One of Slate’s 10 Best Books of the Year
Anthony Gottlieb’s landmark The Dream of Reason and its sequel challenge Bertrand Russell’s classic as the definitive history of Western philosophy.
Western philosophy is now two and a half millennia old, but much of it came in just two staccato bursts, each lasting only about 150 years. In his landmark survey of Western philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, The Dream of Reason, Anthony Gottlieb documented the first burst, which came in the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Now, in his sequel, The Dream of Enlightenment, Gottlieb expertly navigates a second great explosion of thought, taking us to northern Europe in the wake of its wars of religion and the rise of Galilean science. In a relatively short period—from the early 1640s to the eve of the French Revolution—Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Hume all made their mark. The Dream of Enlightenment tells their story and that of the birth of modern philosophy.
As Gottlieb explains, all these men were amateurs: none had much to do with any university. They tried to fathom the implications of the new science and of religious upheaval, which led them to question traditional teachings and attitudes. What does the advance of science entail for our understanding of ourselves and for our ideas of God? How should a government deal with religious diversity—and what, actually, is government for? Such questions remain our questions, which is why Descartes, Hobbes, and the others are still pondered today.
Yet it is because we still want to hear them that we can easily get these philosophers wrong. It is tempting to think they speak our language and live in our world; but to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes. Gottlieb puts readers in the minds of these frequently misinterpreted figures, elucidating the history of their times and the development of scientific ideas while engagingly explaining their arguments and assessing their legacy in lively prose.
With chapters focusing on Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Pierre Bayle, Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau, and Voltaire—and many walk-on parts—The Dream of Enlightenment creates a sweeping account of what the Enlightenment amounted to, and why we are still in its debt.
Gottlieb (The Dream of Reason), a former executive editor of the Economist, takes on the difficult task of trying to figure out what exactly the Enlightenment's greatest thinkers were thinking, and to describe their thoughts in lay terms. He draws on intellectual, political, and scientific developments in Europe from the 1630s to the French Revolution. Gottlieb begins with Descartes and progresses through Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Leibniz, and Hume, concluding with Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Philosophes. Gottlieb skillfully juggles the biographical eccentricities of the philosophers and their enormous paper flow (some one million pages for Leibniz alone), but he takes on too much when he tries to show how these men, largely ill at ease with their peers and religious institutions, have been mishandled by such later thinkers as Kant and Pope John Paul II. The book overflows with information, but chapters could be better organized internally. Moreover, Gottlieb's writing can feel dull and uninspired given the material and his array of insights, including Locke's defense of serfdom and colonialism, and his possible theft of his theory on private property from a friend; Spinoza's influence on Einstein; and Hobbes's conviction that rational man would seek self-preservation and peace. The book has flaws, but Gottlieb's knowledge makes it worth reading.