The term “philosophy” comes from two Greek words, philos (love of) and sophia (wisdom), so it means literally “love of wisdom.”
Philosophy begins with asking questions. When we start to reflect upon – that is, to think seriously about – ourselves and the world that we live in, we quickly realize how BIG everything is and how SMALL we are. We realize that we do not know very much at all, and that certainly we do not know as much as we like to think we know!
Something you will come to appreciate as you get older is the saying “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I still don’t know.” Once we realize that we do not know very much, we are in a position to start asking questions about the things that we do not know.
Many people believe that Socrates (469 B.C.–399 B.C.) was “the father of philosophy.” Socrates was famous for saying that true wisdom consists in knowing that you do not know. He was also famous for saying “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
According to Socrates, most people do not know most of what they think they know. In fact, most of what they think they know consists of prejudices that they have not exposed to the light of inquiry on the basis of reason.
According to Socrates, most people regularly confuse appearance (what only seems to be the case) with reality (what actually is the case). By asking questions and exploring them to try to find answers, Socrates encouraged people to think philosophically – to seek true wisdom rather than just what seemed to be wisdom.
Philosophy does its work by means of reason. Philosophy starts with our ordinary, daily experiences, asks questions about them, and tries to logically figure out the answers to the questions. Philosophy is, therefore, concerned with matters that we can figure out for ourselves – that is, matters that we do not need special guidance from God to figure out..
Using Socrates as a model, we can see that for the Greeks, philosophy was defined simply by three statements:
- “Know yourself.”
- “Do not do anything to excess.”
- “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Like all the wise men of the Bible, Socrates knew that he was not much at all, and that most of what he thought he knew was wrong when compared to God’s knowledge. In this sense, philosophy is something that all Christians can and ought to be interested in, for it is a path to wisdom. When you follow this path, you will know, with Job, that a human being is “Like a flower he comes forth and withers. He also flees like a shadow and does not remain.” (Job 14:2) You will also realize the truth of what God said to Job about how pitiful Job’s knowledge was: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4)
Also, recognizing that you do not know puts you in a frame of mind to learn things because you do not think that you already know. If you already know something, do you try to find it out? Of course not. Only by recognizing that you do not know are you ever able to start trying to find out. This is the beginning of a philosophical way of thinking. Scripture teaches the same thing: “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:1).
The second point of philosophy is “Do not do anything to excess.” When you know that you do not know, you will also be prepared to live your life avoiding excesses. Too much food, too much playing, too much working – all of these are excesses. Scripture tells us to control ourselves, which means, among other things, to avoid excesses (Proverbs 13:3; Proverbs 21:7; Galatians 5:23; Philippians 4:10-12, and others).
Philosophy can help teach you to understand the difference between the mere appearance of Good and the reality of Good. You will often find that what appears to be Good to you the first time you look at it is not what really is Good. More often than not, the things that only appear to be Good will be excesses of one kind or another, while the thing that really is Good will be something moderate, something that is not extreme.
The third and last principle of philosophy teaches you to live your life with an attitude of examining everything to see whether it is true or false. You cannot know yourself and avoid excesses if you do not examine your life carefully and weigh your experiences in this life in the light of principles that come from a higher place than this life. The Bible tells us the same thing:
- Philippians 4:8 – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”