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D O U GL AS G R OOTH U I S

PHILOSOPHY
IN SEVEN
SENTENCES

A SMALL
INTRODUCTION
TO A VAST TOPIC

PHILOSOPHY
IN SEVEN SENTENCES
A SMALL INTRODUCTION TO A VAST TOPIC

DOUGLAS GROOTHUIS

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InterVarsity Press
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2016 by Douglas Groothuis
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Groothuis, Douglas R., 1957Philosophy in seven sentences : a small introduction to a vast topic / Douglas Groothuis.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8308-4093-9 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. PhilosophyIntroductions. 2. PhilosophyHistory. I. Title.
BD21.G76 2016
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2015036054
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CONTENTS
Preface 9
Introduction: Philosophy in Only Seven Sentences?
1 Protagoras

Man is the measure of all things.

11

21

2 Socrates

35

3 Aristotle

49

4 Augustine

65

5 Descartes

81

6 Pascal

99

The unexamined life is not worth living.


All men by nature desire to know.

You have made us for yourself, and restless is


our heart until it comes to rest in you.
I think, therefore I am.

The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

7 Kierkegaard 121
The greatest hazard of all, losing ones self, can
occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.

Conclusion: What About These Seven Sentences?


or, A Final Provocation 143
Notes 147
Index 157
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PREFACE

nspiration is an odd beast, enlightening here and deceiving


there. Inspiration sometimes comes through epiphany, seemingly out of nowhere and resplendent with originality and beauty.
Some works of great music appear in this way. Friedrich
Nietzsche wrote his anti-Gospel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in a
fit of literary effusion lasting only two weeks. The result has
baffled millions for a century.
Philosophy in Seven Sentences came into being rather quickly
after a lifetime of engaging philosophy: after many discussions
and arguments about philosophy, after three academic degrees
in philosophy, after attending (too) many conferences about philosophy, after grading many papers about philosophy (both
good and evil), after publishing much about philosophy, after
changing some of my views on philosophy, and after sometimes
questioning my own ability to do philosophy well.
I was inspired by recent popular books featuring numbers
and objects in the titles, such as A History of the World in 100
Objects by Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in Six Glasses
by Tom Standage, and The Smithsonians History of America in
101 Objects by Richard Kurin. My object for organizing and introducing philosophy was not a physical object but an object of
thought: a sentence. The number seven seemed right, given the

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Philosophy in Seven Sentences

alliteration and because I was drawn to just these philosophically pregnant sentences. My hope is that the book will introduce
the beginner to the craft of philosophy. A seasoned reader might
find ideas worth consulting afresh or even for the first time.
Philosophy is a many-splendored discipline. Miniature books,
such as this, must fail to lasso everything and will leave many
critters hurdling about in the pasture, unnamed and unattended.
To talk shop, Philosophy in Seven Sentences is most concerned
with epistemology (how and what we can know) and metaphysics
(the study of being). Travelers through the book will also read a
bit about moral philosophy and aesthetics.
Philosophers have biographies, although their philosophies
are not limited to their biographies. So, each chapter includes a
bit of their stories. (A few of my stories appear as well.) Since
philosophers argue and agree with other philosophers, I consider their intellectual relationship with others in the guild, particularly those philosophers whose sentences we engage. Dialogue and debate down through the ages is the conversation of
philosophy. Overhearing it may spark truth in our souls or at
least clear away some errors of thought.
I do not take up theology directly, but each of the seven sentences bears on questions concerning God, the universe and
humanity. I am not sure why anyone would be interested in philosophy otherwise.
I have many to thank, but room for only a few. Jason Crowder
found references for Augustine and Pascal that eluded me (to my
shame). My colleague Sarah Geis gave excellent commentary on
Descartes. Elizabeth Johnson contributed some dandy editing.
Rebecca Merrill Groothuis prayed for this book project, as she
has for all my other ones. Thanks also to the administration of
Denver Seminary for granting me a sabbatical during which
much of this work was done.
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Introduction

PHILOSOPHY IN ONLY
SEVEN SENTENCES?

