Book Review: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

MeditationsMeditations by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“To read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book.”

[Insert superficial overview of Meditations here]

Meditations were something Marcus (we’re on a first name basis here) wrote for his own moral improvement, to remind himself of and cement the Stoic doctrines he wanted to live by. Things like the world is governed by Providence (which certainly lets him off the hook for all those people fed to the lions during his reign); that happiness lies in virtue and your will to follow it; and that you should not be angry at others. Journalling of this sort was something Epictetus advised, which has resulted in a collection of notes, reminders, aphorisms, and slogans for every occasion.

There is a lot to like about Meditations. It felt like a self-help book but written with a more philosophical bent and less of the “you too can achieve greatness (and give me lots of money) if you follow my twelve rules for life”. It isn’t without problems, such as those outlined in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I also found Marcus’ musings on the Deliberative Content Problem to swing between ideas and thus come off as confused.

This is my second major reading of Stoic philosophy. I’m coming to the conclusion that Stoicism does seem to have a lot to offer.

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Book review: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik

An Introduction to Greek PhilosophyAn Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If Western Philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, does that mean western society is just all Greek to us?

Professor Roochnik presents 24 lectures as an introductory course to Greek Philosophy… as it says in the title. This was quite a good overview of the pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Like any lecture, insights are given into the further scholarship that can inform a topic – such as how Plato structures his writing so as to make you think rather than tell you what he thinks – and some points are hammered repeatedly for the sleepy students in the back row.

Having recently read The Republic, the insights this book offered would have been handy beforehand. The advantage of having a philosophy professor step you through philosophy rather than just winging it yourself is well worth it. So as a background pre-reading, this is a good place to start.

I was also reminded during one of the earlier chapters of how much knowledge has been lost to history. We have this common misconception about great works rising to the top and being revered through the ages. But the example of the prolific writer Democritus whose works have largely been lost shows us how even recognised intellectual giants can’t be guaranteed their works will be preserved.

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Book Review: The Republic by Plato

The RepublicThe Republic by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old white guys sit around discussing how to set up a totalitarian military state with them as the rulers.

Plato’s famous text covers a lot of ground as it tries to establish what justice is. It covers politics, personal and political ethics, idealised states (democracy ranks third out of four), education, and virtue. The Republic is a heady read, whilst being fascinating.

The strawman style to the interlocuter dialogue did annoy me as a reader. Whilst it was in service of making a larger point, it did make the discourse feel more shallow than it is. Plato’s thinking was also amazingly progressive for an age that predates the enlightenment by the best part of a millennium. But this thinking was also confined by the times.

Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle, were the drivers behind western society. Books like The Republic put forward a lot of ideas for discussion and dissection, opening the dialogue that would lead to progress. That alone makes The Republic worth reading, but I also found it was worth reading if only to see much of it in context rather than discussed second-hand. E.g. The famous allegory of the cave takes on a slightly different light when not viewed in isolation.

For a more detailed understanding:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-politics/

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Book review: How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern LifeHow to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m still unclear if reading for pleasure is virtuous. I’m going to pretend that it is.

The former biologist and current philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci, guides us through stoicism and lots of conversations with his imaginary friend, Epictetus. I probably shouldn’t write book blurbs, because this was way more interesting than my previous sentence implies.

Before reading this book, my only understandings of stoicism came from Bertrand Russell. That is to say, I had a snarky and somewhat dismissive understanding of stoicism because Russell wasn’t a fan. Massimo dispelled my misunderstandings and also showed how stoicism could be applied to modern life. Book title goal achieved!

There are two highlights from this book. The first is that Massimo has managed to communicate his philosophy clearly and in a way that I think most people would be able to understand and engage with. The second is that he also manages to upsell readers on the idea of becoming a stoic. I’m not saying I’m rushing out to join Cult Stoic, but there are a lot of good ideas here for people to learn.

stoic-decision-making

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Further reading:
https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/
https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/bertrand-russell-got-stoicism-seriously-wrong/
https://www.reddit.com/r/Stoicism/comments/zblu2/criticisms_of_stoicism_from_bertrand_russells/
https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/9271/how-might-one-counter-bertrand-russells-criticism-of-stoicism-as-not-true-and

Book review: The Devil You Know by KJ Parker

The Devil You KnowThe Devil You Know by K.J. Parker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled? Never messing with a philosopher.

Saloninus is the greatest philosopher of all time. But nearing the end of his life he wants another 20 years to complete his final works. So he does a deal with the devil. But the devil is suspicious. They might have an airtight contract for Saloninus’ soul, but there is something amiss. Is the devil about to be swindled by the greatest thinker?

A couple of years ago my uncle recommended KJ Parker to me. I’ve finally gotten around to reading one of Parker’s books. My uncle clearly has good taste.

This was an interesting and often humorous tale. After a recent letdown with an odious fantasy novel, this was refreshing. Briskly paced, world building without the laborious exposition, and characters that felt like real people, topped off a solid and interesting story. I’ll have to schedule some more KJ Parker reading for the near future.

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Book review: On Generation and Corruption by Aristotle

On Generation and CorruptionOn Generation and Corruption by Aristotle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not going to review this book. It’s a few thousand years old, I don’t really have anything to add.

What I found interesting about this book was what it got wrong. Obviously Aristotle is one of the most influential thinkers of all time, he was one of the earlier people to grapple with determinism (Democritis and Leucippus got there first). But in Aristotle’s arguments on the Four Causes and the Four Elements, it was interesting that he rejected Leucippus’ and Democritus’ Atomism, a theory that was ultimately proven correct. Which got me to thinking.

How would anyone describe fire – one of the four elements – without our modern knowledge? How would we explain or seek to understand (rationalise) the workings of fire without chemistry, physics, and all of that other knowledge we take for granted?

Reading the arguments melding the four causes and elements into an understanding of change and decay in the modern age, it is easy to point and laugh. Stupid philosophers can’t science! But as I was reading I realised I could counter the arguments only based upon the accumulated knowledge of the natural world. If I was to remove that knowledge and just go by observation, could I do better? The answer is clearly no. At best I could come up with different, but probably not better. Because I’m definitely in the same league as one of the greatest thinkers of all time….

This realisation then had me thinking about how we don’t value our modern age and modern knowledge as much as we should. As Douglas Adams noted, we are surrounded by wonders of technology and science, but could we explain it and rebuild it, or would we have to settle for being a sandwich maker from the stars?

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