Plotinus’ Impact on Civilization

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I’m nearly done reading the works of Plotinus—a simple statement, to sum up nine months of work. Plotinus’ Enneads have been, for me, the hardest material to read in my program of reading the Great Books. They are even slightly worse than Spinoza’s Ethics, which is an accomplishment indeed.

To be fair, the last thing that Plotinus thought he was writing was a basic introduction to his philosophical system. All of his written works were intended as discussion notes for seminar like classes with his advanced students. His student Porphyry did the best he could to edit them into a cohesive book, considering this was never the intended purpose. It is a shame that most of Porphyry’s own writings have been lost. For all we know, he wrote his own introductory book on Plotinian Philosophy, or at least essays that would have made his teacher’s writings more accessible. As it is, though, Plotinus is hard going.

So why take the time to read the Enneads? Well, there’s always Mortimer Adler‘s argument that reading the very hardest of the great books is the most effective way to improve your reading and, ultimately, your writing. This, or course, is my main reason for doing the Great Books project at all. But in the case of the Enneads we should also consider the incredible breath and magnitude of the work’s influence on at least two major world civilizations: our own Western Civilization and Islam.

One of the key culture complexes in Western Civ. is Christianity, and Christianity contained a major neo-Platonist strain from the very beginning, starting with the works of Paul and John. Plotinus, the greatest of the neo-Platonists, was unashamedly pagan yet, even during his own lifetime (circa 203-270 CE) many of his ideas were adopted by Christian writers. After his death his works continued to be taught in Rome and elsewhere, where they were studied by the newly converted Augustine, who saw them as the key to understanding Christianity. From Augustine to Abelard, Plotinian neo-Platonism was the dominant factor in medieval Christian theology and philosophy. After Abelard the influence other major wellspring of Western Philosophy, Aristotle, waxed while that of Platonism, including Plotinus, waned. Now, however, particularly since Jung’s writing, the balance seems to be tipping back towards Platonic idealism. Even a brief survey of the various “new thought” movements, such as Science of Mind shows them to be laden with various platonic ideas. The same is true of archetypal psychology, where frequently quote Plotinus and acknowledge their debts to him.

Meanwhile, a couple centuries after Plotinus a new religion, Islam, emerged and quickly expended into an international civilization. In the early days Mohamed and his immediate successors were more concerned with morality than with philosophy or theology. As Islam matured intellectually, however, in the seventh or eighth century, its thinkers began to get serious about theology, and especially metaphysics and eschatology. Like Augustine before them they found most of what they needed in Plotinus, adopting the idea of the Logos or World Soul as the primary force of creation and the theory that human souls, as emanations of the world soul, could be perfected through virtue to become one with God. The golden age of Islamic philosophy lasted from about 700 CE to about 1000 CE. During this time, most of the greatest philosophers in Islam such as Ibin Sina (Avicenna), al Kindi, and al Biruni, studied and were heavily influenced by Plotinus’ Enneads. Meanwhile new sects of Islam, particularly the Sufi, fastened on the mystical aspect pf Plotinus’ teaching and embedded it in their own practices.

It is impossible to overstate the contributions of Plotinus to these two religions and the civilizations to which they belong, and that alone means that it is worth it to study the Enneads…even if they take nine months to read.

Further Reading
Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster. 1944.
Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster. 1950.
Henry, Paul. “The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought” in The Enneads. Penguin. 1991.
Holmes, Earnest, The Science of Mind. Putnam.  1997.

Aristotle on the Soul

In our modern era a book titled “Of the Soul” could be nothing but a theological work and, without thinking, I assumed that that’s what I would be reading when I started Aristotle’s De Anima. I quickly realized, though, that this work is primarily concerned with biology. Unlike Plato’s Phaedo, for example, which is also largely concerned with the soul, there is no consideration of how an individual’s moral conduct (or lack thereof) affects there soul, or how the soul’s condition relates to virtue. There are only passing references to the afterlife: Aristotle argues that a particular soul is shaped or fitted to a particular creature, and can not be transferred to another, thus refuting the Pythagorean notion of transmigration. He doubts whether a soul could can survive outside the body at all. One gets the impression, however, that both points are secondary to his main inquiry.

