Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Short History of Greek Philosophy by John Marshall

A good concise overview from Thales to Chrysippus
A Short History of Greek Philosophy was written by John Marshall, a classicist and educator who translated classic Greek texts and also worked as rector of the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though published in 1891, the text is still very accessible to 21st-century readers. Marshall provides a very good concise overview of Greek philosophy from Thales—the first philosopher of the Western world—through the various pre-Socratics schools, the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and the Epicureans and Stoics who followed them.

Throughout the book, Marshall discusses the thought of these ancient philosophers in clear and intelligent prose. The amount of detail he provides is enough for the reader to get a general understanding of each philosopher’s major tenets without getting bogged down in every twist and turn of their philosophical arguments. The text is not in any way dumbed-down, though it is much easier to get through than more extensive studies of Greek philosophy, such as a book like Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, Volume 1, which probably delivers more information than the average non-philosophy major needs to know. In his Short History, Marshall really does a fine job of showing the continuous threads of thought weaving from one philosopher to the next through the course of history as each influenced his successors. Marshall also pauses periodically throughout the text to compare and contrast the important concepts of different philosophers.

Marshall gives ample coverage to the pre-Socratic schools, including the Pythagoreans, the Eleatics, and the Atomists, and satisfactorily distinguishes the differences and similarities between each thinker’s underlying conception of the cosmos. The bulk of the book, not surprisingly, is devoted to the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Marshall gives the best simplified explanation of Plato’s ideas that I’ve ever read, and he provides a brief summary guide to Plato’s dialogues so that the reader can intelligently choose which texts to pursue for further reading. Plato is clearly Marshall’s favorite in the Greek philosophical pantheon, though he covers Aristotle with almost the same level of detail and regard. Marshall makes no secret of the fact that he feels the glory days of Greek philosophy ended with Aristotle. He gives the Sceptics and Epicureans cursory treatment and even expresses some disdain towards them. He ends the book with the Stoics, for whom he likewise gives short shrift. To be fair, however, all the best Stoics—Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca—were Romans, not Greeks, so Marshall only mentions them briefly if at all.

One point that repeatedly shines forth in Marshall’s book is how so much of the philosophical output of these ancient Greek thinkers ended up being subsumed into Christian dogma. Marshall overtly makes that connection in a few brief passages, acknowledging the intellectual debt that Christianity owes to these early philosophers. It is easy for us today to dismiss the ancient Greeks as being too remote in antiquity to affect our daily lives, but in reality their influence is all around us. By reinforcing that relevance, A Short History of Greek Philosophy makes for a far more interesting read than I expected from a 19th-century philosophical history. Anyone looking for an introduction or a refresher course to the main ideas of ancient Greek thought will be well served by this commendable book.
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