I knew embarrassingly little about the ancient philosophers before I picked up Paul Johnson’s biography Socrates: A Man for Our Times (Viking, $25.95). The title promised that this slim volume would not be an ossified tome, but the story of a man who has remained relevant from 470 B.C. to the present. I wasn’t disappointed. In 192 pages, Johnson, in vivid and lucid prose, packs in a wealth of information about Socrates’s life from his birth to his execution. Along the way we learn curious details of the legend’s life as a man, an Athenian, a participant and witness to history, and one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived—even though not a single word of his writing survives.
Useful both as a guide for the curious and as a refreshing summary for the well-versed, A Little History of Philosophy (Yale Univ., $25) is a passionate and energetic recounting of the story of Western thought. Nigel Warburton, senior lecturer at The Open University and the interviewer on the Philosophy Bites podcast, follows philosophy from the ancients to the atomic age, charting ideas as they weave through science, religion, music, and law. Especially adept at tracing influence, Warburton points out places where Eastern thought enters the Western picture. Humorous and relaxed, Warburton recounts his stories of thinkers and thoughts with the manner of a favorite teacher, feet up on the desk, conversing with students. At its heart, however, this is a book about skepticism, and it challenges readers to know where they stand, and why.
This gorgeous new edition of the E.H. Gombrich favorite, A Little History of the World: Illustrated Edition (Yale Univ., $29.95), doesn’t just tell the story of civilization from its humble origins to its most grandiose inventions, it shows it, adding faces, maps, and designs to the leaders, places, and creations it discusses. Gombrich wrote this book in the 1930s, intending it as a primer for children to replace the dull, ineffectual texts forced on them. Anything but dull, and no longer just for children, if it ever really was, this Little History is an affectionate but not uncritical look at the world we’ve made.