Great Thinkers by The School of Life (Part 1)

This book draws ideas from various cultures and professions. This book brings to you the most important ideas of our times.

Introduction. This is a ‘canon’ of thought from modern thinkers. The list is ‘biased’ of course, but it is ‘good’ bias as it favours valuable and important ideas. The team has tried to select as well as possible. The book will help you remember key thoughts by renowned thinkers. The ideas can also be applied in everyday life. Most of the ideas are not too technical for the layman to comprehend. What can great thinkers do for you?

Philosophy

Plato. It is 2400 years ago, in Athens. Plato is probably one of the first and greatest philosopher. He wanted people to reach Eudaimonia – happiness/fulfilment. He has 4 big ideas. The first is to ‘think harder’. We needed to have greater clarity in our minds. Most people often jumped into decisions without analyzing much, this was disastrous. The key was to know yourself. He encouraged people to love more wisely. To him, people love because they see in the other party some good quality that they haven’t got. Love is about helping each other grow. Learn to commit to help them and navigate through stormy passages in life. To him, ‘beautiful’ things are good. Beauty objects can educate us. Art was therapeutic to Plato. Art was to be for the good of society. Plato had many ideas to change our society and wrote ‘The Republic’. Our society needed more new heroes. Secondly, censorship was important. Next, he emphasized on the important of education and learn about how to be calm, how to exercise self-control etc. People need to lead better childhoods too.

Aristotle. He was born in 384BC. He also tutored Alexander the Great. Aristotle was always fascinated with how things work and tried to answer life’s big questions. The first was what made people happy. In ‘Nicomachean Ethics’, he suggested that good people have certain virtues. To him, the ability to have a good conversation was the key to a good life. One should have an excessive sense of humor. The guy in the middle is the best, he is simply witty. Moral goodness can be formed through habit. To him, art was a form of catharsis, which is a form of cleaning and allowing you to get rid of the bad stuff. Art also reminds us that tragedy can strike anyone. Art is to make profound truths stick in our minds. He identified the true friend concept, which we care for one another. Aristotle offered suggestions on how to soothe people’s fears in order for to convince them with your ideas.

The Stoics. This was a brand of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. It is useful in troubled times. Seneca used it, and so did Marcus Aurelius. It can address our anxiety issues. One should imagine the worst case scenario and be used to it. This is facing your fears head on. Life will go on whether you are rich or poor. One should learn to practice worst-case scenarios so that you will not be surprised. To Stoics, anger is stupidity. It is because we expect too much from the other person. One should expect less from life. In an ideal state, nothing should be able to disturb your peace. They believe that most of life is fate and sometimes, fate can deal you a cruel hand. The fact is that whatever we do matters. Looking up at the sky also provides a calming effect. Although their teachings are dark, the Stoics are important.

The task of the wise person is therefore never to believe in the gifts of fortune: fame, money, power, love, health – these are never our own. – The Stoics Philosophy

Epicurus. He was born in 341 BC. His central topic of study was happiness. He led a remarkably simple life for a happy person. One of the misconceptions is that we need romantic relationships. To him, love and happiness never go together. We often neglect our friends. Secondly, people think they need a lot of money. He believed in the need for meaningful work. Humans put too much faith in luxury. He believed what made people was calm. Epicurus lived with his friends. People took pay cuts in exchange for fulfilling work. His friends found calm via rational analysis and insight. This style of living caught on with others. To sum up, the 3 false lures of happiness were: romantic love, professional status and luxury.

What made work really satisfying, Epicurus believed, is when we’re able to work either alone or in very small groups, and when it feels meaningful, when we sense that we’re helping others in some way or making things that improve the world. – Epicurus

Augustine. He was a Christian philosopher. He criticized the Romans. The Romans believed in earthly happiness and just social order. Augustine believed that humans were all lustful, mad, erratic, deluded deviants with no earthly chance of happiness. This was the idea of original sin. Humans had the idea to dominate others. Everything we do is pretty much imperfect. This is simply the human condition. To him, all hierarchies were unfair as there is no social justice. We should not expect fair distribution on earth. He warns us about those who try to make life perfect or say that poverty is an indicator of vice.

Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas tried to reconcile religion with science and faith. He was a philosopher and a holy saint. He found that non-Christians could also have wisdom. He wanted to know how people could discern right from wrong. Were religion and rational thought compatible? The world operated via ‘natural law’ and ‘eternal law’. For eternal laws, no form of reasoning was possible. Everything that is important has to come from God was a wrong idea. Aquinas believed that natural laws and observation of everyday things in life was important. Arts, philosophy are examples of natural law. Natural law can be discovered via independent reasoning. Aquinas believed that wisdom can come from multiple sources. We are often too dismissive of ideas which come from seemingly ‘wrong’ sources.

