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Philosophy as a tin opener



I came to Ideas to Save your Life with some ambivalence. The table of contents lists twenty chapters, each dedicated to a philosopher or two. It was the philosophy in bulk that I felt ambivalent about. I was taught scholastic philosophy for three years. I derived some benefit from the discipline which offered a worldview on which Catholic theology could be built. I had no difficulty in believing that the comprehensive system we were taught was true and that those who differed from it were wrong. My problem was that I did not see that I would ever be able to persuade anyone outside the Scholastic club of its truth. Philosophy had given me lots of answers but no feel for the questions to which they might be an answer.

When teaching theology later I recognised that I was less interested in the logical consistency of different accounts of faith than in why people found them convincing. This had more to do to do with the way they imagined the world than with the force of discursive argument. Underlying all powerful philosophies and theologies lay a strong and compelling metaphor. In my case beyond the arguments and the metaphors lay the mystery of a world and of human life which, because they originate in love, are too big to understand but not too large to love. 

My ambivalence about professional philosophy came from my placing a high value on reason and its desire to test its own limits, but simultaneously being inherently suspicious of reasons. They are the stuff out of which the tin-soldiers of isms are created and so often used to patrol the fence that separates acceptable from unacceptable thought. Michael McGirr’s previous writing, however, inspired confidence. His natural instinct on finding a fence is always to find a gap through which to sneak, not to put barbed wire on top of it to prevent people from trespassing.

Ideas to Save Your Life focuses less on the reason-giving of the philosophers on whose work it draws than on the questions that feed their thinking and the metaphors that underlie its structure. Their questions are not asked out of curiosity but are existential questions that trouble and excite them. They arise from exigent experience of their people’s lives and world. Although their reasoning in response to these questions about the good life may be cool and abstract, the urgency of their enquiry and its implications for other human beings is high.

In this kind of enquiry philosophy is a dialogue in which people’s existential questions are met with similar questions. In each chapter McGirr begins with incidents and encounters in his own life that evoked these large questions. They include especially encounters with his secondary school students which raised large questions about the meaning of life. These stories then lead him to reflect on the way different philosophers respond to a related existential question. The philosophers are seen neither as authorities whose conclusions are automatically to be accepted nor as adversaries whose appointed fate is to be routed by a true philosophy, but as fellow walkers, strugglers, meaning seekers whose ideas are partial but are worthy of respect. The humorous and passionate style of the book expresses this sense of being fallible companions in a shared enterprise.


'The life that McGirr commends is one that risks insecurity, is sensitive to one’s fragility and fallibility, compassionate to other human beings, and full of wonder at a beautiful and death-marked world. The natural response to such a world is one of gratitude.'


The range of philosophers mentioned is a tribute to McGirr’s reading and human sympathy. Although they include accepted landmarks in the history of philosophy like Plato, Aristotle and Wittgenstein, they omit many of the system makers like Aquinas, Hume, Kant and Hegel in favour of such relatively minor figures as Margaret Cavendish, Henry Thoreau, William James and Martha Nussbaum. I was delighted to see Canberra philosopher Frank Jackson represented in the collection.

McGirr is most engaging when introducing thinkers who in their lifetime were often dismissed as eccentric or subversive. Among them are Cavendish, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Simone Weil and Alan Turing. The oddities of their behaviour and the wildness of their language can conceal their seriousness in commending an understanding of human life that transcends self-satisfied blandness. The book endorses their quest.

McGirr draws on their questions and ideas when facing in his school community the refusal or inability to recognise the importance of large and troubling questions about life and its meaning.  For him, young people are short changed when they are encouraged to assume that a life measured by individual satisfaction, security, career, wealth and status is a good life. In his accompaniment of students in the classroom, in times of crisis and in their meetings with people who are homeless or in great poverty in Melbourne or in Africa McGirr, like Socrates in Athens, is clearly an extraordinary gift to any institution in which he teaches.

The book concludes with a bow to Descartes, a system maker denied a chapter to himself. Its final section is entitled, I Think, Therefore I Thank. The title does more than decorate the courtesy or duty to acknowledge people. The life that McGirr commends is one that risks insecurity, is sensitive to one’s fragility and fallibility, compassionate to other human beings, and full of wonder at a beautiful and death-marked world. The natural response to such a world is one of gratitude.