To Aristotle, the “soul” is nothing more or less than the essence which makes a creature alive. In a characteristically teleological Aristotelian formulation the soul is the “final cause” of the body or, conversely, the purpose of the body is to be an “organ of the soul”.

The book begins with a lengthy literature review in which Aristotle mentions previous work on the soul by Plato and many other philosophers, mostly dismissing their theories on the basis of logical errors or because they are so abstract as to be ridiculous (e.g. those theories that attempt to prove that the soul is number or geometrical figure). The remaining two thirds of the book contains a detailed examination of each of the four attributes that Aristotle identifies as belonging to different orders of besouled creatures. The first, with belongs to all life forms, is nutrition and reproduction. That is, it has a way of taking in food and using that food to continue its existence through offspring. The second, which belongs only to animals, is sensation. The third, which belongs only to higher animals, is local movement. Aristotle also hypothesizes that appetite is a necessary condition for local movement and imagination for appetite, so all three attributes will necessarily be found together. Finally, humans alone, of all besouled creatures known to Aristotle, have the attribute of reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.

 

As is typically the case with Aristotle’s scientific works, De Anima is well organized and the conclusions are logical based on the facts he had to work with. Numerous details are completely wrong because of his reliance on the “four elements” model of physical science and lack of all but the most basic scientific instruments. Nonetheless, at least from a biological point of view, his general definition of the soul and the attributes of organisms with souls still seem perfectly plausible.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.

 

Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.

Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.

Perils of Reading Great Books out of Order (Pre-Plotinus)

I am now more than a year into my program of reading the Great Books to improve myself as a writer. At the onset I promised myself that, as much as was practical, I would try to read the the books in the order they were written. This is the advice that Grand Great Books Guru Mortimer Adler gives in How to Read a Book and elsewhere, since going in order allows you to trace the development of the “great conversation” of Western thought.

I was doing pretty well until I began working my way through Plato, but then I got bogged down. After reading seven dialogues plus the book-length Republic and writing seven blog posts on Platonic philosophy, I decided to skip ahead–surely eight works were enough to give me a taste of Plato’s work, and the dialogues would still be there when I got back to them, right?

All was well until I went to read Plotinus’ Enneads. I’ve been looking forward to Plotinus: not only was he the greatest of the neo-Platonists, and a fundamental influence on early Christian philosophy, but he was the last important pagan philosopher. I knew that as soon as I finished his works I could sail merrily into the middle ages. I knew he had a reputation as a tough author, but I didn’t see how much worse he could be than those I had already read.

Unfortunately, Plotinus is not only hard to read, his work is heavily based on that of Plato and Aristotle. By the time I had made it through the introductory matter in the Penguin edition, I realized that I had gone too far too fast. Plotinus continually references The Republic, Phaedo, and The Nicomachaean Ethics–all of which I had read quickly without bothering to study them deeply or writing blog posts, as well as Timaeus, Parmenides, The Sophist, The Categories, De Anima, and The Metaphysics–all of which I had skipped in my impatience. Therefore, regretfully, I am now putting my Plotinus aside for a few weeks and going back to classical Greece. Look for more Plato and Aristotle posts in the near future.

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - coverSiddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.

The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.

Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.

After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.

After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.

The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.

The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.

Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.

When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.

American Politics According to Kevin

Before I begin, I must make a confession:  I rarely follow day-to-day American politics.  Not only do I find most of the developments tediously predictable, but the vast majority of the commentary–whether from the media or by individuals on social media–is so ignorant that I can barely read it.  That being said, I am aware that there is an election coming up.  In anticipation of that event, and particularly for those who live abroad or are newcomers to our country, I thought I might lay out some basic notes on the American political landscape as I understand it.

