Socrates; drawing by David Levine

In the winter of 46 BC, Cato of Utica knew that the Roman Republic was finished. Julius Caesar had won the civil war and was on his way to capture him. Cato, a prominent Stoic, resolved on suicide—in Stoic parlance, a “reasonable exit.” Others would live on as best they could (and he worked tirelessly to help them escape or accommodate to the new order), but he was personally so identified with the Republic that no role was left for him. By way of preparation for death he read, and reread, Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates, the great hero of the Stoic philosophy, prepares to die in prison by a self-administered dose of hemlock.

The moral of this story, as told in Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, is that Cato’s suicide vindicates a notorious Stoic paradox, that only the good man is free and everyone else is a slave. Cato, not Caesar, was the victor. My interest is in what the story may tell us about how a philosophical work of the past may be meaningful to a present which rejects all or most of its views. In the Phaedo Socrates expounds the Platonic Theory of Ideas and argues that the soul is incorporeal and immortal. The Stoics dismissed Plato’s Ideas as mere “nothings” and held that the soul is a thoroughly corporeal mixture of air and fire which survives death for a limited period. In the Phaedo Socrates maintains that, even though a philosopher should wish to die as soon as possible, suicide is impious and wrong: one must await some god-sent necessity, in his case the death penalty imposed on him by the Athenian court for impiety and corrupting the young. The Stoics had a well-worked-out theory about when it is reasonable and right to make one’s exit voluntarily. Yet the Phaedo was the work that Cato, three centuries later, read all the way through, twice, when preparing to stab himself to death. This was surely not because he agreed with every word it said.

Anthony Gottlieb includes a version of this story in his splendidly written book, the first of a two-volume history of philosophy from its Greek beginnings to the present day. He does not wonder why Cato turned to Plato, rather than to a more recent work of his own school, but his book is an invitation to extend my question to the entire corpus of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophy. What meaning can these writings of the distant past convey to a modern reader who is likely to reject all or most of what they have to say? Gottlieb tackles a problem that any history of philosophy must confront.

He is a journalist, not a professional philosopher, although he studied philosophy at Cambridge and University College London. For a long time a highly successful science correspondent and editor at The Economist, he is now executive editor of that magazine. He writes with the ease and clarity of someone well practiced in the art of explaining difficult subjects to a lay audience. Any member of the general public, whatever their educational background, will find his history accessible and thoroughly enjoyable. Reviewers have rightly compared it with Bertrand Russell’s classic History of Western Philosophy and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1946). The comparison is worth pursuing in detail.

Like Russell, Gottlieb sketches the social and political setting of the ideas he discusses, but more briefly and with some odd throwaway judgments, as when he writes, on no evidence whatsoever, that in matters of religion the citizens of Miletus “seem to have been an almost agnostic lot.” A more nuanced version of the same judgment may be found on page 47 of Russell’s History. Both authors are explaining the birth of philosophy in sixth-century BC Miletus, where Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were the first thinkers to offer what are often described as naturalistic, nonreligious accounts of the world. Gottlieb’s narrative, like Russell’s, is peppered with witticisms hostile to religion. They are fun to read, but alert us to limits in these authors’ capacity to enjoy and profit from ancient and medieval philosophy. Neither history mentions Thales’ provocative dictum, “All things are full of gods.”

Like Russell, Gottlieb has studied primary sources and consulted contemporary scholarship in the field. In the fifty-odd years since Russell wrote, new discoveries, new perspectives, and reevaluations of the evidence have changed scholars’ understanding of the period in crucial ways.

Particularly significant is the case of Pythagoras. Russell writes,

Pythagoras…was intellectually one of the most important men that ever lived, both when he was wise and when he was unwise. Mathematics, in the sense of demonstrative deductive argument begins with him, and in him is intimately connected with a peculiar form of mysticism. The influence of mathematics on philosophy, partly owing to him, has, ever since his time, been both profound and unfortunate.

When Gottlieb comes to Pythagoras and his followers, he quotes from this passage of Russell and writes a chapter which is largely a reassessment, in the light of recent scholarship, of Russell’s chapter on Pythagoras, which was based on the then-influential scholarship of John Burnet and F.M. Cornford. The reassessment needed is considerable, thanks to a very great work of scholarship published in 1962, Walter Burkert’s Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaus und Platon (translated into English as Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, 1972). The effect of Burkert’s book was to destroy forever the alluring picture of Pythagoras as a mystical mathematician, a picture which has been endlessly recycled from antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond. Mystic, yes—or at least the leader of a religious brotherhood that believed in transmigration of the soul and was disciplined enough to take political power in several cities of southern Italy. But mathematician, no.


