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First Published: Fri, May 23 2008. 11 59 PM IST

René Descartes is a seminal figure inWestern philosophy (Photo by: AFP)
René Descartes is a seminal figure inWestern philosophy (Photo by: AFP)
Updated: Fri, May 23 2008. 11 59 PM IST
Why is there something rather than nothing? | Lesek Kolakowski
Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is widely regarded as the greatest living historian of ideas: a man in whose mind is stored all the shifting and seething currents of the Western philosophical tradition, from Socrates to Heidegger. If his name is not as familiar to the general public as, say, that of John Rawls or Peter Singer, it is because many of his works are directed at the specialist rather than the non-specialist reader—for instance, his enormous three-volume study Main Currents of Marxism (1976-78) is still considered the definitive work on the subject.
René Descartes is a seminal figure inWestern philosophy (Photo by: AFP)
For this reason, Kolakowski’s new book of essays, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, may be his most accessible book yet. It offers a guided (though not simplified) tour of Western philosophy in a beautifully lucid and distilled style similar to that of Amartya Sen’s in his book The Argumentative Indian (which one might usefully think of as a companion volume to Kolakowski’s).
Kolakowski’s method in each essay is to first offer a survey of the ideas of a particular thinker—Plato, St Augustine, Epictetus, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Nietzsche—with regard to a subject that preoccupied that thinker (the existence of God, the nature of the state and political authority, the connection between individual perception and reality). There are many riches in these essays; many internal connections between the thought of one man and another (sadly, no women qualify), and also many external connections that will be made by the reader depending on his or her own world view.
For instance, Indian readers may find Plato’s theory of the state echoed by some of Chanakya’s thoughts on the subject. When Kolakowski writes of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that the main aim of his project was “to affirm destiny”—to insist that there was a divine plan and purpose for everything that happens, and to ask human beings to “let go” of matters they could not control—this seems very similar to the ideal of detachment and self-control advocated in the Bhagvad Gita. When we read that Parmenides’ quest was “to distinguish between what is, truly is, and what only seems to be”, we are reminded of the Hindu concept of maya, or the illusory world of the senses. One of the things that becomes apparent from Kolakowski’s survey is that, no matter what age and what tradition they belong to, human beings have often come up with similar answers to the same universal questions.
Why is there something rather than nothing ? Basic Books, 224 pages, $20 (around Rs780)
But Kolakowski’s work is not merely descriptive. Instead, engaging with his chosen figures in the same spirit in which they themselves thought about the world, he concludes his essays by asking questions that arise from the work of these great seekers and questioners. In one passage, seven successive sentences are questions. By asking questions without supplying answers, Kolakowski forces us to take the argument forward by ourselves: We are made party to the debate, instead of sitting outside like spectators.
And, by doing so, he also shows us something that the modern world—particularly Communist and theocratic states—has still not understood, that there is not one definitive answer to any question, but many possible answers, and it is the interplay and ferment of these competing answers, the freedom of speech and religious and political belief, that makes for the best societies. The act of questioning itself is often a perfectly valid answer.
Or, to put it another way, as Kolakowski writes in his essay on John Locke, “liberty, property, political equality, religious toleration and the people as the judge of the executive power” are all interconnected, and it was Locke’s genius to make all these connections that seem so self-evident to us today. Kolakowski succeeds in pulling off the primary aim of any historian: to bring the past back to life in all its colour and density, and to illumine the ways in which it is still a resource for dealing with the present.
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First Published: Fri, May 23 2008. 11 59 PM IST
More Topics: Philosophy | Socrates | Marxism | Amartya Sen | Plato |