BOOK REVIEW: Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionAncient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Julia Annas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Annas’s task of creating a concise guide for such a broad topic is a daunting one. For perspective, I’ve read books in this series [AVSI] on Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Socrates – each of which is a slim subset of the material called “Ancient Philosophy.” Furthermore, it’s not as though there was great homogeneity of ideas among the ancients. And, adding to the challenge, the author attempts to address the full scope of ancient philosophy: i.e. ethics, epistemology, logic, and metaphysics.

The book is forced to both restrict itself to an inch deep (because the subject is a mile wide,) but also to make choices about what schools, philosophers, and sub-topics it will address. History did part of the work – e.g. for many ancients, only fragmentary or secondhand evidence of their positions survived. So, we see a lot about Plato and Aristotle because their words remain. The book also devotes a disproportionate emphasis to what some call “philosophy of life,” i.e. ethics and how / whether to pursue a happy and meaningful life – i.e. how to live. This emphasis is both because that’s what many ancients focused upon, but also because it’s what people find relevant when looking back to them. [As opposed to ancient metaphysics, which science has largely made obsolete, ancient ethics and thoughts on happiness aren’t necessarily outmoded.] The first chapter sets up this focus on philosophy of life in an interesting way by discussing humanity’s mixed motivational system — reason v. emotion.

One question that the book robustly considers is the degree to which ancient philosophy is still relevant. This is taken up most directly in chapter two, but the final chapter (on what constitutes ancient philosophy) also has germane things to say on the subject.

I found in this book a quick guide to comparing schools of the ancient world across the breadth of philosophy, and would recommend the volume – particularly as a starting point prior to delving deeper into sub-topics.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.

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