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Lessons from great philosophers

Lessons from great philosophers

Lessons from great philosophers

Born in every generation are the wise people, the thinkers, the guiding lights who can show us the path ahead…

For all of my adult life, I have been a collector: of antiques and art, books and… quotations. I have a tall stack of notebooks in which I have collected quotes I have come across over the years, on my travels, and through my reading and research.

Some of these quotes are proverbs handed down from generation to generation in countries all over the world, like this one from Egypt: ‘En kan habibak asal matlhasoush kolo’ (If your sweetheart is made of honey, don’t lap it all up; meaning don’t take advantage of kindness). We do not know who formed the thought in a proverb, who coined the phrase, but we live by it still, for it helps us to understand the world around us.

Many quotes in my collection, however, are attributable to a ‘big thinker’, one who would consider deeply the fundamental questions of life relating to existence and reason and values and knowledge. These are the words of wisdom of philosophers, even if they were perhaps not regarded as such in their time, or even by themselves. These are words to inspire and demystify, to comfort and guide.

I could write a hundred articles – more – on philosophers and philosophy itself, but here I will simply share with you some quotes from my collection. This is an eclectic mix, certainly, and were you to sit all of these philosophers around a table there would no doubt be an intensely lively debate revealing differences in opinion. But there is wisdom for us all here, I think, or at least a spark to light a fire in an enquiring mind.

Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.

Confucius (551–479 BC)

A philosopher, teacher and politician, Confucius is commonly regarded as the father of Eastern thinking. He taught honesty, kindness, justice and self-responsibility, and was a firm proponent of the ‘golden rule’: that you must treat others as you wish to be treated. The teachings of Confucius feature in my novel The Echoes of Love.

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.

– Lao Tzu (between 6th and 4th century BC)

Lao Tzu, a very important figure in China, is thought to have been a contemporary of Confucius. He was the founder of the philosophy of Taoism, which values inner contemplation, connecting with nature, taking the simple path and allowing things to simply be.

Know thyself.
― Socrates (c. 469–399 BC)

The founder of Western philosophy, this wise man of Athens, Greece, believed that knowledge is the key to happiness. ‘The unexamined life,’ he said, ‘is not worth living.’ (If you’re thinking ‘Know yourself’ is familiar, you may be remembering these lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, undoubtedly inspired by Socrates: ‘This above all: / To thine own self be true, / for it must follow as dost the night the day, / that canst not then be false to any man.’)

Conquer yourself rather than the world.
– René Descartes (1596–1650)

French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Descartes is most famous for his philosophical statement ‘cogito, ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’). This thinking about existence has been profoundly influential in philosophy. He encourages us to question everything, to challenge what is accepted: ‘Doubt,’ he wrote, ‘is the origin of wisdom.’

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.

– Voltaire (1694–1778)

A very prolific and very prominent writer of the French Enlightenment, Voltaire believed fundamentally in freedom: freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. When he wasn’t being bold and brave in sharing his philosophy, he was practising the great French joie de vivre.

The beginning is always today.
– Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)

Mary was one of the first feminist philosophers; in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she boldly set out the idea that women are not born inferior to men; clearly a very influential idea. Her daughter would also go on to make waves in society: she was Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.
– Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

The German philosopher Kant was a key thinker of the Enlightenment. He believed that ‘all our knowledge begins with experience’.

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)

Emerson founded the transcendentalist philosophical movement in the US, which was based on the tenet that people are inherently good and that divinity is to be found in nature.

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.
– Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

At age 24, Nietzsche already held the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel, Switzerland: the German philosopher had such compelling ideas, believing that self-realization was essential in one’s identity. (His work fell out of favour when it was associated with Nazism, but it eventually became clear that in fact Nietzsche had no such political leanings; his sister, upon his death, had doctored his writings to suit her own politics. These days, Nietzsche’s works are seen as important and impactful in a positive way.)

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