Growing up, I always sensed that I was searching for some deeper meaning in my life. I didn’t know what that meaning would entail, but I saw life as a type of quest. Therefore, when I went to college the study of philosophy seemed like a good fit for me.
My first philosophy class in college was a course on the ancient Greeks—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in particular. My first philosophy teacher, Professor Douglas Wessell, characterized the ancient Greek’s approach to philosophy in three ways:
- Philosophy is viewed as an activity—a quest or journey in search of wisdom.
- Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, so as to achieve the “good life” (a moral education).
- Philosophy involves reflection, contemplation, and an abiding spirit of curiosity.
This way of thinking about philosophy as an activity or a pursuit that involves reflective curiosity stayed with me and seemed to fit well with my then newfound faith in Christianity.
In parts one, two, and three of this series, I stated that 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 this final part of the series, we’ll look briefly at three famous philosophical quotations from some of history’s greatest thinkers. These quotes come from three secular-oriented philosophers: Nietzsche, Mill, and Sartre.
Three Famous Philosophy Quotations
1. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher and social critic, who many see as the forerunner of such philosophical movements as atheistic existentialism and secular postmodernism. He argued that European society had moved beyond Christianity but that the morality of the Western world was deeply tied to the Christian faith. Thus, his foreboding proclamation:
God is dead.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Nietzsche reasoned that in light of Christianity’s demise (the death of God), Western culture was in need of an alternative, secular morality. In his writings, he calls for a “transvaluation of values,” laying the foundation for a strictly secular ethic and value system. It is interesting that Nietzsche saw Western culture as so deeply influenced by, and dependent upon, the Christian worldview.
2. John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher and one of the founders of the ethical system known as “utilitarianism” (the view that ethical choices should promote the greatest good for the greatest number). As a philosopher, Mill thought that human beings were uniquely the species that sought wisdom and knowledge. Thus, his statement:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.
–John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Mill said that Socrates was often dissatisfied as a seeker but that his state was much better than the person who was satisfied with ignorance.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980)
Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher and the father of atheistic existentialism. As an atheist, he believed that individuals, by their actions, must define their own being or essence. Thus, his assertion:
Existence precedes essence.
–Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”
Sartre thought that God’s nonexistence meant that human beings had no defining essence (such as the biblical divine image), so people first exist and then must, through their actions, define their own unique essence. Again, it is interesting how closely secularism responds to Christian ideas.
I hope this very brief introduction to some of philosophy’s greatest thinkers and their most important quotes will help you appreciate the unique discipline of philosophy and part of its history.
Reflections: Your Turn
Which one of the three quotes above do you find the most engaging? Why?
For more about the ideas of Nietzsche, Mill, and Sartre in light of Christianity, see Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements by Colin Brown and A History of Western Philosophy and Theology by John M. Frame.