In my philosophical studies the most discussed topic was whether the proofs offered for the existence of God held water. The argument I find most persuasive is that God must exist because we need someone to thank. As a reason it is as full of holes as a much-loved woolly jumper in a nest of moths. But as a response of reason to an existential question it hangs lightly in the air where, I suspect, Michael McGirr would like his readers to stay as they read his book. 


Ideas to Save your Life can be purchased from Text Publishing.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Philosophy, MichaelMcGirr, Ideas, Theology, Ideas to save your life


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Existing comments

thank you so much Andy. I really appreciate your generosity!

Michael McGirr | 10 February 2022  

The French historian, Alain Besancon, once remarked that a hundred porn products from Hollywood did less harm to his country than a single French philosopher had done in the United States.
English professor Mark Baueriein agrees and blames French theorists for destroying the meaning of English literature: “It was nice to appreciate Shakespeare’s talents, but to believe that he had something revelatory to say about human nature was a little primitive.” Into the vacuum stepped Identity Politics which, “gave English a moral meaning that theory had undermined.”
The rejection of thousands of years of literature and philosophy from “dead white males” being Eurocentric, patriarchal and racist, would have shocked even Marx and Lenin who understood that great literature transcended any class context.
To the rescue, perhaps, comes a book: “Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation.” The author, Roosevelt Montas, migrated to the USA from the Dominican Republic. He rescued a volume of Plato’s “Crito” from a pile of trash, studied the famous Core Curriculum at Columbia University, fell in love with the classics, and now teaches them.

Ross Howard | 10 February 2022  
Show Responses

I always enjoy Ross' posts, firstly because they are 'well-read' and secondly because they perennially take a critical view of Andy's offer of a review. What I find a puzzle, however, is how he consistently manages to counter the message, in this case McGirr's gentle one, seconded by Andy's stunning precise and unfurling for the benefit of the casual reader. My questions then are: where do the French theorists enter the picture and why precisely, apart from Ross' world view stopping at 1900, does he so object to them? What's wrong with the view that English, or any other language for that matter, has moral meanings that change over time to reflect new nuances and cadences that have hitherto been unexplored? The Regius Professor of History, Richard Cobb, declared that the finest accolade he was ever paid was that he spoke and understood French like a Paris street. His French Revolutionary History 'from the underside' offers entirely new perspectives that others failed to address. Why cannot philosophy, like history, feature on a continuum, rather than be slotted, in the manner of Harold Bloom, into a canon, the status of which rests on a dismissal of all others? Ditto with theology?

Michael Furtado | 14 February 2022  

‘Why cannot philosophy….Ditto with theology?’

Sometimes, you, as Christian, can work back from an undeniable Christian propositions.

Abortion is wrong because if it wasn’t, you might not be here. Homosexual ‘marriage’ is wrong because a trophy child is forced to relinquish nurture within one of the two lines of its biological provenance. Divorce is wrong because canonical text says that a man leaves his father and mother to be one flesh with his wife. Divorce also imposes costs on third parties, the children. To say that Scripture is fluid of interpretation is to say it is not canonical (ie., it is not inspired by the Holy Spirit); to say that is wrong because if Scripture is made up by ancient humans, how is it rational for Christians to privilege it over other ancient texts when, in their secular affairs, they believe, with good cause, to consult all sources of knowledge?

We induce from factual situations where the logic is irrefutable to the principle that a philosophy can be a canon which subordinates or dismisses others.

roy chen yee | 14 February 2022  

Speaking from the underside and from the perspective of Cobden's street urchin (a position favoured by Jesus), who precisely is advocating all such wrongdoing? Name them or are you saying that those who are tempted, not just sexually but in all matters concerning the abuse of power, are not fit to be forgiven? Where might this position clergy who fail by these standards? And what about those who knew and kept silent?

Are you saying you've never tempted? If so, is it that your pulpiteering and judgment, as evident in these columns, actually help you cope?

