Dead Greek People III: Enough Philosophy Already

Perhaps the Greek philosophers detailed in the first two posts in this series bore or annoy you. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. The list of people who didn’t think much of Socrates’ philosophy went beyond an upset Athenian jury. In fact, his most enduring critic wasn’t some angry plebe, but instead a playwright. Here he is.

His name is Aristophanes, and he was an early master of the satiric play. He wrote them for festivals around Greece, where he piled up a bunch of prizes. He made quite the art of making fun of other people, most famously a politician named Cleon, whom he harassed throughout his entire career. In his play The Clouds, he decided to take a shot at Socrates.

The play involves a decadent Athenian family in which the father, Strepsiades, has been driven into debt by his useless son, Pheidippides. Rather than pay the debts, however, Strepsiades wants to find an easy way out, and suggests his son enroll in Socrates’ school, where people are taught how to make bad arguments sound reasonable. Pheidippides tells him the school is only for losers and nerds, so Strepsiades enrolls himself instead. He learns that Socrates and his obsessive pupils spend their time doing things like devising new measurements for the distance jumped by fleas and floating about in baskets so as to better observe the sun. Bored, Strepsiades winds up masturbating rather than joining the absurd intellectual pursuits, and Socrates catches him and throws him out.

Angered, Strepsiades forces Pheidipides to go learn from Socrates. Unlike his father, he learns precisely how to make a bad argument sound reasonable, and comes out capable of making an argument for beating his father, which he promptly does. Disgusted, Strepsiades tells his slaves to grab the torches and pitchforks, and the play ends as they head off to teach the disreputable Socrates a lesson.

It’s hard to know how serious this critique is, and how much of it was just in good fun. One of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium, has Aristophanes and Socrates chatting merrily during a dinner party, with no signs of disagreement. He may not even have been that relevant; Cleon’s political career was unaffected by the constant abuse, and Cleon, despite being a rather disagreeable fellow, apparently saw no need to suppress Aristophanes. But his criticism of Socrates endured, and it certainly isn’t a totally baseless one. Intellectuals always face the danger of getting caught too far up in the clouds and losing track of what really matters, even as they argue about what really matters.

One other memorable person who lived in Athens around that time also didn’t think much of the famed philosophers’ lives of detached thought. That guy is Diogenes.

If you think he looks like a bit of a slob, you’d be right. For starters, he lived in a barrel. His only real companions were a bunch of dogs. He went out of his way to drive a lot of people nuts. His targets not only included philosophers; he even took a shot at the most powerful man in the world. When Alexander the Great came before him one day, most likely hoping for the fawning and worship he inspired in everyone else, the sunbathing Diogenes had one simple request: that he move over and stop blocking his sunlight.

Alexander thought this was pretty awesome. (He was more than the military meathead so many of his fellow world conquerors were; remember, Aristotle was his teacher.) “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,” he said as he walked away.

The emperor of the known world was on to something. A lot of Diogenes’ actions can seem random and weird, especially since the only records we have of him are anecdotes collected by other people. He didn’t eat with utensils. He jerked off in public. He showed up at Plato’s lectures just to mess with him. He wandered around a marketplace in broad daylight with a lantern in search of an honest man. (He didn’t find one.) But Diogenes was more than an annoyance.

Instead, he had a fairly coherent idea of what it meant to lead a good life, and his philosophy was one of radical simplicity. At times, his actions are reminiscent of religious mystics. He sought to live in accord with nature, which for him meant simplicity and purity, and as an outsider, he was detached enough that he could study the culture around him and reject the customs that were damaging, or simply silly and unnecessary. He was the first person to call himself a “cosmopolitan”—that is, a citizen of the world, not some tribal loyalist to his city-state. He was in many ways far, far ahead of his times. Alexander may have been literally blocking the sunlight, but he might also, perhaps, have been blocking the light of the truth, with his obsession over wealth and power and other worldly goods.

Aside from weirdness, there is another charge that can be thrown at Diogenes. He may have claimed to be a citizen of the world, but as with Socrates, it really is impossible to imagine someone like him being tolerated in any ancient city other than Athens. He’d grown up in Sinope, but was so obnoxious there that he got thrown out, and lived in exile for the rest of his life. His cosmopolitanism was only possible because he was free to go about living his radical way of life in a safe, stable, and well-run city. This doesn’t mean he was wrong to go about pointing out the hypocrisies and stupidities of ancient Athenian custom, which certainly offered its share of ripe targets. Every community needs its cynics to keep everyone else from being too comfortable. But without the community to live in and play off of, Diogenes would quickly have been forgotten.

Aristophanes and Diogenes might not have as great a reach as the most famed Athenian philosophers, but they do offer a welcome counter-balance to the earnestness of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Sometimes basic, practical sense is far more useful than endless theorizing, and this is something that philosophically inclined people should never forget.

Next: Pericles and Thucydides

Image of Aristophanes from http://www.crystalinks.com/aristophanes.html. Image of Diogenes (from Raphael’s The School of Athens) from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Nicolas-Andre Monsiau’s Diogenes and Alexander from http://classicalwisdom.com/diogenes-of-sinope/.

Dead Greek People II: A Project Is Born

This is Socrates. Socrates was the first of the great Athenian philosophers of that city’s Golden Age, and thus gets blamed for pretty much everything that came afterwards. To be fair, Socrates asked for it.

Or so it seems, at least. We don’t know all that much about the real Socrates. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, none of his writings survived, if he even had any. Instead, we have to rely on a lot of other people—namely, Plato, whose dialogues usually involve Socrates making fools of several debate partners. Because of this, it can be hard to separate the real Socrates from Plato’s rather idealized version of him, and to know which ideas are original to Socrates, and which ones Plato might be sticking in his mouth.

Still, there are worse things that could happen to a person than having Plato become one’s interpreter. Plato quite clearly loved his mentor, and did everything in his power to immortalize his thought. Seeing as we’re still talking about him 2400 years later, it worked out pretty well.

Socrates was nicknamed “the gadfly” because, much like small annoying insects, he went around bothering and questioning everyone. While Plato and Aristotle founded academies and spent much of their time with people with somewhat similar interests, Socrates would chat up anyone. No one’s presuppositions were safe from Socrates, and that is what made him so radical: while he clearly enjoyed spirited debate with other philosophical folks, he wasn’t one to retreat to some ivory tower.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes people who go around questioning everything, and Socrates made himself some enemies. Eventually, he was put on trial for promoting false gods and corrupting the youth. (People do tend to get rather defensive over their faith and their children, even in a city like Athens, which was incredibly tolerant for the time.) His critics accused him of sophistry, or the preaching of confusing immoral nonsense designed to undermine the order of things.

Socrates was tried by a jury of several hundred Athenians, and he put on a show. He professed his own ignorance, and explained how he’d devoted his life to resolving the paradox of how he could be the wisest man on earth (as an oracle had once called him) if he also knew how ignorant he was. He played games with his accusers and was completely unrepentant for his alleged crimes, jokingly suggesting his “punishment” should involve free meals for the services he’s offered. Even after he’d been convicted, the general assumption was that he would just run off into exile, and the Athenian authorities were quite content to look the other way and let it happen. Much to everyone’s annoyance, however, Socrates had different ideas.

If we are to believe Plato, Socrates’ refusal to run stemmed directly from his relationship with Athens. He had no desire to make a mockery of its legal system, and he couldn’t imagine a contented life in another city. Only in Athens could he find as much freedom to pontificate as he did, and it was only because a substantial number of its citizens knew of his sincerity that he was allowed to go as far as he did in challenging everyone’s assumptions. (The vote to convict him was a narrow one, and he had plenty of people who were willing to fight for him.) People aren’t really sure if he was a supporter or a critic of the Athenian democracy. Some of his pupils and supporters hadn’t held it in very high esteem (including Plato, with his philosopher-kings), and one could easily see Socrates as a martyr for regime change, trying to show how perverse the Athenian system was. (How could majority rule be any good if it sentenced the wisest man on earth to death?) In my completely un-expert opinion, however, this only gets at part of the truth; Socrates is too complex to be a political revolutionary, and nothing more. He probably did intend to point out some of the flaws in democracy—he was an eternal critic, after all—but in spite of that, his loyalties never flinched. His refusal to leave stemmed from his love affair with his city of Athens, even though he knew it was far from perfect.

