Friday, September 16, 2005

I'm back from my holidays and have recovered from the excitement of seeing England win the Ashes against Australia's cricket team, so it is time to get back to work. It is good to see some very intelligent discussion still ongoing on the difficult question of free will over at Bede's dedicated yahoo group while I've been away.

Among my holiday reading has been Anthiny Gottlieb's The Dream of Reason which is a layperson's guide to the history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Actually, it's a history of Greek philosophy with a chapter on post-antiquity tacked on the end. Gottlieb is a typical modern who doesn't think the Middle Ages are worth bothering with. Each of the major figures of Greek thought is covered in chronological order and if their ideas do not gell with Gottlieb's views they are dismissed as 'absurd' (a favourate word), 'lunacy' or 'silly'. Alas, the poor Greeks were not fully conversant with the world according to Gottlieb and so suffer much chastisement for their foolishness. Luckily, once in a while, they get something right and recieve a hearty pat on the back for successfully anticipating the twenty-first-century worldview. The author is an editor at the Economist and anyone familiar with that organ will know that humility is not among its virtues. Telling people they are wrong is its speciality.

Of course, clarity of expression is the among the Economist's good points, and The Dream of Reason also scores very highly in this department. Ideas are explained with a brevity and exactness that make the editorialising almost a price worth paying. It is highly entertaining as well although not always for the right reasons (Gottlieb's insults are often funny, however misguided they may be). So, I'd recommend this book to a layperson who knows nothong about philosophy just as long as they promise to read Father Copleston or at least Anthony Kenny as well.

Another huge problem with Gottlieb is he is the typical one-eyed scientific materialist who treats religion with something close to contempt. We hear nothing about the achievements of the Middle Ages and Gottlieb is happy to write off the entire period (as well as pagan neo-Platonism which he thinks is also far too mystical). Of course, Gottlieb has to pull his punches to some extent as the old myths are now just too well refuted to recycle yet again. He doesn't quite blame Christianity for the alleged Dark Ages, realises that most early modern polemic on scholasticism is malicious libel ("how many angels can dance on a pin?" etc.) and that the Church didn't really restrict intellectual inquiry outside the theology faculty. Still, he thinks that medieval achievements in logic were pointless, that not hardly a single Arab or Byzantine thinker is worth a mention and Newton was 'wasting his time' on theology. The Renaissance itself is also skipped over to a large extent so the book ends as a bit of a damb squib. We are promised a sequel in which I can predict Hume, Mill and Russell will be lionised while Liebniz, Kant and anyone French will get short shrift.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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