Pythagoras dates, as do the philosophers in Miletus, from the sixth century BC. The only Pythagorean known to have made a significant contribution to mathematics is Plato’s contemporary Archytas in the fourth century BC, who first solved the problem of how to double a cube. A geometrical theorem is named after Pythagoras, and he may well have been as keen on number symbolism as his followers who said “Marriage is five” and the like. But deductive mathematics began much later, independently of Pythagoras and his school. Likewise, Pre-Socratic cosmology had been going for nearly two centuries before the first known Py-thagorean contribution, by Philolaus late in the fifth century BC.* The traditional picture of Pythagoras as at once a mystic, a mathematician, and a scientist is nothing but a late construct projected back onto the revered master.

Gottlieb knows all this; Burkert is one of the scholars thanked for their help in his list of acknowledgments. But by focusing his chapter on Russell’s chapter he allows the traditional picture to dominate. The reader is duly told that Pythagoras did not discover Pythagoras’ theorem, and warned that Gottlieb will make little attempt to separate earlier from later forms of Pythagoreanism, let alone the views of the man himself from those of his followers. But, as so often, the suffix “-ism” covers over an incoherent unhistorical amalgam. The title of Gottlieb’s chapter, “The Harmony of the World: The Pythagoreans,” evokes Kepler’s treatise The Harmony of the World (1619), which announced the third of his three laws of planetary motion; Kepler was indeed a mathematical scientist of mystical bent, following (as he believed) in the footsteps of Pythagoras. The overall impression is much the same as you get from Russell.

I regard this account as a dereliction of public duty. The general reader has a right to know that the millennia-old picture of Pythagoras is a myth. An engaging myth no doubt, and one of enormous influence both for good and ill. But a myth nonetheless. Gottlieb writes so well, so clearly, that he would have had no difficulty outlining the essential points of Burkert’s demolition.

It is not difficult to understand why Gottlieb might balk at that negative approach. Had he taken it, his account of Pythagoras would be confined to the doctrine of transmigration and a communal way of life based on a vegetarian diet and precepts like “Abstain from beans!” “Don’t stir the fire with a knife!” “Spit upon the trimmings of your hair and fingernails!”—plus some seedy politicking. (There are sects still today whose leaders gain power over their followers by enforcing idiosyncratic rules in daily life.) Such a Pythagoras would not grace the history of philosophy as Gottlieb wants to write it.

This brings me to Gottlieb’s conception of philosophy itself. The first sentence of his book is deliberately paradoxical: “The last thing I expected to find when I began work on this book, more than ten years ago, is that there is no such thing as philosophy.” As you read on you discover what he means. Quoting Russell and William James, he describes philosophy as “the attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits.” When the attempt fails, “the dream of reason which motivates philosophical thinking seems merely a mirage.” When it succeeds, it becomes science—and ceases to be called philosophy. Philosophy, in Gott-lieb’s account, began when the Milesians created what would eventually become Western science. Much later, psychology, sociology, and economics all sprang from the work of people who at the time were called philosophers. And the traffic runs in both directions. Today’s welfare economics and cognitive science prompt new questions for the philosophically curious. True enough, so far as it goes. But where in such a conception of philosophy do we fit Cato’s reading of the Phaedo?


Greeks told of two gates through which dreams are sent to mortals: an ivory gate for dreams that deceive, a gate of horn for those that come true. Gottlieb’s introduction to The Dream of Reason tells of just two prospects for the rational dreams of philosophers: mirage or science. Of course, the body of the book has to describe the ethics of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, of the Epicureans and of Stoics like Cato. But in those parts the author’s tone is amused and often supercilious, like a traveler reporting on the curious practices of the natives. The reader would never guess that the moral philosophy of the ancients, much more than their science, was a living presence throughout the history of modern philosophy, and still is. Gottlieb’s heart lies in the domain of science. His hero there is Aristotle. He writes warmly on Aristotle’s omnivorous empirical curiosity. His account of why Aristotle’s appeal to function and final causes in biology is a step toward Darwin is a model of lucidity, a perfect way to differentiate the real Aristotle from the ossified, unempirical “Aristotelianism” against which the seventeenth century rebelled. But the dichotomy between science and mirage is a hindrance, not a help, in sorting through the manifold topics that philosophy has taken under its wing in different times and places, or the exuberance of styles it has adopted for them.

Besides, the very word “science” is a trap, and not only because none of its modern meanings fit smoothly onto the distant past. (Aristotle was the first person in history to set up standards and requirements for systematic theoretical knowledge, and for him that covered mathematics and theology as well as physics.) Unlike Russell, Gottlieb does not use the epithet “scientific” to sprinkle his text with marks of merit for this or that Pre-Socratic theory. Even when he comes to ancient Atomism he remains clear-headed: “Democritus simply made it all up and luckily turned out to be right…. This seemingly scientific philosophy grew straight from the dark and incredible notions of Parmenides.”

