To begin, Philosophy in Bite-Sized Chunks (published by Metro Books, 2017) reminds me of when I first had to learn Boolean logic and how that seemed very important in a way to me as a freshman. So, caring deeply about other people and the human condition are things I learned at university years ago. Sometimes I even think of my own small — yet entertaining — thoughts as things of passion and great virtue. Why not, right? However, what Lesley Levene (author/editor) does in this inspirational, little book is put together a story of searching for how the absolute principles of knowledge merge (into a new theory) with the better virtues of the current age. Read this book – if so inclined – and learn it with a sense of humor too. It is not difficult reading, especially since the author often tries to intentionally grab for the reader’s funny bone. This happens almost automatically despite the fact that her humorous approach to philosophy acts on a naturally more serious subject.
Another one of my first impressions of Levene’s book is that it has been arranged as a collection of sketches (which she calls ‘entries’) and has been organized into chapters based around the major periods of world civilization. It reads like a dictionary of philosophy, or maybe more so like an encyclopedia of philosophers. Her entries are the chunks to which the title refers. Also, look for a small number of simple line drawings (cartoons) mixed in between these interconnected entries. What is formed during the process of reading this book is a multi-dimensional story tying all of the chosen philosophers together into some loosely organized memory within the reader’s mind. This ‘landscape’ is surpassed only by the rich, albeit short, abundance of details she provides for each entry. How the story actually unfolds is almost more spectacular than the philosophers and their philosophies.
First, Thales (pp. 12-13) was perhaps the first ‘real’ philosopher of Ancient Greece. His line of reasoning went like this:
Earth is superimposed on water.
So, the nature of all things is moist.
Water is the origin of moist things.
Therefore, water is the epicenter of all things.
Pythagoras (pp. 16-18), on the other hand, was a mystical numbers fellow who thought about reality as a ‘quest’ for ultimate truth. Numbers were like the fundamental building blocks with which all universal patterns were to be formed. In other words, his fundamental numbers had a mystical yet elemental meaning, namely:
1 <=> Monad, Point, Top (Atoms)
2 <=> Matter, Line (Space)
3 <=> Ideal, Surface (Constant movement)
4 <=> Seasons, Solid (Bundles of energy)
Now that was really ‘plastic’ thinking for that historical age; can you imagine? Parmenides’ rhetorical and logical type of inquiry may have seemed a little heady, yet it was simple enough for anyone who tried to follow through it. Parmenides (pp. 22-23), for example, thought of nature as:
- Undivided; and
- Never changing (Eternal).
And so, he asked questions like:
- What is meant by ‘exist’?
- What ‘exists’ in the world?
- What ‘exists’ in the mind?
These early attempts at the establishment of a culture (based upon bursts of thought) counted and remained of a high Greek importance. Again, it should be noted that these philosophers were great thinkers who asked some really good questions.
‘Forever study the Greeks’, an assertion which I attribute to Goethe, leads the readers to the really big thinkers of Ancient Greece: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Briefly, Plato (pp. 35-37) thought of philosophy as that which had been laid down before humanity. He was famous for the Ideal Forms of reality (Nature) and the Allegory of Shadows about shadows cast on a cave wall. How we observe things everyday in our lives is imperfect when they are compared to the ideal forms. He applied this general line of thinking to: beauty, truth, justice in an ideal society, math, and music, for example. Even modern Christian thought has been influenced by what Plato, and others, had started.
This exercise of building upon the shoulders of earlier philosophers helps to explain a lot. St Augustine (pp. 65-67), for example, really pushed the idea that it is only through faith that we can obtain the truth. Both philosophy and so religion too are a quest for rational thought. Consequently, we must continue to remember that the Christian faith is a divine gift similar to the struggle between light and darkness. He asked:
How are you responding to calling from God?
But these views invoked some opposition from critics. Skeptics began asking fiery questions about knowledge to Augustine. Among these concerns:
How can we know with absolute certainty that God is the supreme creator of the universe and of all other abstract things that exist in the world?
The implications to mathematical and/or rational thought that followed showed what a great thinker he would eventually be.
Maybe you would rather see things as something of a blueprint for our social contract. Then you can read about Jean-Jacques Rousseau (pp. 115-117) whose idea of a ‘contract’ evolved after an education involving reading/studying literature. His model came from the small Greek city states where institutions were to be democratic. A community as a whole is sovereign, and the individual members contribute to the whole. Needless to say, serious tensions existed in his thought. For example:
Are individuals forced to comply? Or, do we have the free will of expression?
Rousseau tended to be an outcast in the grand scheme of this rich philosophical history; however, his approach was novel.
I Think, Therefore I Am (from Descartes), which is another title sometimes given to this short book, takes a chronological path through the ‘living’ history of the greatest minds, thinkers, writers, and sages of all the world’s major ages. Starting with the earliest known philosophers, what I see happening is a variety of attempts at searching for an originally, unique method of achieving objective knowledge (truth). I read about people like Thales (water, water everywhere), Pythagoras (everything by the numbers), Parmenides (On Nature), Plato (the broad-headed philosopher), St Augustine (faith comes first), and Rousseau (the Social Contract). All of these philosophical players asked great questions about how the world evolved and continues to evolve as a universally based system. You may struggle along with these thoughts people can read about explaining how philosophy works. You shouldn’t, I think.
Simply, Philosophy in Bite-Sized Chunks is about a love of wisdom and an award-winning cast of great thinkers who made leaping strides along a historical timeline. It was written to reach out and grab you, a potential reader. Hopefully it will spark a little light in the darkness and inspire you to go on learning about the greatness that all of those mentioned here offered. Finally, Levene is someone easy to relate to as an author perhaps because she is also an editor. Editors have been known to take the good assertions of other people and make them appear great. At that point it is just a matter for readers like you and me to view the information – like what’s presented in this short yet enjoyable-to-read book – and make a few first steps toward doing something good. In my opinion, if you want to become ‘smarter’, then follow these standards (and their subjects) discussed in part here, and by doing so, begin to understand what are the good questions that have been laid down before humanity and what other people may have thought about them.