The Best (Unofficial) Introduction to Philosophy I've Seen
Jun 22, 2010
The title of Edward Feser’s latest book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, might lead one to believe that it is merely the latest retort in the newly energized controversy over whether God exists. However, while certainly polemic in tone, Feser’s book provides its reader with something more valuable than a mere rebuttal among rebuttals. This book contains one of the most lucid and straightforward introductions to classical philosophy that I have ever encountered—from the pre-Socratics through the Scholastics and Early Moderns.
Feser, a professor of philosophy at Pasadena College, has to offer such a sweeping survey of Western philosophy because of the stunning nature of his central argument: that modern atheism is merely symptomatic of a more severe error—the unfounded abandonment of Aristotelian metaphysics at the beginning of the modern period. To demonstrate this, Feser asserts that he must reintroduce classical and medieval philosophy to his reader because moderns have grossly and willfully mischaracterized it since the Enlightenment. And reintroduce he does—to the Pre-Socratic debate over change and permanence, to Plato’s synthesis of these concepts in his Theory of Forms, and to Aristotle’s thought on hylomorphism, act and potency, and his taxonomy of causes.
As valuable as this exposition is, it merely serves a context for Feser’s main argument. In the chapter, “Getting Medieval”, he outlines the classical arguments for God’s existence that Thomas Aquinas drew out of Aristotle’s metaphysics. Feser conclusively shows that the facile characterizations of these arguments from most modern thinkers do not do justice to their subtlety or truth. If you’ve ever found the “everything that exists must have a beginning…” argument tiresome, I suggest you read Fesers account of Aquinas’ actual argument.
Following his lengthy and excellent description of classical and medieval philosophy, Dr. Feser proceeds to explain how early modern intellectuals made a concerted effort to abandon the classical metaphysical account of reality out of political opposition to a powerful Church. Whether this was politically expedient or not is beside the point; Feser only hopes to show that it was not motivated by a rational refutation of Scholastic metaphysics. According to him, this was “the single greatest mistake ever made in the entire history of Western thought.” A bold claim, and one that I don’t feel qualified to adjudicate. Nevertheless, I am certainly glad that I read this book. The first two chapters alone are worth the purchase price as I now understand Aristotle and Aquinas’ arguments better by orders of magnitude.
If you have even a modicum of interest in philosophy or religion, or if you just enjoy confident, well-written polemic, give Feser a read.