Writing a history of more than 2,000 years of philosophy is no mean feat, and writing it in fewer than 500 pages of intelligent but graceful prose is more difficult still. Yet this is just what Anthony Gottlieb accomplishes in The Dream of Reason, which guides the reader from the earliest Greek philosophers to the pre-Cartesian Renaissance. Gottlieb's project is undeniably ambitious, and by necessity it is big-picture philosophy. But it is exactly this big-picture context that is often lamentably absent from other works of this sort. Gottlieb's skill at rendering historical context makes his account both unusually engaging and surprisingly illuminating.
Gottlieb is an admirable guide through the little-understood pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece, giving fair measure to philosophers who are too often simplified or lampooned. His account of Plato and Aristotle is good too, as is his treatment of the later Hellenistic schools, Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism. Gottlieb's treatment of medieval philosophy, particularly Thomist and Arabic philosophy, is lean, as the author chooses to focus more heavily on antiquity and the modern era (to be continued in a second volume), and the narrative history that bridges the two. Ever enthusiastic, Gottlieb's storytelling voice and character-driven approach make The Dream of Reason compelling reading. It is an ideal book for nonexperts interested in an appealing and informative history of philosophy as well as for students looking for a lucid and comprehensive account of premodern thinkers. --Eric de Place
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Histories of philosophy tend either to be prodigious, learned works, like F.C. Copleston's A History of Philosophy, or idiosyncratic tracts of scholarly obfuscation, like Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, and they often present their subject through narrow, ideological lenses. Gottlieb's elegant survey brings a breath of fresh air. Executive editor of The Economist, Gottlieb mines primary sources with a remarkably even hand. He demonstrates that, while cosmological questions dominated early philosophy, Plato and Aristotle investigated metaphysical, epistemological and ethical conundrums as well. He shows how the later Hellenistic schools, like the Epicureans and Stoics; medieval thinkers, such as Augustine and Aquinas; and Renaissance philosophers, including Machiavelli and Bacon, built their systems either on Plato or Aristotle. But Gottlieb's book is not just another plodding survey. His attention to cultural context provides insight into why various thinkers thought as they did about certain matters. Plato wrote his Republic, for example, because he detested the kind of democracy in fashion in Athens, and he wanted to return to the oligarchy of his childhood. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a distorted perspective, covering almost 1,000 years of history, from late antiquity to the Renaissance, in just under 100 pages, while giving more than that to early Greek philosophy, most of which consists of fragmentary sources. Thus, Hobbes and Machiavelli, who deserve their own chapters more than do Democritus or Empedocles, are allotted only a few brief paragraphs. Gottlieb also engages in some debatable readings: many find that Kant's theory of self-consciousness, for instance, leads not to relativism but to absolutism. Nonetheless, this eloquent book offers a lively chronicle of the evolution of Western philosophy.
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