Friday, 10 July 2009

Books That Have Shaped My Life

OK. Enough of cricket and politics, let's move on to less ephemeral matters: 'Books that have Shaped my Life'.

I. A History of Philosophy by Frederick Copleston.

Rather strange that my first choice should be by a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit to boot! But, as anyone who has read these works - and for present purposes I am treating the nine volumes as one "Book" - will know, this is the best history of philosophy available in English. These volumes were originally written in the 1950s to provide Roman Catholic seminarians with a deeper introduction to Western philosophy than was hitherto available to them, but I'm sure their impact has been felt far outside the seminary lecture halls. Looking back, it was by sheer good fortune (or was it mysterious providence?) that I came across the cheap little paperback editions of Copleston in a bookshop (no, I did not own the handsome blue-cloth bound set pictured, but they're on my wish-list).

At the time I read them I was in my early twenties and although I had worked as a clerk after leaving school I found myself retrenched due to the recession of the early 1980s, when unemployment levels in my age group were over 30%. Thus it was that, with time on my hands, I became interested in philosophical questions: God, Man, Life, Death, Origins of the Universe, The Trustworthiness of Our Sense Perceptions (little did I realise then where this path would lead me!).

I suppose this was my "university education" (no-one in my family had ever gone to university, lower middle-class sons needed scholarships to do so in those days) and like many students I began to spend more on books than on food, only in my case out of interest and not necessity. And yes, I was living in a...well, not exactly a garret, but certainly not the finest of inner-city accomodation (before such areas became trendy and gentrified), which I shared with a mate* who had a job but liked to spend most of his wage on going out to the pub, thus leaving me in quietness most of the time to read. I well remember often getting up after reading for hours and becoming light-headed, due, I suppose, to a lack of food - all I remember eating was jam on bread, which I toasted on a bar-heater, and cups of sweet tea, with the occasional evening meal of "spag bol" or tins of greasy "Irish stew" and "Braised Steak" which I now shudder to even contemplate.

Of course, my mind was much more agile then than it is now, some twenty-five years later, and I dare say I have forgotten much of what I read. But at the time reading Copleston's history on the sugar high provided by jam and tea was almost as exciting as reading Tolstoy's 'War & Peace' (which I also read around the same time, along with most of Dostoevsky's novels, Knut Hamsun's 'Hunger' - appropriate, yes?!- and the poetry of T S Eliot); it was to embark upon an intellectual adventure in the company of some of the greatest minds ever to have graced the earth with their presence.

Behold, an exciting thing happened as I progressed through each volume (and yes, as I recall, I did buy them in order each fortnight as my dole cheque arrived, and I did read them all)...I began to find the Christian philosophers to be the most interesting and compelling, especially Augustine, whom Coplestone treats as a philosopher, although I would place him in the more vital category of "thinker".
I wasn't actually reading philosophy, to be sure, and I have usually found the writings of philosophers themselves to be extremely tedious, but I certainly was thinking philosophically about my own life, the world around me and the possibility of the existence of God along with the implciations for my life, as a result of reading Copleston.
Somewhere in my secondary school years, between the ages of 14-15, I had lost my childhood faith (or so I thought, now I sometimes wonder whether the dim embers of that faith were ever entirely extinguished). After Copleston, I had not yet begun to be Christian again or to consider myself such, but I had a new respect for Christianity and even the church as a result of my newly-awakened interest in Christian thought, and especially in Augustine.

Thus, through the writing of Fr Copleston, my mind and life began to be shaped by the great Christian tradition, especially the Augustinian tradition, albeit presented by a Thomist.

Thank you, Fr Copleston.

*mate = British English slang for a friend, a "buddy" in American terms.

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