Rene Descartes
Rene Descartes

     Normally French philosophers are like modern art and modern poetry.  Perpetrators of those arts behave as if the fewer people who can comprehend what in God's name they are saying, the righter they must be.  Not so in the case of Rene Descartes.  He never quite freed himself of the murky Middle Ages, but he did write the phrase that defines the end of those dark times: "I think, therefore I am."  If anybody knows a line of philosophy, it is this one.  Few books have  influenced my thinking as much as his Meditations, but the book definitely has two parts.  Part One dismantles all claims to knowledge.  Then he says that there is one thing he does know with certainty: I exist, as in "I think, therefore I am."  He was lucid and persuasive that far. 
    In Part Two, he does a pirouette and marches straight back into the fog.  He's Arnold Schwarzenegger, stripping and hog tying you before dropping you off in the middle of the desert and driving away in his black Hummer.  Descartes probably intended to clear the clutter of questions thoughtful people everywhere were asking by 1620.  In fact he created a logical tunnel through which people have been fleeing the obscurity of the Middle Ages ever since.  You end up hog tied, naked, without water somewhere out in the desert with sand thrown in your face by Arnold's Hummer, but it is a vast improvement over Augustine and Aquinas.  Meditations wouldn't be one of five books I would have on a deserted island, but it would be one of a hundred books I would have on the island.  The clarity of his thinking is a delight.

Loren Eiseley
Loren Eiseley

    Loren Eiseley was the first big mind to sling me into a different orbit.  I am only one degree away from him.  He was an acquaintance of my Uncle Jimmy when they taught at the University of Pennsylvania simultaneously.  People are surprised to hear that they have never heard of Eiseley when they also learn that the only person more decorated with honors at that University was Benjamin Franklin.  Few teachers have had his preparation.  During the Great Depression, Eiseley was a tramp.  He rode the rails and he traveled across the prairie on foot and on horseback.
    Some people say that he is a refutation of Darwin, but Eiseley would be amused by that description.  Only the kind of nincompoop who says that science and the search for meaning in life are mutually exclusive would say that out loud.  If Eiseley proposed to do anything it was to make sense out of the evolution of humankind in the natural world.  He said that he was a lot less concerned about what kind of monkey we evolved from than the kind of monkey we were evolving into.  After reading him, again and again, I am more aware of the essential weirdness of life.  He once described a person as a mud puddle that stood up and walked away.  He affirms my mysticism, but not my religiosity.  I discover again how miraculous is the organism I am and how clueless I am, despite my big brain.