Western Philosophy

I used to regard claims about the uniqueness of Western philosophy as ethnocentric. Some undoubtedly are. But there is something special about the Greek legacy — particularly Plato and Aristotle — that does set it apart from anything that came before. Greece gave the human race the idea of reason, which led not only to modern mathematics and natural science but also to ethics based on reason rather than authority.

On the other hand, there is no simple continuity from Greece to the modern West. During what corresponded to the early middle ages in Europe, the Islamic world and South and East Asia were much more sophisticated. There was also much more continuity of Greek learning of all sorts in the East. The bourgeoisie of the Italian Renaissance invented for themselves a much more direct descent from classical Greece than history actually supports.

Jonathan Israel’s trilogy on the Enlightenment and Frederick Beiser’s The Fate of Reason show that mainstream thinkers of the Enlightenment still put many limits on the application of reason in touchy areas like religion and politics. Plato and Aristotle did not.

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