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

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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: Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Wilson

Epicureanism: A Very Short IntroductionEpicureanism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Like all ancient schools of philosophy, Epicureanism birthed an adjectival oversimplification that has eclipsed the word’s original meaning and obscured the full story of this philosophical system. Platonic refers to the teachings of Plato, but platonic is a friends-without-benefits scenario. A Cynic is a minimalist who eschews comfort and rejects social norms, but to be cynical is to think the worst. A Stoic believes that there are things one can control and things one can’t and that one should act virtuously in the former case and indifferently in the latter, but a stoic is an emotionless automaton. Epicureans developed a comprehensive system of philosophy that included metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy, but an epicurean is a hedonist, probably dripping butter from his chin. The tenet that there is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure became the whole picture, and lost was the understanding that moderation is a virtue.

Being unacquainted with Epicureanism, I was surprised to learn that it was the least superstitious, as well as the most compassionate, of all the ancient Greek philosophies. Like most people studying ancient philosophies, I’m most interested in those aspects that might be called “philosophy of life” – i.e. ethics, politics, and other aspects that deal in how one should live. [As opposed to the more arcane questions of metaphysics and epistemology.] The reason is simple; the former ideas have aged better, while ancient metaphysics, for example, appears ridiculous in light of all the science that has come along. For this reason, I tend to overlook the long-discredited ideas of ancient philosophers. However, I’ve come to see that these ideas informed the life philosophy of each school (and, also, that there are degrees of wrong.) For example, the Epicureans, being atomists, were correct to a point, and in rooting their entire system in nature (rather than gods and the supernatural) they avoided preoccupation with pleasing the gods and developed an acceptance of the fact that sh!% happens (and it’s not due to angry gods.) So, while many of the details of Epicurean atomism were far from the mark, it did yield a less superstitious outlook (and was less wrong than most ancients.) My point is that I ended up benefiting from this guide’s comprehensive approach.

If you’re looking for an overview of Epicureanism, or you think the defining characteristic of an Epicurean is a love of heavy sauces, you should definitely check this book out.


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