an we tackle some of the key questions and answers in


philosophy through just seven sentences by seven famous
philosophers? I wager we can; so we will. Many other sentences
or paragraphs or bookscould have made the cut. Because of
this, some will argue that my selection was biased, ignorant or
slanted. If so, let them philosophize over it. After all, that is the
purpose of this book: to think and act philosophically.
I make no claim that Philosophy in Seven Sentences is representative of philosophy as a whole. I chose these authors and
their sentences for several reasons. First, I was familiar with
them. As I point out several times, many of these ideas have
deep autobiographical significance to me. Second, they raise
issues pertinent to our day. Third, each sentence is fairly well
known; none is esoteric.1 I also chose these authors because
their arguments were clear enough to be well suited to philosophical analysis, even on a popular level.2
Some may think that popular philosophy is an oxymoron, a
silly contradiction not worthy of a moments thought. Philosophy is, of course, for expertsthose who have accumulated
vast student-loan debts, after which they have logged long and
lonely years in the classroom, studying at their desks, and ar-

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Philosophy in Seven Sentences

guing with other philosophers about philosophy. These strange


souls are abstruse, esoteric, recondite and many other long,
pompous words not meant for the masses. Philosophers write
for each other, argue with each other and often flummox or bore
the hapless college students whose academic requirements put
them in their presence.
And so it is for many philosophers, but not for all of them. At
its most ancient root, philosophy was meant to initiate us into
the good life, to tutor us for the ongoing experience of
knowledge and virtue. Since everyone lives some kind of life,
philosophy explored the minds abilities to live life in accord
with reality. At best, it helps scratch the itch of human existenceor, at its worst, it rubs the wound raw. Even though etymology (the study of word origins) may deceive, it does its work
well in understanding the origin of philosophy, telling us that
its two Greek parts are love (philos) and wisdom (sophos). Philosophers may not always love wisdom, but that is their disciplines pedigree. The Hebrew Bible warns in the book of
Proverbs that both wisdom and folly call out for reflection and
allegiance. The wise are diligent in learning, facing the facts in
earnest, while the fool sacrifices character for ignorance and
untutored pleasure. But knowledge beckons, nevertheless, at
least in our better moments. As Aristotle wrote, All men by
nature desire to know. (We will examine this sentence shortly.)
Any thinking person may join philosophys discussion, which
rings down through the ages. That is the aim of this small book,
which, I hope, can be read profitably by both philosophical neophytes and seasoned philosophers, whatever their worldview
may be. My aims are catholic (universal), however parochial my
selections may seem to some.
Philosophy is not a closed club or a secret society. Since we
all can think about ultimate questions, lets do it. For the record,
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13

I propose that the requirements for being a philosopher (whether


good or bad, major or minor, professional or layperson) are a
strong and lived-out inclination to pursue truth through the rigorous use of human reasoning, and to do so with some intellectual facility. But, sadly, even some philosophers disavow the
search for truth. In Whats the Use of Truth? French philosopher
Pascal Engel writes, There is . . . no obligation to say or to believe that which is true.3 If so, why should we read his writings
or those of any other philosopher?
Is then everyone a philosopher? Everyone muses a bit on
where we came from, who we are and where we are going. But
not all do this very well. So, while Johnny Rotten (b. 1956) of the
Sex Pistols addressed some philosophical themes in his punk
rock compositions and performances, one is reluctant to give
him the title of philosopher. This is because it is a kind of merit
badge, reserved for the few. I was recently asked by a precocious
ten-year-old named Liam if I was a philosopher. I said I was.
Then he asked, What do you do? My reply was, I think a lot
about arguments. We then discussed the nature of an argument.
With a little coaxing he told me what an argument was: giving
reasons for what you believe, often in conversations with those
who believe otherwise. I have recruited him for graduate study
in my program.
To enjoin the discussion of philosophy, I will appeal to seven
sentences, all of which are short, but none of which are trivial.
Some are more renowned than others. A few of them are famous.
These statements are not impenetrable, deceiving the unwary
inquirer with obscurity masquerading as profundity. Sadly, not
a few philosophers cloak their ideas with idiosyncrasies and unnecessary jargon. Not so for a Socrates or Jesus, who went about
speaking the common tongue in uncommon ways to both
common and uncommon people. The public square was their
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Philosophy in Seven Sentences

