I was a bit cautious in picking this up – Mary Beard is great on TV, interviews and in the other books I’ve read; but a 500 page general history of Rome … I’m no academic, but I’ve read a bit. Would I be beyond this? Thankfully no! The familiar narrative comes up, but the greater part of the book (in both senses) has Beard questioning our knowledge and interpretation of Rome.
The narrative sections are fine: it’s not quite the storytelling flow of Tom Holland, but that’s not Beard’s style. She is chatty and opinionated, but constantly keen to present other sides of the story, other “ways of seeing” to use a phrase that came up in her recent series Civilizations.
The story begins with the founding of Rome and ends with Caracalla, just before the crisis of the third century – possibly beyond the high point, but before the decline really hits. Is the book about the unstoppable rise of Rome and the associated imperial conquests? Not exactly. Mary Beard would see their conquests as brutal, but of their time. She would see its rise as impressive, but not inevitable.
In the end, she doesn’t look for lessons in Rome: what they did right (and they did plenty) or what they did wrong (and they did plenty of that too). She just looks for a humanity, a real human experience that connects their world to ours; and as far as can be done, she succeeds in bringing it to life.
Unlike his 2000 volume, Dream of Reason, I don’t have an easy reference for this book. Peter Adamson‘s Without Any Gaps podcast hasn’t got this far yet. AC Grayling’s Age of Genius was structured and focused differently. That’s not to say I’m completely unfamiliar or it’s a completely novel arrangement; but other reviews suggest that this is part of an ongoing debate – defending the value and relevance of older philosophers. Along with this he goes about some mythbusting – showing the commonality between different camps of the enlightenment (although many would disagree, both now and then).
As with his first volume, Gottlieb sees most of these thinkers as rational (at least in part); but he is at his best with the down to earth, practical reasoning of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. In comparison, the rather more abstract parts of Leibniz or Spinoza feel … well, a bit abstract. Gottlieb seems more comfortable putting them in their social and political situations than he does on their actual writing. Talking of social and political situations – the chapter of Voltaire and Rousseau feels like nothing but that – but Gottlieb seems happy to present them as bickering socialites in the wake of greater thinkers.
Gottlieb presents, chapter by chapter, biographies of a number of the major figures of the enlightenment from Descartes to Hume. The writing is accessible and well judged with a mix of biography, philosophy and occasional dry wit. The topics that run through the enlightenment run through the book: reason, geometry and of course religion. Gottlieb feels more generous than Grayling on the final regard (not too hard). In fact, he seems to have genuine affection for each of these philosophers throughout the book. It’s a solid and well balanced introduction to the context around enlightenment and some of the better known thinkers.
Subtitled A History of Philosophy From The Greeks To The Renaissance. In terms of the range and the content, I guess this was what I should have expected: a history of the western canon skimming quickly past the periods and regions of marginal interest (ie. medieval times and the Arabic world). This is fine but I did enjoy Peter Adamson‘s Without Any Gaps podcast where he has been filling in the detail skipped by more conventional histories (like this).
For the majority of the book Gottlieb looks at the Pre-socratic philosophers, then the trio of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He gives biographical details (where he can) and brief introductions to their thought. It is a short book and these introductions don’t necessarily have the most depth, but I think he strikes a good balance of accessibility and not watering down the ideas to absurdity. He’s clear, concise and often very enjoyable to read. Later thinkers from the Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic get useful but less involved treatment, but afterwards the book feels patchy. The likes of Augustine, Boethius, Plotinus, Aquinas, Bacon feel more like a tacked on epilogue.
With all this speed and selectivity (going somewhere that may become apparent in the rest of the planned trilogy), some topics and styles are dealt with better than others. The most vivid parts of the book are with the reasoned but aphoristic pre-socratics; the least with perhaps the more mystical elements. It’s a solid introduction – certainly not complete in who it covers, and occasionally how (George Steiner in the Observer complained about a lack of analysis into why this sort of thinking developed). It feels like Gottlieb would rather show how an idea or way of thinking is useful (even abstractly) – regularly connecting philosophy to other topics – and it feels like his coverage is weighted because of this.
In my last post, I said I had been listening to two new podcasts this month. The first was Slow Burn by Slate. The second is a show called The Fall of Rome by a podcaster called Patrick Wyman – who went into sports journalism after finishing a history PhD, but still provides a state of the art view of the end of the Western Roman empire (whatever form that may take). I’ve read plenty on Rome, what makes this different?
