By M.R. Wright
Acumen Press (2009) p/b 244pp £19.99 (ISBN 9781844651832)
(Online publication  ISBN: 9781844654390)
This volume offers a ‘concise and accessible introduction to ancient Greek philosophy…aimed at beginning students of classical studies and philosophy who wish to find their bearings in what can seem a complex maze of names and schools’. An introductory chapter , ‘Mapping the territory’, sets the time frame chronologically, from the sixth to the first centuries BCE, and outlines the social and political background against which philosophical thinking emerged, with brief biographies of significant thinkers. Thereafter W. chooses to abandon a chronological in favour of a thematic approach. Chapter 2, ‘Language, logic and literary form’ has sections on prose as opposed to poetry as a vehicle for philosophy; dialectic and dialogue (with some discussion of the so-called Socratic question); eristic; rhetoric; Platonic myth; and philosophy as expounded in Latin. The remaining chapters deal with areas of Greek philosophy such as cosmology, religion, soul, epistemology, politics and ethics—although within each topic the treatment is broadly chronological.
Compressing so much material into so short a span inevitably leads to some weaknesses and omissions. Two areas that were important both at the time and in subsequent centuries, both inside and outside Christian thought, do not receive sufficient space: (a) ontology: Parmenides’ ‘Way of Truth’ receives scant attention, as does Plato’s riposte in the ontology of the Republic—W.’s treatment of the Divided Line is sketchy, as is her discussion of Aristotelian substance, and of his metaphysics in general; (b) psychology: W. does not make enough of the fundamental difference between Platonic and Aristotelian (and Stoic) soul—we could, for example, have some demonstration of the immortality and separability of Platonic soul to set against an explication of Aristotle’s definition of soul at de Anima 2.1.
That apart, the strength of the book is that W. identifies fundamental and persisting philosophical questions, and sets them firmly in their historical context. But the ambitious scope of the book means that the material is often presented in too great brevity to do it justice, so that the effect is sometimes little more than a Wikipedic summary. Secondly, and more importantly, answers given to the questions are framed in a cut-and-dried fashion, with little indication of the complexity of the questions, and of the problems posed by the texts and their interpretation. There is no invitation for would-be students to ‘do’ philosophy.
But the book is full of information, succinctly offered, and would be suitable for anyone seeking a general outline to Greek philosophy of the period. It provides a useful starting point for anyone wishing to pursue the subject further, or for anyone wanting no more than a summary of the main issues of the philosophical thought of the Greeks.
Barrie Fleet—Corpus Christi College, Oxford