Archive for the ‘antiquity’ Category


A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

2 June 2009

Yes, still horribly backlogged in both my review posts and my non-review posts. Here’s a nice chewy review for the moment; when I have a few spare minutes to clean up another post or two, I hope to have more to talk about.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

In the early 1940s, British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell was living in the United States, attempting to find a job and attempting to hold his fast-dissolving third marriage together. He had lost several previous teaching posts, some because of financial difficulties at the scholarly institutions to which he had applied and some because he had fallen out with his employers, and the war made it all but impossible for him to try to return to England. Public protests against his controversial writings on sex and marriage had prevented him from taking an appointment at the College of the City of New York, and he was only saved from complete financial collapse by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which offered him a post teaching the history of philosophy. Very short on cash, and struggling to keep both his personal and professional lives afloat, he compiled his Barnes Foundation lectures into a single comprehensive survey of the history of Western philosophy and published them in 1945 under the straightforward title A History of Western Philosophy. Russell’s history became an unexpected best-seller, saved him from complete financial ruin, and provided an steady income stream upon which he would depend for the rest of his life. Indeed, the book was a strong contributor to the body of literature for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1950 — and today, outside of the philosophical and mathematical communities, is possibly second only to Why I Am Not a Christian as the work for which Russell is best known today.

Russell divides his History of Western Philosophy into three parts, focusing on ancient (Greek and Roman) philosophy up through the third century CE, Catholic philosophy (which also includes bits about Jewish and Islamic philosophy) of the Church Fathers through St Thomas Aquinas and up to the Renaissance, and modern philosophy from the 1500s through the early 20th century and Russell’s own works. The first two parts receive much more attention than the final part, mainly because Russell’s attempts to show the founding principles and evoluation of various philosophical schools of thought require him to delve deeply into the works of the most influential ancient philosophers, particularly Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle. Russell makes very little pretense of being objective in his comments; it is more than clear which philosophers he likes and which he dislikes. Aristotle’s Ethics, for example, have an ’emotional poverty’ that ‘will be useful to comfortable men of weak passions’ — he acknowledges the work’s effect and influence on future generations of philosophers, but dismisses the work itself (and, for that matter, much of Aristotle’s other work). In contrast, he has high praise for Spinoza as both a person and a philosopher — in Russell’s words, Spinoza is ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’ — and the loving descriptions and generous assessments carry through the description of the man’s life and personality and into his work. Comments such as these make for alternately interesting and frustrating reading matter, all the way through the nearly 900-page book covering nearly three millennia of philosophic history.

In his autobiography, Russell defended his approach to the History of Western Philosophy by stating that ‘a man without bias cannot write interesting history’. Yet one conclusion which appears to be nearly universal among reviewers (including this reviewer) is that the History of Western Philosophy reveals far more about Russell’s own biases, prejudices, and personal philosophies than it does about those of any individual philosopher or philosophic tradition he surveys. He is prone to making authorial comments that may raise a few eyebrows, such as his remarks on Jewish history during the time of the Maccabees: ‘In enduring and resisting persecution the Jews of this time showed immense heroism, although in defence of things that do not strike us as important, such as circumcision and the wickedness of eating pork’ (316). In another digression, Russell’s strong belief in the need for a world government creeps into his discussion of Thomas Hobbes’ writings on the government: ‘Every argument that [Hobbes] adduces in favour of government…is valid in favour of international government. So long as national States exist and fight each other, only inefficiency can preserve the human race. To improve the fighting quality of separate States without having any means of preventing war is the road to universal destruction’ (557). In this light, the conclusions drawn in A History of Western Philosophy makes a good deal more sense after having read Russell’s massive Autobiography — at least, having more information about Russell’s background and circumstances may reduce the general frustration of reading the book and attempting to accept the author’s often peculiar conclusions at face value. As a history of Western philosophy, there are better works available…but as a reflection and even a microcosm of Bertrand Russell’s own political philosophies, this is one instance in which the book shows far more than it tells.


On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

14 April 2009

Although this review was written after those of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating, this volume happens to be the first book (chronologically speaking) in Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

The amount of solid historical information on the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 5 BCE – 65 CE) is relatively thin, and most of what is known about him comes from his own writings and from scattered (and not always impartial) sources. What is certainly known is that he came from a distinguished family, and followed in his rhetorician father’s footsteps by getting involved in the turbulent political scene of the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Although his everyday life was caught up in the intrigue and violence that surrounded the affairs of emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, Seneca’s thoughts and writings focused primarily on the contemplative life and bear out his devotion to the ideals of Stoic philosophy. Yet even after he had left public life, the continuing drama of the imperial family was never far away, and eventually Seneca fell victim to rumours that he had been part of a plot to assassinate Emperor Nero. He was ordered to commit suicide, which he did through the traditional method of opening veins to die of exsanguination. Although his personal reputation suffered somewhat from continuing rumours and criticism after his death, many of his writings have survived, including the three essays selected for On the Shortness of Life.

