Letting the rest of the world go by
Generally there are two approaches to study any subject, either chronologically or thematically. Now, I have to add a third method: use a chronological order with a narrative tying all the pieces together.
The author first sets up the listener by putting his spin on who Plato and Aristotle were and explains each by contrasting them with each other, a very good way to understand who each are and what they believed. I think a real philosopher would pick apart the authors characterization, but I'm not a real philosopher and I love a good narrative.
At the heart of the difference between the two is contained in the analogy of the Cave. Plato would say that reality is never truly knowable and is hidden behind the shadows while Aristotle would say we can know by studying the individual and see beyond the shadows.
The author gives you many simple analogies in order to understand. For example, the Colonel in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" looks at the destruction of the bridge in the final reel and says "madness, madness" that would be as Plato would see it as the whole not the sum of its parts, Aristotle's perspective would be as the viewer of the film and who knows all the individuals involved and why the bridge must be destroyed.
The author steps the listener through the skeptics, cynics, and stoics, the Romans and some very early Christian thought to the neo-platonist and all the time he relates all development of thought through the Plato/Aristotle lens.
If your like me, you would love to read all the 2 million words that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, but you know you wouldn't really understand them and you are best served by having someone summarize them for you. This book explains why he's so important and how he ties them so strongly to the thinking of Aristotle and undoes the Platonic thinking of St. Augustine who defined the dark ages.
He gives a good account of the Renaissance and the Reformation and some of its major thinkers. He does quickly skip over the Enlightenment and goes straight to Rosseau. He does that because he wants to lead into the French Revolution to Hegel to Marx, all Platonic thinkers. I really do understand Hegel for the first time because of the way he explains him through the lens of the Cave.
He doesn't ignore the progress and significance of science in his outline of thought through the lens of the Cave. One thing I really appreciated he gave Newton and Darwin a prominent place in his story. How could anyone write about philosophy without mentioning Darwin? Not only that, he gave my hero, Ludwig Boltzman, the creator of the word "quanta" the real discoverer of the second law of thermodynamics (entropy), and the advocate of atoms before it became fashionable a whole section and explained why he is so important in the history of western thought. The author made me realize a point. Sometimes, as in Boltzman's case, the theory comes before the 'knowledge based on experience' (Aristotle's main way of seeing the universe). Perhaps, the bad mouthing of String Theory is premature and maybe the beauty of the mathematics will lead to something just as Boltzman's atoms came to be accepted after he killed himself?
This is really a great book and is the best way to understand the theory of development of thought. I just thought it was weird (or was it silly?) to end the story by giving Hayek the last word on economics and Ayn Rand (of all people) the last word on philosophy (is she even a Philosopher?). Don't let that mar the book since he tells such a fun story in such a compelling way.
This book is really a shout out for why philosophy is still relevant for today. If your like me, and want to know your place in the universe and why it matters this book will take you major steps there. You know your listening to a really good book when you can relate over half of the 100 or so science, history and philosophy books you've listened to over the last 3 years directly to this book. That's why I can recommend this book so strongly (with just a minor quibble in the previous paragraph of this review).
Durant is history for those who do not like history. He covers the topic mostly by using a thematic approach tied with an overriding narrative.
It takes the author a while to get into his own voice, but when he does the book comes alive and the history and the wisdom of the Greeks will live within the listener. He muddles his way through the first six chapters by speculating about pre-Homeric Greece and than using Homer as an authoritative source for history. It's worth wading through those eight or so hours to get to the real story.
At about 700 BCE, he starts talking about Sparta and contrasting that with Athens, and the author develops his real theme, "individualism leads to the destruction of the group, but gives creativity and progress". This is when the book comes alive! Sparta gives perfect order, Athens gives birth to the individual's growth at some expense to the whole. This story is worth telling. The story of Greece is a metaphor for this dichotomy (Plato and the Cave verse Aristotle's knowledge through observation and the values from the individual).
In two different spots in the narrative the author clues you into this dichotomy. When he talks about the Book of Ezra and how the question of evil is answered by stating that a part of the universe can never understand the whole universe and the question should never even be asked. The second time within the book he delves into Epicurean thought and explains that for the Epicurean the individual is only part of the whole and the group must be made of the parts as contrasted with a Stoic Philosophy that the group is understandable by the individual.
The book is not without flaws. The first 8 or so hours is muddled and can easily be skipped. He spends way too much detail telling me about the Greek Plays. He makes weird statements like, "even the Jew, the least superstitious of all people uses the word Mazel tov when greeting people".
When the author writes in his own voice and ties the pieces together through his narrative, nobody covers history better. In the end, Greece with it's individual city states gave us our heritage of valuing individual thought and the Romans will give us their structure for appreciating social order. I'll be looking forward to listening to Durant's spin on the Romans and their History.
The author tells a good story and ties together his main themes fairly well. He is a philosopher and approaches the subject from that perspective. It's a fun read and easy to follow, but it's definitely not full of scientific facts. The author preferred Noam Chomskey and Stephen Gould's ideas on the early development of man as opposed to Dawkins and Pinker. I definitely am in the Dawkins/ Pinker camp, but that didn't mar the listening experience and I'm always glad to hear a different perspective, and the author presented each camp fairly.
I'm really glad for the existence of audible. I would have never been able to force myself to read this book, but I had a very pleasant experience while listening to it. Thank you audible for making books like this available to me at such a cheap price of only one credit.
The author reads his own book and as with many non-professional readers he reads too slowly. I suggest you listen to it at 1.25 speed.