The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb
It’s well written and even humorous in spots; Gottlieb doesn’t stand in awe of classical philosophy as a subject or of classical writers because they’re classical. I’m not knowledgeable enough to know whether he treats them fairly. It made sense to me. I note that Amazon reviewers rate the book either 5 or 1 which means it’s probably a book worth looking at, certainly by non-specialists. I was least interested in the pre-Socratics though and most interested, modernist that I am, in the last chapter, called The Haven of Piety: From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. It was particularly interesting to see how increasingly western philosophy had to “accommodate itself” to Christianity. The themes were not all that different from controversies which have been raging ever since, no matter how often they were put to rest, like whether the world was created all at once by God or existed or evolved independently.
Two things this book reminded me of particularly. First that philosophy first embraced all learning and only later separated itself out into first philosophy and theology and later into literature and science and history and mathematics, etc. etc. It was particularly interesting to see the evolution of science out of what was called “natural philosophy” and to discover that pre-Socratic philosophers first came up with the “atomistic theory”—a crude hypothesis about the “tiny particles” that made up all matter. Secondly, it reminded me that in the period that we call the “Dark Ages” in Europe, much of the learning of the classical period was preserved and advanced by Arab scholars. It’s so easy to forget, in today’s focus on fundamental Islamist politics that glorious period of academic brilliance in the Arab world.