The Great Ideas selection of Seneca’s works contains three essays: De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life), Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (Consolation to Helvia), and De Tranquillitate Animi (On Tranquility of Mind). The first, an essay written to his friend Paulinus, dwells on the sad condition of those who have little or no idea of how to live their lives, and waste their days and hours in meaningless frivolities or in frenzied and often fruitless activity. Contrary to those who fret about the shortness of a man’s time on earth, Seneca declares that ‘life is long if you know how to use it’, and recommends that Paulinus use his time well by turning to the writers of philosophers to learn more about how to live and die without fears or regrets. Continuing in this vein, the second essay is in the form of a letter addressed to his mother Helvia, providing her with consolation at the news that he would be sent into exile (written when he was banished at the behest of Emperor Claudius in 42 CE). Seneca takes an unconventional approach to dealing with the expectation of his mother’s grief: he informs her, with extensive biographical detail, of all of the sorrows and losses of her life, from the loss of her mother in childbirth to the deaths of her grandchildren and her husband, and then urges her to conquer this new grief as she has conquered others in the past — with patience and reason, neither distracting herself with trivialities or spending her time moaning and weeping over something that cannot be changed. The final essay, in the form of a exchange between Seneca and his friend Serenus, presents the latter as a ‘patient’ seeking a remedy for the frequent distractions of life that trouble his thoughts. Seneca, in keeping with Stoic philosophy, prescribes moderation in all things as physic for an unquiet mind, and cautions his friend that he will have to actively choose that path of moderation, and not be dissuaded from it by the course of events, whether good or ill. In all three selections, Seneca displays the characteristics beliefs of his chosen philosophy: the embrace of reason and harmony with nature, an acceptance of suffering in life and an attempt to learn from those sufferings, and the importance of finding peace within oneself both in life and in death.

On the Shortness of Life is a fine introduction to Seneca’s writings, translated in a very readable style by classical scholar C.D.N. Costa. The only real flaw in this edition is that the texts presented, however straightforward and enjoyable to read in their own right, tend to lack context without even a brief introduction. A simple one- or two-page preface to introduce Seneca as a historical and literary figure and possibly even provide some background information on the three texts included in the book would have greatly improved the edition as a whole. Even so, this first volume is a decent start to the Great Ideas series, and may best be read in conjunction with the later Stoic Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.


Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

21 September 2008

I’ve had this book on my Current Reading List for quite a while now, so I’m glad to finally post this review.

Studies in Words by C.S. Lewis

It is something of a truism to say that the English language is a constantly evolving language, one that flourishes by borrowing words from other languages, mashing two or more words together, or developing entirely new words from fragments of existing ones. This linguistic flexibility is part of what makes the English language so complicated, even for native speakers — particularly when it seems that the same word has any number of distinct meanings, depending on the context. A word like ‘wit’ or ‘wits’, for instance, can mean ‘sanity’ (‘I was nearly scared out of my wits when that car backfired!‘) or ‘intelligence’ (‘do credit me with having some wit here‘) or ‘amusing cleverness’ (‘he’s quite witty once you start talking to him‘) or even ‘a person skilled in humourous repartee’ (‘Oscar Wilde was a notable wit‘). With these subtle shades of meaning, it is not always easy to determine how these meanings developed over time and where and how new definitions slipped into everyday use. C.S. Lewis, who spent many years teaching medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, found that even his more perceptive and intelligent students often grasped the wrong meaning of certain words because the author’s definitions (in the context of the work) were ever-so-slightly different than the meanings that the students expected to find. To address this confusion, Lewis began to delve into linguistic scholarship, attempting to trace the development of particular words with deceptively complicated origins. The result of his labours was Studies in Words, a set of essays about nine different English words (and one turn of phrase) that looks into the history of these words and explores how their meanings and uses have changed over time.

