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In pursuit of philosophical literacy: A review of Socrates’ Children

Anyone who picks up this four volume set from Word on Fire will come away seeing the point of philosophy immediately, thanks to Peter Kreeft’s talent for explaining the complex in simple language.


Philosophy is notoriously difficult to introduce by means of a single book. The trouble is that while the discipline of philosophy is primarily concerned with abstract argumentation, its subject matter is inextricably bound to a concrete history and tradition. It is no easy task to convey all of this in a book of manageable length.

The basic difficulty can be highlighted by considering two of the “gold standard” general introductions to philosophy: Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy and Fr. Frederick Copleston’s multi-volume history of the subject. While Russell’s short and eminently readable volume does a fine job introducing readers to the precision and clarity of philosophical argument, it provides little by way of broader historical context. And while Copleston’s history is peerless in its historical range and breadth, it is so dense with detail that it can be difficult for newcomers to discern any “bottom line” in terms of what each philosopher’s contributions are and why we might take their ideas seriously.

Seen against this backdrop, Peter Kreeft’s four volume set Socrates’ Children: An Introduction to Philosophy from the 100 Greatest Philosophers is a welcome addition to the ranks of general introductions to philosophy, as it is a truly rare and remarkable combination of breadth and accessibility. The work is structured historically rather than topically and modeled upon a “great books” approach to the subject, focusing upon individual philosophers and their ideas rather than arguments for and against certain philosophical theses.

Each volume covers a major period in the history of philosophy: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary—a division which is wholly conventional even though the precise boundaries between “Modern” and “Contemporary” are drawn differently by different scholars. Each historical volume is subdivided into brief chapters, providing a short executive summary of some historically important philosopher and the main themes which characterize his work.

Kreeft chooses to introduce 100 philosophers, but he might have easily done with fewer; his picks in the first three volumes are uncontroversial, but his selection of contemporary philosophers displays a decidedly Catholic and Continental emphasis.

The work is tailor-made for the intellectually-curious non-philosopher, as Kreeft makes every effort to lead the reader into a deeper understanding and appreciation of philosophy by means of concrete illustrations, colorful analogies, numbered lists, bullet-point summaries, and even visual mnemonic devices. Suggestions for further reading and guides to self-study are numerous. Very few authors do as much as Kreeft does here to sow the seeds of intellectual curiosity in his readers and to cultivate a sense of basic philosophical literacy.

The material in each volume lends itself well to piecemeal absorption, as one can readily pick it up, file through several short but dense chapters, and return to it later without losing the central threads of Kreeft’s presentation. Most individual chapters can be read in isolation without loss if one first absorbs Kreeft’s overarching account of the relevant historical era. He summarizes the principal claims of each philosopher succinctly, and treats the back and forth of philosophical argument in a straightforward, conversational manner.

A particular strength of Kreeft’s historical presentation is his ability to communicate the general trajectory of philosophy from the ancient period to the present. Hence, even though the work is focused upon the claims of the individual philosophers, it never devolves into a catalog of “who said what”. Each philosopher is shown to contribute to the progression (and in some cases degeneration) of the subject over time.

Kreeft’s Catholic sensibility pervades his understanding of how philosophy has progressed; he frames Western philosophy as having culminated in a “marriage” of faith and reason in the Middle Ages, only to end in a “divorce” initiated during the early modern era. In Kreeft’s narrative, ancient philosophy, culminating in Plato and Aristotle, articulates and clarifies a set of perennial truths about human nature and the basic structure of reality. These insights are eventually augmented with revealed religion by the medieval philosophers and consolidated into a coherent synthesis of faith and reason which finds its clearest expression in the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The modern period is characterized by its rejection of this synthesis, culminating in a “divorce” between faith and reason as the modern philosophers proceed to naturalize and secularize philosophical reason, and re-orient moral and political life away from ultimate ends and towards immediate and this-worldly human interests.

While the set is intended as a work of general instruction, the presentation is neither dry nor neutral, and, in addition, to a “Catholic” sensibility we can also detect a tone that is “populist” in spirit. Kreeft makes clear from the outset that he is aligned with common sense and the received wisdom of Western Civilization over and against the dominant impulses of the modern academy, impulses which are insular, technocratic, and elitist.

Although his discussion of individual thinkers is for the most part evenhanded (with a few glaring exceptions—see Marx and Derrida, for example), Kreeft at no point feigns impartiality. He clearly sympathizes with thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, and he is clearly at odds with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, even as he treats them with a certain adversarial respect. And while there are many places where I might have wished to see different points of emphasis (I would have said much more about Descartes’ preoccupation with mathematical physics, and the role of the scientific revolution generally) or further lines of critique (I would have pushed back much harder against Hume’s skepticism), the overall thrust of his explanations leaves little to criticize.