classroom and all comers were their students. Neither wrote a


word, but their words are unforgettable, as we will see. Their
ideas are affirmed and denied by the simplest and most sophisticated thinkers.
While we cannot directly encounter the likes of Socrates or
Jesusor the more bookish philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes and kindredwe can interrogate
them and investigate the perennial questions they address: the
nature of truth, how we gain knowledge, the meaning of human
existence, death, the source of morality and more. In my many
years as a teacher and learner of this antique art, I find to my
dismay that too many students too often give up too soon. They
face an intellectual difficulty, some demanding reading, or differences of opinion and they cash in their chips, despite my provocations, cajoling, and (on occasion) anger. It need not be and
should not be so. T. S. Eliot should kindle a flame in us. But our
lot crawls between dry ribs to keep our metaphysics warm.4
I first read Eliots line in 1977 and never forgot it. Who could,
unless he or she were skimming? Martin Heidegger, despite his
murky prose, was right in calling our lives a being unto death,
because our eventual demisegradual or instantbrackets
everything we think or do or hope. No one gets out of here alive
is no tired clich, unhappily. Samuel Johnson put it well: Depend
upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,
it concentrates his mind wonderfully.5 Our mortality sets limits
on all our endeavors, including philosophizing. There is, like it
or not, a flashing stop sign ahead on the road. So, why not think
well now? Or at least try to? We can take or steal some calmly
measured time to muse on what matters most, and we have
some guidesepitomized by their sentencesto light the way
or at least to rebuke our intellectual laziness. Let me introduce
them, in historical order.
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15

Surveying the Seven

Protagoras is not a household name. Google him and find out.


(The first entry is, not surprisingly, Wikipedia.) Nor do you find
many academic titles analyzing his ideas, although he is often
grouped with the Sophists. This is considered a disreputable
crowd by some wags and is even a byword: You sophist! The
charge is that Sophists cared nothing for truth but cared everything about being paid to philosophize for a vested interest.
More on these philosophers-for-hire later. Even so, this old
Greek crystallizes the thought of not a few philosophers and
nonphilosophers. Our chosen sentence sums it up.
Man is the measure of all things: of the things which are,
that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.6
Protagoras gives wings to an idea that many ponder: try our
hardest (or not try at all), we cannot break free of ourselvesour
senses, our viewpoints, our values, even our stuff. The world is
our judgment and nothing more. It does not await our judgment;
it is our judgment. There is no objective truth but only various
views from various places at various times by various people.
Things are not our measure, but we are the measure of them.
Hence, Protagoras is the spokesman for relativism, sometimes
called nonrealism or perspectivism. It is not just that we have no
(or limited) access to objective reality. That is skepticism. Reality
is pretty much exhausted by our perceptions and thoughts. The
real world is our world. Myriads have measured Protagoras
wrong at least on this, but no one in pursuit of knowledge and
wisdom can ignore him. His ghost haunts us still. Is there a philosophical exorcist about?
Our next sentence is often heard but seldom digested. I unfailingly quote it in my first class of introduction to philosophy:
The unexamined life is not worth living. I attempt to coax my
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Philosophy in Seven Sentences

students to live this wayfor their sakes and mine. (It makes for
better papers too.) Thus said Socrates, the gadfly (or pain-inthe-neck) of ancient Athens. Like Protagoras, we know of
Socrates through those who knew his work, but unlike Protagoras we have more substantial sources, particularly Plato.
And Socrates is a household name. Not incidentally, the man
who was not an author ended up being the inspiration for the
prolific Plato, who was the worlds first systematic philosopher.
As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead discerned, The safest
general characterization of the European philosophical tradition
is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.7 The footnotes
may praise (Augustine) or blame (Aristotle), but footnotes are
everywhere, as well as entire volumes.
Taking up Socratess philosophical challenge means examining just what his famous sentence means in itself and what it
means for us. What might an examined life be, given the distractions and overstimulation of postmodern times? For Socrates
there is a way to calm the mind and search things out. But is
there a place for Socratic dialogue today, outside the Socratic
method of many law schools? Further, old Plato, Socratess
chronicler and student, may offer us wisdom pertaining to the
nagging questions of philosophy as he spurns the work of the
philodoxers (lovers of opinion) and promotes the call of the philosophers (lovers of wisdom). Worse yet were the misologists (one
of the Platonic corpuss most winning words), those who took an
active role in hating the use of reason itself. We may find some
today, even in educated enclaves or even on the bestsellers lists.
But one can also find Aristotle in popular bookstores, always
in the philosophy section (along with less prestigious volumes
such as Led Zeppelin and Philosophy, which we must pass over
without further comment). When Aristotle wrote, All men by
nature desire to know, he did not mean just the scholars or
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teachers but manthe human race in all its circumstances and


