Most of them are put in parentheses, as if they were inserted to warn the seminarists that they must not be taken in by the pagans. They could be removed, and a history of ancient philosophy ad usum infidelium [32] would result which would be head and shoulders above the usual histories. On the other hand, he is too given to periodizing and generalizing. I have no inkling of what he believed about any Catholic doctrine. Ashley compared A History of Philosophy to some of the most famous histories of philosophy as follows: "Some histories of philosophy, like the admirable one of Frederick Copleston, only attempt to give an accurate account of various philosophies in their general historical setting. Others, like Bertrand Russell in his absurd History of Western Philosophy or Etienne Gilson in his brilliant The Unity of Philosophical Experience proffer an argument for a particular philosophical position.

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The tenth and eleventh volumes seen in one reprint edition are a collection of articles and a separate book not intended as part of the History. Father Copleston was a Jesuit priest, who began this as a history for students in Catholic seminaries who were simultaneously studying Thomist philosophy.

It quickly became a standard history outside that target audience because there was nothing approaching a comprehensive history of philosophy in English at the time which was at all recent or based on contemporary scholarship.

This first book in particular bears the marks of its original purpose, with constant comparisons of the systems described to the "truth" as understood by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church. Although his comments sometimes seem rather intrusive to a non-Catholic reader, they are always clearly separated from his descriptions, and there is something to be said for having a known, admitted bias that one can take into account and correct for as opposed to a supposedly objective text where the bias and there will always be a bias in a field as controversy-laden as philosophy has to be guessed at from the treatment itself.

Moreover, when he arrives at the modern systems, his own views are so totally foreign to the systems discussed that he is probably more "objective" than any secular writer could be, who would necessarily sympathize with one of the tendencies under discussion. There is however, one important problem due to his viewpoint, which is in the selection of what he discusses and what he leaves out.

He is clearly weakest on the Presocratics, and in fact he begins with an apologia for including them at all; his "justifcation" is that they are needed to understand where Plato and Aristotle are coming from.

His discussion of Plato and Aristotle occupies most of the book, and is very thorough, and probably as accurate as could be hoped for in a book this size. These are difficult thinkers, and refreshingly he does not "dumb down" his treatment -- his target audience of seminarians he assumes has some reading knowledge of Greek and Latin, and some prior knowlege of philosophy from a Catholic viewpoint.

He gives more space than most recent histories of Greek thought to the post-Aristotelian systems, since he naturally considers neo-Platonism as the culminating synthesis on the point of being taken into Christian theology. Within the systems, it is sometimes frustrating to a non-religious person that he will mention that a philosopher wrote on logical or epistemological issues, then pass over that to describe in detail what he is interested in -- what they thought about God and the soul, and how it is similar or different from the "true" account of the Church.


A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome, From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus



Outline of “A History of Philosophy, Volume 1: Greece and Rome” by Frederick Copleston, S.J.




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