Who am I? Why am I here? Is there a meaning to life? Does God exist? What will happen to me when I die?
It was these big questions of life that first attracted me to the study of philosophy. For the ancient Greek philosophers, to philosophize was to engage in wonder about the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. For me also, this is the very heart of philosophy and what makes this discipline and outlook on life so appealing.
As I noted in part one of this series, one way of coming to know and appreciate philosophy is to consider some of the powerful quotations made by great philosophers on ultimate issues. In part two of this series, we’ll look briefly at three famous philosophical quotations, one from the ancient world and two from medieval Christian civilization.
Three Famous Philosophy Quotations
1. General Quote from Antiquity
In ancient Athens, not unlike today, there were people who questioned the value of philosophy. In these critics’ minds, philosophy wasn’t practical. It wasn’t useful. It may even be useless. Thus, this quotation:
Philosophy bakes no bread.
It is true that philosophers usually don’t make a lot of money. Most philosophers today end up becoming college professors. But of course, how much would you pay in order to discover truth, goodness, and beauty? If human beings are distinct creatures largely for their rational faculties, then pursuing the life of thought is the way to fulfill one’s human function in life.
2. St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109)
Anselm was a major Catholic theologian and philosopher who made important contributions to Christian doctrine, philosophical theology, and apologetics. In his book the Proslogion, Anselm developed a distinctive argument for God’s existence from the idea of God’s perfection. Here’s the famous quote in which the ontological argument begins:
God is a being than which none greater can be conceived.
–St. Anselm, Proslogion
The biblical God is the greatest conceivable being (a being “than which none greater can be conceived”), and therefore God’s existence may be known through the rational reflection of God’s perfect nature. St. Anselm’s ontological argument is understood as a pure a priori rational argument for God’s existence and is considered the most controversial and contested of all the so-called traditional proofs for God.
Here is a form of the ontological argument stated simply:
- God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived (here, great means “perfect”).
- If a being exists only in thought (as an idea in the mind) and not in reality (objective reality), it is not as great as a being that exists in thought and in reality.
- If God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, then he must exist in thought and in reality. For if he existed only in thought, then we could conceive of a greater being—namely, a being that existed in thought and in reality. But that would be absurd because we would be, in fact, conceiving of a being that is greater than the greatest conceivable being (more perfect than perfection)!
- By definition, there could be no greater being than God.
- Therefore, God exists.
3. William of Ockham (ca. 1285–1349)
William of Ockham was a Catholic Franciscan friar who served as a philosopher and theologian and lived in the High Middle Ages in England. He was a scholastic scholar and an advocate of nominalism (the philosophical view that universals or general ideas [forms] are mere names without any corresponding reality). As a logician, William of Ockham is known for the principle of parsimony. Thus, the famous maxim:
Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.
Though not found in any of his extant writings, this well-known maxim reflects what has come to be known as “Ockham’s razor”: the simplest, fully orbed explanation is best. In other words, when faced with competing adequate explanations of a phenomenon, choose the simplest one. Ockham’s razor has important applications for both philosophy and science.
I hope this brief introduction to some ancient and medieval philosophers and some of their most important quotes and ideas will help you appreciate the unique discipline of philosophy and part of its history. Tune in next week for more of philosophy’s most famous quotations.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which one of the three quotes above do you find the most engaging? Why?
For more about ancient and medieval philosophy, including Anselm and Ockham, see Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements by Colin Brown.