Nonetheless, his is a very Whiggish history. Aristotle, in his writing about function and final causes in biology, “was stumbling along the right track.” Empedocles “seems…to have had a grasp of the principle of natural selection”—this on the strength of Empedocles’ zoogony, much criticized by Aristotle, in which animal parts (heads, arms, etc.) spring up on their own during a struggle between the cosmic forces of Love and Strife, and then come haphazardly together to form living creatures, of which only the well-suited ones survive while the rest perish. Put Empedocles and Aristotle together and we are well on the way to present-day truth. It is not surprising that Darwin himself had good words to say about both of them.

I have no objection to using present-day truth as one yardstick in the history of philosophy. On the contrary, it would be dereliction of duty, especially when writing for the general public, not to celebrate ancient Atomism, Aristotle on biological function, and Empedocles’ phantasmagoric struggle for survival. A history without regard for truth is a history of ideas, not a history of philosophy, and judgments of truth can only be made from the viewpoint of the present. My criticism is quite different.

First, only “scientific” truth seems to count for Gottlieb. He reports the Stoic attitude to suicide, but does not relate it to controversies of our own day about contriving a reasonable exit for oneself or helping others to do so. He reports Aristotle’s theory that the soul is not a “ghost in the machine,” no extra spiritual substance conjoined with matter, but the form of the body itself. For Aristotle, to have a soul, as plants, animals, and humans all do, is to have a body organized for performing the life functions proper to a given species. Soul, as such, is nothing more (but also nothing less) than the combination of functional capacities for which the material body is organized. Yet Gottlieb does not mention that this theory has been acclaimed by several modern philosophers as the first “functionalist” solution to the mind–body problem, which has its counterparts in our own time. He recounts the ethical theories of the Epicureans and Stoics, but without calling readers’ attention to the fact that these are based on Epi-curus’ highly innovative analysis of pleasure itself and the Stoics’ equally original analysis of the passions. If one is looking, Whiggishly, for present truth, or signs of it, in past philosophy, these too—and not only these—are places to go. They contain better candidates for truth than most of ancient science.

Yet if all one looks for in the history of philosophy is truth as viewed from the present, that seems a good reason not to bother with it. We already know (what we take to be) the truth. In the analytic tradition quite a few philosophers have decided not to bother with the history of philosophy. For them, the history of philosophy stands to philosophy as the history of science does to current science. It is another subject, fascinating no doubt, but not ours. Once when I was giving lectures at Berkeley on Aristotle’s philosophy of mind, I was accosted in the corridor by one of the leading lights in contemporary philosophy of mind. “What are you telling them about Aristotle?” “Well,” I began, “he was against mind–body dualism.” “Good,” he declared, and marched back to his of-fice. Dispiriting, but perfectly rational if all that matters is truth as it is now understood.

Gottlieb is entitled to reply that he enjoys the excitement, the twists and turns, of the history of philosophy itself. As he tells it, it is indeed a pleasure to read. Never has the story as story been told so well. But my second criticism is that some readers will want more, and that more is not provided. Gottlieb has been studying this history for ten years. Did he find nothing to upset or challenge current views? Is the present state of truth so secure that no earlier thinker can set us right? Philosophers have often thought otherwise. They have often turned to their predecessors to find truth and bring it back to the present.

One example is “virtue ethics” in contemporary moral philosophy, which transports Aristotle’s ethics into the modern world to compete with the Kantian and other traditions. This theory of ethics emphasizes how social practices such as education motivate virtuous action and form character. I am happy to report that it is flourishing in contemporary philosophical discussion. Naturally, creative adjustments are required to fit Aristotle to the very different social and political circumstances of today. But such adjustments illuminate both the world that requires them and the original texts. What a pity there is no mention of this recent development in the eleven pages Gottlieb devotes to Aristotle’s ethics. For Gottlieb is much interested in the afterlife of the ideas he describes. He even writes an elegant page or so on the now seldom-read scholar-philosopher Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), who in his day was an influential propagandist for (a Christianized version of) the atomic theory transmitted in the writings of Epicurus and Lucretius. As usual, the progress of science is better served by this history than other parts of philosophy.

No doubt the primary duty of a history of philosophy is to show how the past led up to the present, or to some present which is now past. When the second volume is added, Gottlieb will have acquitted himself well, especially if he allows space for a more leisurely treatment of major figures who are skimped toward the end of Volume One, where Hobbes gets three pages compared to the 105 pages given to the Pre-Socratics earlier. Volume Two will continue the story from Descartes and the Scientific Revolution to the present day. It will be even harder for Gottlieb to fight the temptation to privilege science over other fields of philosophy, but all the more important that he try. For there are many non-scientific ways in which past philosophy can appeal to later readers, both inside and outside the academy.

