A superbly literate, wide-ranging survey of Western thought over two and a half millennia.
Gottlieb, executive editor of The Economist, is resolutely and refreshingly nonacademic; he announces at the outset that his aim is “to approach the story of philosophy as a journalist ought to: to rely only on primary sources, wherever they still existed; to question everything that had become conventional wisdom; and, above all, to try and explain it all as clearly as I could.” The result is an examination of philosophy as a species of news that stays newsworthy, and that makes useful distinctions not often voiced in standard surveys. (Why, Gottlieb asks, lump Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle together? The three were very different thinkers, and very different people.) For Gottlieb, the grand theme of ancient philosophy is its attempt to discover the true nature of things; his pre-Socratics are a wonderfully able, if sometimes eccentric, group of eminently practical thinkers who arrived at answers that, in outline, still hold true today, while his Plato is a far less dreamy figure than he has been made out to be—one whose ideal Republic, ruled by a philosopher-king, is a self-evident fiction, “a subject for reflection and argument” rather than a realizable ideal. Thank goodness: only a mad scientist could love the Republic’s eugenic ideals, and in any event, Gottlieb writes, given that “most actual philosophers are not particularly virtuous or else are totally useless,” it is wholly unlikely that such a government could ever rise. Gottlieb charts the transformation of philosophical thought in the Middle Ages not as a means of discovering the truth about the world and humankind, but “as above all a guide to life and a source of comfort.” He gives medieval philosophy a scant hundred pages, but given its comparative aridity measured against Greek and Roman contributions, that seems about right.
Anecdotal and sometimes breezy, yet carefully argued, Gottlieb’s narrative rescues philosophy from the dusty textbooks.