Or is it that your's is a position of dank and dismal hopelessness, brought about by a rejection of St Thomas Aquinas's teaching that while the human person is prone to doing evil, God has made us good?

In his illustrious roman-a-clef, 'The House of the Seven Gables' (1851), the Salem novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, uses the history of his witch-hunting ancestors to illustrate the dark forces that drive the kind of unrelenting battle that you incessantly wage.

'What dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!' Your wrestle, pitifully, reveals you, Roy! I pray for you everyday.

Michael Furtado | 25 February 2022  

'I pray for you everyday.'

I'm sure that his priest (or archpriest or presbyter or hieromonk or whatever the position is called) tells Putin at every Sunday divine liturgy that he should pray for everybody every day and, seeing that praying for everybody is not that hard because it only takes a sentence, Putin does end up praying for you too, at least in the service of Orthodoxy as an integral part of Russian nationalism.

Of course, given that no prayer goes to waste, what you or Putin intend through your prayers, in fact what anyone intends through his or her prayers, and what God makes them do may be different.

Some prayers bless the person offering the prayer. Others shoot them in the foot.

roy chen yee | 27 February 2022  

My prayer is always intentional and when it comes to 'shooting', a violent metaphor that you often employ, its not your foot, nor even your head but your locked-up heart that God might be aiming for.

Michael Furtado | 23 March 2022  

MF, the article is titled “Philosophy as a tin opener.” Opening a tin might reveal a can of worms, which is what French theorists gave us according to Alain Besancon and Mark Baueriein whom I quoted.
“McGirr, like Socrates in Athens, is clearly an extraordinary gift” reminded me of a recent book (Rescuing Socrates) by a poor immigrant from the Dominican Republic who found Plato’s “Crito” in a rubbish heap, studied it, and found the classical philosophers immensely helpful to his life. One Marxist reviewer wrote that the Great Books, “Are a treasure that should be made available and accessible to working-class people everywhere.” (Jacobin Magazine) Marx would no doubt agree and would support efforts to make them accessible to working-class people—like scholarships from the Ramsay Centre perhaps.
Lenin observed how many on the Left were prone to childish nonsense, “An Infantile Disorder.” Observing today’s Wokeness—mathematics and classical music deemed racist, and eating meat labelled as “white supremist patriarchal…part of the neo-Nazi messaging”—he’d probably conclude Wokeness is “An Infantile Disorder” on steroids. He would certainly note how the Woke are supported by corporate capitalist interests, and he might look for philosophical reasons, post 1900, of course.

Ross Howard | 14 February 2022  

Ross, Curious that you quoted two French theorists to disparage other French theorists. And, it helps recording, especially in a Jesuit journal, that neo-Platonism has been condemned in its various forms by the Church since time immemorial.

Granted then that you are conservative and an admirer of Socrates, for there is much wisdom about self-knowledge, restraint and self-reflection in him, where does all this newly acquired propensity for quoting Marx and Marxists with approval come from, other than from a closet admirer? Or did the missus challenge you to delve into the internet?

Are you actually damning with faint praise, perhaps as a distraction from coping with the uncomfortable New Right burn on your neck, those whom you formerly misread?

Did you acquire the burn from fetishising the limited vocabulary of 'White-Trash, Trailer-Park grievance-talkers' of the kind that tragically cannot comprehend, let alone pronounce, even monosyllabic terms of Black Talk, such as 'Woke', and which comes from the patois of former slaves, whose liberty and equal rights seem constantly to flare your nostrils and put you at odds with the contemporary world of justice and peace?

What of the classical musicianship extraordinaire of Blacks like Anderson, Price, Battle and Norman?

Michael Furtado | 25 February 2022  

'His natural instinct on finding a fence is always to find a gap through which to sneak[, not to put barbed wire on top of it to prevent people from trespassing.'
I wonder what Michael McGirr would think of Robert Frost's unromantically provocative concluding line in his philosophical poem 'Mending Wall': "Good fences make good neighbours."?
I share Michael's conviction "Young People are short changed when they are encouraged to assume that a life measured by individual satisfaction, security, career, wealth and status is a good life" - and would, to borrow Ginger Meggs' question posed elsewhere recently in Eureka Street, ask in response to such a meagre calibration: "Is that all there is?"