variations. That means every person, whatever social standing,
vocation or intelligence. Although Aristotle was no egalitarian
(he thought that women were inferior to men and that some were
born to be slaves), he nevertheless appeals to a universal human
condition: the desire to get reality right in the time that we have.
Augustine, the first great Christian philosopher, like Socrates
before him, strikes a personal note concerning getting reality
right. Having examined himself and the leading philosophies of
his day (including Plato and his footnotes), he confesses with a
cry of the heart, addressed to God, You have made us for
yourself, and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you.
This cry is not commonplace, as in My spirituality gives me
meaning. It is, instead, the beginning of an argument told in his
autobiography. In fact, it may be the first autobiography on
record. It is, no doubt, the first philosophical autobiography (if
we exclude the book of Ecclesiastes). The irascible Jean-Jacques
Rousseau is well known for his autobiography as well, but a short
book can only do so much.8
Skipping madly over much philosophical history (without any
irreverence or glibness), we arrive at Ren Descartes, the much
maligned but seldom understood father of modern philosophy.
Descartes was troubled by opinions without backingthose
ideas about ultimate matters untethered from certainty. Skepticism was his foe, as it is in one way or another for any philosopher. This is because the question arises, How do you know
what you claim to know? Mere social position or historical tradition will not cinch the deal for this philosopher and scientist.
In our language (which itself needs interrogation), the man
wanted proof. While I dont know is often the most knowledgeable answer, it should not be the default response, according
to Descartes. This apprehension led him on a quest that began
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with himself. Like Augustine, but in briefer scope, he put this in


autobiographical form in Discourse on Method and to some
extent in Meditations on First Philosophy. But Descartess quest
did not end with himself, unlike so much contemporary selfhelp literature. He is famous for the sentence I think, therefore
I am. But God himself has something to do with that sentence.
For Descartes there was no leap of faith in it either. Reason was
the guide. But how far can reason take us?
A contemporary of Descartes had an idea: The heart has its
reasons that reason knows nothing of, wrote Blaise Pascal, who
was the best phrasemaker of the lot of our philosophers. This
statement is a window into a worldview. Humans have the capacity to calculate and reason methodically, but they may also
know some things by tracing out the contours and resources of
the heartanother organ of knowledge. Philosophers study
many thinkers, but few come to love few of them. (My graduate
seminar on Kants Critique of Pure Reason was well worth it, but
was no love affair.) Pascal, on the contrary, is much loved by many.
He is so loved that people even love things he never actually said,
such as There is a God-shaped vacuum that only God can fill.
But this paraphrase is not far off the mark, though it should be
placed within a larger perspective of Pascals philosophy.
The French polymaths philosophy is far more fascinating than
the CliffsNotes version allows. Pascal did not put faith in place
of reason, and he was not a one-trick philosopher (Pascals
wager). Slander and libel have fouled the air about him, obscuring his sophisticated treatment of the cost-benefit sense of
believing in religion or not. Yet he was neither knave nor poser.
The founder of probability theory and the inventor of the first
working calculating machine had reasons for faith. Like Descartes, he was bugged by skepticism, and, like Descartes, he appealed to human nature as a place to start the discussion.
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Our last sentence is not as well known as the previous ones,


but it opens a door of inquiry for us.
The greatest hazard of all, losing ones self, can occur very
quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.
It was penned by an idiosyncratic and famously melancholy
Dane named Sren Kierkegaard, a philosopher intensely interested in the self in relation to ultimate reality. This should sound
familiar, since all philosophers have expressed this interest in
one way or another. But Kierkegaards way was, in a sense, as
much psychological as philosophical. He intrepidly limned the
inner workings of the self, of consciousness, in philosophical
categories. Like Pascal, Kierkegaard wanted to strip away,
through existential analysis, the layers and dynamics of the self
that keep reality at bay. Unlike Pascal and the other philosophers,
he was more interested in the analysis of the self than presenting
it with arguments for an abstract objective reality. This may
sound a bit unphilosophical, but it is not. But that takes time to
tease out properly, as I hope you will see.
Our seven sentences may be viewed as several doors into
worlds previously unknown. Or they may be our irritants to
prod us to move away from facile factoidsDo your own thing,
Follow your bliss, Keep Calm and Carry Onto more sobering reflections.9 Perhaps the sentences are bridges to other
lands of thought. These philosophical sentences do not sum the
thought of any of the philosophers, for these thinkers are far too
deep for that. Nor do the seven sentences aim to summarize the
history of philosophy. That would be a pompous and laughable
claim. Some things cannot be put into a nutshell, including the
nutshell itself. But I claim that philosophical activity can be
sparked by just seven sterling sentencesand who knows where
it might lead?
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- one -

PROTAGORAS

Man is the measure of all things.


