Philosophy occupies an important place in culture only when things seem to be falling apart—when cherished beliefs are threatened. At such times, intellectuals start to prophesy a new age. They reinterpret the past by reference to an imagined future, and offer suggestions about what should be preserved and what must be discarded. Those whose suggestions prove most influential win a place on the list of “great philosophers.”
For example, when prayer and priestcraft began to be viewed with suspicion, Plato and Aristotle suggested ways in which we might hold on to the idea that human beings, unlike the beasts that perish, have a special relation to the ruling powers of the universe. When Copernicus and Galileo erased the world-picture that had comforted Aquinas and Dante, Spinoza and Kant taught Europe how to replace love of God with love of Truth, and how to replace obedience to the divine will with moral purity. When the democratic revolutions and industrialization forced us to rethink the nature of the social bond, Marx and Mill stepped forward with some useful suggestions.
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