For the best part of fifty years I have been trying, and failing, to understand (and remember) some philosophy. I have numerous books on the subject, from Philosophy Made Easy, to Bertrand Russell’s formidable History of Western Philosophy. In a weak moment I recently purchased Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations; translated from the German, it might just as well have been rendered in Egyptian hieroglyphics for all the sense it makes to me.
Occasionally I find a gem; one such is Cathcart and Klein’s Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar. Subtitled Understanding philosophy through jokes, it uses American (usually Jewish) humour to illustrate philosophical points.
However, the best book I have come across is undoubtedly Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Reason; the book charts the history of philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. Gottlieb, sometime editor of The Economist, writes in the most accessible journalistic style. One guesses that he has a permanent twinkle in his eye, since every now and then he delights in chronicling the amusing, bizarre and sometimes downright bawdy. On Francis Bacon:
Bacon … frequently did not know what he was talking about and had the remarkable ability for looking the wrong way when something interesting was going on.
[Aristotle said that] men naturally have more teeth than women. Some people have wondered why he never asked Mrs Aristotle to open her mouth so that he could check…
On Epicurus, Gottlieb related what a former member of Epicurus’ inner circle had said about the man:
… for years he could not get out of his chair; but … nevertheless enjoyed close relations with four women in the commune who were known by the nicknames of Hedeia (‘Sweety-Pie’), Erotion (‘Lovie’), Nikidion (‘Little Victory’) and Mammarion (‘Big Tits’) …
Epicurus, Gottlieb insists, got an ill-deserved bad press. The Romans called him "The Pig".
If, when you're struggling to understand an obscure and subtle philosophical point, you enjoy the occasional chuckle, or indeed belly-laugh, particularly when you can’t see it coming, Gottlieb’s book is definitely for you.
Modified 21 January
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