(The script of my speech as delivered in TEDxUTB in UTB organised by the TEDxUTB Club on the 16th March 2019 – TEDx Slide)
When people speak about philosophy today, they would either get confused or a response that will go more or less like this: Whattttt? I can’t blame them. I was like that too. This is probably today’s philosophy are only taught at the most abstract level. Some are just absent of any sort of enthusiasm or practical application to real life.
So what is philosophy anyway? Most importantly, why does it matter? Philosophy, to put it simply, is the love for knowledge. Philosophers or those who practise it are, therefore, lovers of knowledge. Al-Farabi said in his work the ‘Perfect State’, that the true philosopher will continue to learn knowledge until his/her last breath. Indeed when one stops learning, one is immediately disadvantaged. But the more you philosophise or to ask deep questions and to seek deep answers regardless of how difficult those subjects may be, and you find those answers, then you will contribute towards the advancement of your community and even society. I shall now give you six periods in our history to illustrate the importance of philosophy and how we can understand and use it in the 21st century.
It started in Athens more than two thousand years ago with an old man called Socrates. It was from him that Western philosophy started. It was from him the values and spirit of enlightenment and inquisition of knowledge were instituted into public life. Now, he was an eccentric and obnoxious old man. He kept asking questions after questions after questions to the people he meets. He would initiate dialogues with the experts or even youths on certain topics and basically tear their ideas apart. This naturally made a lot of people very uncomfortable. If he were alive today, you thought him as crazy; if you continue speaking with him, you may face an existential crisis. Unfortunately, in his days, he annoyed too many people in the wrong period of time, that he was sentenced to death by poison for “corrupting the youth”. His top student, Plato, was broken and now sought to crystalise the wisdom into his works. He ended up writing and immortalising down all the teachings of his teacher in the form of the dialogues, and he continued to promote them through his Academy, considered to be the world’s first university.
The second period was the Roman Era. It was here that greek knowledge spread to the republic. One of the principal actors responsible for this was Julius Caesar. He is more known today as a great conqueror. BUT he was also a great philosopher. He wrote the most beautiful Latin prose in his time. He even reformed the calendar. July is named after him! He was reputed to speak more than 20 languages. But his lasting legacy was the popularisation and the establishment of the public libraries across Rome, modelling them after the libraries of Alexandria and Athens. Within these libraries are the works of Socrates and other Greek philosophers. Their works were transmitted and popularised to the Roman aristocracy and even the public. As a result, Rome was able to continually evolve. Philosophy is not just reading books, but to learn the art of applying them. They build great coliseums, aqueducts, legal laws, literature, art and many more. Rome grew and grew mightily into a great civilisation. But Rome eventually fell to the barbarians several hundred years later and Europe descended into the Dark Ages. The papers scrolls or knowledge were lost and forgotten.
The third period saw a new power which rose in the middle east. That power was Islam. The contributions to the world can be debatable but between the 8th to 13th century, it saw the dawn and rise of a golden age of science and knowledge. It started from Al-Farabi, arguably. He was a scholar who successfully encouraged the caliphate at the time – Harun Al-Rashid – to invest heavily in translating the works of the Greeks and Romans into Arabic. Al-Farabi said that as much as this knowledge belongs to the Greeks/Romans, and so too it belongs to us. Knowledge is universal and is the divine gift from God. The caliphate was so enthusiastic in his response he later built the biggest library in the world, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. What are the effects of this period? 1. Without their successful efforts, much of the old knowledge would have been lost. 2. As philosophy flourished, many philosophers renowned for their intellect were produced in that era, be from Baghdad (modern-day Iraq) to Cordoba (modern-day Spain). Examples of people who were born during this period include Avveros, Ibn Khaldun, Alghazali, Maimonides, Ibn Battuta, Avennici – many of whom are influenced by the Greeks. But something happened in the 13th century. The Mongols came and completely sacked the city and the library. One can argue that this tragic event pushed back human progress for several hundred years.
But, somehow the works of Socrates continue to survive after the fall of Baghdad and they were works that were then retranslated from Arabic to the Latin script by the clergies and scholars in the cities of Europe. Somehow the knowledge became concentrated in a beautiful city called Florence. Located in Italy, it was ruled by the powerful Medici Family. It was through their patronage and their love of scholarship that saw the reemergence of philosophy that ushered the European continent into what is now known as the Renaissance period, the fourth period I now like to mention. And as philosophy grew, so too the arts, the music, and the literature. The Florentine era gave birth to many renowned philosophers, such as Leonard Da Vinci, Raphael, Machiavelli, and Michaelangelo. But as do their works gain renown, the works of Socrates, Plato and Persian/Arabic philosophers began to be transmitted throughout Europe in various languages such as French, German and English. The invention of the Gutenberg press have necessarily accelerated the knowledge sharing throughout Europe, thus further intensifying the European renaissance and which subsequently evolved into the Enlightenment period, which I will skip due to time constraints.
The fifth period was in the 20th century. One particular person I like to note is quite well-known among you all. His name is Albert Einstein. Far from being just a mathematician and physicist, he was the true embodiment of a philosopher. He asks questions and produced a hypothesis that is beyond the comprehension of any normal human mind. Much of his theories on the galaxy, black hole, e=mc2 still hold true today. He was like the Greek philosopher two thousand years ago who successfully calculated the circumference of the earth and was believed to calculated the distance of the sun and earth. It was from the basis of Einstein’s ideas that the world owes so much in human progress. He was a thinker who seeks to improve humanity through his ideas and works. He, in turn, has inspired thousand if not millions of people to unlock the mysteries of the world through science. While he was the face of science, there were others much like him. These include Marrie Currie, Friedrich Hayek, Bernard Russel, Richard Feynman and many more. Whether we realise it or not, we owe so much to these scientists/thinkers (including Albert Einstein) to experience the privilege we are living and experiencing here today.
The final period I like to speak today is NOW and that philosopher can be you. Steven Pinker highlights that importance of being scientific in this age. It is not enough nowadays to say to a person that they should do X just because Mr Malik said so. You have to provide evidence, methodologies, reasoning and sound conclusions to the problems you are solving. And you know what, that drives human progress and leads us to make better, informed decisions. And IF you have identified patterns from the different periods I have mentioned thus far, it is that philosophy and philosophers can do a whole lot of good in advancing societies across time and space, to borrow my professor’s words namely Prof Amin.
So, be a philosopher: Ask questions like Socrates. Do not be afraid of asking the hard questions, say in physics or biology, to fulfil your thirst for knowledge. Be magnanimous like Caesar in sharing knowledge either by donating good books to your local libraries or even better make libraries someday. Knowledge is also universal, as Al-Farabi mentioned. No one has a monopoly on it. And therefore we should adopt changes to our society’s needs like what the Persian-Arabs did. We see the effects of thinkers and artisans like Learned Da Vinci who can create beautiful things in Florence who continue to inspire millions of people today. Finally, be an inspirational figure like Einstein, who can inspire others to join in the efforts to unlock the mysteries of the world and beyond through your research. In practical terms, you can start today by reading Plato’s Georgias – it is a great short book.
To end, let me quote two advise by two great men. First is Brunei’s greatest Sultan and that is Sultan Bolkiah the 5th, a remarkable man who inspires Bruneians to this date. He said to his people, go abroad, study, come back, incorporate what is good and take out what is bad in order to build Brunei. Then there is Socrates who said, an unexamined lived is not worth living. Let us, therefore, philosophies. Today as scholars and tomorrow as a builder of a better society in the 21st century.
Here’s a video you can watch to understand philosophy better: