As you listen to my voice, how do you know the real you is not hooked up to a machine feeding reality into your brain? Or when you go to bed at night how do you know that the world did not switch off and that when you woke up, the world switched back on. Today, dead philosophers tell us what is and what is not.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped our World” by R.C. Sproul. 224 pages, published by Crossway in 2000. In Amazon, it costs USD59.92 for the hardcover, USD19.99 for the paperback. I don’t see a Kindle version. You can get it for free from Logos.com if you saw the deal last month in June. And if you didn’t get the book then, I’m here to tell you what a great deal you missed.
The Growl and Chuckle Teacher
R.C. Sproul will be remembered in history for popularising Reformed Theology. Popularising not by bringing theology down to appeal to popular opinion but by bringing people up to gaze upon Heaven, to be in awe of the holiness of God.
There are teachers who can communicate deep theology, e.g. Martyn Lloyd Jones. J.I. Packer. John Piper. But no one who can communicate and teach like Sproul, with a growl and a chuckle. One minute a profound insight, the next minute a rousing zinger. His impish jokes are classic, unforgettable, moments in church history. All this is to explain why I come to this book as a child would to his favourite teacher.
Today’s book is not about Theology but a close relative of it, Philosophy. In the past, I have tried to make sense of philosophy and failed. So I come to this book expecting Sproul to break it down, show us how philosophy relates to us today and all the while I want his trademark clarity and wit.
Let’s open the book.
Hitler Does Not Want You to Read This Book
This is the introduction:
“The summer of 1959: … My biggest concern was summer employment. Many friends who were engineering students had found lucrative summer jobs that paid well above the minimum wage. My prospects were bleak: I was a philosophy major. I did not find in the newspaper a single want ad calling for philosophers. My only real option was a job for unskilled labor paying the minimum wage. Even at that I was delighted to be offered work in the maintenance department of a hospital.
When the foreman heard I was a philosophy major, he handed me a broom and said, “Here, you can think all you want while you’re leaning on the broom.”
I can literally hear his voice and see his grinning face when I read this.
Let me continue to read from the introduction. Actually, are you interested in philosophy? Imagine that you are not. See how he hooks you in.
During my first week on the job, I was reaching the end of my sweeping territory. My zone ended where the main hospital driveway intersected the parking lot of the nurses’ home. I noticed another man sweeping the adjacent parking lot. He greeted me, and we exchanged names and pleasantries. When I told him I was a college student, he asked what I was studying. When I said philosophy, his face brightened and his eyes lit up. He fired a barrage of questions at me, inquiring about Descartes, Plato, Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, and others. I was astonished at this man’s knowledge. He obviously knew far more about philosophy than I did.
My new friend was from Germany. He had his Ph.D. in philosophy and had been a professor of philosophy in Berlin. When Adolf Hitler came to power, the Nazis were not content to find a “final solution” for Jews and Gypsies. They also sought to eliminate intellectuals whose ideas were at odds with the “values” of the Third Reich. My friend was removed from his position. When he spoke out against the Nazis, his wife and all but one of his children were arrested and executed. He escaped from Germany with his young daughter.
Sproul homes in to his point:
I mused on something else that morning, which is why I am recounting the tale here. I was pushing a broom because I lived in a culture that sees little value in philosophy and gives scant esteem to those who pursue it. My friend was pushing a broom, on the other hand, because he came from a culture that gave great weight to philosophy. His family was destroyed because Hitler understood that ideas are dangerous. Hitler so feared the consequences of my friend’s ideas that he did everything possible to eliminate him — and his ideas.
As I did so often reading this book, I paused. I reflected on our own times. Sproul wrote this in the year 2000. At that time nobody knew critical theory or gender ideology. It was just an idea. Today, it seems to be the only thing everybody talks about. An idea with great consequence.
And if you think along those lines, you can see how Marxism and Darwinism are also ideas that have — and this is such a trite way to put it — changed the world. Karl Marx appears in Chapter 10 of the book, Darwin in chapter 14. Marx and Darwin are known influencers. How about the less well known but no less influential? It’s not just bad ideas that have consequences, how about some good ones?
Who’s Who of Ideas
The book starts from the First Philosophers: Thales, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, Anaxagoras. Then we continue in the next chapters:
- Chapter 2: Plato
- Chapter 3: Aristotle
- Chapter 4: Augustine
- Chapter 5: Thomas Aquinas
- Chapter 6: Rene Descartes
- Chapter 7: John Locke
- Chapter 8: David Hume
- Chapter 9: Immanuel Kant
- Chapter 10: Karl Marx
- Chapter 11: Soren Kiekegaard
- Chapter 12: Friedrich Nietzsche
- Chapter 13: Jean-Paul Sartre
- Chapter 14: Darwin and Freud
- Conclusion: Gilson’s Choice
You will note that the book is organised around individuals rather than philosophical ideas. So it’s Thomas Aquinas, not Thomism; Karl Marx, not Marxism; Friedrich Nietzsche, not nihilism.
And this way works. The best introduction to an idea is to understand the man. Why was Socrates forced to commit suicide? How did David Hume provoke Immanuel Kant? Soren Kierkegaard argued that in Denmark, (to quote Sproul) “the state church had reduced Christianity to an empty formalism and externalism, which in effect produces mere spectators to true Christianity.” How did Kierkegaard go from here to be the father of modern existentialism?
Another thing we can learn from the Table of Contents — and by the way, if you don’t know this, let me tell you, one of the best ways to figure out what a book is about is to simply look at the Table of Contents. You can get a lot from well-written, well-thought out Table of Contents. If you can’t judge a book by its cover, you could very well judge it by its Table of Contents.
