In 1804, the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling spelled out the problem.
There was a time when religion was kept separate from popular belief within mystery cults like a holy fire, sharing a common sanctuary with philosophy. The legends of antiquity name the earliest philosophers as the originators of these mystery cults, from which the most enlightened among the later philosophers, notably Plato, liked to educe their divine teachings. At that time philosophers still had the courage and the right to discuss the singly great themes, the only ones worthy of philosophizing and rising above common knowledge.
Later the once-secret mystery cults became public and contaminated with foreign elements from popular belief. In order to keep itself pure, philosophy retreated from religion and became, in contrast to it, esoteric. Religion, which against its originary nature had intermingled with the real, sought to become an outward power, and since it lost any momentum to reach the well of truth, it also sought to stifle any truth outside of itself.
Thus religion gradually dispossessed philosophy of those themes it had dealt with since antiquity, and philosophy found itself confined to that which had no value for reason.
On the other hand, the sublime teachings, claimed one-sidedly by religion for itself from the shared property of philosophy, lost their significance and, having been replanted to a completely different soil than the one they sprouted from, became altogether transformed.
This opposition resulted in a false accordance of philosophy with religion, one that arose from philosophers having lowered themselves to treat the origins of reason and ideas as concepts. This is exemplified by the dogmatism with which philosophy gained broad and considerable recognition while completely sacrificing its true character.
As this dogmatic knowledge was questioned more precisely and subjected to critique, it became evident that while it was applicable to objects of perception and finite things, it was only a bystander or, in fact, outright blind toward matters of reason. Because philosophy was acknowledged and accredited now more than ever as the only possible knowledge, the increasingly thorough self-awareness of its invalidity ran parallel to the rising value of its opposite, i.e., faith, so that ultimately all that is essentially philosophical in philosophy was given over completely to religion.
The situation has not improved since Schelling’s time. Nowadays, what passes for philosophy is mostly pseudo-intellectual word games and far-Left cultural critique. But that is all very far removed from the true meaning of philosophy.
The ancient Greek philosophia means love of wisdom. Note that “philosophy” is an action, not an object. Note also that the ancients spoke of loving wisdom; not merely searching for it, contemplating it, or collecting it in books.
The French scholar Pierre Hadot points out that for the ancients,
philosophy consists in the movement by which the individual transcends himself toward something which lies beyond him.
This is philosophy understood as a way of life; as ascesis and method. And this is why the distance between Plato and Buddha is far less than the distance between Plato and Derrida.
One need only glance at the titles in the Philosophy section of the bookstore, or peruse the list of courses at a University, to know that the split of which Schelling writes is a fact. Opinions differ as to just when it occurred. Martin Heidegger asserted that the West took a wrong turn some 2,500 years ago, just after Heraclitus and Parmenides. Others would look somewhere closer to the time of Descartes.
However, the spirit of true philosophy was undoubtedly alive in the Middle Ages, in the person of Dante Alighieri. In the Convivio, Dante notes that philosophy is “a loving exercise of wisdom,” and goes on to state that
the soul, when philosophizing, not only contemplates the truth itself; she also contemplates her own contemplation and its particular beauty, consciously reflecting on herself and loving herself on account of the beauty of her first gaze.
In Dante, the paths of bhakti and jnana are united, and the split between philosophy and religion of which Schelling writes is non-existent. His philosophy, religion, and poetry are all alive and vibrant, because they all stem from love. Love is the proper relation of man and Wisdom, because Wisdom is alive and dynamic, not some dead object.
For Dante, love is the key to the path, for love is the nature of God, and the love of divine qualities in worldly phenomena – love of wisdom, love of beauty – can be used to reach God.
Elsewhere in the Convivio, he notes the existence of
Intelligences who live in exile from their heavenly fatherland, who cannot philosophize, because in them love is entirely extinct, and, as has been explained, love is intrinsic to philosophizing.
Dante’s understanding of the nature of philosophy and the importance of love is perfectly in line with Plato. And yet, Dante had no access of any of Plato’s texts. Where did he learn this? Perhaps he had other sources, such as the teachings of the great Sufi Ibn Arabi, as some have asserted. Or, perhaps Dante is an example of what can be accomplished by one who seeks to re-discover and re-invigorate a seemingly lost tradition.