Protagoras, quoted in Theaetetus

reeks could do philosophy! The basic questions of existence have never been far from the human mind, but the
ancient Greeks excelled at this, and their musingssome fragmentary or secondhandhave been preserved in written texts.
However much philosophy occurred in exclusively oral cultures,
the Greeks valued writing in addition to oral memory and tradition. Socrates, you remember, wrote nothing, but generated a
vast literature though his dialogues. A lesser-known figure who
came after him did write a few things, and his famous adage is
worth considering.
Protagoras (fifth century BC) is not to be confused with
like-sounding ancient Greek thinkers named Pythagoras or
Parmenides, who along with others were pre-Socratic thinkers.
(This shows the significance of Socrates, since philosophy is
dated with respect to his life.) These thinkers are worth interrogating as well, and I studied them with profit in a year-long
course in ancient philosophy forty years ago. Protagoras

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stands out to us, though, because of his adage about absolute


assessment:
Man is the measure of all things: of the things which are,
that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.1
His claim is not simply that people measure thingssuch as
character, chariots, boats and fishbut that each human is the
measure. Each person is the assessment or judgment. What
could this mean? No person is a slide ruler or scale or Geiger
counter, although we avail ourselves of such things.
What Is the Measure?

We tend to think that people use a standard of measurement


outside of themselves. Even inadequate and one-dimensional
measures such as ones IQ score are not determined by how we
feel about themand Mensa is very picky about this.
On the other hand, Protagoras has Shakespeares Hamlet on
his side, at least concerning morality: For there is nothing either
good or bad, but thinking makes it so.2 That is, morals do not
have objective standing; rather, they are judged differently by
different people. This quote is from a discussion about Denmark,
which Hamlet, unlike his interlocutor, Rosencrantz, said was a
prison. If Hamlet is right, then both Hamlet and Rosencrantz
are right about Denmark.
What then was Protagorass point? (Well put serious Shakespearian interpretation aside.) To find out we need to take a step
back into the Greek philosophical scene and not rush to
judgmentor rush to endorsement either. Protagoras would approve of this deliberation.
Protagoras was considered the chief of the Sophists, intellectuals who were paid to defend the views of their sponsors. They
were accomplished orators as well as thinkers. Originally, the
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Protagoras

23

term sophist meant something like our professor, but later a


Sophist was deemed a hired gun, a philosopher for hire and one
having no principles of his own. Their arguments, supposedly,
were merely the instruments of the will of their bosses. One may
argue over the virtues of the Sophists, but it is certainly not true
that being paid for philosophizing necessarily disqualifies the
employees arguments. On the other hand, if we think of a
Sophist as something like a political speech writer or the like,
our judgment will change. Whatever the intellectual rectitude
of Protagoras, he was a perpetual lecturer who articulated and
debated ideas in the marketplace, a marketplace of ideas that yet
exists. We may join in the discussion.
Mythology and Philosophy

Protagoras was one of a spirited group of fastidious thinkers


who tired, or at least grew skeptical, of Greek mythology, with
its pantheon of gods. Yes, the stories of the gods were often riveting and worth repeating. A recent volume by Luc Ferry is
called The Wisdom of the Myths: How Greek Mythology Can
Change Your Life.3 There was always a moral to the story. Hercules, the last son of Zeus, was a dashing and dramatic character
who started as a mighty mortal and became a god upon death.
Although a bit impetuous and lacking in sobriety, he plays well
as a hero. Zeus himself is the apotheosis of power, but acts
largely without moral authority. Even the might of Zeus does not
support the idea that might makes right, since might may make
for divine mischief. My point is not to survey or psychoanalyze
the denizens of Greek mythology but to make a general point.
Mythologies may inspire and guide, to some extent, our relation
to the hard facts of family, life, death and sexuality (and some of
the gods tended to be naughty in this way).
Nevertheless, the problem with Greek mythology (or any
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mythology, Eastern or Western) is simply that it is mythology; it


is neither history nor clearly articulated philosophy. In too many
ways the gods, despite their thespian rsums and magical
powers, were not much more than semi-glorified mortals. This
was the objection of a growing group of Greeks who were mere
mortalsmortals with meaning, metaphysics and morality on
their minds. And what might the mind do when free to explore
life and its questions apart from the venerable stories of Greek
fascination? It might philosophize, and so it did.
Protagoras and his cohorts quested for explanations of a more
abstract but also compelling sort than the old tales could afford.
They sought principles to explain facts in a universal and logically coherent manner. To be a little unfair to the mythologies,
consider the tooth fairy. She adds some magical benevolence to
the loss and placement of a baby tooth for children, but the fairy
story adds nothing about the nature of benevolence, the significance of teeth or the significance of the humans who grow and
lose these teeth, whether through development (teething) or
decay (the toothless).
Thus, to give one example, Thales of Miletus tried to find a
cosmic commonality to all things. He divined it as water. Yes,
water, which was more than rain, oceans, lakes and puddles. It
was everywhere, so perhaps it was the root and branch of everything. Water, or moisture in general, lives in the clouds, in plants,
in animals (aquatic, land or amphibious) and in thirsty mortals.
It condenses and evaporates, but never leaves the planet. Considering the presence and power of water, Thales extrapolated
that water was more than one more thing on earth, however
necessary for life. It was, rather, the unifying principle for existence. Whatever we think of Thales, his thinking is not absurd,
and it indicates a thirst for philosophical explanation as opposed
to mythological meanderings. At least he was trying.
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Do We Determine Reality?
But it is Protagoras who calls for our attention. Instead of arguing for something at the heart of everything (water for Thales),
a principle found in nature, Protagoras moved back from nature
to the self. After all, skeptics had questioned mere mortals
ability to know with any confidence what is out there, independent of themselves. The jaundiced eye sees things differently
from the nonjaundiced eye. Children perceive entities invisible
to adults. Adults sometimes hallucinatebut perhaps they are
seeing what most miss. One woman feels cold in a room of 70F
and another feels hot. Age alters hearing, seeing, memory and
may jangle judgments. The upshot is that we cannot find a place
to stand to see the world as it is. We are simply ill-equipped to
do so. Objective truth, what is independent of our perceptions,
endlessly and mercilessly eludes us.
We will return to skepticism when discussing Descartes and
Pascal, but Protagoras was not a skeptic. He did not withhold
judgments about facts in themselves because we do not have the
ability to know them. While recognizing that the skeptics had
dethroned our intellectual confidence in capturing objective reality, his point of departure was this: we do know our own viewpoints, judgments and beliefs. That is, we measure things; they
do not measure themselves. So, I take most of Francis Bacons
paintings to be ugly and thus unattractive. I am repulsed. This is
the end of the story, or my story. This is my measurement. You,
on the contrary, may find delight in Bacons tortured figures and
color schemes. That is your measurement, and the end of your
story.
Now reconsider the skeptical point made earlier. One person
can deem the room cold and another hot. The skeptic might say
we cannot know, then, what the room is, given the variability in
perception. But Protagoras claims that the room is hot for person
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A and not hot for person B. There is no contradiction, since we


are considering individual perceptions. There are two measurements, each of which is valid. Thus, Bacon is barbaric to me and
beautiful to youand that is the level best we can do. Or perhaps
I will come to adore Bacons paintings and heap scorn on my
former judgment. If so, then that is my measurement.
This is rather attractive at first blush. After all, there is no
dispute in matters of taste, or, to be more snobby, De gustibus
non est disputandum. The avant-garde saxophone playing of
Peter Brtzmann can send me into the upper reaches of aesthetic delight, while sending others scurrying from the room
while covering their ears. But Protagoras took this insight far
beyond artistic judgments. Notice the reference range (or extent)
of Protagorass statement, Man is the measure of all things
matters of taste as well as matters of fact, matters of principle
and matters of matter. Nothing is excluded.
Let us follow this out. As we think it through, the old Greek
will sound much like modern man. If Protagoras is right, then
there is no disputing matters of morality either. Man is the
measure of what is right and what is wrong, what is virtuous and
what is vicious, what should be loved and what should be hated
just as Hamlet claimed. Today, this thinking is usually put in the
language of choice instead of measurement, but the idea is the
same. If you chose to do X, that choice is the end of the matter.
Or, to suit Protagoras, if you measure X as worth doing, then it
is worth doing. This is true whether X refers to sailing, stealing
or stampeding cattle in the direction of a Cub Scout outing.
But we might say, Who is to judge? Who of us can stand
above him- or herself and others and become objective? Yes, we
recoil from some ideassuch as torturing the innocent merely
for pleasure or female genital mutilation. But what does that tell
us about reality, if there really is such a thing as reality? The claim
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that man is the measure of all things is an all-encompassing


judgment itself. The answer to Who is to judge is that we are
the measure of all things. That is, there is nothing outside of
human judgment by which it might be judged. But why would
Protagoras (or anyone else) consider that to be reality itself?
Protagoras, Meet a Serial Killer