Michel de Montaigne. He was born in 1533 and often criticized the arrogance of intellectuals. He was a funny guy too. Reason allows us to control our passions and our bodies. To him, reasoning was possible, but our brains were full of madness. He was obsessed with the fragilities of the human body. We do not have full control over our bodies. Michel didn’t believe in modelling your life after someone who you aspire to be. He attacked academia for being out of touch. He wanted to read simple things which were fun. To him, most people studied books, but not their own minds. Philosophy or grand ideas can also be applied to ordinary lives. To him, a virtuous and ordinary life which strives for wisdom is an achievement already. He continues to be an inspiration for us all.

La Rochefoucauld. He wrote a masterpiece of a book that is only 60 pages long. It was all about observations of the human condition. He had a miserable life and was exiled. After much struggle, he decided to enter the contemplative life. He and his friends often talked about the great themes of existence. He was known for the maxim, or an insight into the human soul. He honed 504 aphorisms. The most famous one of all is ‘We all have strength enough to bear the misfortunes of others.’ His aphorisms give deep psychological reflection and precision and cynicism. He was also suspicious of romantic love. His book was short and could influence people who were not into philosophy too

A few men have sighed because their women were abducted; most because no one wanted to abduct them. – La Rochefoucauld

There are some people who would never have fallen in love, if they had not heard there was such a thing. – La Rochefoucauld

He that refuses praise the first time it is offered does it because he would like to hear it a second. – La Rochefoucauld

The reason lovers never tire of one another’s company is because they never talk of anything but themselves. – La Rochefoucauld

If one were to judge of love according to the greatest part of the effects it produces, it might very justly pass for hatred rather than kindness. – La Rochefoucauld

Baruch Spinoza. He tried to reinvent religion into something more consoling. He was born in Amsterdam in 1632. One of his famous books was ‘Ethics’. He challenged the tenets of Judaism. To him, God was a projection of our imagination. God was the universe and reason and truth. He is the eternal cause. It is important how and why things seem the way they are. Only narcissism to cause one to believe that God will take an interest to improve his or her life. One should continuously try to understand the world and bow down peacefully when necessary. To him, one needed to understand how life and the universe works, natural sciences etc so as to understand God better. We need to align our will with the Universe. Ultimately, he warns us of the failures of philosophy. It is not only reason which leads people to religion, but also emotion, belief etc. Religion is helped along by rituals, art etc. There are other perks to religion.

Arthur Schopenhauer. He was a German philosopher and his famous works was ‘The World as Will and Representation’. He was also interested in Buddhism. To him, God was not almighty as there was so much suffering in the world. The Will-to-life is a force which makes us focus on sex and fall in love. Love was connected to the idea of having children. Someone of intellect might not want a child as it so difficult to raise one and also lead to your loss of freedom. The Will-to-life is to be blamed. Lovers overlook everything and misjudge everything. He felt sorry for humans as we were behaving like animals. We do all we can to perpetuate ourselves. In general, Schopenhauer was gloomy over human nature. For sages, they can rise above the will-to-life and override them. These are the monks. The next solution is to spend as long as we can with art and philosophy. We can step back from day to day life and take part in activities. He had a pessimistic view of life. He believed strongly in Buddhism.

Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by want and illusion. – Arthur Schopenhauer

There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… so long as we persist in this inborn error … the world seems to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being content. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are etched with such disappointment. – Arthur Schopenhauer

Georg Hegel. He wrote horribly and had poor communication skills. He took history seriously and mentioned that important parts of ourselves can be found in history. To him, studying history was a form of wisdom. There are things to be learnt from every era. Progress is never linear. To him, every era contained important insights mired in a set of errors. One should learn from ideas that one dislikes. To him, progress is messy. The world makes you progress by lurching you from one extreme to another. People tend to overcompensate. It took many mistakes before the balanced constitution was formed. Progress, in history, has been slow and troubled. We will learn but with massive overcorrections. One cannot avoid stepping and making mistakes. To him, art had a great purpose. Art provides insights into our lives. We should be more forgiving to our partners. He believed that we needed new institutions. Even with right ideas, you need the right infrastructure and structures to support it.

World history is the record of the mind’s efforts to understand itself. – Georg Hagel

Friedrich Nietzsche. He often lived alone and didn’t get along with girls and his family. He wanted people to discover and be loyal to their highest potential. Envy is a part of life. Everyone compared themselves with others. To him, there was nothing wrong with envy. He wanted people to study about their envy in order to create a better self. Be conscious of your potential and fight to get there. He didn’t believe in Christianity. It was a curse to him. The problem was that Christianity protected people from their envy. They used religion to criticize what they wanted but couldn’t get and praise what they did not want but happened to have. Thus, the religion drains life of its potential. Nietzsche never drank alcohol. It was because it numbed pain, and tries to reassure us that things are fine. He also proclaimed that God was dead. He wanted culture to replace religion.

