What has the Enlightenment ever done for us? This is an important question and the title of the last chapter of this book. My biased answer would include human rights, democratic government, personal freedom, and separation of church and state. I think it is no great exaggeration to say that the Enlightenment marks the beginning of a sea change in thought that rejected tyranny, acknowledged the rights of common people, and helped create the intellectual environment that made our modern world possible.
In this relatively short book (244 pages not counting notes), Gottlieb summarizes key points of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers: Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Leibniz, and David Hume, with due mention to others who supported or opposed them. It shows how these philosophical pioneers began to question convention, challenge authority, and propose alternatives. Some of their ideas may seem strange, backward, or even outrageous to us now, but they were constrained by the knowledge and beliefs of their time, as we all are. Unlike today, or at least not to the same extent, they also had to be cautious of the authority they were calling into question. The fact that we today can more freely express our thoughts without undue fear of reprisal is also, I think, a lasting gift of the Enlightenment.
Gottleib’s writing is clean, precise, and easily comprehensible. The philosophers he has chosen, and the points he selects from each of them, are appropriate to subject. I recommend this to anyone interested in cultural evolution and the progress of human thought.
I will confess to having a degree in Philosophy, which, from a practical stand point, may seem kind of pointless. My father certainly thought so when I was in college. ‘What are you going to do with that?’ he would say. ‘There’s no jobs in it.’ His degree was in accounting and he worked as an auditor. He knew about money. And because he did, I didn’t feel I needed to. That was back when I was young and not especially aware of the need to actually earn an income of my own some day. My insufferable reply was usually something like, ‘I’m going to college for an education, not for job training.’ Yeah, great comeback. Very philosophical, but try paying the rent with it!
Admittedly, a degree in Philosophy isn’t for everyone, but we all have a philosophy, at least as it’s broadly defined. We each have a particular way of looking at the world, complete with reasons (or at least rationalizations) for why we see it this way. Our personal philosophies form the foundations of everything we think and do. They color our perceptions and shape our actions. In this respect, our philosophies are pretty important, so it’s probably worth sparing a thought or two for them.
In this book, Gottlieb takes us back to some of the earliest recorded reflections on ways of seeing the world, from ideas about what it ‘really’ is, to how people should live in it. I don’t recall ever reading a better summation of the main points of the most prominent thinkers: from ancient Greece (where all sorts of ideas, both wild and insightful were espoused and criticized), to the Renaissance (when rationalization tended to dominate over rationality). He also clears up a few common misconceptions about some philosophers. I, personally, gained a greater appreciation for Aristotle from this book. Like many, I tended to view his philosophy as one of the things impeding progress in the Middle Ages. But it wasn’t the fault of Aristotle or Ptolemy or Galen that their works were regarded as something close to sacred long after their deaths, and they probably would not have approved to learn that they were.
The Dream of Reason is a great read. It’s clear, concise, informative, even entertaining. Gottlieb achieves the latter through clear prose and by providing just a bit of analysis from a modern perspective, which puts the ideas he’s explaining in context and shows their progression over time. If you’re a student of philosophy or just someone with a mild interest, you should read this.