Sparkles of Ideas: A Wonderful Sight

[an introduction to Conversations With Great Thinkers]

by Professor Fu Peirong
Department of Philosophy
Taiwan University

Goethe said, “My friends, knowledge has the color of gray, but the tree of life has the color of ever-green.” When the professors in academia discuss just knowledge, they oftentimes make people feel sleepy. Yet, the source of knowledge lies in life: Life is lively, full of changes, and people always want more of it. If we can have the two — life and knowledge — go hand in hand, we can see the two enhance each other. However, what we usually see is the separation of the two, not the unification of the two.

Every now and then, there would be someone who called out loud to us, “Go back to life!” so that we can be reminded not to be too wrapped up in knowledge itself. People who are familiar with Western Philosophy can memorize a list of names, from Socrates to Heidegger. This list of names has brought them more pressure than happiness and more puzzlement than understanding. Why? Because it was taught in the traditional way, emphasizing knowledge instead of life. We value tradition, but we can’t at the same time neglect the deep yearning to go back to life.

To put it more specifically: When there is a person who talks about what philosophy is and declares that philosophy teaches people how to live and insists that Montaigne revives the tradition of ancient philosophy, what does he mean? Does he want to overthrow the accepted list of philosophers? If you follow his thinking, you can conclude that Emerson and Thoreau carried on Montaigne’s tradition and were philosophers in the true meaning of the word; Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were the leading philosophers of modern times; so far no one has surpassed Nietzsche ... If there is a person who makes this declaration, your eyes might be wide open, and you might be ready to listen to him more. This person is the author of this book, Mr. Han Zhe (the Chinese name of Mr. Lewis James Hammond). This book’s title is Conversations with Great Thinkers: The Classics for People Too Busy To Read Them. This book doesn’t aim at discussing western philosophy systematically. It’s a book full of the author’s reading notes, ideas, and insights.

To finish reading a book like this, you might need only half a day. However, if you want to grasp the meanings of all the ideas in it, you might not be able to do it in even half a year. As for the materials that the author quotes, taking only the chapter on literature, it’ll probably take us foreign readers more than ten years to master this material. Fortunately, the author’s goal is to help us “go back to life”. Therefore, we don’t need to worry about reading this book as we read textbooks.

Those of us who are familiar with Montaigne’s works might all be impressed with his ideas, his thinking, his eloquence, and his arguments. His writings are full of quotes from great thinkers, yet he doesn’t make readers feel he is showing off and he doesn’t bore readers. However, if you really live your life according to what he says, I’m afraid you might run into many problems. One can appreciate literature in one’s own way, but one must live one’s life without neglecting the current trend and fashion. Zhuang Zi’s words, “Change the outer layer, but no change in the inner layer” means exactly the same.

Mr. Han Zhe’s book not only has the style of Montaigne’s, it also has the following three characteristics:

  1. It has a high standpoint. Mr. Han Zhe seldom talks about his personal life. He discusses his views on world affairs, such as his idea that the most popular world-views in the West are Christianity, humanitarianism, materialism, and environmentalism; his view that there are four kinds of cultural decline: psychological, spiritual, environmental, and biological; and his view that Chinese landscape painting falls into four categories: Impressive Landscape, Appreciated Landscape, Plain Landscape and Quotation Landscape. These ideas definitely need to be discussed further, yet they make you interested while reading.
  2. It covers a wide spectrum and it’s organized well. The topics of his discussion include philosophy, psychology, literature, genius, ethics, religion, education, politics, language, life- and death-instincts, and decadence and renaissance. It touches on almost all topics in the humanities. It’s worth a careful reading.
  3. It takes a philosophical perspective. Mr. Han Zhe says, “the philosopher often has a deeper understanding of the particular branches of the humanities than those who specialize in them.” These words probably sound unpleasant to those who don’t have a background in philosophy. However, when you finish reading his criticism of academics, you’ll understand that philosophy, for him, means “wisdom of life,” which should be, and can be, possessed by all.

Mr. Han Zhe graduated from the department of philosophy [this is a mistake], Harvard University. His knowledge of the humanities is definitely rich. What’s more valuable is his courage in going beyond the academic framework, his intention of going back to life, and his effort to connect life and knowledge. His earnest conversations with great thinkers are successful and have helped us, his readers, to benefit from them. Whether we agree with him or not in all areas, we will all enjoy reading his book. It’s another proof that to see the sparkles of ideas is a wonderful thing.