Conservatives vs Liberals

With certain rare (and ultimately unimportant) exceptions the US only ever has two main political factions.  While the names change, and are occasionally traded, they aren’t really important.  It is better to think of them as a Conservative faction and a Liberal faction.  Most Americans have no idea what the two factions stand for, yet are quick to label themselves as one or the other.  Many people are under the impression that these labels have something to do with fiscal policy, that Conservatives prefer to pay smaller taxes and receive less from the government, whereas liberals are willing to pay more in return for more.  In reality, there are very few true fiscal Conservatives left in the US.  The population, despite denying it loudly, is overwhelmingly in favor of big government.  Regardless of which faction or sub-faction they belong to, however, they all feel that they should pay smaller taxes and members of other factions should pay more.

The real issue is change (in any form).  Conservatives favor actions which will prevent change.  Liberals favor actions to accelerate change.  Unfortunately, the assumption that a political party can control change is completely unfounded.  All of the evidence of history is that change happens on its own, regardless of human interference.  The only real choices are whether to ignore it or embrace it.

The climate is changing, and always has been since the Earth was formed.  It is irrelevant whether these changes are man-made (although the overwhelming scientific evidence points this way).  The only choice is whether to ignore climate change or to make other changes to adapt.

Culture is changing.  Conservatives would rather believe that there is a static American culture and that any deviations from this norm are aberrations which need to be corrected.  History shows us, however, that a culture only stops changing when it is dead.  Liberals would rather engage in social engineering to change culture to their own specifications.  Unfortunately, culture is an incredibly complicated phenomenon.  Every historical attempt to change it to order has resulted in unintended and usually horrible consequences and has eventually backfired.  I draw your attention to the French Revolution, the Third Reich, or the efforts of the Russian Soviet in the 1930’s.  The problem is complicated further by the fact that the US, since its colonization, has consisted of not a single culture but a mesh of affiliated subcultures.

Technology is changing, and the pace of technological change has been accelerating exponentially since at least the eighteenth century.  Conservatives would like to use new technology without it changing any other factor of the society.  Liberals would like to use technology to change the society itself.  Neither seems adequately aware of the two-way influence between technology and culture or between technology and the economy.

Finally, the economy is changing.  The form of the economy is dictated by technology and demographics (neither of which can be controlled) and (to a far lesser extent) by government policy.  There are very few true economic liberals.  Both Conservatives and “Liberals” in this country seem to expect the economy itself to remain static while they focus on issues of wealth distribution, ignoring the fact that the economy itself changes over time.

Social Class

Social class exists in the US just as much as in any other country, even though it has long been fashionable to ignore it.  For nearly two centuries the primary determinant of social class has been money.  However, many other factors, more or less correlated with money, also play a role.  For instance more recent immigrants are generally considered socially inferior to earlier immigrants (although Native Americans have traditionally been near the very bottom).  Lighter skinned people typically have higher social status than darker skinned people.  Those who speak English as a first language are considered superior to those who speak Spanish, or other languages.  The result is a complicated formula that leaves most Americans continually wondering and worrying about where they fall in the social pecking order.  This is further complicated by an enduring myth that everyone in America is a member of the middle class, or at least would be if they worked at it (often referred to as the “American Dream”).  This idea is patently nonsense, and originated in government propaganda from the New Deal years.

It is a fact that, due to technological and economic factors, the middle class, as a percentage of the population, grew to unprecedented size during the twentieth century.  History shows, however, that the middle class generally constitutes only a small fraction of most societies.  At present the middle class is again shrinking, which is a source of great angst to most middle class Americans.  Most political rhetoric (from both factions) consists of pandering to the middle class and false promises to reverse this trend.

Wealth Distribution

Americans as a whole are fairly wealthy, by world standards.  However, an ever increasing amount of that wealth is concentrated at the top.  Leaving aside questions of fairness (one of the slipperiest of all philosophical concepts) this is a very dangerous situation.  Wealth concentration beyond a certain level always leads to social unrest and eventually to revolution.  It paves the way for a totalitarian dictator to seize power, slaughter most of the wealthy citizens, and give (some of) the wealth back to the people.  Such dictatorships rarely last more than a generation, but that is beside the point.  It is a matter of self preservation for the wealthy to find ways to redistribute much of their assets, either through philanthropy, higher wages for their employees, or higher taxation at the upper levels.  If they fail to do so the best we can hope for is a Solon, Caesar, or Mussolini.  Analysis of history implies that we are more likely to end up with a Pol Pot, a Robespierre, or a Hitler.

