This month I have been mostly listening to Peter Adamson’s podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. I have posted on this before, when I first started, and Adamson was still on Greek thinkers. Since then the podcast has powered on, through the Islamic world, through Medieval Christendom (reaching the end of the 14th century recently, at episode 300). Side series covering India, the Byzantines and pre-colonial Africa are also ongoing.
I’m not up to date on all that. I listened to the show until the 12th century and then realised I had got lost about the universals and the forms of logic. This month I borrowed Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy from the library – the second volume on the Medieval stuff and I’ve been working through.
Kenny writes clearly with just enough conciseness and just enough general interest to get the basic concepts across. Adamson presents a lot of context and some difficult ideas through running jokes and analogies – Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers, his non-existent sister and a giraffe called Hiawatha all feature regularly. I won’t pretend to have mastered Aquinas, but I’ve enjoyed both of these anyway, and repeated listening after some extra-curricular reading seems to be the way forward.
Mike Duncan of Revolutions Podcast is doing another fundraiser (possibly more of a downsizing, as he moves house). As ever, I’m interested in the books he’s selling – largely to add to my own reading list, so I’ve reproduced them below. Check out his podcasts if somehow you haven’t, and if you are familiar with them, check out the extra episodes and some good t-shirts (I do like his “Livia did it” one).
- Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant
- On Revolution – Hannah Arendt
- The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli
- Leviathan – Thomas Hobbes
- Second Treatise of Government – John Locke
- Essential Rousseau – JJ Rousseau
- Birth of Tragedy – Nietzsche
- Beyond Good And Evil – Nietzsche
- Thus Sprach Zarathustra – Nietzsche
- Genealogy of Morals – Nietzsche
- Autobiography – John Stuart Mill
- On Liberty – John Stuart Mill
- Utilitarianism – Mill and Bentham
- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume
- Political Essays – David Hume
- Cambridge Companion to David Hume
- Surveys From Exile – Karl Marx
- Common Sense and Rights of Man – Thomas Paine
- Guerrilla Warface – Che Guevara
The English Civil War
- The Causes of the English Revolution – Lawrence Stone
- The Causes of the English Civil War – Conrad Russell
- Britain in Revolution – Austin Woolrych
- The Crisis of Parliaments – Conrad Russell
- History of the Great Rebellion – Earl of Clarendon
- Revolution, Riot and Rebellion – David Underdown
- The World Turned Upside Down – Christopher Hill
- The Century of Revolution – Christopher Hill
The American Revolution
- Rules of Civility – George Washington
- Washington – Ron Chernow
- A Defence of the Constitutions – John Adams
- The Federalist Papers
- The Americans – Daniel Boorstein
- American Scripture – Paulin Maier
- Paul Revere’s Ride – David Hackett Fischer
- The Birth of the Republic – Edmund Morgan
- The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – Bernard Bailyn
- Radicalism of the American Revolution – Gordon Wood
- The Unknown American Revolution – Gary Nash
- Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution – Arthur Schlesinger
- American Slavery, American Freedom – Edmund Morgan
- The Glorious Cause – Robert Middlekauff
The French Revolution
- Massacre at the Champs de Mars – David Andress
- Talleyrand – Duff Cooper
- The Longman Companion – Colin Jones
- The Peasantry in the French Revolution – PM Jones
- Twelve Who Ruled – RR Palmer
- The Sans-culottes – Albert Soboul
- The French Revolution and Human Rights – Lynn Hunt
- Becoming a Revolutionary – Timothy Tackett
- Reflections on the Revolution in France – Edmund Burke
- The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars – TCW Blanning
- Interpreting the French Revolution – Francois Furet
- The Coming of the French Revolution – Georges Lefebvre
- The Social Interpretation of the French Revolution – Alfred Cobban
- The King’s Trial – David Jordan
The Haitian Revolution
- Toussaint L’Ouverture – Jean-Bertrand Aristide
- The Haitian Revolution – David Geggus
- Slave Revolution in the Caribbean – Laurent Dubois and John Garrigus
- Haiti – Laurent Dubois
- Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue – John Garrigus
- You Are All Free – Jeremy Popkin
- Confronting Black Jacobins – Gerald Horne
- The Making of Haiti – Carolyn Fick
- Facing Racial Revolution – Jeremy Popkin
- The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon – Philippe Girard
- A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution – Jeremy Popkin
- Bolivar – Marie Arana
- The Spanish-American Revolutions – John Lynch
- Francisco de Miranda – Karen Racine
- For Glory and Bolivar: The Remarkable Life of Manuela Saenz – Pamela Murray
- Simon Bolivar – John Lynch
- Writings of Simon Bolivar
- Bolivar – JL Salcedo-Bastardo
- The United States and the Independence of Latin America – Arthur Whitaker
- The General in His Labyrinth – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Jose Antonia Paez – RB Cunninghame Graham
- Scipio Aemillianus – AE Astin
- The Civil War – Caesar
There’s also a baseball section, but I think that’s beyond my interests.