Besides being a serial killer, Ted Bundy was a philosophical


thinker of the Protagorean type. Remarkably, his philosophy was
caught on tape before he raped and killed a young woman. She
was one of dozens of his prey. As reported in Louis Pojmans text
Moral Philosophy, Bundy said,
I learned that all moral judgments are value judgments,
that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can
be proved to be either right or wrong. I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written
that the American Constitution expressed nothing more
than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured
out for myselfwhat apparently the Chief Justice couldnt
figure out for himselfthat if the rationality of one value
judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not
make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any reason
to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the
boldness and daring the strength of character to throw
off its shackles. . . .
I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered,
I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered
that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block
and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable value
judgment that I was bound to respect the rights of others.
I asked myself, who were these others? Other human
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beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a


human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a
steer? Is your life more to you than a hogs life to a hog?
Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for
the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this
age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature
has marked some pleasures as moral or good and others
as immoral or bad?4
When teaching ethics to undergraduates at a secular school, I
often hand out this Bundy quotation, but without identifying the
speaker. I then ask them to write a paragraph on whether they
agree with its basic idea. Most students approve of the unknown
authors sentiments. I then reveal that this statement was the
philosophy of one of the most infamous serial killers in American
historythe philosophy that allowed and even impelled his
egregious crimes. Next, I ask them to reconsider their judgments. The results are usually mixed, but the majority of students show dismay and surprise that they were in agreement
with a view that justified serial rape and murder.
Yet today, a television seriesa comedy, nonethelessis about
a serial killer named Dexter. To top that off, there is even a book
called Dexter and Philosophy: Mind over Spatter. Can such atrocities be lifted so easily from bloody reality and into a neutral
realm of entertainment? For many it can, and so they seem to
agree with Protagoras, at least implicitly: there is no objective
good and evil, nothing sacrosanct or sacrilegious, nothing above
us and nothing beneath us. It is all merely neutral, and we make
the callon everything. Man is the measure of all things.
So, then, what does this sentence tell us about philosophy and
what philosophy means to us? Philosophical claims, if clearly
articulated, give us significant matters to ponder logically and
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existentially. They often capture some truth, and so seduce us


on this basis. But a statement cannot be true unless it accords
with the way the world in fact is and the way we in fact are. Protagoras does capture some truths about perspective. For example, my tastes in food determine how I measure the goodness
of the food. I am the measure of that, at least. It matters nothing
whether a connoisseur thinks me an ignoramus. I can only
measure it by what I experience at the moment. In that way I am
the measure, but am I the expert? Am I the knower?
There is a strange implication for Protagorass view. In the
Theaetetus, Protagoras even states that error is impossible.5 Although he was a teacher, he cannot, by his own lights, teach
anyone. To this, Socrates inquires:
If whatever the individual judges by means of perception is
true for him; if no man can assess anothers experience
better than he, or can claim authority to examine another
mans judgment and see if it be right or wrong; if, as we
have repeatedly said, only the individual himself can judge
of his own world, and what he judges is always true and
correct: how could it ever be, my friend, that Protagoras
was a wise man, so wise as to think himself fit to be the
teacher of other men and worth large fees; while we, in
comparison with him the ignorant ones, needed to go and
sit at his feetwe who are ourselves each the measure of
his own wisdom?6
The gadfly of Athens made short work of a self-refuting philosophy. This should whet our appetite for the next chapter, in
which Socrates takes the starring role.
What Is Relative?

Similarly, we find a wide variety of sounds and inscriptions in

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human languages. For example, the general concept of cat may


