Dream of Enlightenment by Anthony Gottlieb

coverUnlike 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.

Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb

9780141983844Subtitled 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.