The Traveller's Guide to Classical Philosophy
John Gaskin
Thames & Hudson
192pp, 20 black-and-white illustrations
Paperback, £8.99

From Abdera to Troy, many places in the Classical world that have had a lasting, philosophical impact on Western civilisation can still be visited today. This new edition of a book by John Gaskin, former professor of Naturalistic Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, sets out to introduce these sites, as well as wider themes in Classical thought.
The Traveller's Guide to Classical Philosophy starts off as a fairly traditional account of the Classical world and its customs, such as wine-drinking and theatre-going. It is an accessible and lively overview, useful to visitors with little knowledge of Greece and Rome, and with a chronological outline of the main events and figures from Homer and Hesiod in the Archaic period up to Theodosius in the late 4th century AD.

But the book is essentially a philosopher's guide to understanding the Classical world, and Classical ruins. The brief overview of the polis and the different structures common to various Greek cities and their functions would help travellers on site contextualise their ruined surroundings. The city walls, agora, aqueduct, baths, and bouleuterion (the meeting-place of the city council) are among those key structures given this treatment, a few of them enhanced with clear drawings to help fill in the gaps in the extant remains of the edifices.

After this orientation, some of the main philosophical ideas of the Graeco-Roman world are explored. Appropriately for a traveller's guide, the concepts and fields of inquiry are arranged according to the site or region with which they are associated. In Troy, for instance, we encounter Homeric ideals and Archaic attitudes towards warfare, marriage, charity, character, justice, and more. The inclusion of Homer here reminds us of both the legacy of his epics, and that there is more to Classical philosophy than Socratic dialogue.

Gaskin's approach is friendly, and given the book's suitability for a wide audience new to the subject, one of its assets is that it brings out figures who may not be so familiar to the general reader, not just Plato and Aristotle. At Miletus, which may not attract the same number of visitors as Athens, we learn about Thales, one of the seven sages of Antiquity, who fell into a well while studying the stars. This episode is also captured in one of the book's cartoons. A similarly light-hearted pictographic treatment is given to Pythagoras, who is depicted reborn as a cockerel and attempting to draw a right angle; and to the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius curled up in bed with a cat under his feet.

The final part of the book is a gazetteer with short snippets about the various sites that a reader may encounter, either on their travels, or in ancient philosophy. As well as giving a brief account of what can be seen today, Gaskin describes the important personalities or themes associated with a particular place. Chalcedon, for example, was the birthplace of the Sophist Thrasymachus, who features in Plato's Republic, but if any physical remains of the ancient city exist, they now lie buried beneath the suburbs of Istanbul. Herculaneum, in contrast, offers many attractions to travellers, and one of its stunning houses is the Villa of the Papyri, which contained some of the carbonised books of the important Epicurean philosopher Philodemus who worked there around 75–50 BC.

Slim enough not to be a cumbersome addition to a traveller's bag and enjoyable enough to dip into, Gaskin's guide is worth carrying for those looking for an easy introduction, but it is also useful for armchair travellers wanting to get to grips with the basics of Classical thought.

Lucia Marchini

 

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