The words that Lewis chose to examine in Studies in Words seem rather ordinary at the outset, but a bit of careful probing reveals intricacies of meaning that are often so minute that native English speakers scarcely think about them in everyday speech and often misunderstand them when attempting to be more formal in speech or writing. A word like ‘simple’ seems a good deal less simple after Lewis has picked it apart from its origins in the term simplex, or something akin to an unfolded sheet of paper. Words like ‘conscience’ and ‘conscious’, for instance, are tied up in complicated notions about being privy to information or knowing something within oneself, usually something that is supposed to be kept secret. Through linguistic leaps and bounds from this original meaning, we have created the idea of a ‘guilty conscience’ — not a conscience that is guilty in itself, but a conscience that makes you feel guilty for something you did or did not do. These examples are only two of the words explored in the book; others include ‘free’, ‘sad’, ‘world’, ‘nature’, and even the phrase ‘I dare say’ (which seems to have fallen out of favour in contemporary English). Two shorter chapters serve as bookends to the text, an introduction that sets out Lewis’s reasons for looking into this collection of words and a conclusion that examines the role that emotions and mental images often play in changing the nature and use of various words.

Studies in Words is as much a work of literary history as it is an extended study of linguistic development. Lewis supports his analysis with examples that range from ancient Greek and Roman texts and the classic works of Chaucer and Shakespeare to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. The essays are not difficult to follow, but they do demand a certain level of attention to detail and a willingness to go back and reread an essay from the beginning if you fear that you are starting to lose the thread of Lewis’s argument. Most anyone with an interest in etymology, the history of language development, or literary history will find much to enjoy in Studies in Words — particularly as a refreshing look at a phenomenon best illustrated by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’


Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

29 August 2008

Posting this a little early, as I’m going out of town for the weekend. I’d intended to put this together with Studies in Words, the other C.S. Lewis book I’ve been reading lately, but this review’s long and complicated enough that it really needs to stand on its own.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

The myth of Cupid and Psyche is a fairly well-known story, one of the many tales involving the troubles of relationships between mortals and the gods. Venus, goddess of love, becomes jealous of the incomparably beautiful Psyche and orders her son Cupid to make the girl fall in love with the foulest creature on earth. Cupid, however, falls in love with Psyche himself, and has the West Wind whisk her away to a castle where he may keep her as his wife. He visits her nightly, but never allows her to see him. When Psyche’s elder sisters come to visit her in her new home, they become consumed with envy at her wealth and attempt to convince her that her husband is really a foul monster. They advise her to take a sharp knife and a lamp to bed with her so that she may look upon his face before she slays him. Half-convinced, Psyche brings the knife and the lamp to bed, but when she sees her sleeping husband for the first time she falls in love with him on sight. But when a drop of hot oil falls from her lamp and lands upon Cupid, he awakens and vanishes, leaving Psyche alone. In her quest to return to her husband, Psyche faces many arduous tasks and challenges put to her by a vindictive Venus, but in the end she is brought up to Olympus, given immortality by the gods, and reunited with Cupid.

The main character in Till We Have Faces is not Psyche herself, but one of her sisters. In Lewis’s story, the narrator is Orual, the eldest of the three daughters of the cruel king of the land of Glome. Orual often bears the brunt of her father’s anger for being ugly, because a girl who cannot even be used to broker a marriage alliance with a neighbouring noble family is nothing more than a worthless mouth to feed. Orual’s only real friend at the court is the Fox, a Greek slave who shares with her the basic teachings of his homeland’s philosophers and tries to give her more of an enlightened education than her ‘barbarian’ culture would normally allow. When her father’s newest wife dies in childbirth, Orual takes on the responsibility of raising her half-sister Istra — Psyche, in Greek — and soon grows to love the child more than anything else the world. Yet the small amount of love and happiness that Orual has been able to find in Glome is suddenly taken from her when Psyche is ordered to be sacrified to appease the wrath of the gods. As the story progresses, Orual struggles with her grief, anger, and desperate loneliness in her search for her beloved Psyche, and eventually has the opportunity to bring her grievances directly to the gods themselves as both accuser and accused in the greatest trial she will ever face.

Till We Have Faces reworks the Cupid-and-Psyche myth in a very novel way, adapting the basic framework of the tale to focus on the multifaceted nature of love and its ability to nourish or destroy the heart, mind, and soul. This particular theme is one of C.S. Lewis’s favourites — it appears in several of his other fictional works, most notably in The Great Divorce, and it is one of the primary themes in his nonfiction work The Four Loves. The love theme is only one of many Lewisian tropes that feature prominently in Till We Have Faces, to the point where a reader who is familiar with Lewis’s other fiction and nonfiction writings will have no trouble spotting the themes and ticking them off one by one, as if following a well-worn shopping list. Examples include a variation on his ‘lunatic-liar-lord’ argument, given in both Mere Christianity and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his interest in the neo-Platonic approach to Christianity, which is a common thread in most (if not all) of his literary, academic, and religious writings. But considering that Lewis worked on this book off and on for nearly all of his adult life, beginning in his undergraduate years at Oxford, it is hardly surprising that it should contain most if not all of the themes and ideas that he incorporated into his other works. (Till We Have Faces was his last complete work of fiction; interestingly enough, it was published in the same year as The Last Battle.) Although the book is not nearly as well known as most of Lewis’s works, Till We Have Faces is quite possibly his most complex and thoughtful piece, an extended meditation on the capacity for love within all of us and how we may use it that love for good or for ill.

