ferry, Philosophy is nothing less than a “lay spirituality” (p.15). Beyond mere morality, the rules of which “serve essentially to pacify life among the egotistical, lazy and often malevolent beings that humans are” (pp.11-12), there is the quest for “the good life”, including the serenity based on the “lucidity” of accepting death as the human condition of mortals, rather than the “mirage of a supernatural promise”. All the ancient philosophers, writes Ferry, agreed on one point : Philosophy is a “doctrine of salvation”, a practical effort to attain the good life, to save ourselves BY OURSELVES (not by God) and BY OUR REASON (not by faith) (p.9). For the Greeks, it consisted of a reflection on three major questions :
1. Beyond the scientific observation and analysis of the world around us, the contemplation of cosmic harmony leads us to wonder what sort of a Universe we live in, and how to achieve in it the harmony of a “good life” (pp.22-23).
2. The ethical question : “How to organize, respecting justice, the communal life of humans in the city ?” (p.24).
3. The existential question : What meaning can we find in life ? (p.24).
In distinguishing Religion and Philosophy, Ferry contrasts supposed “philosophical pride” with Religion’s “humility” which accepts salvation by Another, and underlines the “rupture” with reason that revelation and faith represent (p.25). He exposes the “sophistry” that deduces a “First Cause” on the supposition that the Universe is, in effect, an effect. Mere thought, he affirms, cannot cause such a Being to exist (p.27-28).
Ferry does not hesitate to spell out the disastrous results Religion has wrought on society throughout history, including wars like that of ex-Yugoslavia where the “holistic” sense of community of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniacs led to an inter-faith slaughter where individuals in the opposing communities had no personal value (p.30).
Our author’s whole treatise argues that Greek Philosophy secularized ancient Mythology, and that modern-day Philosophy has secularized Christianity, offering us “a new form of transcendence” (p.82). French readers should spend 9.9 euros to buy the final volume of the 20-volume series (which includes a CD of his original lecture). Others will just have to wait for a translation, devoutly to be wished. I fear, however, that it might be similar to waiting for Godot.