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.

Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision by Pierre Hadot

Plotinus has popped up a few times recently in my current reading (and listening).  He was a bit part of The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant that I posted on, underpinning much of the introspective shift in culture in third century Rome.  He was portrayed as instrumental in the intellectual development of Augustine in Robin Lane Fox’s superb biography Conversions to Confessions.  And I have been thoroughly enjoying Peter Adamson’s podcast The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), in which his work also plays a major role.

However, through all that, I found Plotinus hard to pin down.  There is a big element of mysticism in his philosophy and it is difficult to tell how to take it, and how his contemporary and successors would have received it.  Pierre Hadot‘s short book is a great introduction to the man (what little we know of him) and his work.  In particular, Hadot manages to portray Plotinus as a teacher who was offering a spiritual way of life.

Basing his work on that of Plato and Aristotle, the pagan Plotinus developed ideas that would soon find their way into early Christianity.  His spiritual exercises and warnings against too much focus on earthly matters seems distant, but Hadot also shows a man who was grounded enough to join Gordian‘s invasion of Persia (in an attempt to learn more Eastern philosophy), teach lively classes with a wide range of influential students (there was even talk of the emperor Gallienus letting him start a Platonic city!), and show great kindness and awareness of those around him.

Hadot’s enthusiasm and admiration for Plotinus’ (and his student Porphyry’s) writing shines through, and although the book is a mere hundred pages I finished it with a lot more appreciation for the culture that surrounded these neo-Platonic thinkers.