One additional point should probably be mentioned in the context of this review. C.S. Lewis has often been accused of misogynist tendencies or outright misogyny in his writings, especially in his fiction, and because Till We Have Faces is very much a story of women in a warlike, masculine world, it is difficult to know how to address these accusations in the context of this book. Those who go into the text hunting for misogyny can find it quite easily — most easily, for instance, in Lewis’s rather unsympathetic depiction of Orual and Psyche’s vain and silly middle sister, Redival. Yet Orual as both a character and a narrator is far from a simple stereotype, primarily in her position a woman who is uniquely aware that she cannot fit into either the men’s or women’s roles dictated by her culture and her place in society. Some reviewers have suggested that Lewis’s wife Joy influenced the final development of the story, and claim that her guidance was instrumental in smoothing out the rougher edges of her husband’s story and characters. Whatever may have influenced the final product, Till We Have Faces is the book that Lewis considered to be his best, and its blend of philosophy, religion, literary reflection, and storytelling may easily be seen as an embodiment of Lewis’s entire creative output.


Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Minogue

10 June 2008

In 1995, Oxford University Press created a book series called ‘Very Short Introductions’ (which apparently has its very own OUP blog archive for commentary and discussion). Available individually or in aptly named box sets, the intent of the Very Short Introductions is to focus on brief, clearly written surveys of particular topics, eras, events, or individuals.

Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Kenneth Minogue

Politics was one of the earliest publications in the Very Short Introduction series, and was written by Kenneth Minogue, emeritus professor of political science at the London School of Economics. His goal, as stated in the book’s foreword, is to place politics in its ‘historical and disciplinary context’, looking not only at how politics has developed in the Western world since the days of the ancient Greeks, but also how politicians and political theorists have talked about politics and changed both its meaning and its message over the centuries.

A daunting task, for a book to cram a concise overview of this particularly turbulent subject into scarcely more than 100 pages. Minogue does this by stripping out most of the cross-talk that is characteristic of political discourse in favour of focus on a simple, straightforward survey of the development of politics in history, examining how individual citizens respond to the civic life of their societies. Of particular interest is the way in which Minogue explains how Greek and Roman traditions have shaped and continue to shape the vocabulary and terminology on the subject, from the Greek polis (politics, police, policy, polity) and Roman civitas (civil, civics, citizen, civilisation) to their various permutations in different modern languages in the present day. There are a few parts in which the book’s overall clarity seems to become a bit muddled, most notably towards the end of the book when Minogue attempts to define the term ‘ideology’ as distinct from ‘politics’, but that may be more attributable to the generally confusing nature of the overall definition. Even though the rest of the book reads smoothly and quickly, the last few chapters almost demand that readers slow down a bit more and pause for a moment after every paragraph to be sure that they are able to translate the author’s concepts into definitions they can comprehend.

Ideally, the goal of this very short introduction to politics is not to surprise anyone. Most of what Minogue writes is likely to conjure up vague memories of history or civics or politics classes, lectures or speeches or seminars or shouting matches with friends of friends or snippets of ideas from that one book that you know you read ages ago but can’t recall all the pertinent details. Politics: A Very Short Introduction does its best to collect all of these tiny fragments of memory into a single slim volume, to remind readers of things they already know and fill in the fuzzy or missing details that remain. And like all good introductions, it provides a brief reading list of suggested works — both classic texts and modern commentary — for readers to explore further if they wish.


Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer

20 May 2008

More on magic — this topic will probably need its own tag soon enough.

Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer

Historical and sociological studies of witchcraft and popular belief in magic in pre-Reformation Europe have to consider a very basic question: what exactly counted as ‘magic’ to a person in the Middle Ages? The accounts of witchcraft trials from the period often include macabre descriptions of child murder, crop destruction, and other acts of malevolent magic (maleficium) intended to harm persons or property. Equally, records of murder cases might refer to sinister-sounding methods — an accused poisoner, for instance, might have collected the herbs used for the deed on the night of a full moon, believing that the lunar influence would heighten the plant’s deadly effects. But what about herbalists and folk healers, whose remedies might include special formulaic prayers written on slips of parchment or nonsensical Latin- and Greek-sounding phrases said over a patient? Or the accepted scholarly texts on medicine, philosophy, and history that attributed quasi-magical abilities to notable figures from antiquity, such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Pliny the Elder? What of the stories of clerics who dabbled in alchemy or necromancy, or royal advisors who specialised in casting horoscopes, or organisations like the Templars that were accused of practising magic in addition to heresy? How can modern scholars make sense of these different facets of mediaeval magic, where law, religion, science, and folklore all seemed to be jumbled together?

