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The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought Hardcover – October, 1992

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Chapter 1



Influenced by a long tradition of religious symbolism in painting and poetry, our imagination responds to the word "angel" by picturing a winged figure robed in dazzling white and having the bodily aspect of a human being.

This image, common to believers and unbelievers, contains features which represent some of the elements of meaning in the abstract conception of angels as this is found in the writings of Jewish and Christian theologians and in related discussions by the philosophers. The human appearance suggests that angels, like men, are persons; that they are most essentially characterized by their intelligence. The wings suggest the function of angels -- their service as messengers from God to man. The aura of light which surrounds them signifies, according to established conventions of symbolism, the spirituality of angels. It suggests that to imagine angels with bodies is to use a pictorial metaphor.

Another interpretation might be put upon this aura of light if one considers the role which the notion of angel has played in the history of thought. Wherever that notion has entered into discussions of God and man, of matter, mind, and soul, or knowledge and love, and even of time, space, and motion, it has cast light upon these other topics. The illumination which has been and can be derived from the idea of angels as a special kind of being or nature is in no way affected by doubts or denials of their existence.

Whether such beings exist or not, the fact that they are conceivable has significance for theory and analysis. Those who do not believe in the existence -- or even the possible existence -- of utopias nevertheless regard them as fictions useful analytically in appraising accepted realities. What an ideal society would be like can be considered apart from the question of its existence; and, so considered, it functions as a hypothesis in political and economic thought. What sort of being an angel would be if one existed can likewise serve as a hypothesis in the examination of a wide variety of theoretical problems.

The idea of angels does in fact serve in precisely this way as an analytical tool. It sharpens our understanding of what man is, how his mind operates, what the soul is, what manner of existence and action anything would have apart from matter. Hence it suggests how matter and its motions in time and space determine the characteristics of corporeal existence. Pascal's remark -- that "man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute" -- points to the different conceptions of man which result from supposing him to be either angel or brute rather than neither. Such views of human nature, considered in the chapters on Animal and Man, cannot be fully explored without reference to theories of the human mind or soul in its relation to matter and to body. As the chapters on MIND and SOUL indicate, theories carrying the names of Plato and Descartes, which attribute to the human mind or soul the being and powers of a purely spiritual substance or entity, seem to place man in the company of the angels. In this tradition Locke applies the word "spirits" equally to human minds and to suprahuman intelligence.

It would be misleading to suppose that the idea of angels is primarily a construction of the philosophers -- a fiction invented for their analytical purposes; or that it is simply their conception of a supramundane reality, concerning the existence and nature of which they dispute. In the literature of western civilization, angels first appear by name or reference in the Old and the New Testaments. Readers of the Bible will remember many scenes in which an angel of the Lord performs the mission of acquainting man with God's will. Among the most memorable of such occasions are the visits of the angels to Abraham and Lot and the angelic ministry of Gabriel in the Annunciation to Mary.

In one book of the Bible, Tobias (Tobit, as it is called in the King James Apocrypha), one of the leading characters is the angel Raphael. Through most of the story he appears as a man, but at the end, after he has accomplished his mission, he reveals his identity. "I am the angel Raphael," he declares,

one of the seven, who stand before the Lord.

And when they had heard these things they were troubled; and being seized with fear they fell upon the ground on their face.

And the angel said to them: Peace be to you, Fear not.

For when I was with you, I was there by the will of God: bless ye him and sing praises to him.

I seemed to eat and to drink with you; but I use an invisible meat and drink, which cannot be seen by men.

It is time therefore that I return to him that sent me...

And when he had said these things, he was taken from their sight; and they could see him no more.

As a result of scriptural exegesis and commentary, the angels become a fundamental topic for Jewish theologians from Philo to Maimonides, and for such Christian theologians as Augustine, Scotus Erigena, Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, and Schleiermacher. They figure in the great poetry of the Judeo-Christian tradition -- in The Divine Comedy of Dante, in Paradise Lost of Milton, and in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Goethe's Faust.

The philosophers, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, are motivated by Scripture or provoked by theology to consider the existence, the nature, and the activity of angels. Hobbes, for example, attacks the supposition that angels are immaterial on the ground that the notion of incorporeal substance is self-contradictory and undertakes to reinterpret all the scriptural passages in which angels are described as spirits. After examining a great many, he says that "to mention all the places of the Old Testament where the name of Angel is found, would be too long. Therefore to comprehend them all at once, I say, there is no text in that part of the Old Testament, which the Church of England holdeth for Canonical, from which we can conclude, there is, or hath been created, any permanent thing (understood by the name of Spirit or Angel) that hath not quantity... and, in sum, which is not (taking Body for that which is somewhat or somewhere) Corporeal."

