Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Classical Mind

A History of Western Philosophy: The Classical Mind (Second Edition)
W. T. Jones
Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1969

I became acquainted with A History of Western Philosophy by W. T. Jones while listening to Leonard Peikoff’s History of Philosophy lecture. Peikoff has good things to say about W. T. Jones’s survey of the life and works of the major Western philosophers from antiquity to modern times.

A History of Western Philosophy is a four-volume work: Volume I—The Classical Mind; Volume II—The Medieval Mind; Volume III—Hobbes to Hume; Volume IV—Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. I plan to read all the four books, and now I have finished the Volume I—The Classical Mind, which I find very informative and pleasant. Here’s my article on the book:

In The Classical Mind, W. T. Jones describes the evolution of philosophy in ancient Greece and the early period of the Roman Empire. The focus is on the key philosophers and major philosophical trends. In the Preface, W. T. Jones explains the method that he employs in the book:

“An historian of philosophy can either say something, however brief, about everyone who philosophized, or he can limit himself to giving a reasonably consecutive account of a number of representative thinkers, omitting discussion of many second- and third-flight philosophers. I have chosen the latter approach…”

The verdict of more than two millennia makes it clear that Plato and Aristotle were the masters of their period and therefore The Classical Mind has considerable emphasis on their life and works. The discussion on the two philosophers is spread across four lengthy sections—section 4 and 5 for Plato, and section 6 and 7 for Aristotle.

But W. T. Jones does not neglect the non-Platonic and non-Aristotelian aspects of Ancient Greek philosophy. He creates a composite picture of the intellectual, cultural and political forces that were operating in the pre-Socratic Greece, and shows how these forces led to the creation of an environment in which the rise of Plato and Aristotle became possible.

There are chapters on how God and nature were viewed in the time of Homer and Hesiod—the teachings of thinkers like Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Pythagoras and Socrates—the movement of the Pythagoreans, sophists and atomists—the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes—the impact of the Peloponnesian War on the intellectual culture of Athens.

But what enabled the ancient Greeks to make such rapid strides in philosophy? In his Introduction, W. T. Jones writes: “Greek philosophy was born out of the struggle to understand nature, for understanding nature proved to be less simple and straightforward than the earliest Greek scientist had confidently assumed. Scientific inquiry becomes philosophical when men discovered that it was necessary to ask questions about this inquiry itself and about its method.”

In the chapter, “Evaluation of Aristotle’s Philosophy,” Jones draws an interesting comparison between Aristotle and Plato:

“Where Plato is whimsical and ironic, and proceeds by suggestion and indirection, Aristotle is matter-of-fact, almost pedestrian. Where Plato’s writing is filled with his sense of better and more beautiful world behind, above, beyond the world of ordinary experience, illuminating that experience but transcending it, Aristotle keeps his feet firm on the ground of ordinary experience. This is his reality, and the business of philosophy in his view is to make sense of the here and now.”

The final chapter, “The Late Classical Period,” is on the rise of Rome. Greek philosophy has now gone into a decline. The Roman Empire has emerged as a major political power in Europe and it also become the center for philosophical and scientific inquiry. 

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