Comparative Textbook Review
Book Details: J. Annas, Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), xii + 133 pp.
Book Details: C. Gill, Greek Thought, Greece & Rome New Surveys in the Classics 25 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), vi + 103 pp.
Book Details: W. K. C. Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers: From Thales to Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1950; repr. Routledge, 1997), 168 pp.
Book Details: P. Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, trans. M. Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), xiv + 362 pp.
Book Details: T. Irwin, Classical Thought, A History of Western Philosophy 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), xii + 266 pp.
Annas' 'very short introduction' is less of an introduction to ancient philosophy and more of a plea for ancient philosophy. Although it introduces a wide range of ancient ideas and figures, the volume often reads as an apologia for the study of ancient philosophy written for other philosophers who doubt its relevance. Thus the focus is upon the argumentative nature of ancient philosophy and the way in which its arguments can continue to inform modern debates, rather than an introduction to the subject on its own terms. Although some might see this as a limitation, it does make this volume an ideal introduction for students of philosophy who may not appreciate the value of studying ancient texts.
Gill's slim volume does not pretend to be a comprehensive introduction to ancient philosophy but rather a survey of some recent trends in ancient philosophy scholarship. The focus is upon psychological and ethical topics and the thematic structure ensures that philosophical questions orientate the discussion. The material introduced en route ranges from Homer to the Hellenistic schools and benefits from Gill's thorough knowledge of contemporary scholarship.
Guthrie's 'little history' of Greek philosophy covers the same ground as his monumental six volume study, from the first Presocratics to Aristotle. The volume includes a helpful introduction outlining issues - such as those associated with translation - that students should bear in mind when approaching the subject for the first time. However, this study was written well before the author's multi-volume history and, given the amount of scholarly work done recently, may appear to some as too dated. Nevertheless it remains useful as a survey of the material that one typically finds in a 'Thales to Aristotle' introductory course.
Hadot's volume is orientated by the idea that throughout antiquity philosophy was conceived as a way of life or mode of being. While the Presocratics and Sophists are mentioned in passing, the narrative begins in earnest with Socrates, the key texts being the Apology and Symposium. It is with Socrates that we first meet the figure of 'the philosopher', according to Hadot, and the subsequent schools all took as their point of departure a Socratic conception of philosophy. The following discussion of Plato thus focuses not upon the content of the dialogues but rather the function of the Academy as an institution and those few comments in Plato's own voice about the nature of philosophy in the Seventh Letter. Similarly, the discussion of Aristotle says little about the content of his extant works. The Hellenistic schools are given more attention, as is Neoplatonism. The volume then moves on to consider the distinction between 'philosophy' and 'philosophical discourse' in antiquity, and the later impact of the ancient conception of philosophy as a 'way of life'.
Irwin's study is the only one of the books considered here to offer a fairly comprehensive survey of the history of ancient philosophy, from the Homeric background to the early Christian engagement with Neoplatonism. As such it may be seen as the sucessor to Zeller's Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. In order to cover all of this ground in little over 200 pages the discussion is brief, with little time to quote or discuss primary texts. Nevertheless it offers a valuable survey of the entire history of the subject that will enable students to place the ideas that they are studying in the appropriate context.
These fives volumes are, to the best of my knowledge, the principal introductions to ancient philosophy currently available. They are all quite different from one another, making direct comparison somewhat difficult. Yet this adds to their collective strength. With each being written by a respected and able scholar, each of these volumes achieves its own aims. Which (or which combination) will be most appropriate will probably depend upon local considerations.
For a justification for the continuing study of ancient philosophy, try Annas. For a broad historical overview of the entire subject, turn to Irwin. For an introduction orientated by philosophical problems, consider Gill. For a traditional chronological survey up to Aristotle, use Guthrie.
Hadot's volume is somewhat different. In many ways it tends to assume that (or at least makes better reading if) one is already familiar with the various philosophers discussed. It is more of a metaphilosophical study about the nature of ancient philosophy than an introduction to ancient philosophy for beginners. Although no doubt a useful supplement, it may not be adequate as a sole textbook. It may perhaps be most useful at a more advanced level, with students who already have a basic grounding in the subject.
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.