Philosophy as Religion


"...the true philosophers. In the number of whom, during my whole life, I have been seeking, according to my ability to find a place; -- whether I have sought in a right way or not, and whether I have succeeded or not, I shall truly know in a little while, if God will, when I myself arrive in the other world -- such is my belief"
—Socrates, in Plato's Phaedo

Last night, the anniversary of my father's death, I started rereading his book on the philosophy of Karl Jaspers. It struck me that not only did he adopt Jaspers' views pretty much wholesale, but that he made a religion out of Jaspers' philosophy. The holy scripture of this religion was not Jaspers' own writings, though Fred Wallraff had pored over the obscure philosophical German in these difficult and technical books. It was the works of the hundred greatest Western philosophers, written over the last two and a half millennia.
     A central notion of Jaspers' is that of an existential philosophic faith, akin to religious faith. This is how he decides the "big questions." I'd assumed that religious faith must be the result of transcendent personal experience, some undeniable revelation of the "let Jesus come into your heart" or "Buddha at the bodhi tree" sort. Fred's book showed me another basis for faith. In the absence of a personal revelation, or even having had one, if you're as skeptical about the validity of these experiences as I am, the only way you can decide about the "big questions" like morality and ethics is to choose according to your values or aesthetics, without knowing for sure that you've chosen right.
     I haven't discovered if the idea of philosophical faith is supposed to include some sort of "belief" in the principles you adopt. If you aren't convinced by reason or argument, and haven't had some sort of transcendent personal revelation, is there a third way to attain the absolute certainty that we might call belief? I picture a forced "believing in," screwing up your mind and, as an act of will, forcing yourself to believe.
     It's always seemed perverse to me that the Gods of the West care so much whether humans believe in them or not. "If you believe in God, you'll go to Heaven; if you don't, you'll go to Hell." There is no conclusive evidence in this world for God's existence. If there were, if, say, He talked to us from Heaven in a big booming voice from time to time, then it would simply be reasonable to believe in him. Failing this, and lacking personal revelation (He could presumably manifest himself just as plainly directly to one's soul), one can only try the third way -- belief by an act of will. Why would He want us to do this? Why should He care if these miserable, puny, ill-informed humans "believe" in him or not? How much do you have to correctly guess about Him to be said to believe?
     My father always claimed to be an agnostic, but I think he had philosophic faith in the Judeo-Christian ethical system, with an emphasis on the Old Testament. He didn't accept the divinity of Jesus, and was only marginally enthused by the exuberant evangelism of the New Testament. His enthusiasms (when he allowed himself some -- his was always the ethos of Yahweh, where pleasures were sinful or, at least, suspect) were for literature, art and music. I seldom observed in him a zest for philosophy, it was an Old-Testament sort of undertaking: serious.
     He used to compare Plato's somewhat fictionalized account of Socrates' teaching with the four apostles' accounts of Jesus, never to the advantage of the latter. If he thought he was divine, Jesus' martyrdom was easy for him; he had his role to play, and absolute certainty to help him. Socrates' daemon gave him only philosophic faith, making his death a statement of his principles, and earning him a place in the panoply of philosophic saints.


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