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Adventures in Ideas. (Books).

Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Phiosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001. 468pp. $27.95 (cloth).

In The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb has delivered a history of philosophy that is actually enjoyable to read. The book has at least two noteworthy predecessors: Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy and Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy are its equals in wittiness, clarity, and stylistic elegance. Unfortunately, Durant's and Russell's volumes are notoriously unreliable. Durant, for example, passes over the entire corpus of medieval philosophy in a paragraph, dismissing it as part of the general "darkness" that enveloped Europe which did not lift until the dawn of the Renaissance. (Relegating St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention Maimonides and Avicenna, to something less than a footnote is a blunder too big to be a mere mistake.) And Russell's biases toward British empiricism led him to paint verbal pictures of philosophers he did not care for -- Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, William James - that were at best caricatures and at worst calumnies. The Dream of Reason does not have these flaws: with one slight exception, Gottlieb is as fair as he is comprehensive. He has his opinions, and makes them known (as any interesting historian must), but throughout he strives to let his subject-matter speak through his pen or word-processor, and the result is intellectual history that reads like a novel, a rollicking adventure of ideas.

Gottlieb, who is not an academic philosopher but a journalist (former executive editor of the Economist), organizes his history into three parts: pre-Socratic philosophy; the canonical figures of Greek thought (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle), and philosophy from the Hellenistic period to the Renaissance. One of the virtues of the book is that pre-Socratic philosophy takes up a full third of its pages. Philosophy from Thales to the Sophists is often presented as little more than a forethought to the more substantial contributions of Plato and Aristotle. Gottlieb does not fall prey to this temptation: he understands the contribution of the pre-Socratics to be important in its own right, and not just as a preface to what is to come. He also takes pains not to patronize their sometimes outrageous speculations: while the debates about the arche or origin of all nature that raged between the Milesians, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the atomists seem to modern minds to be insufficiently methodical and empirical (and to postmodern minds as still too caught up in the illusions of metaphysics), one ought to commend them as having been the first to try to account for the nature of things by discursive thought, by logos, rather than by relying on story-telling tradition or mythos. Still, Gottlieb is not beyond taking a justifiably wry stand toward their doctrines as when he portrays Empedocles' teaching about the cosmic battle between Love and Strife as a weird "mixture of the physics of Stephen Hawking and the romantic novels of Barbara Cartland" (77).

Gottlieb's treatment of Socrates is respectful but not adulatory: while Socrates is indeed reason's martyr, he is not an infallible oracle, and some of his stubborn convictions (e.g., his belief that all wrongdoing is a function of ignorance) are questionable. His treatment of Plato and Aristotle is workmanlike without being either dry or dismissive: difficulties in their systems, such as the nature of the Forms in Plato and Aristotle's universal teleology, are cataloged and taken seriously but not presented as reasons for discarding their thinking outright. Indeed, Gottlieb takes pains to show that modern-day scientific contempt for Aristotle -- that is, that he supposedly had no use for controlled observation and experimental testing and therefore, to paraphrase Luther, was little more than the "buffoon" who held back scientific advances for over a millennium--is based on a shallow reading of both Aristotle's methodological treatises and his more substantive work in biology and psychology.

If one criticism can be made of Gottlieb's approach, it is the relatively short shrift that he gives to medieval thought in part three, compared to both Hellenistic Greek philosophy and early figures in the Renaissance. This is, I suppose, a function of Gottlieb's own philosophical temperament, which, like Russell's and Durant's, is secular in orientation: medieval philosophy, viewed from this point, tends to look like a distraction from the hard, grinding work of logos. Still, it is an error to present the quinquae viae of St. Thomas Aquinas as if it were the core of his thinking (392-93), rather than an ancillary concern. And it is misleading to present the "humanism" of the Renaissance as something utterly discontinuous with the theological humanism of the high Middle Ages, as if the modifier "theological" evacuated humanism of any meaningful content. Gottlieb is far more generous toward the Middle Ages than either Durant or Russell, but one would have wished he avoided their prejudices and viewed it as s omething more than an interregnum.

Still, these quibbles are minor. There are more comprehensive histories of western philosophy available (Frederick Copleston's three-volume A History of Philosophy remains unsurpassed), and others that manage to include eastern philosophy within their compass (David Cooper's World Philosophies is perhaps the best of these). But there is nothing that equals The Dream of Reason as a sure guide to Classical, Medieval, and early Modern philosophy for the beginner--or, for that matter, for the old hand at the discipline. Gottlieb has promised a second volume covering western philosophy from Descartes to the present: it is something to anticipate eagerly.

Michael J. Quirk teaches in the Adult Division at New School University and Hofstra University. He is working on a collection of essays entitled The Rule of Practice.
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Author:Quirk, Michael
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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