Book review: Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction. Bloomsbury history of philosophy, written by Stephen R. L. Clark

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction. Bloomsbury history of philosophy. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Pp. xi, 245. isbn 9781441123596. $27.95 (pb).

In Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction Stephen R. L. Clark challenges the formal boundaries and definitions of western philosophy: “. . . any attempt to draw a line around ‘Greek’ or ‘Classical’ or even ‘Mediterranean’ philosophy will fail” (vii). Moreover, we cannot distinguish ‘Ancient’ from ‘Modern’ (vii) or philosophy from poetry, history, natural science, theology or “proverbial wisdom” (vii). Plato’s dialogues are “works of art as well as of philosophy . . . neither art nor philosophy is always wholly clear” (109). Clark demonstrates this fluidity in his own inter-disciplinary approach to this superbly researched book, which can be hard to read—perhaps a purposeful challenge to our ranking clarity over depth. Clark achieves his enigmatic stated purpose—to convey “not the truth that matters, but only, at best, a map” (xi), as also his stated intention—to “entertain, inform, exasperate, inspire” (xi).

This work is part of a contemporary trend that traces mutual influences between western and non-western traditions. Clark situates Greek philosophy in its wider context (Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Zoroastrian, Phoenician, Egyptian, etc.), acknowledging possible influences and parallelisms (60, 103-4, 151-5). In ten chronological chapters, Clark interweaves a dizzying array of themes: God, truth (hidden, unhidden), rationality, modern science, prophecy, divination, mortal-immortal Sons of God (Heracles, Christ), etc. Although Greek philosophy remains the heart of this work, Clark is aware that the Greeks “did not invent philosophy” (x). He questions other tributes to the Greeks as well (7).

In chapters one and two (‘Beginnings’, 1-22, ‘Influence from outside’, 23-54) Clark tries to reconcile the apparent polarity between mythos and logos, arguing against the uniqueness of Greek rationality. Clark covers the pre-Platonic period in chapters three (‘Inspired thinkers’, 55-80) and four (‘Travellers and stay-at-homes’, 81-101), Plato and Aristotle in five (‘Divine Plato’, 103-124) and six (‘The Aristotelian synthesis’, 125-142), post-Aristotelian philosophy in seven (‘Living the philosophical life’, 143-155) and eight (‘Ordinary and supernatural lives’, 157-184), and Late Antiquity in nine (185-201), where he ponders how different the future would have been if a pagan Plotinism had won (197). In his concluding words in chapter ten (‘An end and a beginning’, 203-208), Clark is prophetic: “Whatever has been achieved before, and lost, there is a moment when the world is new and can reinvent or rediscover glory” (208).

Impressive in the care with which he posits nuances that reconcile seeming opposites, Clark’s aim is to synthesize without obliterating meaningful distinctions. He reconciles inward and outward truth (179), the ancient and the modern, and Greek, Jewish, Christian and Pagan thinkers (181), lending credence to the discoveries of sages, counting their experience (even memories of past lives) as reason. (67). He allows for our spiritually significant mental experiences (67), thus freeing us from the straitjacket of modern rationality: “The awakening eye may have nothing . . . to do with ‘reasoning’ ” (69). His efforts contribute to modern cosmopolitanism, for “everything is interconnected” (172). They render philosophy a practical activity (104-5) and a way of life—not merely a scholarly discipline (143, 154). Clark distinguishes Platonic realism from more immanent varieties (111), thus restoring an inward source of truth (112). In his discussion of the Platonic Forms, Clark speaks of an intermittent transcendental oneness across persons, tying immortality of thought to thought of truth (112-3).

Although topical and original, this provocative work (part of the Bloomsbury History of Philosophy series for undergraduates), which Clark himself describes an “an introduction only” (xi), far exceeds the introductory level. Given its cryptic threading of a formidable array of historical facts and quotes, this work is perhaps more suited to the scholar well-versed in the history of western thought.

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Book review: Ancient Mediterranean Philosophy: An Introduction. Bloomsbury history of philosophy, written by Stephen R. L. Clark

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

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