Two Philosophers

The first one is William B. Irvine and he teaches at Wright State, in Dayton. For many years he was teacher of Philosophy, concerned with explaining, I suppose, and showing, and theoretical things; but then he started thinking about life. A philosophy concerned with better living is not something you hear about nowadays, but it was common in better times. Apparently Irvine tried some Zen and did not find it suited his analytical personality, so he tried the Stoics and found they did. He’s written a book with a brief historical overview, then explanation of the basic ideas, then advice for becoming a fully functioning modern-day Stoic. It is an interesting book.

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

The Stoics flourished in Rome, the ideas being imported from Greece where it began once Zeno decided the Cynics didn’t have it quite right. If you want a few big names of Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The goal of the Epicureans was pleasure–philosophically achieved–and the goal of Stoics, then, was tranquility. Irvine explains how they attempted to achieve a life of tranquility. Himself being for some years now a functioning Stoic, he can offer practical advice to this practical philosophy.

The second philosopher I’ve been reading is Roger Scruton. He’s just come out with a novel called Notes from Underground. It is set in Czechoslovakia behind the iron curtain. Scruton was there several times during those times, and the sense of the place is real, and knowing Scruton, probably pretty accurate. The story is a story about love and desire, about masks and trust, about the mistrust that poisoned everything in communist societies, about the absence of God and the need for him, about the false triumph of the West with its fangless kitsch.

It is an aching, poignant, luminous, intriguing and insightful way for Scruton to make the points he labors elsewhere to make, and it is more. There are many things from his other books I found in this one, but this time they’re put into settings, shown rather than told, and combined to create a haunting tragedy. I don’t see how it could be a popular triumph, but it is a triumph because it is ambitious and it succeeds.

What Scruton does in this book is another lament, an elegy for something that badly and barely survived under communism but which does not appear to be doing better after it. This book seem to me another chord in his late labor of mourning for Western Civilization.


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