He didn’t have much desire to grow old and wither away, either. Socrates saw his body as something of a prison for his mind and his soul, and he believed that a life lived in accordance to virtue was far more important than a long life. The ultimate proof of this, he figured, was a willing embrace of death. And so Socrates drank the poisonous hemlock juice and died at the age of 70.

By most standards, Socrates’ choice was a crazy one, and akin to suicide. The Greeks found him just as nuts as we would today. But if he’d done the “rational” thing, we wouldn’t remember him all that much. Socrates’ scheme (or, perhaps more accurately, Plato’s scheme) was to suggest that humans should hold themselves to a higher standard. Socrates’ story is a celebration of the power of civilization. He needed a city like Athens in order to live the life he did, and only in a culture that respected his freedom to explore great ideas would he be immortalized. Humans are flawed, certainly, but they have some potential to move toward justice, and the difficulty of the project in no way invalidates it.

It’s easy to throw stones at Athens today. We can point out the abuses of slavery, the subjugation of women, and the failed military campaigns, and make a pretty good case that the ancient Athenians weren’t all that enlightened. We could gripe about how that one city has come to dominate the foundations of Western philosophy ever since; isn’t it just a lucky accident that the thought of one city wound up being perpetuated across the known world by the conquering armies of Alexander?

Perhaps. Other parts of the world developed their own robust philosophies, and some of them survive in some form. The Athenians of the fifth century before Christ had plenty of influences, both Greek and non-Greek. Still, it’s hard to fight the notion that something different was happening in Athens when Socrates began his project.

Aeschylus, an Athenian playwright who predated Socrates somewhat, might have the answer. In his Oresteia trilogy, Athens is just like any other place, and is ruled by the Furies, who are rather shrill goddesses whose idea of justice always involves vengeance and endless cycles of violence. Thankfully, Athena, the goddess for whom Athens is named, sweeps in and spares the hero, Orestes, from such a nasty fate. Reason comes into being, trials are henceforth conducted by juries instead of vindictive goddesses, and everyone goes home happy. Athens put on Aeschylus’ plays every year as part of a big civic festival. The Athenians were more than a community of producers trying to sustain themselves, or even an honor-bound band of brothers pledged to defending said community; they were willing to reach for something even greater.

The Athenians didn’t get it right all the time, as they showed with Socrates’ trial. But at least they tried. In 399 B.C., that alone made them revolutionary.

Next: Aristophanes and Diogenes

Image from New Religion and Culture Daily. The painting is called “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Luis David.

Dead Greek People I: Realists and Idealists

Most of the paintings and frescoes in the Vatican are, for obvious reasons, religious in nature. There is one, however, that glorifies a bunch of pagans. Its name is The School of Athens, and these two jolly men are at the center of it.

The guy on the left is Plato, and the guy on the right is his pupil, Aristotle. You’ll notice that Plato is gesturing up at the sky, while Aristotle is holding his arm outward. The artist, Raphael, knew exactly what he was doing when he painted them that way. Those simple gestures effectively sum up the way each man looked at the world. (In explaining these two worldviews, I can either be technical and lose my readers, or be general and anger the philosophy buffs out there. Easy choice.)

Plato is pointing skyward because he’s a sort of idealist. His most famous work, The Republic, imagines what the perfect society would look like. He is perhaps best known for a thought experiment called “the allegory of the cave,” in which he describes humans as toiling away in a cave for most of our lives, seeing only shadows of the way things are. Only when humans come up out of the cave can they see the light. The ideal forms are out there, and if we put enough thought into it, we can eventually find them, and make use of them to order our lives and our politics and so on.

Aristotle has plenty of things in common with his teacher, but had a rather different approach. He’s gesturing out at the horizon because he first and foremost relies on his observation skills. He assesses the facts around him and, after a while, builds a theory of the way things are. He’s not a big fan of Plato’s thought experiments, which try to figure out the way things should be. This isn’t to say he’s a pessimist; he thinks everything on earth has an end to which it aspires, and by living virtuous lives in accordance with nature, humans can truly flourish.