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.
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.
This was definitely a book to have read after Donald Kagan’s work on the Peloponnesian War. Popper attacks the ‘historicism’ and totalitarian elements within Plato’s work. This involves a certain amount of biographical speculation about the Greek philosopher and his teacher Socrates. We know that there was a struggle between the populist democrats and the exclusive aristocrats in Athens (as in many other Greek cities), and that Plato had an aristocratic background and many aristocratic connections. For Popper, Plato over the course of his career changed from the democratic, compassionate views that he had learned from Socrates back to the aristocratic authoritarianism he was brought up in, and brought in some lessons from Sparta with it.
For Popper the philosopher king that Plato proposes in the Republic is a method to arrest change and promote stability at any cost, to establish and keep a hierarchical system that Plato sees himself at the top of. In seeing history as a constant process of decline from an earlier, better, tribal society, he tries to reconstruct that society and reverse the course of history. I’m still to read part two, but as Popper presents it this does seem to mirror the historical theories of Marxism and Nazism (history as a process of racial decline).
It’s not even handed – it’s not meant to be. Popper wrote this during the war, when he was in little mood for compromise. If you are willing to go with some of his assumptions about Plato’s motivations, this is a compelling book. But despite any regrets he may have had on tone, the core idea of the book is interesting. The same ideas and criticism have come up elsewhere in my recent reading but not quite with the same focus and force (Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism; Black Mass by John Gray targeting modern neo-liberals). Karl Popper is a very good writer, you just have to beware of being swept along by his polemic and missing some of the holes in it.
The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods. As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“. Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.
In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction. For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer. Inevitably the gods win. It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.
Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief. In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.
Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!). Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians. The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.
This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself. Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized. It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.
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.
I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion. Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era. His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.
The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag. The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time). The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over. This all comes to make sense later.
The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion. He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation. In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.
This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point. Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe. Was this the true peak of the Roman empire? Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point. Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.
Marcus Aurelius has a reputation as a great emperor, if not one of the best. He studied philosophy, ruled temperately and was fairly successful in his wars (mostly fought in self defence). He was the last of the “five good emperors”, with the Roman Empire at its greatest extent. However things were not that simple, and both Marcus and the Empire were not without flaws (some of them pretty major). This 2009 biography by Frank McLynn attempts to paint a more complete portrait of Marcus and his legacy.
This is a therefore a book with a lot of side tracks and dead ends. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to really weigh up a man like Marcus Aurelius we need that background. He was a “good” emperor just as the Empire started to collapse; he was a philosopher whose meditations can read like an inconsistent self-help book; he was a wise leader or a terrible judge of character. The detail goes towards building a better picture of who Marcus Aurelius was (or at least who Frank McLynn thinks he was).
Continue reading Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn