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 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2007

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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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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.


New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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