It would be unusual to find a person with no ideals, or a person who doesn’t make some concessions to the way things are. But most people, temperamentally, trend toward either Plato or Aristotle. The inability to understand the opposite mindset is at the root of so many disputes, as people talk past one another because they come from such different places. (My recent post on two Duluthians trying to pass a school board levy draws this contrast perfectly.)

I saw this last night, when I attended a talk at a local university by Robert J. Art, a noted international relations professor who edited the textbook I used back when I was a freshman in college. His talk was an example of political realism par excellence; while people had their quibbles with some things, most everyone I talked to afterwards agreed he had done an eminently reasonable job of detailing the challenges U.S. foreign policy will have to confront in the coming years, and the solutions to some of those issues. He also delighted many in the crowd when he laid a smackdown on the professor who comes to all of these talks and tries to cram everything the speakers say into a rigidly far-left worldview. Still, more than a few people found their inner Plato coming out when they wondered if things were always doomed to be the way Prof. Art described, with an endless posturing and positioning between the world’s great powers, and not much hope for a happier world. He wasn’t necessarily a pessimist about ending conflicts and spreading good governance, but he clearly believed we have to accept the world we live in. Aristotle would be proud.

Of course, there are dangers in both approaches. One that Plato anticipates is the problem of re-entry into the cave after a trip out of it. I suspect many readers have been there: you’ve gone out and learned everything there is to know about a subject, become a true believer in some sort of cause, and are then saddened to learn that no one else agrees with you, if they even understand what you’re talking about. Loyalty to ideals can cause serious rifts, as families, friends, and even countries fall out over different ideas over what things look like. There is a certain elitism in the Platonic approach, as people who’ve seen the light are judged to be the only people worthy of properly knowing what’s going on in the world. (Hence the philosopher-kings ruling everything in The Republic.) There’s also the added problem that lots of people who think they’ve left the cave have seen very different things when outside of it, and there’s no good way to know who’s right. An awful lot of wars have been fought between people who think they know how the world ought to be ordered.

Aristotle’s approach can also be a bit exclusive. The obvious example that leads lots of modern people to dismiss Aristotle out of hand is his announcement that women, slaves, and “vulgar craftsmen” (people who work with their hands) are unworthy of being citizens. The good news is that the Aristotelian mindset can be rescued pretty easily. Aristotle’s assumptions were based on his observations of those women and slaves and craftsmen, and it’s now obvious that those observations were quite wrong. Aristotle would probably be willing to accept that he hadn’t observed correctly, and lots of people have done their best to re-interpret Aristotle for their times.

The modern Aristotelians give some of the most coherent accounts of human nature one can find. Just about every other political philosophy bends over backwards imagining some idealized “state of nature” in which one can supposedly observe humans “as they are.” These can be interesting and sometimes insightful, but they seem to forget that normal human life doesn’t happen in an idealized vacuum. From a strictly practical mental health standpoint, it’s far more pleasant to accept the world one lives in rather than fighting a perpetual revolution. The most well-adjusted people I know all seem to be Aristotelians of one sort or another, even if they don’t know the first thing about the guy.

There are still two big dangers, though. One is a retreat to tribal loyalties because they seem most natural, and warfare that comes from lack of understanding of others. (Aristotle had no problem with his pupil, Alexander the Great, going off and slaughtering all the Persians.) The other is complacency, resignation, and even defeatism: the world is the way it is, so why bother doing anything about it? Both of those dangers aren’t true to Aristotle’s philosophy, as he (like Plato) preaches prudent, practical wisdom over such extremes. Still, this can be hard to maintain, and because of that, people occasionally need shocks to remind them that there is a big world outside of the cave.

This distinction is only a small part of the thinking of these two men. Alfred North Whitehead once said that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” and while we could argue about that, it is true that huge heaps of Western philosophy are somewhere in the shadow of Plato. Aristotle dabbled in practically every field imaginable. Like them or hate them, they had a massive influence on how we understand the world today, and when approached in good faith, they still have plenty to offer.

Next up: Socrates.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.