From the July/August, 2008 issue of Touchstone

Here We Are by Amanda Shaw

Here We Are

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? 23 Questions from Great Philosophers
by Leszek Kolakowski

Basic, 2007
(240 pages, $20.00, hardcover)

Reading the newspaper can be a demoralizing experience: explosions and elections, scandals and the stock market. Saturated with crises and politics, we might envy the Poles for the antidote of perennial philosophy they received in Leszek Kolakowski’s regular newspaper columns.

Now collected in the pocket-sized Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, each of the 23 columns pulls out a single revealing idea from a major philosopher, usually prefaced by a driving question. Kolakowski’s accessible and insightful reflections are not meant to give a catalogue of names and buzzwords but to prompt the reader to enter the conversation and grapple with the ideas for himself.

Deeper Truths

Kolakowski, senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and an intellectual leader in the war against communism, does not canonize any particular philosopher. Nor does he propose any grand thesis for the history of philosophy or any overarching curve of progress or regress.

A Marxist in his early years, until he visited Moscow and saw the reality of Stalinism, he has spent enough time with grand theses. In this book, he is simply—and profoundly—enjoying great thoughts and marveling at our human ability to wonder and ask Why?

“William of Ockham was a nominalist who wanted to shave away scholastic paraphernalia” is a canned description of that medieval philosopher. True enough, Kolakowski agrees in his essay “Do Ideas Exist?”, but he goes on to ask, Why should we care?

What happens if we embrace Ockham’s idea that there are no universal natures or abstract entities, except in the language we concoct? Is a Chopin piano concerto, for example, merely “a piece of paper covered with musical notation? Or is it, perhaps, an event that occurred in Chopin’s mind? Or is it every particular instance of its performance?”

Moreover, what happens to theology and ethics if we accept Ockham’s belief that one only knows universal truths through divine revelation? Is the Decalogue just God’s “arbitrary decree,” and does it make sense to say that his commands are “good in themselves, independently of being decreed by him?”

When there is no shared human nature and all knowledge stems from individual experience, man finds himself in a lonely, egoistical world. His experiences, whether of God’s word or Chopin’s concertos, are personal and isolated; morality is divorced from reason and thus exiled from the public square, while aesthetics and metaphysics are wiped out altogether.

Deeper Questions

Kolakowski uses this pattern throughout the book, ending each chapter with a few questions that draw out deeper truths or tensions in the philosopher’s ideas: “Should we really aspire to remain untroubled by death and suffering?”, Kolakowski wonders as Epictetus surrenders to fate; “Is it irrational to believe in God if we know there is no reliable evidence—evidence of a kind that could withstand scientific scrutiny—of his presence?”, he asks Anselm.

Confronting Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa with the findings of modern genetics, he boldly wonders if human equality is therefore foundationless. And, taking Nietzsche’s assertion that we “create the meaning of life for ourselves, regardless of traditional moral laws and inherited ideas of good and evil,” he logically asks how the greatness of criminals and that of artists differ.

Kolakowski does not give the answers to these deeper questions, and, as a philosopher himself, he is hard to pin down.

He takes no pains to hide his aversion to Augustine, harshly (and rather too strongly) linking the saint with the heretical Jansenists of the seventeenth century and condemning both with one blow. And he deems Thomas Aquinas, though once “one of the most powerful pillars of European philosophical culture,” “no longer a significant inspirational force or stimulus in philosophy outside Thomist circles.”

But all is not well with modernity either, where confusing rhetoric rivals confused logic: “Who can make sense out of these arguments,” he asks of gloomy Schopenhauer contemplating the pros and cons of suicide. “They defy understanding.” And of Nietzsche he writes that despite all his paeans to unfettered humanity, “one can sense . . . the incurable despair of a mind wounded by the discovery of the meaninglessness of existence.”

The Question of Everything

So why is there something rather than nothing? The provocative question traces back to the ancients, but they, with their impersonal, often ethereal concepts of Being and the Good, could not fully plumb their own questions. Yet in asking these questions, they initiated the Western project of rational enquiry and dialectic that Kolakowski so deftly continues in this book.

Socrates wanted “to coax truths out of their hiding place, where they lie ready to emerge into the light of day.” Thus, he engaged in the great moral labor of reason, believing that reason begets virtue and virtue begets human flourishing.

Philosophy, says Socrates’ student Plato, is the “art of learned conversation.” A welcome antidote to the newspaper world of politics and catastrophe, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? draws the reader into learned conversation with those who shaped the way we view ourselves, the world, and God. Like the greatest philosophers, Leszek Kolakowski asks more questions than he answers, and like the best teachers, he does not let his listeners rest silent.

Amanda Shaw is a graduate of the Catholic University of America, is a junior fellow at First Things (www.firstthings.com). She attends the Church of Our Savior in Manhattan.

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