Geopolitics

The range of options open to world leaders tends to be dictated by factors beyond their control and is much more limited than their citizens believe.  However, dependence on fossil fuels to prop up the middle class and maintain the status quo collapses these options to one.  Until America gets her domestic affairs in order, she can’t live without oil and will continue to anything she must to get it.  And yes, cars are primarily a middle class status symbol.

My Own Platform

As a philosopher, I am an observer and commentator, not a participant in my country’s politics.  As Socrates said, “Do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life?”

However, I personally lean towards the Liberal side, in that I accept change and favor adapting to it as it comes.  I believe that we need to actively address the issues of social class and wealth distribution while accommodating changes in technology, economics, and culture as they arise.  I think that small government is a beautiful ideal which is totally impractical in the 21st century, so we should try to build the most efficient and responsive big government we can.

In terms of social class, I feel that we should establish a formal class system that is divorced as much as possible from income or assets.  My preference would be to support a large proletariat, a small middle class, and a smaller aristocracy.

A welfare class is unavoidable, since we literally do not have enough work for our excess population.  However, we need to make realistic policies to reduce the size of this class over time.  One solution is large scale public works programs (preferably funded from the assets of the wealthy) to give jobs to members of the welfare class, thus converting them into proletarians.  A program of voluntary sterilization in return for eligibility for certain welfare benefits might also be useful.

I also believe that we need to recognize a separate class consisting of intellectuals and professional artists, the members of which would be drawn from all classes.  People of demonstrated ability in these areas should be supported by the state so they can live roughly as well as the proletariat, but they should be forbidden to file for copyright protection or to make money from their work, which would be made available to all Americans (e.g. in government sponsored exhibitions or by distributing it via the Internet).

Most importantly, we must create well defined processes for upward and downward mobility between all of the classes.  Everyone should be able to find their own level, based on natural aptitude.  No one should ever be in doubt about which class they belong to at a given moment.

As far as wealth distribution goes, I think it is imperative to periodically remove assets from the aristocracy and middle class and distribute them to the remaining three classes.  The obvious tool for this is aggressively progressive taxation.  The idea I mentioned above, of requiring the richest individuals to fund large public works projects out of pocket, worked well for Imperial Rome and may also have merit for the US.  The middle class is shrinking on its own.  I would, however, suggest discontinuing any government programs that exist mainly to prop them up including–but not limited to–tax breaks for home owners and subsidies of the automotive industry.

I fully realize that none of my recommendations are likely to come to pass any time soon.  To paraphrase Plato’s Socrates again, “Until philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers, good luck making it happen.”.  Still, I felt I would have been remiss to write an essay of this type without mentioning my own opinions.

How to Live Like a Modern Socrates

For several weeks now I have been blogging about Socrates, or at least how Socrates is portrayed by Plato and Xenophon. Since he is the archetypal Western philosopher and model for all who came later, it makes sense that we should all try to live a bit more like him. I thought I would take a post list some of the practical aspects of Socratic living. I’ll start with the easy stuff and work up to advanced topics.

Avoid Working at a Job

Socrates was raised to be a stone cutter but, by the time history hears about him he hadn’t worked in years. If you can, don’t have a job at all. It will wear you out and suck up all the time when you could be philosophizing. As Mr. B says, “How many brilliant minds are lost to work?” If you find you absolutely have to work, you have two choices. Either find a low stress, low hours job (e.g. bicycle mechanic, grocery store night clerk) or a job with flexible hours and a large philosophical component (e.g. freelance writer). Remember, though: It’s always easier to save money than to make it.

Don’t Spend Money on Material Possessions

We never read about Socrates owning anything except the clothes he was wearing, and those were nothing to brag about. In The Symposium Alcibiades, describing how he tried to seduce Socrates, talks about climbing under his “much patched cloak”. So buy your clothes at thrift stores and choose comfort and durability over style. Also, think long and hard before buying things like cars or mobile phones which are basically status symbols, don’t contribute anything to your philosophy, and suck money every month whether you use them or not.

