Let's Talk Books by Ian Fraser

All book reviews are essentially about ideas. Ideas develop over time; hence the history of ideas, which examines the ideas that influenced people and nations as they developed their cultures over the centuries. More broadly, the history of ideas relates how people and nations understand life and their place in the world. Michael McGirr presents an easy-to-read history of ideas in his survey of Western thought from Classical Greece to the twenty-first century.

Ian Fraser

Ideas to Save Your Life by Michael McGirr

Michael McGirr was well-known among readers of “Eureka Street”, as a consulting editor of that Jesuit magazine, when the magazine was in printed format and Michael was a Jesuit priest. Now he is well-known as a writer and reviewer. Ideas to save your life is his sixth book.

Reading this book, I was reminded of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, because both books cover Western philosophy from Classical Greece to today, and Sophie’s World was written for the author’s 14-year-old daughter while Michael wrote Ideas to save your life from his experience of teaching philosophy to secondary school students. The ‘back story’ in Sophie’s World to generate and maintain the reader’s interest was a detection challenge to identify who was providing the anonymous texts on philosophy which Sophie was finding around her house. Ideas to save your life has no back story, but plenty of McGirr’s humour to lighten the mental load of the history of philosophy.

In the Introduction, Michael tells us that “Philosophy is, metaphorically speaking, about finding the well in your village, the place from which your mind draws the water it needs to flourish.” His sparce, generally single-word, chapter headings introduce a theme which is representative of a particular philosopher. In some of the chapters, he writes about the philosopher’s thinking, his/her ideas; but often he only writes in general about the particular topic which is associated with that philosopher. And he doesn’t restrict himself to the better-known historical philosophers.

The first chapter, headed ‘Taken Aback’ with a sub-heading, ‘Philosophers of the Street’ features Anna who he met in a shelter when they were both homeless. “By the time she was living at The Way, she was working on a master’s that later became a doctorate in philosophy.” Arguing that philosophy is as old as humankind, he suggests that Mungo Man and Mungo Woman who lived 50,000 years ago in far western New South Wales “were carried through life and out of it by their communities. For them, philosophy was as much a shared task as was survival.”

Michael’s book is an antidote for anyone who is afraid that philosophy is a boring history of old men and their ideas. In the chapter headed ‘Creatures’, he recounts a conversation with his son about their pet dog, Pip. Pip loved digging holes to find hidden food. She would eat anything. Michael’s “son asked, ‘if Pip were immortal and lived for eternity, would she eat the entire universe?’ The answer was obviously yes. Eternity is a long time.” Michael’s daughter then asked, “if you ate yourself would you become twice the size or would you no longer exist?” Clearly, philosophy runs in the family.  

But why bother reading about philosophers of the past or even the present? The main practical reason is that it helps us to understand much of how we see life today. The opening of Michael’s Chapter 8, ‘Home’ illustrates this beautifully:
“Home building is one of the great tasks of philosophy. It helps us pitch a tent of ideas in which to shelter and find belonging. It is the nest from which we fly into the world and to which we return at night. There is plenty of fun to be had choosing the colours of cushions and drapes for our houses. We need to spend as much time choosing our mental furniture.”

Philosophy is not confined to classical Greece and Rome. Michael also presents comparatively modern philosophers, including philosophers of the ‘New World’. The American, Henry David Thoreau, was “an early observer of climate change and mourned the destruction of trees. … His masterpiece, Walden, is possibly the most popular book of philosophy from the United States. … The book is a love song to a pond and a forest, to solitude and thought. Its ideas of … simplicity have a lot to offer people in [today’s] congested cities …”

Having been a Jesuit priest for twenty years and a teacher of philosophy to secondary school children, Michael well understands the challenges thrown up by life. In the concluding chapter of this book, he summarises the value of philosophy for us all: “There is a gap between what something seems to be and its reality, a gap that often lets in darkness. Philosophy is about going beyond yourself to find light; it is about embracing thoughts that strangers had before you. It is the wisdom of insignificant people, the extraordinary ideas of ordinary folk...”

Ian Fraser