If like me the subject of philosophy interests you, then for an overview look no farther than the Story of Philosophy. But be advised: the book is really the story of Western philosophy produced by men over the last 2,500 years. It is also authored by a man, Will Durant, though he may have had the help of his sometimes co-author wife, Ariel. A woman's touch, so there.
And what was the nature of the first and oldest philosophy? "The most characteristic and fertile Greek philosophy came courtesy of the Sophists, travelling teachers of Wisdom," among whom was Protagoras, who lived in the 5th century before Christ.
These philosophers occupied themselves with the questions of questions - what is the best life? what is life's supreme good? what is virtue? shall we find happiness and fulfillment? And they looked within upon their own thought and nature, rather than out upon the world of things. Little did the Greeks know that what for them were new questions and methods had been explored for thousands of years before them by Oriental mystics.
Stoic philosophy was introduced into Athens by the Phoenician merchant Zeno in 310 BC, and it was one of a numerous Oriental infiltrations that would influence not only Socrates but the minds that came after, men like Schopenhauer and Spinoza and Santayana. For example, the Epicurean's ataraxia, or act of "looking on all things with a mind at peace," is Oriental in nature. And the Stoic's counsel to "seek not to have things happen as you choose them, but rather choose that they should happen as they do; and you shall live prosperously" led to the Christian ideal of a brotherhood of man.
Years later these teachings found their way into the philosophy of English thinker Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who accepted the Epicurean ethic. "Use not that you may not wish, wish not that you may not fear."
And the Orient possibly via the Greeks influenced the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), who posited that the object of philosophy was to perceive unity in diversity, mind in matter, and matter in mind. For this gentle soul, knowledge of the unity of all things was the intellectual equivalent of divine love. This man gave up everything for philosophy in the hope that he might "attain the faculty of enjoying throughout eternity continual supreme happiness." And for him that happiness lay in the union of the mind with the whole of nature.
"The mind of God is the mentality that is scattered over space and time, the diffused consciousness that animates the world," argued Spinoza, who endeavored to merge his own desires with the universal order of things, and thereby become an almost indistinguishable part of nature. In this merging of the self with the Self (Absolute) we find the echoes of ancient Oriental teachings, exemplified by the old Hindu poem: "Know in thyself and All one self-same soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole."
From here to the skittish and playful philosophy of Voltaire, critic and wit and author of many fanciful romances. Voltaire kept all of Europe in stitches during much of the 18th century, which ravaged by war was a very solemn time in Western history. Speaking through one of his characters, Voltaire saw the human species as "a parcel of insects devouring one another on a little atom of clay." Admit it, that makes you chuckle some. But Voltaire also sought a unifying principle by which all of European civilization might be woven, as if on one thread.
For the French mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650) - he of "I think therefore I am" fame - consciousness was primary. He believed (as did the Sophists and certainly those whose teachings they borrowed) that philosophy should begin with the self and travel outward.
And the German Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), author of the highly influential if absurdly abstruse Critique of Pure Reason, believed that in a way we feel but cannot prove, each of us is free, and though we cannot prove it, we feel we are deathless. Don't you?
And then on to Arthur Schopenhauer, the pessimist's pessimist, who endorsed the religions of the Buddhists and the Hindus, believing them to be deeper than the thoughts emerging from Europe, because (and here I quote the book's author) "their interpretation of the world was internal and intuitive, not external and intellectual; the intellect divides everything, intuition unites everything; the Hindus saw that the 'I' is a delusion; that the individual is merely phenomenal, and that the only reality is the Infinite One - 'That art thou.'"
For Schop, as I like to call him, "Whoever is able to say (All is One), with regard to every being with whom he comes in contact is certain of all virtue and blessedness, and is on the direct road to salvation."
And thenceforth to Herbert Spencer, the most brilliant English philosopher of the 19th century. This somber individual and prolific author believed that philosophy's proper function was to unify the results of science. He too speculated on ultimate reality, writing in his First Principles: "On watching our thoughts we see how impossible it is to get rid of the consciousness of an Actuality lying behind Appearances, and how from this impossibility results our indestructible belief in that Actuality." That Actuality is what is. That Actuality is the Hindu's "That."
Even Friedrich Nietzsche, in whom the serenity of the sage and the calm of the balanced mind never could unite, loved Schopenhauer, recognizing in his World as Will and Idea "a mirror in which I espied the world, life, and my own nature depicted with frightful grandeur." And though he often fell short, this eccentric little man endeavored to "not only bear up under every necessity, but to love it." Acceptance of what is. Try it sometime.
So we see that all these philosophies, spanning continents and centuries, stemmed from the Orient by way of Greece, and the mystic influence is alive and kicking to this day, for example in the work of George Santayana, a Spanish-born American philosopher of more recent origin who wrote:
"What is the part of wisdom? To dream with one eye open; to be detached from the world without being hostile to it; to welcome fugitive beauties and pity fugitive sufferings, without forgetting for a moment how fugitive they are."
Today, philosophy is a lost art. Alas, many have discarded it as useless in our fast-paced, results-driven world. But it may never be more necessary than in these times, dominated as they are by science, where breakthroughs occur with break-neck speed, and cutting-edge developments in the digital realm leave us racing to put the pieces together. It is easy to feel overwhelmed with uncoordinated facts. At least I do, any time I take a look at the literature. To use Durant's expression, "our minds are overwhelmed with science's breeding and multiplying into specialistic chaos for want of synthetic thought and a unifying philosophy."
In its purest form, philosophy is not different from science; properly used, it is the coordination and union of all sciences, with a view to the improvement of life on Earth. In the end all philosophers seem to unite around the view that nothing can be known, that reality can only be experienced. And so the union of East and West, and of specialists in varying fields, has come.