The Dream of Reason: a History of Western Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, by Anthony Gottlieb

A person goes to bed one unremarkable night, wakes the next morning with the germ of an idea, spends weeks or months or years of their life pursuing that idea, and dies. And yet the idea lives on, plucked out of a piece of writing decades or even centuries later.

The idea is held to the light, tested, examined, refined. Eventually its rescuer, too, sheds their mortal coil. The idea must be resurrected yet again. When it is, this idea gives birth to others, and through this process we arrive at the present day, embedded as it is within the soil of those ideas that arrived unannounced at the doorstep of its original owner so many eons ago.

At some point in ancient Greek history, one such idea took hold. Perhaps, this idea whispered, we can attempt to explain the world in terms of how we experience it, rather than explaining it in terms of elaborate metaphors and parables that predominantly shaped worldviews at the time.

Socrates certainly thought it an interesting proposition, and started interrogating… well, everyone. Plato systematized Socrates’ thinking (which he never wrote down). Aristotle refined it further, developing a worldview through pure observation, which had never been done before.

And so complete were Aristotle’s explanations that his body of work became the de facto method of interpreting reality for the next thousand (or so) years. A few hundred years after his death, other pagans tried to build on Aristotle, mostly to no avail.

Christian thinkers adopted his work, twisting and mutilating it until it was virtually unrecognizable. I get the impression that they didn’t particularly want to take up that task, but they had little choice. For a long while, knowledge—all of it—came through Aristotle. If Christianity was going to supplant all other systems of thinking, it had to reckon with the vehicle through which all knowledge was obtained.

That undertaking began in earnest with St. Augustine a few hundred years after Jesus’s death. Prior to his conversion, Augustine was insatiably curious. He once remarked that he wanted to know everything with the same degree of certainty that he knows that seven plus three equals ten.

Then Augustine found God, and he was no longer interested in interrogation. Christianity solved everything quite neatly, so no further inquiry on any matter whatsoever was required.

This, of course, was the Dark Ages, when Aristotle’s method of interrogating reality through observation was sidelined and criminalized. For more than a thousand years, intellectual inquiry (outside of a theological framework) was a heretical proposition.

This is where Anthony Gottlieb ends his delightful book, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Rennaisance. A sequel promises to pick up where this journey ends—with the Enlightenment and the resurrection of rigorous inquiry for its own sake.

It is that resurrection which forms the foundation of most of modern life. The way our education system is built, the arguments over healthcare as a right, the dominance of markets—all the modern assumptions built into the fabric of our lives were once heated arguments teased out from texts of long-dead thinkers.

Some of these assumptions are so deeply embedded that to question them seems unthinkable. That is, until you realize that the ideas that power us today were by no means taken for granted when they first arose from the mud and the muck to be exalted as one of the chosen few ideas that would push humanity forward.

Gottlieb’s writing is clear and straightforward, but not without charm or personality. I’m sure that he would’ve preferred to delve into one or two of his chosen subjects a bit more deeply than this book allows, but for those of us who are energized by tracing the fascinating life of an idea through the ages, this is enough.

I only hope that the spirit of inquiry that got us here can once again rise to the occasion. Once humanity adopts the willful ignorance that leads to a dark age, it’s quite hard to once again turn to the light.