Well, Wyman is able to approach the topic on multiple levels, from multiple angles: not just the political fall of the empire and its military causes that went along with it, but the economic and social processes that went along with it. He’s well versed in the unresolved debates and discussions that go along with the topic – were the barbarians ethnically unified peoples or mixed bands of soldiers under particular leaders; what exactly did it mean when these armies settled? Going higher, what do we even mean by the Fall of Rome? Wyman’s own PhD topic was to show a decline in transport and communication, by showing a decline in the frequency of letters that would have been sent via travellers. And that is the level of detail that he can delve into. His grasp of the material feels reassuringly secure, but he’s open about having own take on some of the topic’s controversies.
He does make these ideas accessible through fictional biographies of invented characters – describing how these processes and changes would have appeared to those who were living through them. Some of these changes would have been gradual, but others (Britain in particular) had a short, sharp decline. I’ve tried reading various views on this area of Late Antiquity – Peter Heather, Chris Wickham, Bryan Ward-Perkins – but seeing the ideas compared and contrasted directly, Wyman presents a very plausible story. In podcasts, Mike Duncan is still probably the best narrative start to this topic but Patrick Wyman is definitely essential for anyone who wants a more detailed analytical approach to the end of Rome.
This month, I have been mostly listening to two new podcasts for me. The first of these is Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate.com exploring aspects of the Watergate scandal. There’s an open political agenda here – comparing the slow drip of sleazy stories from the Nixon White House to the abundance of stories coming from the Trump administration. There’s nothing killer, no knockout against Trump (yet); but maybe this is what a scandal unfolding looks like.
In the days immediately after the Watergate break in, there were bizarre and disturbing stories in the news, with Martha Mitchell the wife of the Attorney General being tranquillised and imprisoned by hired goons; cheques from the break in being linked with republican donations. Then came investigations, some stymied by Nixon. Then the oval office tapes became known. The information is interesting, and not necessarily in the main narrative of Watergate as it is told. Sometimes it would be nicer to have the main narrative before spinning off on a tangent, but it should be a fresh take for even those familiar with the story.
Direct comparisons to the events surrounding Trump are made, and the many figures in the current Republican party are involved enough to not come across well. It does steer clear of commenting too deeply however – largely limiting its analysis to presenting both governments as having a similar tendency towards chaos and sleaze. We can’t say that Trump is going to end like Nixon, but if he was this is probably what it would look like from the sidelines.
Season two will be on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Not as interesting a topic for me, but Leon Neyfakh did delve into some of the unfounded conspiracy theories (mostly by Mae Brussell) on Nixon – so I have no doubt that he can do similar for Clinton. The podcast is smooth and professionally produced, and I’m definitely happy to get more of it.
Unlike Volume 1, with its focus on Plato, I’m a bit less familiar with the material here – largely Hegel and Marx – so it can be a bit hard to know how to take Popper when he goes off on one. As ever, he’s a very convincing writer but often drifts into his own take on things. Hegel, he doesn’t like at all – taking a view from Schopenhauer for much of it. Popper dismisses him as a charlatan and a fraud deliberately prophesying whatever his employer Prussia wanted. We get a bit on Aristotle too (he doesn’t much like him either).
The book improves as the author starts to tackle Marx – he doesn’t necessarily agree with him but he seems to respect the talent with which he deals with the material and the dire social situation that spurred him to do his writing. He picks out some of the flaws in Marx’s work rather skilfully – the inability to factor in that democracy and compromise could dilute capitalism and improve life for the workers.
Where Marx like the others seemed to get caught in the predictions of his model, Popper finds a core of rationalism. At other points though, Popper deals with issues that seem somewhat tangential or nitpicking – Marx as anti-psychologism in sociology, his views on materialism. It’s clear that the criticisms often aren’t of Marxism as such as it became, but of the actual philosophy of Marx and this means that they occasionally feel like a contribution to an argument that no one else cares about.
Towards the end of the book Popper gets back to his familiar topic of historicism, rationalism and reason: constantly pushing for a middle ground and for the role of liberal democracy in improving a world without a plan or destiny. It’s an enjoyable, if very uneven read.