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Philosophy for Teens

By Diane Lockman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #101, 2011.

Easy ways for parents to give their children a head start toward language mastery
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Diane Lockman

“Mommy, why is the grass green?”
“Why do I have to share my toys, Daddy?”
“Granny, why is air invisible?”
Ifondly remember the sometimes maddening phase that my precious little toddler went through when her favorite question was “why?” She had this habit of asking question after question, and honestly, I often found myself stumped. Sometimes I’d tell her to go ask her daddy. At other times, when she had taxed my brain, I would ask my own defensive questions like, “Well…what do you think?” Shameful, I know, but this question usually bought a reprieve for a little while.
Toddlers are living witnesses to this universal truth declared by Aristotle in his Metaphysics:
“All men, by nature, desire to know.”
From the earliest age, we humans are on a quest for knowledge about how our world works and where we fit in the entire order. Who am I? What is the meaning of life? How should I live?
Thankfully the toddler phase of incessant “why” questions is brief, and acceptance of explained reality settles in until sometime around the late teen years when tradition is not enough. When your teen starts asking profound questions, it’s time for you to guide the conversation to a deeper level. The old response, “Well, what do you think?” is now critical as the teen defines, analyzes, and argues her own understanding about life’s biggest questions.
The word philosopher literally means “lover of wisdom.” In one sense, we are all philosophers because we want to know, and we have an inherent thirst for understanding. This thirst leads to questions: consequently, philosophy is an essential human activity. We start with a worldview or basic belief system. Then we make it our own by probing, searching, and taking nothing for granted. The act of asking questions about our inherited worldview results in a systematic, rational basis for understanding our beliefs.
Tackling meaningful ideas is central to a classical education, so why not make time in the high-school curriculum for a supervised excursion into Western philosophy? In two semesters, you could cover four giants of Western philosophical thought.
First Semester: Plato and Aristotle
Asking life’s big questions, and arguing them through, is the best way to arrive at a clear understanding of what we believe. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, understood this truth. In dozens of dialogues, classical Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 BC) recounts conversations in which Socrates guides his pupils to a deeper understanding of their own beliefs though leading questions. Perhaps Plato’s most famous idea is expressed in his cave analogy (The Republic) in which he argues that the invisible or shadow world is more real than the material world.
Plato’s dialogues are extremely easy to read and would be an excellent starting point for a formal introduction to philosophy. Look for a translation that structures the conversation like a drama, and assign reading parts as you would if you were reading a script for a play. If you can’t find a copy at the local library, Penguin Classics publishes very accessible versions of the last days of Socrates (known as The Apology) and The Republic. Socrates felt so strongly about the search for wisdom that he stated in his Apology, “An unexamined life is not worth living!” Start your joint quest for meaning with Plato and Socrates.
Although Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) spent nearly two decades as a student in Plato’s Academy, he came to the conclusion that the material world was primary to understanding the meaning of life. He is famous for an astounding breadth of scientific research, and it was Aristotle who devised the syllogism, which your students might have studied in a formal logic course. Prolific in thought and pen, Aristotle wrote about ethics, politics, biology, medicine, physics, metaphysics, and rhetoric.
Such an intellectual as Aristotle is difficult to read. So I would start with a basic survey text of Aristotle’s works then select original classics from which to read selections. Mortimer Adler’s survey, Aristotle for Everybody, is a great introduction to this philosopher’s framework for understanding the big questions of life. After explaining Aristotle’s thinking in layman’s language, Adler references the exact passages in the original writings of Aristotle so that you can read the real thing together. Oxford World Classics publishes exceptional translations of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, and Physics when you are ready to dive deeply into his thought.
For transcript purposes, call this course “Classical Philosophy” and give it 1/2 unit of credit. (One “Carnegie unit” = a full year of a high-school course.)
Second Semester: Augustine and Aquinas
The classical philosophers of the Greco-Roman world were pagan. Christians who had experienced the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus had a new understanding of truth; those who studied philosophy took the old and made it better. While the Roman Empire was crumbling, Christian leaders resuscitated the educational model of the classical world known as the seven liberal arts. They believed that the three roads of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and four roads of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) were desirable beyond themselves in that the roads, when mastered, were ways to the wisdom contained in the Word of God. From its beginning, medieval education sought to merge faith and reason as a way of living.
Early Church Father and Bishop of Hippo, Augustine (354–430 AD) was a teacher of classical philosophy and rhetoric before he became a Christian. Heavily influenced by Plato, Augustine modified the Platonic ideas after his conversion experience. One of the most profound thinkers in Western Christianity, Augustine is known for his writings on Logos, grace, just war, sin, and the Church. Although these texts are dense in terms of ideas and words, both his Confessions and The City of God are well worth the investment in read-aloud time, even if all you can manage is selected sections. My suggestion is that you take turns reading the text to each other so that you can stop after small segments and discuss what you have just encountered. Again, Penguin Classics publishes exceptional translations of both books.
Many of the original manuscripts of Aristotle were missing until the late Middle Ages, and when they were discovered, Christian philosophers were stricken by the analytical nature of his scientific thought. They worried that Aristotle’s reason left no room for faith. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 AD) is credited with welcoming the classical philosophy of Aristotle and demonstrating that it is indeed compatible with Christian faith. The Church was satisfied with his answers, but Aquinas is still causing a stir today. Much of contemporary atheistic philosophy is written in reaction to Aquinas’ development of politics, natural law, and ethics!
Aquinas wrote three commentaries on Aristotle, but they are difficult to find, so pick up a survey of his thought, such as the Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, for an excellent overview of his relationship to Aristotle. Aquinas’ landmark work, Summa Theologica, sums up his theology in 3000 pages. Skip the original, and look for a compilation of this classic: the Penguin version, Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, or Peter Kreeft’s book, A Shorter Summa. Again, read these books out loud to each other so that you can discuss the big ideas as you move through the text.
For your transcript, call this course “Christian Philosophy” and assign 1/2 unit of high-school credit.
Lovers of Wisdom
As attested by Aristotle, we all desire to know. Every one of us is already engaged in thinking about the biggest questions of life including:
  • Being (What is real? Is there a God? Who am I? What is the meaning of life?)
  • Knowledge (What do I know? How do I know it? What is true?)
  • Morality (What is good? What is right? What is wrong? How should I live?)
The truth of the matter is that whether you supervise your teens in the quest for knowledge or not, they are already asking the “why?” questions. You have an opportunity to walk alongside them by exploring Western philosophy together. Your investment of time and effort will pay off when they leave home and encounter false philosophies in pop culture and academic settings. The question for you is this: Will you demonstrate how to be a lover of wisdom and join them in the quest for knowledge? Rich rewards await those who explore the possibilities.
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