So back to Sproul’s book. From the Table of Contents we can also see that it is chronological. He starts from the Philosophers in Ancient Greece and stops at Darwin and Freud.
I suppose if Sproul was alive today he might be tempted to write about critical theory. How I wish Sproul was here to explain to us how we got from philosophy professors making unintelligible prose to police arresting parents for demanding boys be boys and girls be girls. This just goes to show how philosophy never stops, there will be more ideas ahead, more consequences, thus more reasons to understand where all this is coming from.
In merely 220 pages, you get a summary of this 2500 years conversation about god (small g) and reality. Some guy in Ancient Greece says something and Augustine refutes it and someone else refutes him and this continues all the way to our Postmodern World.
Philosophy, not Theology
So this long conversation involves some reality-bending, mind-twisting, concepts. R.C. Sproul goes into it. He is not content to tell you amusing anecdotes, he means to teach you philosophy.
He invites us to live the examined life. In Chapter 4, on Augustine, Sproul explains the big cultural influencers of the day: the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics and the Neoplatonist.
On Epicureans, Sproul writes:
Epicureans sought to escape the “hedonistic paradox”: The pursuit of pleasure alone ends in either frustration (if the pursuit fails) or boredom (if it succeeds). Both frustration and boredom are kinds of pain, the antithesis of pleasure. Thus Epicureans sought not the maximum pleasure but the optimum pleasure. They concluded that a wise man’s diet of bread and water will more likely bring happiness than a glutton’s diet of gourmet food.
Epicureans have understood what many don’t and you may be one of them. This is the “hedonistic paradox”: The pursuit of pleasure alone ends in either frustration (if the pursuit fails) or boredom (if it succeeds).
If someone else wrote this book, he could at this point promote the Epicurean way of life. Epicureans have a solution to optimise pleasure and you can see their influence today in self-improvement books, gurus promote lifestyle changes, ancient wisdom packaged in bite-sized videos with click-bait titles.
Yet, Sproul does not engage with the Epicureans. He could. He is an apologist. He could easily tell us the only real solution to the hedonistic paradox is the Gospel. But he doesn’t do that.
He introduces the Epicureans, not as a foil to tell us what we should believe and how we should live, but as the necessary background to understand Augustine, the man and his ideas. Sproul’s focus throughout the book is to faithfully expound, not the Bible, but all these men and their ideas.
A Philosophy Book by A Christian
For example, it’s easy to vilify Karl Marx. Marxist is a political slur. But name-calling does nothing to inform us of its attraction and frenzy-inducing power.
You see, Karl Marx, with his PhD in Philosophy, has this ideal vision of society. And as we read from this book, this society makes sense. It all sounds so wonderful. Sproul tells us all of that but he is also compelled to speak up else you join the millions of people sucked into Marxism. He writes:
Marx predicted that the condition of workers in capitalist societies would become steadily worse. The poor would become poorer while the rich would become richer, until the masses would revolt and take over the means of production for themselves.
This was Marx’s greatest error. He assumed the myth that the rich can only get rich at the expense of the poor. One man’s gain must spell another man’s loss… No economic system has been as effective as capitalism in raising the human standard of living.
The interesting thing is not that Sproul is against Marxism. If you read this book because of Sproul, you expect more arguments from Scripture. But against Marxism, he brings not the crucifixion but capitalism.
This is a podcast dedicated to Christian book reviews. Surprise, surprise, today’s book is not a Christian book. It is a book written by a Christian.
R.C. Sproul gives us this introductory book on philosophy and so it only makes sense to counter Marxism, with the other working economic system, which is capitalism. It would be illogical to inject Christianity into the discussion because Christianity is not an economic system.
However, Sproul is not conceding that Christianity should stay out of public discussions.
In the first chapter, Sproul quotes Protagoras the father of ancient humanism, “Man is the measure of all things.” Sproul then says, “From a biblical perspective, of course, the honor of being the first humanist does not belong to Protagoras. Indeed, it is accorded not to a man, but to a serpent whose maxim was … “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:4).
In chapter 12, Nietzsche distinguished between slave morality and master morality. The master is strong, the slave is weak. The master is his own judge, might makes right. The slave morality elevates sympathy, patience, kindness, humility and so forth. And Sproul makes a side remark that this sounds a lot like the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.
What I like about this book is how Sproul exemplifies how Christians can participate in public discourse. If you want to understand philosophy, you can get it from a Christian. You should not be worried that the author will invite you to say a word of prayer at the end of every chapter.
You should be able to read a book on politics, biology, medicine, astronomy, or any other subject from a Christian writer. The Christian just like any other person has an opinion. And the Atheist who insists that his books say nothing about God is likewise expressing an opinion, and this is a consequence of an idea, traceable to a philosophy.
Christian or not, you should give R.C. Sproul’s book a try.
Sproul guides us through the history of philosophical thought using every trick in the book: stories, diagrams, reasoning, drama and humour. And once in a while, he lets us know what he thinks. But the side remarks do not detract from what is an excellent introduction to Western Philosophy.
This is a Reading and Readers review of “Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped our World” by R.C. Sproul. 224 pages, published by Crossway in 2000. USD59.92 for the hardcover, USD19.99 for the paperback, no Kindle version. It was free in Logos last month, and it’s now USD13.99. Is it worth paying for it? Well, that really depends on how you see value and how you see value depends on how you see reality and that is where philosophy comes in.