If we are finding things difficult, it is not necessarily a sign of failure, it may just be evidence of the nobility and arduousness of the tasks we’ve undertaken. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger. He wrote using many complex German words. There is meaning to our lives. ‘Being and Time’ was his most famous work. He sought to help humans live more wisely. To him, modern humanity was suffering from some diseases. We have forgotten to notice we’re alive. Most of us live day-to-day. We should appreciate the ‘Mystery of Being’ and be marveled at how things are. We keep the difficult questions at bay. To him, humans need to analyze ‘The Nothing’. All Being is connected. We need to take a generous view of existence. Everything that exists are united by the basic tenets of Being. People tend to forget to be free and to live for ourselves. It is important to start living for yourself. One way to do so is to start focusing on your impending death. One should stop worrying about what others think. One shouldn’t spend so much time trying to impress others. Humans tend to treat others as objects. He believed in the use of great art and exposure.

Jean-Paul Sartre. He was born in 1905. He was known for the philosophical movement known as existentialism. His famous book is ‘Being and Nothingness’. Things are weirder than we think. Things seem absurd and frightening. One should view the world and strip it off any prejudices and assumptions. Humans are free. You can certainly take many liberating decisions and daydream etc. You can free your life of commitments and obligations. We do not have any God-given sense of purpose. We are not being shackled and the idea of ‘work’ and ‘job’ can be removed. Anguish is a mark of maturity. Humans shouldn’t live in bad faith. Things do not have to be a certain way only. One should open up their lives to other options and possibilities. We are free to dismantle capitalism. Too many people worry about money and as a result, do not make certain decisions in life. Capitalism leads to a denial in freedom.

Dinner really means that when your part of the planet has spun away from the energy of a distant hydrogen and helium explosion, you slide your knees under strips of a chopped-up tree and put sections of dead animals and plants in your mouth and chew. – Jean-Paul Sartre

Albert Camus. He was a French-Algerian philosopher. He was killed in a car crash. His famous work was ‘The Outsider’. The main character recognizes the indifference of the universe towards humankind. We all have moments when we feel that no one understands us. Life has no inherent meaning. Like other philosophers, he realized that life has no preordained meaning. He was an existentialist. However, he resisted hopelessness or nihilism. We are like Sisyphus in a way. Humans need to cope with daily life. Life is enduring. Camus was a good looking fellow who had many women. Camus understood the pleasures of ordinary life. He was a champion of the ordinary. He also stuck firmly to his principles.

Camus argues that we have to live with the knowledge that our efforts will be largely futile, our lives soon forgotten and our species irredeemably corrupt and violent – and yet should endure nevertheless. – The School of Life

Political Theory

Niccolo Machiavelli. We want to see the ideal side of politics, but we know it can be dirty. He feels that the good politician must know how to defend and be sly, when necessary. His father was a wealthy man. He wanted to both be a good person and a good politician. That seemed to be at odds with one another. His most famous book is ‘The Prince’. He should err on the side of terror. He rejected Christianity as a guide for leaders. The Christian ethics and governance were at odds. One can do wrong if it is for the security of the state. Sometimes, we can’t be good at everything. Once in a while, we need to sacrifice our ideal visions of kindness for practical effectiveness.

Thomas Hobbes. To what extent should we obey leaders who are not good? Should we start a revolution/ depose governments? He hated violence. His book ‘Leviathan’ argues that we should support government and obey them in order to avoid chaos and bloodshed. Hobbes felt that the social contract theory of government meant that people could depose rulers once they felt unhappy. Life without government would lead to massive infighting. This led to people forming governments. People had a right to protest only if the leader tried to kill them. However, if government policies were bad, there was no need for people to take to the streets to protest. He generally wanted men to obey.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Life is founded on the idea of progress. There was a guy who questioned the idea of progress into larger economies. His life was marked by isolation. He went to Paris to see the opulent life. To him, he felt like civilization destroyed morals of humans. In modern society, men are plagued by vice. In the past, people understood life to be more simple and could understand their minds. Modern society leaves us envious and suffering. Men now swelled with pride, jealousy and vanity. We end up trapped in capitalism and materialism. To him, simple people were more contented in life. Although technology was present, Indians weren’t happier. One should look to others for self-worth. We have to look at ourselves to revive human goodness.

Adam Smith. How can you make a capitalist economy more meaningful? He felt philosophers should care more about the economy. He created specialization. People started to specialize in only certain areas. Society got richer because of specialization. However, there was a lack of meaning to work. We feel like a cog in the machine. People feel that their work does not fit in well with society. Hence, employers need to remind people of their purpose, role and responsibility. This is the era of consumer capitalism. Smith felt that luxury goods were good because they stimulated the economy and created trade and jobs. Humans also have needs for education etc. To him, the rich didn’t care about money. They cared about honour and respect because they need external validation. Consumers opt for a certain type of products. We need to pay a better price for products. Adam Smith wanted to create ideas about how humans lived and how this view should be reconciled with the needs for businesses.

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