Thus: as a general introduction, Socrates’ Children is among the best available. At the same time, I find myself stopping short of calling it definitive, as the survey of contemporary philosophy omits too many thinkers central to the present weltanschauung to serve as a truly complete introduction to the intellectual world of the present.

As noted, the selection of philosophers and ideas covered in the first three volumes is conventional, and this approach gives those volumes a certain aura of neutrality that bolsters the credibility of Kreeft’s larger narrative. In Kreeft’s study of the recent past, he omits several of the most important secular philosophers of the post-war era. Kreeft chooses instead to focus upon thinkers who impacted the intellectual life of the Church (De Chardin, Lonergan, Von Hildebrand) or whose interests are adjacent to religious concerns. (Levinas, Marcel, Ricouer). On the one hand, this approach makes space to discuss many excellent thinkers who are surely the intellectual equals of their secular counterparts. On the other hand, it leaves us without certain key intellectual signposts in navigating the very confusing circumstances of the present day.

Ours is a society dominated by aggressive forms of institutionalized scientism, identity politics and a preoccupation with social power, and an increasingly dogmatic secularism that seeks to exclude religion from the public square entirely. Without a discussion of Willard Quine, Michel Foucault, and John Rawls, none of these cultural realities will appear to have intellectual touchstones in the philosophical traditions of the recent past.

Taken as a whole, however, the foregoing are perhaps minor complaints. Writing philosophy for public consumption is a difficult and often thankless task, and there are few who can do it without either talking over the reader’s head or oversimplifying to the point of distortion. Anyone who picks up Socrates’ Children will come away seeing the point of philosophy immediately, thanks to Kreeft’s talent for explaining the complex in simple language.

It is, moreover, an encouraging sign to see this volume published by Bishop Barron’s “Word on Fire” Institute, as it heralds a high-profile acknowledgement that philosophical literacy is a vital component in the re-evangelization of culture. As Kreeft clearly understands, questions surrounding God and religion are for most people the most intuitive on-ramps into philosophical wonder.

In a culture that is rapidly losing its capacity to inspire wonder, or any sense of larger meaning, Socrates’ Children is a timely effort at fostering philosophical literacy in decidedly post-philosophical society.

• Related Book by Peter Kreeft: Philosophy: What Every Catholic Should Know (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 2023)

Socrates’ Children: An Introduction to Philosophy from the 100 Greatest Philosophers
By Peter Kreeft
Word on Fire, 2023
Special edition box set | Four paperback books, 1072 pages total

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About Dr. Sam Nicholson 1 Article
Dr. Sam Nicholson is a former Professor of Philosophy. He teaches high school Logic and Philosophy for Homeschool Connections. He and his wife, Eleanor Bourg Nicholson, homeschool their five children.


  1. Yes, I’m disappointed to hear that Foucault and Rawls aren’t even covered given how much continuing damage and distortion their thought is responsible for. But I am looking forward to purchasing this set in the near future. Thanks to Dr. Kreeft for it and for tbis review!

  2. “On the other hand, it leaves us without certain key intellectual signposts in navigating the very confusing circumstances of the present day.”

    I see no reason to even talk about modern “philosophers.” Their books should be restricted from unauthorized view, their disciples should be fired from teaching positions, and they should be prohibited or very closely scrutinized with regards to any publications.

    Those books which are best with regards to introducing philosophy are along the lines of “An Introduction to Philosophy: Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition.”

    Do math teachers talk about the “theories” of those who – if any existed – believe that 2+2=5? The purpose of teaching is to impart truth.

    Discussing the errors of the past is almost like a Catholic who teaches comparative religion. It is self-sabotage.

    When I attended a “Catholic” university one of the professors summed up the medieval Catholic attitude: If you have the truth, you don’t tolerate error.

    Mixing truth and error in teaching is one of Satan’s tactics and likely his closest followers have learned this lesson well.

  3. Two other classic works on the subject are by the German neo- Kantian Wilhelm Windelband and the American idealist Frank Thilly both titled A History of Philosophy. These books are dated due to their age yet still remain cogent and valid expositions on the development of western philosophy up to the time of their writing. Contemporary philosophy is now dominated by post-modern and post-structuralist thought which is essentially a recycling of relativism and skepticism especially in reference to art, gender, language, literature, power and values. The author of Socrate’s Children would probably refer to this intellectual trend as revived sophism. Professor Kreft was my senior year philosophy instructor at Boston College during the 1980-81 academic year with courses covering Saint Augustine and the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Philosophizing is always opportune in helping to keep one’s perspective amidst the vicissitudes of life!

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