Never Miss a Free Meal

The dialogs are full of instances when Socrates showed up at someone’s house right around dinner time and got a free dinner. This is a good way to economize and can lead to many interesting philosophical conversations. Also, be sure to take home leftover if you can, since you never know when your next free meal is coming.

Make Rich Friends

Besides providing better free food, rich friends can come in handy in a number of ways, such as posting bail when you are on trial by the assembly. It’s always nice to be on good terms with a Crito or two if you can manage it.

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Find Your Xanthippe

Socrates’ wife has a bad reputation, mainly because Xenophon didn’t like her. From the description in the Phaedo, however, it is clear there was real affection between her and Socrates. An understanding spouse, especially one with a regular income, can make all the difference in your survival as a philosopher.

Always Try to Learn from Other Philosophers

Whenever another philosopher was in town Socrates made a point of seeking them out and asking them questions. Now that we have the internet we don’t need to wait for them to visit since we can communicate at will with anyone, anywhere in the world. Remember the point from the last part of The Phaedrus: Reading someone’s written work is good, but it is no substitute for hearing them speak in person.

Teach Anyone Who Asks

Many of the greatest men of the age claimed Socrates as a teacher. A true philosopher has a moral duty to help others learn. To be like Socrates, however, remember two key precepts: (1) Don’t charge money for teaching if you can avoid it. (2) Always treat your students as equals and colleagues, never as inferiors. Philosophy is about joint inquiry, not received information and authority.

Stand by Your Conclusions

Socrates died for his principals. Most of us will never need to drink hemlock (literally or figuratively), but philosophy is about the search for truth. Once we conclude, through a process of exhaustive philosophical inquiry, that a principal is true, we need to be brave enough to commit to it, whatever the personal consequences.

Role of the Philosopher in Greek and Roman Society

Lately I have been drilling down to write about specific works by individual Greek authors. It seems worthwhile, though, to break for a bit to write generally about the role of the philosopher in Hellenistic society. By “Hellenistic” I mean not only the society of Greece in Socrates’ time, but also under the Macedonians and their successors and the thoroughly Hellenized pagan Rome. Indirectly, though, since our own western civilization is itself a successor to these cultures, considering how philosophers fit into them might yield some clues about the place of intellectuals in our own society.

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Many feel that philosophy was born in the work of epic poets, and no one can deny that works of Homer, at least, are laden with philosophical concepts. Philosophy and literature have always been linked. However, the first people we would consider to be philosophers, in the modern sense, all affluent men from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. The Greek economy had evolved and society had stabilized, to the point where the upper classes had leisure to contemplate the great questions and write down their conclusions for the edification of their friends. Interest in philosophy as an aristocratic hobby soon spread to the Sicily and the Greek mainland, particularly the Attic peninsula and the newly boobing town of Athens. For generations, however, no one considered philosophy to be a career: philosophy was something one did, not something one was. The business of Greek aristocrats to govern the polis and their own estates; philosophy was nothing but an interesting distraction.

By the time of the Periclean golden age, this was beginning to change. Sophists like Protagoras and Hippias earned fame and a comfortable living by teaching practical rhetoric, spiced with philosophy, to aspiring politicians. Judging by the descriptions of them in Plato’s dialogs, they were happy to accept free room and board on their travels and “sing for their supper” by lecturing or engaging in philosophical discourse. When Socrates became interested in philosophy, probably some time in his thirties, he began seeking these men out whenever he heard they were in town. Socrates, however, was a different kind of philosopher. While he was a member of the citizen class, he never seems to have been wealthy. He came from a family of stone cutters and probably followed the trade himself as a young man. Unlike some of his aristocratic friends, he spent at least half his life as a full time philosopher. Unlike the sophists, and to the consternation of his wife Xanthippe, he never attempted to charge tuition from his students. He was always desperately poor, and is the first and most famous of many in history to choose a life of philosophical poverty.

