Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.02

Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism: the Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2011.  Pp. vii, 247.  ISBN 9780715638286.  $40.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by M. Jason Reddoch, Colorado Mesa University (jreddoch@coloradomesa.edu)

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

As the title suggests, From Plato to Postmodernism is a survey of Western intellectual culture and aesthetic values from ancient Greece to contemporary times. Considering the brevity of the book, Watkin successfully packs in a lot of information while still producing a highly readable volume.

This book is appropriate for any specialist or educated non-specialist who seeks to broaden his or her understanding of Western culture; however, it is probably best suited to the undergraduate student and is ideal for a humanities class as a supplement to other primary readings. Individual chapters could be assigned in isolation, but in my opinion, the real value for the student would come from reading it cover to cover in order to get the big picture of Western culture. There is a fairly extensive glossary of terms at the end of the book, and Watkin also makes abundant use of diagrams and charts in order to simply complex ideas.

One thing that makes the book particularly attractive for the undergraduate audience is the way Watkin begins almost every chapter with a short anecdote or narrative style introduction to some relevant Western figure. For example, chapter one opens with a narration of the death of Alexander the Great, chapter three opens with the coronation of Charlemagne, chapter five opens with the legendary death of Sir Francis Bacon, chapter seven opens with a short biographical sketch of “Fritz” Nietzsche, and chapter eight opens with an anecdote about Charles Darwin’s big nose. This approach certainly should encourage the interest and understanding of the student reader by presenting a memorable personality whose life and contribution to Western culture help set the context for the chapter.

The subtitle of the book says that it looks at Western culture through the mediums of philosophy, literature, and art. This is true; however, Watkin pays considerably more attention to philosophy. Beginning with an emphasis on Plato and Aristotle, Watkin traces the history of philosophy in relation to intellectual culture through figures such as Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida. In terms of emphasis, Watkin’s treatment of literature and seminal texts of all kinds is a close second to his treatment of philosophy. In the early chapters, Watkin provides more discussion of literary texts by authors such as Homer, Sophocles, John Milton, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, and Miguel de Cervantes, but in the later chapters, the emphasis is on intellectual texts such as the Communist Manifesto and the Origin of Species. To a somewhat lesser degree, Watkin also touches on art, music, history, and science. Other figures of Western culture that the reader will encounter include Leonardo da Vinci, Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, Nicolaus Copernicus, Pablo Picasso, Arnold Schoenberg, Michael Foucault, and Andy Warhol.

What stands out to me is that Watkin does not just present a superficial survey of names and terms. In other words, it reads more like a novel than an encyclopedic hall of fame list. As he tells the story of Western culture, Watkin seeks to paint a picture of the Western tradition in dialogue with itself. Thus he presents Western ideas in a constant state of being recycled, revised, challenged and subverted.

In the opening chapter on Greco-Roman antiquity, Watkin emphasizes the distinction between the Homeric view of a unified cosmos, in which the divine and human exist together, and Plato’s view of a world divided between universal Forms and phenomenal particulars. Then, by contrasting Plato with Aristotle, Watkin sets the stage for themes that recur throughout the book. In chapter two on Christianity, Watkin shows how Augustine combined Plato’s realism with Christian doctrine by presenting Plato’s Forms as existing in the mind of God. In chapter three, Watkin discusses how Thomas Aquinas was influenced by Aristotle in articulating his epistemological views.

In Watkin’s discussion of modern intellectual trends, he is careful not to over generalize. In chapter eight, he presents evolution, communism, psychoanalysis, and feminism as examples of new perspectives that are very different from each other but share the tendency to challenge hierarchies and previous ways of thinking. Darwin showed that humans were not the telos of the natural world. Marx was influenced by Hegelian idealism and challenged economic hierarchies. Freud undermined the Cartesian way of seeing the human mind, and feminism challenged biases and assumptions of patriarchal society.

Although Watkin focuses on philosophy and literature, he is careful to provide numerous examples of how changing intellectual perspectives are mirrored in developments in art and music. In chapter five, Watkin discusses the Protestant reformation and then illustrates the difference between Protestant and Catholic religious/intellectual values in terms of the Baroque aesthetic. Although all Baroque art is characterized by an excess of emotion or movement, there are significant differences between Catholic and Protestant Baroque art. For example, Peter Paul Rubens’ The Descent from the Cross is an example of Catholic Baroque, and Rembrandt’s Holy Family as an example of Protestant Baroque. Both are characterized by chiaroscuro in relation to biblical scenes, but Rubens emphasized Renaissance imagery with a supernatural quality while Rembrandt emphasized everyday life with less emphasis on the division between sacred and secular.

In chapter seven on modernism, Watkin describes the shifting ethos by emphasizing Nietzsche’s famous dictum that God is dead. Watkin shows that the modern period ushered in a new sense of loss as the Western tradition began to shed some of its earlier layers. Similarly, modernist musicians began to reject earlier assumptions about the necessary format and tonal basis of music. Whereas diatonic tonal compositions gave precedence to a particular pitch, composers such as Richard Wagner in his Tristan and Isolde began to adopt more ambiguous compositions. Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky went even further in rejecting traditional aesthetics of tone and rhythm.

Although Watkin does not present a systematic history of Western civilization, he is careful to link his discussion of cultural themes and concepts to historical events in order to provide a chronological framework. One particularly effective example is his use of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution in relation to the Enlightenment. Watkin emphasizes that Enlightenment thinkers were applying reason in new ways and expanding previous notions of equality and freedom. He points to the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen as manifestations of these changing ideologies.

A survey like this is necessarily selective. Every reader will think of authors or topics that Watkin could have included, and every reader will wish that Watkin had provided more or less detail in particular sections. In other words, there is a certain amount of content that is chosen arbitrarily, but in the end, what matters is whether or not the author is successful in using his arbitrary selections to effectively narrate the story of Western intellectual and aesthetic history on the whole. In my opinion, Watkin has done this extremely well. The reader gets a sense not only of what major names and concepts are central to Western culture, but also of how they developed in relation to one another.

In sum, I can imagine someone using different selections to write this type of survey, but I cannot imagine someone doing a better job overall.

Table of Contents

Introduction: To the Man with a Hammer 1
1. The Roots of Western Culture: Greece and Rome, 7
2. The Roots of Western Culture: Christianity, 32
3. From Catacombs to Cathedrals: The Middle Ages, 57
4. Man the Measure of All Things, 78
5. Into the Modern Age: Religious Reformation and Scientific Revolution, 98
6. Reason and its Limits: The Enlightenment and Romanticism, 120
7. Old Certainties, New Crises: The Death of God, Modernism and Existentialism, 144
8. Evolving Ideas of Humanity: Darwin, Marx, Freud and Feminism, 163
9. What Comes After the New? Postmodernism and Postmodernity, 185
Concluding Thoughts, 206
Glossary, 208
Further Reading, 232
Index, 239
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