Anecdotal and sometimes breezy, yet carefully argued, Gottlieb’s narrative rescues philosophy from the dusty textbooks.



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.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2000

ISBN: 0-393-04951-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2000

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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