Plato is a good example. The Platonists of later antiquity worked up the Theory of Ideas into a systematic trinitarian theology to compete with the growing threat of Christianity. Christianity won, in part, by incorporating so much from its pagan opponents that Augustine could treat the three Neoplatonic hypostases, or levels of reality (the One, Intellect, and Soul), as a large dose of Christian theology with the names changed. In the age of Romanticism Plato’s Theory of Ideas was an inspiration for poets such as Blake, Shelley (who translated the Ion and the Symposium), and Wordsworth, whose “shades of the prison-house” goes back to the Phaedo. A bit later James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and the greatest Plato scholar of modern times, George Grote, who all belonged to a group of reformers known as the Philosophic Radicals, found Plato’s Socratic dialogues an encouragement to carry Socrates’ questioning of establishment values into the politics of Britain, in an attempt to make their country a more rational, more democratic, and more secular place than it was when they were growing up.

That is a very variegated group of characters to share a love of Plato. What they have in common is that they all found Plato good to think with. If you ask, as Gottlieb asks in his introduction, “What use is philosophy?,” the answer “It stimulates science” is inadequate. A better reply is that it stimulates thought, whether it is science you want to think about or religion and ontology, politics and morals, art and language, or just how you personally should live and how you should die.

Which brings me back to Cato. We cannot know, we can only imagine, his thoughts as he lies on his bed in Roman Africa, unrolling the papyrus text of Plato’s Phaedo to read column after column of Greek. The scene is a prison in Athens, 399 BC. Socrates remains calm and dignified to the end, when everyone present (including the jailer) is in tears. His last day is spent, like every other, in philosophical discussion. The subject, of course, is the fate of the soul after death. His interlocutors are two Pythagoreans, Simmias and Cebes, who studied with Philolaus when he came to their native Thebes after the cities of southern Italy rose to drive out their Pythagorean rulers. It is probably from Philolaus that Simmias learned the idea (an ancestor of modern epiphenomenalism) that the soul does not have an independent existence but is the “attunement” or proportion in which the material constituents of one’s body are blended and “harmonized.” This would imply that the soul perishes when the body is unduly relaxed or tautened by sickness or some other trouble, in much the same way as the attunement of a lyre is destroyed when the strings snap.

Simmias introduces this theory as a possible objection to Socrates, who argues throughout the dialogue for the one philosophical idea we can safely attribute to Pythagoras himself, that the soul is immortal and is fated to undergo a cycle of lives in search of ultimate purification. Socrates refutes the “attunement” theory, but in doing so (he insists) his aim is not so much to convince Simmias by winning the argument against him as to convince himself that death is not the end. That is the faith, be it right or wrong, in which he will drink the hemlock.

As a Stoic, Cato will not be persuaded either that the soul is immortal and destined for transmigration or that it is a mere epiphenomenon of the functioning body. At the same time, being a Stoic he does not doubt that Socrates came closer to wisdom than any other known person has done. The Phaedo shows Socrates living to the end by the results of philosophical discussion, even in a matter where Pythagoreans disagree among themselves and no one can be certain of the truth. Whatever Cato’s consid-ered view about survival after death, he too will live by it to the end. Plutarch’s narrative makes him echo some words spoken by Socrates in another dialogue, the Crito: looming death is no reason to abandon the beliefs and arguments with which one has lived.

Socrates and Plato are not the only philosophers of the distant past to stimulate thought in philosophers and nonphilosophers alike. In his last technical paper, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937), Freud asks whether analysis can ever finally and permanently “tame” a person’s instincts and so remove not only the psychic conflicts currently being treated but also those that might arise in the future. His answer is pessimistic. Analysis is a process that stops without coming to an end. To explain why, Freud points to the death instinct that is inherent in all living matter—and cannot be eliminated. And to confirm his controversial hypothesis of a death instinct, Thanatos, in perpetual conflict with Eros, he invokes the opposed forces of Love and Strife in the dualistic cosmology of Empedocles.

Never mind that in Empedocles these forces govern the entire universe, not just individual organisms; for him, all matter is living matter since the entire universe is an animate being. Freud had read about Empedocles in his youth, and now in his old age he wonders whether what he imagined was his own discovery of the death instinct might not have been the effect of “cryptoamnesia” concerning his earlier study of Empedocles’ cosmic dualism. A curiously personal illustration of the old adage that those who ignore the history of philosophy are doomed to repeat it.

Many more examples could be given of different ways in which past philosophy can serve the present. Gottlieb has written a wonderful book, but it is flawed by an impoverished scientistic conception of what philosophy was, is, and can be in the future. This flaw is especially troubling in a history for the general reader, who would appreciate a more generous sense of the past. Let us hope that the second volume will make amends when it takes up the story of modern philosophy from Descartes onward. The second volume should also include an apology for this sentence in the first: “Any subject that is responsible for producing Heideg-ger…owes the world an apology.”

This Issue

November 1, 2001