19 December 2007

Nuanced, if rambling, prose makes for an interesting look at the history of Western thought

The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our Worldview

Richard Tarnas
Ballantine Books, 1993

I once heard a story that Tarnas would fire up a doobie before sitting down to write material for this book, and the rumor seems true in light of Tarnas' regular use of extended turns of nuanced phrase. That prose style is at once the major strength and weakness of this work. The fact that each paragraph comprises several precisely written (if overlong) sentences each containing at least one exhaustive list of examples makes for cumbersome reading, as I often have to reread the same sentence three or more times for the whole import to sink in. At the same time, this style does a fine job of articulating the manifold, complex, and often contradictory ways in which the seminal themes of Western thought have interacted. (For example, Tarnas does a brilliant job of showing how many of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation ironically contributed to the later undermining of Christian certitude and the rise of scientific materialism.)

I have other issues with the book, most of which have been described elsewhere on this site. Tarnas' lack of citations and primary sources (i.e., where he is getting his information?) make this a less-than scholarly review of Western thought, his repeated emphasis on astrology left me cold (which is odd, considering that I am a Leo-Virgo), his chapters on the late modern period and postmodernity need to be expanded upon, and his epilogue is a bit flakier than even I like.

That said, I will re-read this book and will recommend it to any reading about Western philosophy. It is a lively introduction to Western thought that does a darn fine job of pointing out the complex inter-relatedness of disparate elements and how they've played out over the last 2500 years.

(This review was originally written March 6, 2006.)

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