John RD | 10 February 2022  
Show Responses

If I've understood John's question as well as Andy's encapsulation, I suppose the answer is that questions ARE the answer. Searching always and sometimes without success for that elusive Hole-in- the-Wall is what philosophy is ultimately about; not, as in the hermetically sealed system of scholasticism attributed to Aquinas, falsely as it happens, for he emphasises the contingency of history and context, and which discourages searching and, instead, promotes obedience, loyalty and a closed entelechy.

Thus Nussbaum, MacIntyre, Finnis, Grisez, Williams, Murdoch, Weil, Levinas, Buber, Darwell, Taylor, Hegel, Dworkin and even Nietzsche all owe their particular ideas and method to the 'open' discourse of Aquinas, who himself found quite a few 'holes' in Aristotle's 'wall'. (https://www.thetablet.co.uk/student-zone/ethics/natural-law/new-natural-law)

Could it be that it is this 'tin-opening' entelechy taught to his students, and which McGirr promotes as a faith educator, that perturbs John, I wonder?

Michael Furtado | 14 February 2022  

Michael Furtado labours under a misapprehension in saying that I regard Thomism as an "hermetically sealed system of scholasticism."
I'd have thought previous references by me to neo-Thomists such as Gilson and Maritain, as well as contemporary Thomists like Thomas White OP, the late Ralph McInerney, Josef Pieper, James Schall SJ and Paul Mankowski SJ, Edward Feser, John Haldane, Tracey Rowland, et al., should have been sufficient to manifest my recognition of the development of Thomist thought and its relevance to contemporary issues, not least slick word-play 'bytes' advanced as reason, such as "questions ARE the answer", that lack - or perhaps deliberately skirt - appreciation of language's power to articulate truth.
The pursuit of truth was the defining quest of Aquinas, who placed due store by the human capability of "verbum" and "verum" and the relationship between the two, as he did by the interrelationship between philosophy and theology and the systematic investigation of each and both.

John RD | 14 February 2022  

So how come, John, that nothing, say, of John Courtney Murray's scholastic openness to and sponsorship of Vatican II seems to inflect any of your theology, or is your knowledge of his work simply intended to oppose him?

Michael Furtado | 25 February 2022  

MF: The fact that I don't include John Courtney Murray SJ in my brief scholastic list is no reason to conclude that I don't recognize his contribution to the drafting of Vatican II's "Dignitatis Humanae". Nor should the fact that I disagree with you on most matters theological in our ES exchanges yield the conclusion that I oppose the teachings of the Council. I support the hermeneutic of continuity affirmation of Vatican II upheld by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
What I do oppose is justification of interpretations and reforms by vague appeal to "the spirit of Vatican II" and the neglect of due attention to the actual wording of Council documents and dismissal of this expectation as mere "semantics" and "nit-picking" and "fundamentalism".
In contrast to unlikely theological bedfellows Marcel Lefebvre and Charles Curran who claim "Dignitatis humanae" to be a repudiation of previous Catholic Church doctrine, my own opinion is that the "Declaration on Religious Liberty", is, in Newman's sense, developmental, in keeping with the explicit statement of the document itself and the view of another eminent scholastically trained theologian not included in my list, Avery Dulles SJ. (cf. First Things, "Religious Freedom: Innovation and Development", December 2001).

John RD | 28 February 2022  

To include Marcel LeFebvre and Charles Curran in the same sentence is surely to strive so hard for a neutrality that smacks of 'non-commitment' as to 'fall between two stools'; no?

Michael Furtado | 07 March 2022  

Great stuff, Andrew. A 'magnet' to buy the pages that have stirred you to share a bit of your own journey down the philosophical lane. Was it Les Murray that styled faith as a 'shy hope in the heart'. Church would have done much better with the Good News by exploring the 'shy' than promoting there was nothing to be 'shy about' . . . as one young man said to me once over a few beers: "Father, what p . . . . me off about the Catholic faith was it had an answer for everything".

Paul Goodland | 13 February 2022  

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