The Ideal in the West

by David A. Beardsley

Verdict: Regardless of the reader’s potential agreement with the idea of a Western ideal, the book is worthwhile for its easy synthesis of various famous (and some not so famous) thinkers.

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Does a notion of idealism in Western thought run from Socrates to Thoreau? If so, what does this mean for the way that we think? What about the way that we live?

In answer to these and similar questions comes this exploration of great thinkers ranging from the Cynics of ancient Greece to the transcendentalists of 19th century New England. It is a journey that takes the reader through a wide range of work with the underlying idea that yes, there is a distinct link amongst many famous philosophers and artists. It is a link that is not only persistent, it can help even busy, modern individuals lead less complicated lives.  

Beginning with a rundown of ancient Greece and its philosophical tradition, this journey through many major points of Western thought is indeed a dense one. Covering works as far ranging as Raphael’s School of Athens and Shakespeare’s sonnets in one book is no easy task, but, as the author argues, there is reason to look at these works in close proximity. This reason is namely that these masters worked in pursuit of a one-ness or ideal that can be seen in a range of genius. It is an ideal that the author states in his introduction “is the source of all we can see or know, but without the anthropomorphic limitations we place on it.”  

Relying most heavily on Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Joseph Cambell, topics of myth, history, and philosophy are interwoven throughout the book in digestible fragments. What may seem like an impossible task of moving between centuries and schools of thought manages, due to the author’s relaxed and concise writing style, to be an easy glide. Utilizing frequent passages from the thinkers being discussed, a mixture of analysis and original source material is nicely maintained. The ability for this mixture to succeed in its main argument however depends a great deal on the reader’s willingness to go along for the ride.

The question persists as the years and pages fly by; what do Shakespeare, Raphael, and Emerson have in common and why does it matter? Following the author’s thought process to a conclusion that “There is within each of us a universe as limitless and rich as the physical universe” may not be as clearly punctuated as prior discussions of Renaissance Italy and the Polis of Ancient Greece. It is a conclusion that is nevertheless made available for interpretation. As a hard argumentative essay the book may not win over readers not already inclined to believing in a sort of “one-ness”, however, readers open to an exploration of a variety of names (and works) from the Western canon are certain to learn something.   

Regardless of the reader’s potential agreement with the idea of a Western ideal, the book is worthwhile for its easy synthesis of various famous (and some not so famous) thinkers.     

Reviewed by Collin Marchiando for IndieReader

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