Rigorous and humble, admiring and dismissive—a clear and accessible introduction to philosophy’s first superstar.


Plato’s most influential text gets a going-over in the latest addition to Atlantic’s Books That Changed the World series.

Blackburn (Philosophy/Cambridge; Lust, 2004, etc.) summarizes the Greek philosopher’s principal arguments and considers their contemporary relevance. He begins by undercutting Alfred North Whitehead’s famous statement that all European philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, then moves to clarify the distinction between the “worldly” Aristotelian view and the “other-worldly” Platonic value system. These and other introductory matters (including some historical background) out of the way, the author launches into his exegesis, examining closely Plato’s views on might and right, on ruling elites, reason and passion, knowledge and belief. After a chapter on Republic’s best-known portion, the Myth of the Cave, Blackburn devotes his most compelling and significant pages to examining how three traditions have employed this famous allegory. Christians folded its ideas into their own theology and expelled Plato. Poets like Wordsworth and Shelley saw the allegory’s enormous metaphorical and spiritual richness. Mathematicians and scientists were perhaps those whom Plato had in mind all along, for Blackburn notes that they alone understand “the unchanging within the changing” that lies at the heart of the parable. The author reluctantly leaves the cave and looks at Plato’s “descending staircase” of political systems, with the philosopher-kings occupying the summit and absolute dictators lurking in the pits. Here and throughout Blackburn is forthright about his own political views. He repeatedly bashes Bush, Blair and neo-conservatives; he grieves that we are in the grip of a new oligarchy of the wealthy, who control the media and thus the ballot box. His final chapters deal with Plato’s silly dismissal of painters and poets and with the “charming, and poetic” Farewell Myth of Er.

Rigorous and humble, admiring and dismissive—a clear and accessible introduction to philosophy’s first superstar.

Pub Date: July 1, 2007

ISBN: 0-87113-957-X

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2007

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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 19, 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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