Luc Ferry and Philosophy – Contemplating Life on the Aegean

Ferry and Philosophy Contemplating Life on the Aegean

Luc Ferry is one of the most widely read French philosophers. His book Learn to Live was a national bestseller in France for over 8 months.

His aim is to present the great philosophies as doctrines of salvation. He starts with the philosophies of ancient Greece, and then moves on to Christianity (which he treats as a religion that has displaced philosophy). He also outlines rationalism and post-enlightenment ideas.

Ancient Greek Philosophy

The Greeks had a love of knowledge and a passion to ask big questions. They were not content with superstitions and sought to understand the origin of life, the universe, and themselves.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato argued that philosophical thought should be applied to everyday life. He referred to it as “practical philosophy,” the kind of knowledge that will help people lead good lives. This was the reason that he developed the concept of the philosopher-king, with leaders who combine practical knowledge with an understanding of intellectual concepts.

Other ancient Greek philosophers argued that life should be based on principles like wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. They used stories (called fables) to convey these ideas to the common people.

Aesop, for example, tells us of a donkey who saved his owner from a dangerous situation. Aesop’s fables are a form of practical philosophy because they illustrate moral and ethical situations. These stories were designed to appeal to the Greek audience. Plotinus, in his Enneads, builds upon Plato’s metaphysical thinking, mainly his concept of the Good. He reworks these ideas into what comes close to a religious spiritual philosophy.


Stoicism was a philosophy for everyday life, centered on virtue (see eudaimonia). It developed a tripartite study of the mind that included ethics, physics and logic.

For the Stoics, matter and substance were a lump of passive principles that could be unified by quality, a portion of pneuma that organized the matter into particular objects. Then there was a cognitive interpretation of that object brought about by one’s memories, cultural upbringing and deliberative thinking. This was called apprehension, which could be distinguished from opinion and a step toward knowledge (see, for example, Menn 1999).

The physics of the Stoics is a moderate version of cynicism, with a universe permeated by an active principle and a network of causality. It also included the doctrine of eternal recurrence, with its implications for our understanding of time.

The Stoics developed a theory of morality that they called oikeiosis. This was based on their observation that creatures, like animals, naturally seek to preserve their own constitutions. The Stoics argued that this natural disposition supports the other-regarding demands of cosmopolitan justice.


In a time when most Anglophone intellectuals tend to hammer Christianity with a tone of anti-theism that borders on psychosis, Ferry confronts the faith with a touch of openness and even lament. While it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe, his respect for the Christian tradition and the idea of God as an ultimate foundation is evident.

He and Marion want to sacralize humanity and to enlarge secular philosophy with an idea of the Sacred. They desire a new mode of being, and a way of life, that’s based on a commitment to charity and the experience of impermanence.

Ferry’s pacing is a bit uneven in some places, but he’s able to avoid the pitfall of endless and unfocused speculation that marries so much modern philosophy. His book is a must-read for anyone interested in philosophy. It’s a readable, accessible guide to the ideas that have shaped civilization. He takes us from the stoics of ancient Greece to Nietzsche’s militant anti-Christian writings and deconstruction to the postmodern relativism that dominates contemporary philosophy. This book is a national bestseller in France.


One of the great challenges of philosophy is to distill its centuries-old wisdom into a book that’s both cogent and concise without being drained of vitality. Few have managed this task better than French philosopher Luc Ferry, who ably guides the reader through five eras of thought (Greek dominance, Christian middle-ages, Enlightenment humanism, existentialism, and postmodernism).

While there is plenty to admire in this book – especially the way it opens up the bottomless pit of philosophical ideas and helps newcomers navigate its tempestuous waters – I find two serious flaws with Ferry’s approach. First, he places all hope in humanity, which is irrational, and second, he overlooks Christianity’s offer of a real-world solution to the unanswerable problem of death.

Nonetheless, it is refreshing that Ferry spends a good deal of time wrestling with religion in its many forms and Christians in particular. After all, it’s impossible to understand developments in history, culture, and ethics without considering the influence of Jesus Christ. And while I agree that religious and secular philosophers both experience and think the Sacred, it is crucial to distinguish between these experiences and the ideas that they generate.

Post-Enlightenment Philosophy

Luc Ferry is not afraid to admit that the philosophies he studies do not answer the most fundamental question of our existence. This is refreshing to see from an author who claims to love philosophy. He also does not shy away from revealing his own spiritual quest in this book, even though it is a secular one.

The main thrust of Ferry’s book is to challenge the presumption that secular philosophy alone can provide answers to life’s most fundamental questions, such as the meaning of life and how we can deal with death. Although he does not single out religion in this context, he does criticize Christianity for its claim to salvation from death through faith in Jesus Christ.

He also criticizes postmodernist philosophers like Deleuze and Foucault for their nihilistic tendencies. However, he seems to have difficulty grasping the concept of transcendence. For example, he does not understand how a concept such as the humanization of the Sacred could work without the idea that the Sacred has been a projection of ideals on the world around us.