Points of View

Many popularizers of the intellectual life speak of the importance of reflective thought, and not just on the part of scholars and experts. According to Jacob Needleman, philosophy “is an imperative need in our lives and in the life of our world.” I recently perused the opening chapters of his book, The Heart of Philosophy (1982), which contains some interesting insights, though at the same time Needleman is like so many thinkers who optimistically maintain that they’ve found the key to wisdom apparently overlooked by most religious and philosophical systems of the past three millennia.

Despite his sympathy for Christianity (Needleman was raised as a secular Jew) he is scandalized at its apparent moral failure, particularly in the wake of two world wars and totalitarian genocide. To his credit, he is impartial. Needleman states that substitute “faiths” like Freudianism and Marxism have made little headway in solving humanity’s problems. But as regards revealed religion, I would suggest that critics face an insoluble paradox. First, a judgment on Christianity typically implies some acceptance of its own moral assumptions. Second, it is difficult to condemn the claims of that religion when the majority of atrocities in the past century have been committed by individuals who have openly rejected its tenets.

Of related interest is Miguel de Unamuno’s quirky but tantalizing study, Tragic Sense of Life (1912), from which I glean this idea: “Knowledge is employed in the service of the necessity of life.” The Spanish philosopher rejects the notion that philosophy, however lofty, is pursued “for its own sake.” I am inclined to agree (for related notes, see Ethics and Utility). In the words of one the characters of Turgenev’s novel Rudin:

Philosophy is the highest point of view! That’s another thing that will be the death of me: those higher points of view. What can one see from up there? After all, if you’re going to buy a horse, I don’t think you want to look at it from a watchtower!

To Needleman’s credit, he makes a similar argument—a worldview that does not change our lives for the better is a waste of time. I close with a quote from him on another topic, that seems particularly attuned to our age:

Why has time disappeared in our culture? How is it that after decades of inventions and new technologies devoted to saving time and labor, the result is that there is no time left? We are a time-poor society; we are temporally impoverished. And there is no issue, no aspect of human life, that exceeds this in importance. The destruction of time is literally the destruction of life.

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