Philosophy in an Old Key

In the ancient world no one could talk or read too much about philosophy. Wealthy Athenian nobles, Plato and Xenophon, for instance—even Roman emperors, like Marcus Aurelius—lived for the hours they could devote to philosophical discourse. The pagan's conversion to philosophy was as important to him as conversion to Christ was for a Christian. When his political career came to an end, Cicero composed masterful Latin versions of Greek thought and considered his time well spent.

Things are different now, of course. Religion has replaced philosophy for the average person. Philosophers are academics and by concentrating on technique have managed to turn a subject that could excite a normal, healthy young aristocrat like Xenophon into a "field" as quibbling and repellent as Aristophanes' famous parody of Socrates' school in The Clouds. Professional philosophers know something is amiss and have tried to get back in touch with a wider public. One result has been a split between those who "do philosophy" and those who "do history of philosophy," i.e., discuss the texts that hand down what thinkers of yore thought. Is it possible to make an original contribution to today's intellectual and moral problems by reading texts written hundreds, even thousands of years ago?

Stephen Clark, professor of philosophy at the University of Liverpool, says "yes." In 1973,...

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