Montague Brown had acquired a degree in English literature—and a somewhat negative, secondhand impression of philosophy—when his wife's Christmas gift of Plato's Collected Dialogues opened his eyes to a new world: “So this is philosophy—I love it!” An enthusiast ever since, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College and has taught it for more than 15 years at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire.
Now with his new book The One-Minute Philosopher, Brown hopes to put a broader audience in touch with the best philosophical thinking on life's key questions. Register correspondent Louise Perrotta recently spoke with him about the book, which springs out of his experience in the classroom and at home. Brown and his wife, Meeta, have four children: Aroostine (20), Graham (18), Louisa (16) and Kristina (13).
What inspired you to write The One-Minute Philosopher?
I teach college freshmen, and the issues that come up in class have made me aware that many young people don't have a grasp on making distinctions between things like authority and power, obedience and servility, lust and love, happiness and pleasure. Also, the same kinds of questions have come up in my family.
Being able to make distinctions like these is important because it can make the difference between happiness and misery. Fortunately, there are trustworthy philosophers—people like Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, but also like Plato, Aristotle and Cicero—whose thinking can guide people who don't have time and energy to devote themselves fully to philosophy. The One-Minute Philosopher presents some of these riches in a fairly simple format so that people can get started on making important distinctions and learn to think more clearly.
Montague Brown teaches logic to freshmen—no easy task
Your book presents 88 pairs of basic ideas that often get confused and treats each pair by comparing them on two facing pages. Why this format?
Most people are very busy and don't have the time to say, “I'll set next month aside to read Plato.” Also, I wanted a non-threatening approach that would help people realize that, although philosophy is a lifelong project, you can get a start on it pretty quickly. This book offers that, and also gives suggestions about further reading.
It took work to get each pair of ideas trimmed down to the most important points, balanced, and illustrated with quotations. But the result, I think, is a clear book that any adult or high school student can understand. Not that the ideas are puerile—they're just put simply.
I notice that you dedicated the book to your children.
That's because I learn so much from the things they say and ask about.
Raising children through the teen-age years, I've had to think about how to give clear explanations to tough questions like, “How do you know God exists?” Part of my answer to that one appears in the entry on “matter” (everything that can be measured) and “reality” (everything that is: meaning as well as matter).
Once the children grasp that some things they know are real—like thought, love and freedom of choice—are not part of the material world that can be explored and measured by science, they're more able to understand the idea of there being a God, a mysterious being beyond us who is the source of our freedom and the good things we have.
How would you suggest that parents use The One-Minute Philosopher?
If the children are older, you could have them read it, as I'm doing with my own children. They could go through it on their own, or you could read and discuss it together, one section at a time.
Of course, reading the book will help parents to clarify their own beliefs. It will get you thinking about key issues so that you're more able to talk about them clearly and convincingly as they come up.
For example, if you're discussing the day's headlines, it might be useful to pass along the distinction between the statesman, who uses power for the good of the people, and the demagogue, who manipulates people to gain power. Or if the subject is something like abortion, you'll appreciate a simple explanation of the difference between justice and law, as well as morality and custom.
Can you give some examples of how parents might use good philosophy to address specific problems—say, the child who won't go to Mass because it's “hypocritical.”
In the book I distinguish between hypocrisy and virtue—fake goodness of character versus the real thing. Virtuous people realize they're imperfect but make a sustained effort to do good for its own sake and to become better every day. Hypocrites are not serious about virtue but only pretend to be good for the sake of some personal advantage.
While it's clear that everyone is imperfect, most people don't go to church out of a desire to fool or manipulate others. Also, virtue isn't essentially about fulfilling obligations but about making yourself happier. You don't have to choose between being good and being happy.
What do you say to the daughter who wants to wear the tight, navel-baring tank top?
It's important to point out the distinction between love and lust. Everyone wants to be attractive, and there's nothing wrong with that. But you want to be attractive as a whole person, not just as a body. And if you wear that “super” tank top, you invite others to look at you as an object. That involves lust, which is the desire to take another person for oneself. Love, on the other hand, is for the totality of the other person and is expressed in giving oneself for another.
What if your child accuses you of being “judgmental” whenever you point out that certain behaviors are morally wrong?
The distinctions between judgment and prejudice, criticism and condemnation, and open-mindedness and indiscrimination are all relevant here. Basically, judgment and criticism represent an effort to understand and evaluate others’ ideas and actions. Their opposites entail devaluating or dismissing as worthless the people who hold those ideas, which is always wrong. “Hate the vice but love the person” is a fundamental principle of ethics.
Parents have a responsibility to make reasonable judgments and not indiscriminately accept or overlook what is bad. We have to let our kids know that certain behaviors and ideas are not fine. At the same time, we always have to make sure that we're not condemning the people involved.
Are children really open to philosophical explanations?
I think that kids really want to hear the ideas. They may object to some, but they want reasons for things and not just declarations. Neither does it comfort them to hear, “Well, it doesn't matter what you do. I'm okay, you're okay.”
Young people's minds are working. That may not always be obvious when you see them in their world of high school and music and friends. But they're thinking about things—trying to judge what friendship is, what's going to make them happy, what life is about. Their minds are engaged, and they need some fodder for thought. I wrote The One-Minute Philosopher to address that need, and I hope parents and kids will find it helpful.
It seems to me that anyone who learns to think about life a bit more than on the surface will find that the world, relationships and choices become deeply meaningful. So that's one important reason to make a start and pursue philosophy for yourself and your children: to be happy!