In Magic in the Middle Ages, Richard Kieckhefer examines the complex and often confusing ideas of magic and its uses in the mediaeval world. He draws from a wide array of sources, from court proceedings to household records, to look at the origins of beliefs in magic (most notably in its connections to the writings of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians) and attempts to differentiate among the various prevailing strands of thought about magic. He sets aside several of the traditional methods of looking at the magic/religion dichotomy — namely the idea that religion focuses on supplication (i.e., prayer) while magic focuses on coercion (i.e., compelling demons to do one’s bidding) — in order to study the places where the two overlap. In doing so, for instance, he describes how Christians beliefs clashed with the existing pagan traditions to produce distinct trends in the magic common to Norse and Celtic literature, such as Scandinavian rune-based magic and Irish tales of saints and secular heroes. The blurry line between magic and early scientific knowledge also features prominently in the text, most notably in his discussion of the influence of scholarly writings from the Arab world and their focus on mathematics and astrology. From popular imagery to persecutions, Kieckhefer provides a basic foundation for approaching the topic as a whole and in parts, and his prose remains readable and lively throughout.

Other reviews I’ve read of Kieckhefer’s book seemed disappointed by what the reviewers seem to regard as his oversimplification of the topic or his inability to produce a comprehensive and rigidly defined account of magical beliefs. It is true that the book relies (quite heavily, at times) on conclusions drawn from anecdotes, even going so far as to include handwritten notes found in the margins of certain books and parchments that indicate a particular reader’s opinion on certain statements in the text. Yet Kieckhefer’s anecdotal evidence and the willingness to be flexible with the evidence seemed to me to better indicate the fluid nature of belief in magic and the often contradictory views that people of the Middle Ages held about what constituted magical power. His scope may be too broad for some people’s liking, but his focus is predominantly on the areas where the boundaries of magic were less than clear and where a more rigid definition might exclude useful but lesser-known sources. For a brief but nonetheless thought-provoking introduction to subject, Magic of the Middle Ages is a sound choice — and for those who may find his work somewhat lacking, Kieckhefer has provided an extensive and excellent list of further reading for curious, dedicated readers to explore.


Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History (2nd ed.), edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters

23 March 2008

One of my side interests in history is the history of witchcraft persecutions in Europe and North America. I have a few other books that I may end up re-reading and reviewing, but at the moment they don’t quite justify a separate category for this blog. Perhaps they will, one day.

Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700: A Documentary History (2nd ed.), edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters

The first edition of Witchcraft in Europe was a collection of translated primary sources dating from A.D. 1100 to 1600, the span of time which saw the rise of executions for heresy and witchcraft by Europe’s church-based inquisitors and secular authorities. The second edition greatly expands on the first one, including not only new documents from a wider range of sources but also relevant bibliographical citations from contemporary historical scholarship on the witch-craze. And the result is a very hefty volume, chock-full of snippets from both religious and secular authors — all of which form an interesting picture of how the ‘authorities’ regarded the strange phenomenon of ordinary men and women who appeared to be in league with the Devil.

The texts one might expect to find in a book like this are, of course, included. There is a long set of passages from Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), one of the ‘classic’ instructional texts used by the authorities who presided over the trials. Other familiar works, like Cotton Mather’s ‘A Discourse on Witches’ and Nicholas Remy’s Demonaltry present contemporary opinions on witches and their practices, often in lurid detail. There are accounts of trials and confessions and executions, extensive scholarly debates on what exactly constituted ‘witchcraft’ and what distinguished witches from heretics, and several illustrations of paintings and woodblock prints that show popular conceptions of the diabolical pacts made by fallen women. Yet Witchcraft in Europe also shows the other side of the argument, with selections from works like Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum (On the Illusions of the Demons), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft and Fredrich Spee’s Cautio criminalis, which illustrate the strong doubts and misgivings that more than a few individuals had about whether witches even existed. And conveniently, every single text in the book has a short editorial passage before it that explains the context of the text and gives some useful biographical or historical information about its author.

I know that this book is used as a base text in many university courses that spend some time discussing witchcraft, and it’s fairly easy to see why. As a comprehensive selection of texts, I can’t think of a better individual book. If Witchcraft in Europe ever goes into a third edition, I have a feeling I’ll probably end up buying it as well.