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  2. Julia Annas' "Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction
  3. 6 editions of this work
  4. Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction - Very Short Introductions

In twentieth-century France, it took the shape of the Que Sais-Je? By demonstrating that scholarly nonfiction could turn a profit, Pelican Books exerted an outsized influence on the publishing industry. In , that series ceased publication, and its extant titles were folded into a new O. I read a dozen or so cover to cover and started, skimmed, or skipped around in two dozen more—a practice that, in this case, feels less like reading on the cheap and more like browsing in a bookstore or shopping classes at the beginning of a college term.

A few of the introductions I sampled were disappointing. But those are exceptions. For the most part, the Very Short Introductions range from worth reading to wonderfully appealing.

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Plenty of less familiar names make welcome contributions, too. The most impressive introductions, though, are the ones that shine despite their lacklustre subjects. In fact, like many subjects in the series, his turns out to be surprisingly difficult to define. Mere lack of rainfall does not a desert make, since the real issue is not so much the absolute quantity of precipitation in an area in the form of rain, fog, snow, or dew as the ratio of that precipitation to the rate of evaporation.

Julia Annas' "Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction

In south-central Egypt, for example, the annual rainfall averages between zero and five millimetres, but the annual evaporation rate can be as high as five metres. As Middleton explains, there are deserts in the middle of the ocean: marine regions that have an arid climate because so little freshwater falls into them. Desert islands, it turns out, are surrounded by desert oceans. As that suggests, much of the pleasure to be found in the Very Short Introductions is the bedrock one of good nonfiction: facts.

If you read enough of the Very Short Introductions in a row, some of these facts, gleaned from different books, collide with one another and do interesting things—coalesce, contradict, form big, thudding major chords or eerie minor ones. But these encounters happen only in your mind; the series is not designed to put its subjects into any particular relationship. On the contrary: unlike Pliny and the Christian encyclopedists and, in his way, Diderot, the Very Short Introductions abandon taxonomy entirely.

There is no hierarchy in them, no genealogy or chronology or organizing principle of any other kind. This is one reason, apart from the fun of it, that there are so many lists in this piece. Initially, what dazzles about the Very Short Introductions collection is its apparent diversity—World Music!

Druids: A Very Short Introduction

The Tudors! Animal Rights! Some of these are likely to be remedied by the arrival of future volumes, since they are merely the consequence of carving up the world wherever the knife happens to fall. Other omissions, however, appear to be deliberate—for example, the somewhat comic failure of the series to cover athletics. Your odds of ever reading one on football or basketball or Nascar are not good, since only about twenty-five per cent of the introductions are commissioned in the United States, and a certain British bias persists in the choice of subjects.

When I spoke with the series editor, Nancy Toff, she had just completed an assignment—given to her by her U.

6 editions of this work

But other gaps in the series are more entrenched, and more insidious. In fact, of the fifty-four individuals featured in the series all but a handful are white and none are women. The editors say that this is because the biographical introductions were grandfathered in from the Past Masters series, and that they rarely commission books on individual people anymore. But that is a choice, not a law, and, whatever the logic behind it, it leads the series to implicitly endorse the same position as millennia worth of other omnibus projects: that the experiences and the contributions of women and people of color barely belong even in the vast inventory of everything worth knowing.

Why is baseball important? For that matter, why is Russian Literature important? Why is the Silk Road important?


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Why—intellectually speaking, not as a practical matter—are Teeth important? Put differently, what do we gain or hope to gain by reading books about all this stuff?

The larger any compilation of knowledge gets, the more it forces us to confront the question of what, exactly, so much knowledge is for. Is it meant to glorify God? Perhaps, yet it creeps equally close to blasphemy; omniscience, after all, is the purview of the divine. Is it to impress an emperor, or a boss, or a date?

Does it make us happy and virtuous, as Diderot hoped? Not on the evidence of Diderot himself, who suffered poverty and a prison sentence, was deserted by countless friends, and cheated rampantly on his wife. This is a book about the invention of Western philosophy, and the first thinkers to explore ideas about the nature of reality, time, and the origin of the universe.

It begins with the finding of the new papyrus fragment of Empedocles' poem, and uses the story of its discovery and interpretation to highlight the way our understanding of early philosophers is marked by their presentation in later sources. Generations of philosophers, both ancient and modern, have traced their inspiration back to the presocratics, even though we have very few of their writings left.

Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction - Very Short Introductions

In this book, Catherine Osborne invites her readers to dip their toes into the fragmentary remains of thinkers from Thales to Pythagoras, Heraclitus to Protagoras, to try to fill in the bits of a jigsaw that has been rejigged many times and in many different ways. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable. A note on the pronunciation. Chapter 2Platos name and other matters. Chapter 3Drama fiction and the elusive author.

Chapter 4Love sex gender and philosophy. Chapter 5Virtue in me and in my society. Chapter 6My soul and myself. Chapter 7The nature of things.


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  • About the Reviewer.

Droits d'auteur. She has also taught at the University of Oxford and Columbia University. She has published eight books and many articles on a wide variety of topics in ancient philosophy, particularly epistemology, philosophy of the mind, and ethics, and is author of Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.