All the passages can be interpreted, Hobbes thinks, simply in the sense in which "angel" means "messenger" and "most often, a messenger of God," which signifies "anything that makes known his extra-ordinary presence." If, instead of existing only when they carry God's word to men, the angels are supposed to have permanent being, then they must be corporeal. As "in the resurrection men shall be permanent and not incorporeal," Hobbes writes, "so therefore also are the angels...To men that understand the signification of these words, substance and incorporeal" -- and mean by "incorporeal" having no body at all, not just a subtle body -- the words taken together "imply a contradiction." Hence Hobbes argues that to say "an angel, or spirit, is (in that sense) an incorporeal substance, is to say in effect that there is no angel or spirit at all. Considering therefore the signification of the word angel in the Old Testament, and the nature of dreams and visions that happen to men by the ordinary way of nature," Hobbes concludes that the angels are "nothing but supernatural apparitions of the fancy, raised by the special and extraordinary operation of God, thereby to make his presence and commandments known to mankind, and chiefly to his own people."

Locke seems to take the exactly opposite position. Asserting that we have "no clear or distinct idea of substance in general," he does not think spirits any less intelligible than bodies. "The idea of corporeal substance," he writes, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 1024 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan Pub Co (October 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0025005731
  • ISBN-13: 978-0025005730
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 7.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #501,952 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By D. S. Heersink on June 11, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have more than 2,000 books in my library, and I cherish none more than this great compendium of Western intellectual thought.
The book has 102 chapters, covering every imaginable topic under the sun: such as Justice, War, Peace, Liberty, Freedom, Sin, the World, Intellect, Knowledge, and dozens more. Each chapter is about five pages, two columns each, of dense thought expressed throughout the ages -- from Plato through James, from Homer through Tolstoy, from Copernicus through Einstein -- highlighting the best that ever has been imagined or thought.
The author synthesizes the great and important ideas arising over the eras, taking no sides, but expositing the different and divergent ideas these great thinkers committed to writing for posterity's benefit. It's like reading the whole library of the Great Books of Western Civilization in a thematic, rather than, serialized, manner.
I've grown accustomed to reading a chapter a day, and then rereading these chapters as ideas pop up in other contexts. In these chapters I find such disparate sages as Jane Austin, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Aquinas, Descartes, Aristotle, Darwin, and everyone else who has something to contribute. This tome is truly encyclopeadic and catholic in scope and reference.
If I had the time and the means, I would read these original sources for myself and develop a card catalogue of the massive resources for the mere pleasure of knowledge for its own sake. But as time doesn't permit such a rigorous endeavor, I find Adler's synthesis to be the next best thing.
This book will be a great resource for the whole family, especially adults and adolescents just beginning their studies.
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By A Customer on September 7, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Rare is the author who can synthesize 2,500+ years of Western thought so ably and intelligently as Adler does in this wonderful collection of essays on almost every conceivable topic under the sun. This, to my way of thinking, is genuine philosophy, the study of wisdom and the importance it makes. This is not Anglo-American analytic philosophy, although Mr. Adler is very competent within its stringent criteria, nor is this Continental European ideology, although Mr. Adler is quite familiar with its panoply. This is, instead, a collection of essays on the most important issues that have confronted human beings since the beginning of time. They are crisply and perspicaciously written, drawing on the philosophy and thought of the major thinkers over the horizon of history. It is more encyclopeadic than spontaneous, and provides a great place for every student, regardless of age, to begin his/her inquiry into a vast array of subject matters. It's also a treasury chest to return to time and again.
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Format: Hardcover
Of all Mortimer Adler's various works, this one must rank at the top. It is a dynamic but reverent exploration of the 102 most important ideas of the Western World. These works eventually ended up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica's GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. They have now been published separately, a fact that all who are interested in advancement and civilization must applaud.
The ideas are explored in a variety of ways - from what ancient, medieval and modern philosophers thought to a discussion of the history of the idea to its influence in the modern world. These are the building blocks of the foundations of Western civilization. Until recently, people who did not practice or recognize these ideas were considered "primitive". Only recently has there been a celebration from certain quarters of the uncivilized, uneducated and uncouth.
Adler makes several presumptions, the foremost among them being that humans are rational creatures and that philosophical ideas are what really drives the world, with language being an adjunct of ourselves. Many of these ideas concern how we consider ourselves and not only the world around us. Throughout, Adler adopts a neutral stance toward support of a particular opinion but this does not mean he is morally or ethically neutral.
This is a good reference book and an interest coffee table addition - sure to enlighten and enhance any conversation.
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In 1955 my sister sold me her unread set of Great Books of the Western World and I carried them around all the places I lived until I turned them over to my son about ten years ago. I missed having easy access to Mortimer J. Adler's astonishingly clear essays on the 101 "great ideas" that he had divided all human knowledge into, and that's where this one-volume edition comes in. Sometimes I just want to review a summary of what the great thinkers thought about something and I can thumb to the appropriate essay and wham, there is is an introduction to Love or Space or Democracy and I don't have to keep a shelf of 54 volumes of Great Books, most of which I won't be reading anyhow. So, I highly recommend Adler's "Lexicon of Western Thought," these 101 introductory essays that never cease to amaze me.
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The 102 Great Ideas are definite intellectual qualities that led to our current Western civilization's cultural mindset. From the many dozens of books that have been labeled 'the classics' have been culled 102 Great Ideas. Each idea is followed from the earliest of writers to modern times. Very fascinating book. A definite shoe-in for nomination for an only book to have on a desert island.
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