U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Another Look At Copleston’s A History Of Philosophy Series: Volume 1

In August of this year I reported that I had resumed a long dormant reading of Frederick Copleston‘s A History of Philosophy series. I am happy to relay that I have finally finished Volume I, Greece and Rome: From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus. Huzzah! Only 8 more to go!—or 10 more depending on whether I can get my hands on the last 2 additions published by Continuum in the United Kingdom. Right now I own the 9 original volumes published by Image/Doubleday/Random House.

Putting future reading aside for the moment, I am here today to re-post a review I wrote for the Facebook application called “Visual Bookshelf.” Usually my Visual Bookshelf reviews are too short to be of real use—not to mention that many of the books I’ve reviewed there having little to do with USIH matters. This one, however, is different. Please pardon the informal style.


My 4.5 (out of 5) stars are based on one’s interest in this sort of thing. And, as another reviewer noted, this 506-page tome is not for the faint of heart. Given those two factors, I believe you’ll find this a rewarding read. The view from the mountaintop—or from around 300-400 AD looking backwards—is worth the climb.

First, a few of the positives. This is a thorough examination of the history of Western philosophy from the Ionian Pre-Socratics through Plotinus and the Neo-Platonism schools. So the book does fulfill the promise of its subtitle. I especially appreciated the entire chapter dedicated to Plato’s “Doctrine of the Forms.” I was also glad to be corrected of my contemporary, erroneous notion of Epicureanism (i.e. the hedonistic flavor of today’s usage versus the real Epicurean goal of pursuing lasting, over transitory, pleasures).

Of course this is not a perfect book. I will confirm what other reviewers have observed about the occasionally lengthy quotes in either Greek or Latin. This can be off-putting. But frankly, you can read over them and generally pick up the sense of the quote from the context. That said, the inclusion of a Greek alphabet in the appendices would help the reader see how singular special terms, also often given in Greek in the text, fit in the picture.

A more bothersome imperfection is the book’s limited index of proper names. The almost-criminal omission of ideas and general terms from the index limits one’s ability to refer back to key passages with any sort of ease. I took to scribbling key ideas and page numbers in the index as a supplement.

Finally, non-Christians may find the book’s last 50 pages or so, particularly the “Concluding Review,” somewhat off-putting. But you can’t say, as a reader, that you weren’t warned. Copleston tells you in the “Preface” that his impetus to write the book was an urge to supplement the lack of detail in Catholic ecclesiastical seminary texts.

Thinking again about the beginning of Copleston’s book reminds me of his excellent discussion of the question— “Why Study the History of Philosophy?”—in the “Introduction.” Therein he reminds the reader of ~the~ perennial issue that confronts those embarking on a study of preceding philosophers: “There is continuity and connection, action and reaction, thesis and antithesis [in the history of thought], and no philosophy can really be understood fully unless it is seen in its historical setting and in the light of its connection with other systems” (p. 4-5).

Of course this statement was written with a clear interest in mind (read my books!), and probably smacks of preaching to the choir when one considers the audience of Copleston’s series. But I couldn’t agree more. – TL