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Classical Thought (History Of Western Philosophy Series) (A History of Western Philosophy) Paperback – 17 Dec 1987
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an exciting, and rigorous, introduction to the subject which is a delight (Greece and Rome)
a fine volume, a coherent history of Classical thought (Polis)
About the Author
Terence Irwin is Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University
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Once Irwin gets to Plato, however, he finds it impossible to keep up this broader view of "thought", and we get straightforward chapters on Plato, Aristotle, Epicureans, Stoics, and Plotinus (a commendable inclusion!). Indeed, 32 pages on Plato and 26 pages on Aristotle does not allow for much more than a sort of encyclopedia article, and thus one is moved to speculate as to the sort of general public who is going to get much enlightenment out of this. Irwin is the two other important books on Plato and Aristotle, and he is well in the forefront of scholarship on both these philosophers, so that it must have been a sort of torment for him to confine himself to basics. But he has done that, and the result is something very sound and unexceptionable, if bland. The chapters which follow, on the Epicureans and the Stoics, are of a similar nature, though he has good discussions of Epicurean hedonism and of Stoic determinism. Following on these, he offers fully 15 pages on Plotinus, a most commendable effort in a work of this kind, and a token, perhaps, of the somewhat recent increased interest in Plotinus manifesting itself among classical philosophers. Irwin's survey of Plotinus's thought is sympathetic and well-informed, though at one point (p. 192) he seems confused as between the non-discursive thought proper to Intellect, and to thinking about Intellect, and the properly super noetic "touching" which relates to the One.
Irwin's survey ends with a chapter on "Christianity and Greek Thought", culminating in a discussion of Augustine. I find this odd, for what it really brings out is the uncompromising un-Greekness of the thought of such a man as St. Paul, to whom Irwin devotes much attention, while he devotes very little to either the Alexandrian Fathers or the Cappadocians, who were much influenced by Hellenism, and turns instead to Augustine, a Latin-speaking North African who knew very little Greek, and who largely repudiated what Greek philosophy he had picked up.
Irwin has tried here to be comprehensive, and to go outside the traditional limits of philosophy, in order to bring in other facets of Greek thought. That is commendable, but it has some curious effects, notably in the early chapters on what he chooses to call "naturalism" (rather than, say, philosophy of nature), where we find no mention at all of such figures as Pythagoras, Parmenides, or Empedocles, all of whom, one would think, have a better right to be considered Greek thinkers than Paul of Tarsus, who would hardly appreciate being included in such a book.
In the 2nd chapter Irwin deals with Homer, Hesiod and the background, one might say, of Greek thought. As Irwin explains in the 1st chapter (the introduction), the starting point is not completely arbitrary. Homer, after all, had a profound influence on all subsequent Greek thought and even philosophy. On the other hand, Irwin leaves out such prominent figures in Early Greek philosophy as Parmenides (who is mentioned only once in the book, during the discussion of St. Augustin), but instead we get to read about the historian Herodotus. Of course, it is perfectly admissible to include Herodotus in a book on classical thought, but I have doubts about doing it at the expense of Parmenides. Irwin has also omitted most of scepticism, as he himself points out in the introduction. Sextus Empiricus and Pyrrhon (thus written in the book) are each only mentioned once in an endnote. Moreover, Empedocles is not mentioned at all. Is it not peculiar that in a book on classical thought, published in a series on the history of western philosophy, the philosopher Empedocles is nowhere mentioned, but the emperor Nero is mentioned three times? Plato's later thought is not discussed nor is there any discussion of ancient logic in the book.
In my oppinion, this book would have benefited greatly if Irwin had added about 25 pages to it; ten or so on the presocratics, ten or so on the sceptics and maybe five on Plato's later thought. I don't know why the editor of the series should refuse to do so. This book is only 288 pages long, whereas Copenhaver and Schmitt's book on Renaissance philosophy (in the same series) is 464 pages long. But even so, I cannot help feel that this is perhaps not the right book to cover antiquity in a series on the history of western philosophy. Perhaps it should have been a book more on hardcore philosophy.
Having said that, I do admit that this book is lucidly written and inviting. It is easy to read and may be of much use to someone wanting quickly to familiarize himself with ancient thought. But as a first introduction to ancient philosophy proper or for a more thorough discussion of any topic in ancient philosophy (whether Irwin discusses it or not) I would have to recommend another book, e.g. Classical Philosophy by Christopher Shield, The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy or The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy.
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