be written in Chinese or in English. Since each language uses
different symbols for writing, its graphic inscription for cat will
differ. This is true for voicing the word cat as well. Through a
long, messy process not instigated by any central planning, each
culture selects its own conventions of communication. Are not
these two systems of writing measuring reality in very different
ways? In point of fact, they are not.
Both kinds of writing systems (as well as other means of
communication) make claims about a reality that are outside
of the systems themselves and outside of the individuals who
use the pictographic or ideographic methods. We tacitly saw
this earlier. But in both cases a cat is invoked; there is a single
referent. The differences in linguistic custom are not differences in content. A cat is a cat in whatever language, and it will
not bark however it may be measured. Moreover, while it may
be vexing in places, one can translate a book from English to
Chinese. Not everything is lost in translation; in fact, more is
found than is lost. Translators need have no fear of losing their
livelihood.
Staying on matters of taste for a moment (and not morality,
for now), are all people equally skilled in measurement? The
poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot advocated the cultivation of
educated taste. Consider your preferences in music and
reading when you were quite young. They are likely not the
same as when you became an adult. You may still enjoy and
laugh at nursery rhymes, but your tastes have expanded. Yes,
you still love Winnie the Pooh (and I mean the original Pooh,
not the Walt Disney version), but you understand and appreciate it more deeply now. If so (and substitute your own examples here if needed), your tastes have at least changed and
have likely improved with age. Your earlier judgments were
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likely age appropriate, but they were limited and (not unexpectedly) childish. The apostle Paul notes this in a well-known
turn of phrase: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I
thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a
man, I put the ways of childhood behind me (1 Corinthians
13:11; see also Hebrews 5:11-14).
Furthermore, the very notion of improvement or progress
(not merely some change in quality) requires and assumes an
objective standard by which to measure improvement (or decline). If a baseball batter hits .250 in 2013 and .310 in 2014, he
has improved, based on the best possible average of 1.000. There
is a measurement, and it is not the perception of the batter that
determines this measurement. This is the case in the arts as well.
Few knowledgeable about jazz would dispute that John Coltranes saxophone work improved during his tenure with pianist
Thelonious Monks quartet, or that it developed further in Coltrane own classic quartet (19611965).7 Here the assessment is
not quantitative or statistical, but qualitative. One might object
that this is a purely subjective judgment (such as whether one
feels hot or not), which is relative to the person hearing. Who is
to judge? The answer is straightforward: the one whose experience, knowledge, and wisdom merit approval. Although many
drink wine, there are few expert wine tasters. A student of mine
is so adept at this art that he can tell what part of the country a
wine came from. Not having developed this advanced degree of
skill, this is foreign to me. However, I had no inclination to say
that my judgment on wine is as accurate as Marks. Along these
lines, I was once embarrassed when one of my students told me
that the wine I was enjoying was the Kenny G of wines. This, as
jazz aficionados know, was not a compliment about the wine or
about my taste for wine.
Artistic judgments involve much more than my quick treatment;
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I have not even given clear aesthetic criteria.8 My point is that


beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder. If not, we are haunted
by objective realities which pay no heed to mere preference.
History, Good and Evil

But Herodotus may yet rescue Protagoras. In his History the


ancient historian notes that Darius, a king of ancient Persia (who
was a kind of premodern anthropologist because of his study of
cultural differences), called together some Greeks and asked
them what it would take to cannibalize their dead fathers. The
Greeks needed no time to ponder the proposition, since nothing
would move them to such odious paternal desecration. Their
practice was cremation; this alone would honor their dead. Then,
Darius summoned several Callatians (from India) to join the
Greeks, and asked them what would make them cremate their
deceased fathers. The Callatians were as horrified as the Greeks
had been and told Darius to not discuss such atrocities.
Had Protagoras heard this, he would likely applaud, having
found more evidence for his outlook. But not all applause is
earned. While the Greeks and Callatians observed fundamentally different funeral rites, both cultures honored the dead. That
is, only particular practicesnot just any old or new thing
were esteemed right and good in the treatment of corpses, and
these practices were not norms for the treatment of the living.
In other words, death was set apart as uniquely meaningful, and
thus required that the living treat the dead with ritual respect.
Thus, Greeks and Callatians agreed on a deep principle of honoring the dead. They disagreed on the rule that stems from that
principle. In no sense, then, does the example of cultural relativity disprove moral agreement across cultures, since there was
deep agreement between the cultures. C. S. Lewis makes just
this point in Mere Christianity.
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I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or


decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because
different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.
But this is not true. There have been differences between
their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble
to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans,
what will really strike him will be how very like they are to
each other and to our own.9
The case against Protagoras comes down to this. If we want to
learn anything, if we want to improve as human beings, if we
want to condemn the Ted Bundys of the world, if we want any
kind of educated taste, if we desire to understand and honor
humanity, then we must reject the man is the measure theory.
Each person is indeed the measurer of some things. Some of
them the individual gets right; some of them the individual gets
wrong. And in this difference lies all the difference in the world,
and even outside of it.

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