By the time of Plato, philosophy seems to have been regarded as a legitimate career choice. Young Plato considered becoming a politician like his uncle, almost became a playwright, and finally chose to be a philosopher after being influenced by Socrates. Plato had family money and his academy itself seems to have been bought with money originally raised by his friends to rescue him when he got in trouble during an ill-advised foray into in Sicilian politics, effectively making him the first endowed chair of philosophy in Western history. Even so, it is important to draw the distinction that he was a full time philosopher from an aristocratic background, rather than an a full time aristocrat who happened to be interested in philosophy.

Socrates and Plato became the archetypes for generations of philosophers who came to Athens from all over the known world to teach and study philosophy. Some were wealthy, others much less so, but material affluence had little affect on life at the Athenian academies. John Henry Newman, The University: Its Rise and Progress (of which I recently edited a new edition) describes the entry of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (born about a century later than Plato) in Athens,

So now let us fancy our Scythian, or Armenian, or African, or Italian, or Gallic student, after tossing on the Saronic waves, which would be his more ordinary course to Athens, at last casting anchor at Piraeus. He is of any condition or rank of life you please, and may be made to order, from a prince to a peasant. Perhaps he is some Cleanthes, who has been a boxer in the public games. How did it ever cross his brain to betake himself to Athens in search of wisdom? or, if he came thither by accident, how did the love of it ever touch his heart? But so it was, to Athens he came with three drachmas in his girdle, and he got his livelihood by drawing water, carrying loads, and the like servile occupations. He attached himself, of all philosophers, to Zeno the Stoic—to Zeno, the most high-minded, the most haughty of speculators; and out of his daily earnings the poor scholar brought his master the daily sum of an obolus, in payment for attending his lectures. Such progress did he make, that on Zeno’s death he actually was his successor in his school; and, if my memory does not play me false, he is the author of a hymn to the Supreme Being, which is one of the noblest effusions of the kind in classical poetry. Yet, even when he was the head of a school, he continued in his illiberal toil as if he had been a monk; and, it is said, that once, when the wind took his pallium, and blew it aside, he was discovered to have no other garment at all;—something like the German student who came up to Heidelberg with nothing upon him but a great coat and a pair of pistols.

The academy of Athens continued until it was finally closed at the order of Justinian I in 529 AD. In other parts of the Greek world we find professional philosophers serving as tutors to royals and nobles, as Aristotle did to Alexander, or occasionally as state employees, such as those at the library of Alexandria under the Ptolemies. Everywhere in the East though, the philosophy was considered a respectable–if rarely lucrative–profession.

Ancient Library of Alexandria.  O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient Library of Alexandria. O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In Rome and the eastern Mediterranean things were somewhat different. Roman culture had been heavily influenced by Greece from a very early point. After Rome annexed the Greek mainland following the Third Macedonian War (an event Will Durant called “The Conquest By Greece”) Roman and Greek high culture became nearly indistinguishable. However, the professional philosopher never attained the same stature as in the east. Ironically, philosophy itself was extremely popular in the pagan Roman Empire. All young upper class Romans (of both sexes) were exposed to Greek philosophy as part of their education and some even studied in Athens. All individuals of cultivation were expected to have articulate opinions on philosophy. Many leading citizens identified with particular philosophic sects: most often Stoicism, but sometimes Epicureanism, Cynicism, or Neo-Platonism. Paul Veyne, in A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium writes about how it was fashionable for senators and even emperors to style themselves as “philosophers” and adopt the unkempt beards and simple robes of the profession, yet few or none of them actually practiced the ideals of this philosophy in their daily lives. They were far too busy holding offices, running their estates, and finding ways to become even more wealthy.

These Romans were very much like a modern American bourgeoisie who takes yoga classes and wears yoga clothes everywhere, yet doesn’t bother to integrate the teachings into her career in any way. According to Veyne, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was actually a writing assignment, one of the “steps” of a three step self-help program.

