Thursday, May 3, 2012

Philosophers in 90 Minutes (Part Two)

     Paul Strathern will not be noted for being able to stay on-topic in the Philosophers in 90 Minutes series.  In the case of Socrates in 90 Minutes (1997), he manages to take quite a few pot shots at the field of psychiatry.  It is also worth noting that Strathern thinks that society in general reviles psychiatrists (I don't know if this is the case or not) while making no effort to separate psychiatry – a fake science to Strathern's mind – from psychology or even a modern way of living.
     He also has some difficulty when it comes to nailing down Socrates' particular contributions.  This is more than understandable.  Socrates never wrote anything down and what information that has survived about him is not just contradictory (the two primary sources are not in accordance with one another), but – in the case of Plato – tainted by the student possibly attributing ideas to the master that were, in fact, the student's.
     Still, it is a good, quick read.  Not as funny as the one on Heidegger, but not as dismissive as the one on Kant.  

    I'm not sure what to make of Plato in 90 Minutes (1996).  Strathern does manage to paint a solid picture of the life and times of Plato (though I do know a small amount about both, so I may have been filling in gaps that should not have been with foreknowledge), but he does not give as much attention to the works of Plato as I would have expected.
     In particular, The Republic (~380 BCE) is not given much examination as to its content.  Instead, Strathern mentions the Analogy of the Cave (which is 9th grade World History material to me) and a handful of the characteristics of Plato's sketch of an indeal society.  More time is spent mocking the ideas offered and trying to tie The Republic to Fascims, Nazism, and Stalinist Communism. 
     It is a good book.  In fact, it might be the one book in the series that I would recommend to others as a first read.  But it does not put the focus on the enduring value of Platonic philosophy – which becomes maddening when reading about St. Augustine incorporating Platonic thought into Christian orthodoxy and knowing that Strathern didn't much cover it in the first place – as much as it tries to show the colorful life and times of Plato. 

     I make no secret that my true interest in philosophy is in its various moral theories.  I don't care much about ontology or epistemology (which at some point either degenerates into our uncertainty about everything or rests upon some supposition so we can move forward and understand something).  Give me something about right vs. wrong, good vs. evil.  That is why I was very disappointed that Strathern give only the slightest mention of The Ethics (more commonly studied as the Nicomachean Ethics, as Nicomachus compiled the notes into the text).
     More troubling was Strathern taking up a couple of pages to tell the story of him wandering around (in the rain), looking for Ancient Stagira, looking for the birthplace of Aristotle.  It may be a humanizing moment for the author, but one that isn't necessary in so short a book.  It felt more like wasted space that a way to bookend Strathern's take on the philosopher.
     I think this book could have heaped both more praise and blame at the feet of Aristotle, but Strathern chooses instead to remain somewhat reserved on the subject.  The end result is that this ends up being one of the weakest I have seen.  Not horrible, but not a great introduction to such an important figure.

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