Books about quotes often fall into the trap of being a bit twee. Wise words from the ancients are recycled all the time, taken out of context, not thought about and bantered around as if you can boil down a whole philosophy into a couple of lines.
This is my usual rant about quotation books. Luckily, it doesn’t apply to Gareth Southwell’s Words of Wisdom. There were many, many things I loved about this book, so I’ll start with arguably the most important: Southwell’s analysis of the philosophies (and philosophers) he’s quoting. It’s evident that he’s thought deeply about all the meanings, that he’s read them in context, and that he’s spent a lot of time studying philosophy. The descriptions are well thought out and not at all cloying.
Whenever I open a book, I also open my notebook and jot down any interesting passages I find. In a book about quotes, I expected these to be numerous, and they were. The surprising thing was that many of the most interesting quotes in the book were from Southwell’s descriptions as well as from the philosophers he was paraphrasing. His sense of humour shone through and provided an easy-to-read but still in-depth analysis of philosophy from ancient to postmodern.
Which brings me to my next point: the number of modern and post-modern philosophers in the book. Often I find myself slightly irritated by the proliferation of quotes from Plato, Confucious and so on. Sure, they’re fantastic, and they have a place in any book about philosophy, but there are a lot of people who have been around in the past 200-300 years whose views are also well worth sharing. Southwell devotes a significant part of the book to these guys, thus avoiding the trap of writing a fusty, outdated tome and instead showing the relevance of philosophy to life nowadays, which is especially important in an age in which philosophy seems to be viewed more and more as ‘just people waffling on about their own empty opinions.’
Yet another thing I appreciated was the fact that Southwell doesn’t only treat writers as ‘valid’ philosophers if they have a philosophy degree and lectured in it at some point. The inclusion of Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley pleased me especially; controversial figures many people would shy away from, but still leading lights in the philosophy of spirituality.
All in all, a glowing review for a fantastic book. I think it would make an excellent introduction to philosophy, and also a great point of reference for anyone looking for inspiration. It took me about four times as long to read as most books do, because I kept having to stop to jot down ideas that had been inspired by the writing. Definitely worth a read.
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