There were professional philosophers in the Western Empire, but most of them seem to have been attached to the household staff of wealthy Romans, and at least some of them were slaves (as were many many doctors, accountants, and other professionals in Rome). As tutors to the pater familias and his children they probably had a high status relative to other household servants, but they were still poor and dependent on their patrons for protection. Those who didn’t have a patron tried to find one quickly, or else headed back East.

The one group of affluent Romans who came closest to actually practicing philosophy were the philosophical poets of the early Imperial period: particularly Lucretius, but also Horace, Virgil, and others. Clearly, there work contains much philosophy, but were they themselves philosophers? George Santayana dealt with this question in Three Philosophical Poets,

Here, I think, we have the solution to our doubt. The reasonings and investigations of philosophy are arduous, and if poetry is to be linked with them, it can be artificially only, and with a bad grace. But the vision of philosophy is sublime. The order it reveals in the world is something beautiful, tragic, sympathetic to the mind, and just what every poet, on a small or on a large scale, is always trying to catch.

[E]ven if we grant that the philosopher, in his best moments, is a poet, we may suspect that the poet has his worst moments when he tries to be a philosopher, or rather, when he succeeds in being one.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Lucretius and his fellows did not discover any great new ideas in philosophy. Every truth which they included in their poems, no matter how beautifully and clearly, was parroted from one or another of the Greeks. There work, like Homer’s before, is great literature. It is not great philosophy.

And so, the Eastern and Western halves of the Hellenistic world had more or less similar conceptions of the amateur gentleman-philosopher, and very different ideas of the professional philosopher. In Greece and the East he became a revered academic who devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophic truth. In Rome and the West he was simply one more hanger-on of the well equipped household, almost a human fashion accessory. At this time I am not going to comment on the present status of philosophers in Western Civilization, having already run some six centuries ahead of myself in my Great Books program. I will say only that our own society’s views contain elements of both the Greek and the Roman, yet seem to be trending more towards the Roman as time passes.

Apology of Xenophon

Apology of Xenophon

Since in the last post I wrote about Plato’s Apology, it seems timely to consider Xenophon’s Apology, which was probably written around the same time or shortly later. Xenophon, like Plato, had studied under Socrates as a young man. unlike Plato, it is impossible that he could actually have attended Socrates’ trial because we know he was fighting in a Persian civil war in 399 (the story of which is told in his book The Anabasis). His information comes second hand, though a friend named Hermogenes, son of Hipponicus.

Xenophon [public domain via Wikimedia]

Xenophon [public domain via Wikimedia]

Xenophon’s apology is considerably shorter than Plato’s. By his own admission, he makes no attempt to dwell on philosophy but merely strives to explain Socrates’ attitude towards death. In a way this is a back-handed critique of Plato and other philosophers who, in their accounts of Socrates, tended to put words into the master’s mouth to legitimize their own philosophic theories. Actually, however, Xenophon’s Apology is just as much a testament to the writer’s personal philosophy as any of the others. The difference is that Xenophon, while he was prolific writer, was never a professional philosopher like Plato. He was, above all else, a mercenary soldier and his Socrates demonstrates a simple soldier’s philosophy: Don’t fear death, because it’s better do die quickly and escape the depredations of old age. Live as well as you can, but don’t apologize to anyone.

Xenophon’s Socrates makes no effort to craft an artful speech in his defense, even when urged by his friends, saying that his life so far is all the defense he needs,

Do you not know that up to this moment I will not concede to any man to have lived a better life than I have; since what can exceed the pleasure, which has been mine, of knowing 10 that my whole life has been spent holily and justly? And indeed this verdict of self-approval I found re-echoed in the opinion which my friends and intimates have formed concerning me. 11 And now if my age is still to be prolonged, 12 I know that I cannot escape paying 13 the penalty of old age, in increasing dimness of sight and dulness of hearing. I shall find myself slower to learn new lessons, and apter to forget the lessons I have learnt. And if to these be added the consciousness of failing powers, the sting of self-reproach, what prospect have I of any further joy in living?

The Athenian juries disagrees when the time comes, but this is of no great import to Socrates, who answers to no one but his daemon and himself. He takes the poison with good grace, embracing the painless death at the the height of his intellectual prime which, to him, is so preferable to future senility or present exile.

Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

Clouds of Aristophanes

Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is fascinating in a number of ways, not least because it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Socrates.  Socrates, or at least the complex of ideas that Socrates came to represent, would become one of the most important figures in the Western tradition and the well-spring of one the two most important strands of Western philosophy (the other of which would begin with Aristotle).  At the time of The Clouds, however, Socrates was just starting to become a salient figure–a well known local character, but not yet the famous philosopher who would be immortalized by Plato and others.

Aristophanes picked Socrates to be his caricature of a “modern” teacher at least partially because Socrates’ famously homely appearance would lend itself to a hilarious and recognizable mask.  When the Socrates character first came on stage in the original performance the actual Socrates stood up so the crowd could admire the resemblance.  Shortly before this period Socrates seems to have spent considerable time talking to sophists and other pre-socratic philosophers, prior to fully developing his own philosophy, so this portrayal as a Sophist is not completely unwarranted.  On the other hand, the main criticism that Aristophanes levels against the sophistic school, that they are willing to argue both sides of an issue and are more concerned with the argument itself than the truth, is decidedly not applicable to Socrates’ mature philosophical methods, as portrayed by Plato. Plato’s  Socrates is only interested in understanding universal truths, and seeks them not through argument but by admitting his own ignorance and asking questions.  We must keep in mind, though, that The Clouds was written decades before Plato’s dialogues.

Plato’s Socrates rejects Aristophanes’ caricature in The Apology,

I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations.

We should remember, though, that the framing of this statement might represent a revisionist attempt on the part of Plato.  The Clouds was a popular play and many copies were made.  Plato might have been concerned that the play was tarnishing the memory of his teacher, and gone out of his way to refute the impression.

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

The basic plot of the play is that Strepsiades, whose son Phidippides has racked up huge debts in his name, goes to the “Think Shop”, a sort of school of sophistry run by Socrates.  His goal is to learn rhetoric so well that he can argue his way out of paying his creditors.  After finding that he is too old to follow Socrates’ logical acrobatics, he decides to send Phidippides in his stead.  Phidippides learns so well that he is later able to publicly beat his father and justify it so convincingly that no one can argue with him.

The Clouds, of course, is a story about conflict between old and new systems of education.  The old system, represented by Strepsiades, emphasized military training and memorizing traditional poetry, preparing a young citizen to be a successful hopelite citizen-soldier.  The new system of the sophists was also practical, since it emphasized rhetoric and public speaking  to make the student successful in lawsuits or the assembly.  To Aristophanes, who thought that his fellow Athenians were far too litigious, and was at heart a social conservative, the new system would have provided a rich field for ridicule, even if generational conflict was not a classic subject for comedy.  As is often the case with the deeply intellectual comedy of Aristophanes, however, there were deeper philosophical issues in play.

“What is the best form of education?” is one of the perennial philosophical questions.  We will meet it again repeatedly in the Great Books.  On a more meta level, the Great Books movement in general represents one side of a modern debate about education.  At the risk of oversimplification, Great Books proponents believe in a more traditional form of education based on the core literature and concepts of Western Civilization, as opposed the newer “progressive” or “democratic” systems of education which emphasize relativism, openness, and inclusion of minority viewpoints.  The Great Books approach is based primarily on that used in ancient universities in the high medieval through early Victorian periods, as adapted by such Victorian reformers as John Henry Newman.  Its primary modern champions were Mortimer Adler and his associates.  More recently writers such as Allan Bloom, John Lukacs, and Donald Kagan, though they shy away from associating themselves with the Adler clique, have argued for a similar approach.  The progressive/democratic approach was first articulated in the works of John Dewey, reached its full realization during the culture wars of the 1960’s, and is taught as dogma in nearly every Education graduate program today.

In the later Hellenistic world, particularly among the elite of the Roman Empire, the dominant educational philosophy that emerged was a essentially a synthesis of the old gymnasium education and sophism, and post-Socratic philosophy.  This gives me hope that our own civilization may yet learn to balance the ideals of the Great Books movement with those of Dewey and his disciples.

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