A Brief History of Thought, A Review

By Chandler M. Donegan

Tertullian once famously asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” While Tertullian asked whether philosophy had any place in the theological task, philosophers have been asking the opposite question, “What hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In A Brief History of Thought, Luc Ferry, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris, offers his answer to this question through his definition of philosophy, tracing the history of philosophy, and offering a path forward through a “philosophical guide to living.” By summarizing and critiquing Ferry’s presentation of philosophical history and its implications, it is possible to learn three lessons that will strengthen the Church apologetically: the necessity of clarifying our gospel message in postmodernity, the importance of participating in Christian philosophy, and the opportunity to use the existential longings of the human heart in the pursuit of truth.

According to Ferry, philosophy consists of three dimensions: gaining a true understanding of the world (i.e. theoria), learning to co-exist with one another (i.e. ethics), and a pursuit to overcome “the fears sparked in us by our own finiteness” (i.e. salvation) (13). While many turn to religion for such a thing, Ferry argues that “salvation must proceed not from an Other,” but we must “get ourselves out of trouble by utilizing our own resources, by means of reason alone, with boldness and assurance” (10). To best understand how Ferry came to such a position, he takes his reader through a survey of philosophy’s three dimensions within the thought of the Greeks, Christianity, modernity, postmodernity, and contemporary philosophy.

At the epicenter of the Greek or Stoic understanding of the world is an innate harmony to creation that is discoverable by mankind. Therefore, Greek ethics call us “to act, situation-by-situation, moment-by-moment, in accordance with the harmonious order of things, so as to find our proper place, which each of us was assigned within the Universal” (31). While Ferry notes, that the theoria and ethical system of the Greeks is of immense value, he finds their story of salvation wanting, noting, “Stoicism tries valiantly to relieve us of the fears linked to death, but at the cost of obliterating our individual identity” by promising “a state of oneness with the cosmos” (52).

Ferry posits Christian thought as one of victory over Greek philosophy. While Ferry positions Christianity as anti-philosophy, depending upon divine revelation rather than human reason, he does admit that Christian thought and practice is of great historical relevance, particularly to how it relates to the Greek and modernity. First, while the Greek Stoics lauded the logos or order of creation, Christianity, most clearly in the Gospel of John, spoke of a personal Logos, the Son of God who took on flesh in Jesus Christ. Centering Christian thought on the life of Jesus, ethics is then removed as a responsibility of human reason alone but “trust in the word of a man, the Man-God, Christ” (63). Finally, the biggest contribution of Christian thought in Ferry’s portrayal of history is the promise of bodily resurrection and eternal, loving relationship with God and others. The end of this chapter is worth quoting at length. Ferry says, “The Christian response to mortality, for believers at least, is without question the most ‘effective’ of all responses: it would seem to be the only version of salvation that enables us not only to transcend the fear of death, but also to beat death itself” (90). Unfortunately, Ferry’s presuppositions do not allow him to accept such a form of salvation, choosing instead to view legacy of Christianity as the stepping stool to modern humanism.

If Greek and Christian theoria centered on the reception of cosmic order and divine revelation, respectively, Ferry understands modernity’s primary contribution to be a disenchanting of the world. Living in what they believed to be a world void beauty and goodness, humanists understood it to be their role to “introduce some order into a universe which seemed no longer to offer any of its own” (98). Interestingly, placing man at the center of the universe led humanism to prioritize human rights in pursuit of an ethical code. However, like Stoicism, Ferry finds modernity’s notion of salvation lacking. After all, while “the implementation of the rights of man makes possible a peaceful coexistence, these rights do not themselves give meaning or purpose or direction to human existence” (135).

For many who study modernity and its relationship to Christian thought, it quickly becomes evident that humanism largely sought to capture the human rights founded in theism while ditching any appeal to authority. “To postmodern eyes, and for Nietzsche above all, Enlightenment humanism remained prisoner of the underlying religious structures” (145). In response, postmodernism rejects any notion of external, objective value or truth, understanding all perspectives as merely interpretations. While many think this leads to postmodernism rejecting any sort of ethical code, Ferry notes that “Nietzsche mocks morality in the name of a different morality” (182). Nietzsche argues that the moral life is one lived where “the will…is not enfeebled by internal strife, guilt, and unresolved conflicts” (177). For the postmodern then, “the good life is that which succeeds in existing for the moment, without reference to past or future” (189). Ironically, while postmodernism accused humanism of relying on religious thought, its result sounds very similar to the Stoics.

As Ferry’s reader enters his final chapter, he chooses to close on a strange and eerie note. First, Ferry claims that due to the immense evil that has existed in the world throughout history, it is morally reprehensible to go back to any of the philosophies of old. However, Ferry is also uneasy with the idea of philosophy becoming relegated to a scholastic exercise, void of a pursuit of the good life. This pursuit of a good life inspires final reflections on materialism, transcendence, human rights, and salvation. Within each, Ferry admits that the Christian foundation for value judgments and hope of salvation deeply satisfy his existential longings, if only he found Christianity believable. Ferry’s posture toward Christianity within its respective chapter and his personal reflections at the end of the work provide the Christian with three apologetic lessons.

Though writers such as Ferry may critique and offer reflections on Christianity, we can never assume that they understand true, Christian thought and practice. Ferry himself admits that he finished much of his formal philosophical training in France without ever interacting with Christianity, and it shows forth in much of his explanations. For example, Ferry’s chapter on Christian thought refers to Jesus as a “single puny individual,” explains salvation in universal terms, and lacks any semblance of orthodox soteriology (61). While Ferry praises himself for seeking to “understand what we are opposing,” he ultimately builds a philosophical straw man. One of the lessons here is that within a post-Christian context, clarifying the gospel message is fundamental to the apologetic task.

Second, works such as A Brief History of Thought can discourage believers as our salvation is labeled as a blind faith of a bygone era. However, I believe this ought to have the opposite effect, reinforcing the importance of participating in Christian philosophy. C.S. Lewis once said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy must be answered.” One such example of bad philosophy is found in Ferry’s epistemological foundations in chapter one, “What is Philosophy?”, as he operates with the unfounded presupposition that true beliefs about the world, the good life, and salvation can originate in human reason alone. The Christian philosopher and apologist can push back on such an assumption, showcasing that Ferry too is guilty of operating on faith, and exemplify that a Christian pursuit of wisdom is willing and able to engage with all types of evidence in the pursuit of truth.

Finally, Ferry’s admittance that Christianity answers the deep existential longings that he has for salvation is a helpful reminder of the need for a retrieval of Augustinian apologetics. In Confessions, Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”. While Ferry often ends these reflections with his hands in the answer, exclaiming, “If only it were true!”, the Christian apologist can showcase how existential longing and religious experience can and should be used as evidence in the pursuit of truth.

Reflecting upon A Brief History of Thought, it is important to remember that Luc Ferry does not think or write in a vacuum. In fact, the opposite is true. Ferry’s thoughts, interpretations, and presuppositions have been passed down to others consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, these apologetic lessons ought to be learned and practiced in a postmodern culture longing for an enchanted world of truth and goodness. May we as Christ’s ambassadors be quick to clarify the gospel, engage in philosophical thought, and retrieve an Augustinian apologetic for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.


Luc Ferry. A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.

Published March 18, 2024

Chandler M. Donegan

Chandler serves as the College Minister at Faith Baptist Church in Youngsville, NC. He graduated in 2022 with an M.Div. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and in 2018 from Auburn University. He lives in Wake Forest with his wife, Mackenzie.