Frederik Nietzsche: My mother seemed to be channeling Nietzsche when she used to ask me “how can I fly like an eagle when I’m surrounded by turkeys?” or tell me “no, I’m not taking you shopping with me, I can get it done much faster if I do it alone.” The great German philosopher might have simply been ahead of his time, a critical thinker among the teeming masses for which critical thinking meant being critical, not thinking with a critical mindset. My number one takeaway from learning about Nietzsche is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve greatness as part of a group. To succeed requires turning away from group conventions and making decisions based on your own free will and personal judgment.
David Hume: It seems like the mainstream memory of Hume is his stance that we can never know anything for certain, and that we are nothing but a bundle of our previous perceptions. I don’t know why this is seen as such a negative attitude, honestly. I find the idea that we are the product of our experiences encouraging, not discouraging. If we have control over our personalities to that extent, we can self-program to become better people. If we have control over what our children can become, that is both scary (in the wrong hands) and exciting (in the right hands). Much like everything else, we have the ability to mold a better future, or blow the whole thing up. It’s up to us and our bundles of perceptions.
Voltaire: I am going to have to find time to read more of his work. He speaks to my own sense of the absurdity of human nature, and the innate perversity of human existence. In other words, if he was alive today he would probably be a stand-up comedian. My favorite Voltaire-isms are “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire” and “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Both roll off the tongue, are memorable, are funny/witty, and express a powerful sentiment as painlessly as hiding your blood pressure medicine inside a ball of cheese. People who can deliver high concepts with wit and humor are a rare breed, and we should always cherish them.
Socrates: I love watching YouTube videos of the old Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, especially the ones with Orson Wells on the dais. I remember him from my childhood; he was as famous for his weight as for his wit, and I never really appreciated his sense of humor. I would guess, without asking, that Kelsey Grammar modeled his Frasier Crane character after Wells; the voices are almost a perfect match. From everything I’ve read about Socrates, if he had lived in modern times I think he would remind us of Orson Wells, or Wells would remind us of Socrates. The whole absurd process in which he went from getting a compliment to drinking the poison smacks of the sort of pompous arrogance and stubborn hubris of Frasier Crane, perhaps ramped up a bit by the times Socrates lived in. Another historical figure who might have been Socratic to an extent was Ronald Hughes, the portly defense lawyer who was killed by the Manson family. His manner of speaking, his towering intellect balanced by his stained suits and abject poverty, and his combination of reckless naiveté and courtroom cynicism all seem very Socrates-like.
John Locke: Locke’s most enduring legacy in the United States is probably his work that influenced our Constitution, but his work within his own mind might have been more important to the rest of the world. Locke separated how our sensors take in data into categories, which (according to Locke) combined with our previous experiences to create our perceptions. His belief that our minds begin as blank slates seems to have fallen out of favor, but I don’t see any reason why this can’t still fit with the available data. More importantly, to me, is that Locke laid much of the groundwork for Hume and others who dealt, or still deal, with the concepts of perception and reality.