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Greek Ways Of Thinking
To indicate the scope and aim of the following pages it will be best to say at once that they are based on a short course of lectures designed for an audience of undergraduates who were reading any subject other than Classics. It was assumed that those who were listening knew no Greek, but that an interest in some other subject, such as English, History or Mathematics (for there was at least one mathematician among them), or perhaps nothing more than general reading, had given them the impression that Greek ideas were at the bottom of much in later European thought and consequently a desire to know more exactly what these Greek ideas had been in the first place. They had, one might suppose, encountered them already, but in a series of distorting mirrors, according as this or that writer in England, Germany or elsewhere had used them for his own purposes and tinged them with the quality of his own mind and age, or, it may be, was unconsciously influenced by them in the formulation of his views. Some had read works of Plato and Aristotle in translation, and must have found parts of them puzzling because they arose out of the intellectual climate of the fourth century B.C. in Greece, whereas their readers had been led back to them from the climate of a later age and a different country.
Acting on these assumptions I tried, and shall now try for any readers who may be in a similar position, to give some account of Greek philosophy from its beginnings, to explain Plato and Aristotle in the light of their predecessors rather than their successors, and to convey some idea of the characteristic features of theGreek way of thinking and outlook on the world.1 I shall make little or no reference to their influence on thinkers of later Europe or of our own country. This is not due only to the limitations imposed by my own ignorance, but also to a belief that it will be more enjoyable and profitable for a reader to detect such influence and draw comparisons for himself, out of his own reading and sphere of interests. My object will be, by talking about the Greeks for themselves and for their own sake, to give the material for such comparison and a solid basis on which it may rest. A certain work on Existentialism shows, so I have read, a 'genealogical tree' of the existentialist philosophy. At its root is placed Socrates, apparently on the ground that he was the author of the saying 'Know thyself'. Apart from the question whether Socrates meant by these words anything like what the twentieth-century Existentialist means, this ignores the fact that the saying was not the invention of Socrates but a proverbial piece of Greek wisdom whose author, if one must attribute it to someone, can only be said to have been the god Apollo. At any rate it was known to Socrates, and every other Greek, as one of the age-old precepts which were inscribed on the walls of Apollo's temple at Delphi. That it belonged to the teaching of Apolline religion is not unimportant, and the example, though small, will serve to illustrate the sort of distortion which even a brief outline of ancient thought may help to prevent.
The approach which I have suggested should have the advantage of showing up certain important differences between the Greek ways of thought and our own, which tend to be obscured when (for example) Greek atomic science or Plato's theory of the State are uprooted from their natural soil in the earlier and contemporary Greek world and regarded in isolation as the forerunners of modern atomic physics or political theory. For all the immense debt which Europe, and with Europe England, owe to Greek culture, the Greeks remain in many respects a remarkably foreign people, and to get inside their minds requires a real effort, for it means unthinking much that has become part and parcel of our mental equipment so that we carry it about with us unquestioningly and for the most part unconsciously. In the great days of Victorian scholarship, when the Classics were regarded as furnishing models, not only intellectual but moral, for the English gentleman to follow, there was perhaps a tendency to overemphasize similarities and lose sight of differences. The scholarship of our own day, in many respects inferior, has this advantage, that it is based both on a more intensive study of Greek habits of thought and linguistic usage and on a more extensive acquaintance with the mental equipment of earlier peoples both in Greece and elsewhere. Thanks in part to the progress of anthropology, and to the work of classical scholars acute enough to see the relevance to their studies of some of the anthropologists' results, we can claim without arrogance to be in a better position to appreciate the hidden foundations of Greek thought, the presuppositions which they accepted tacitly as we to-day accept the established rules of logic or the fact of the earth's rotation.
And here it must be said frankly, though with no wish to dwell on a difficulty at the outset, that to understand Greek ways of thinking without some knowledge of the Greek language is not easy. Language and thought are inextricably interwoven, and interact on one another. Words have a history and associations, which for those who use them contribute an important part of the meaning, not least because their effect is unconsciously felt rather than intellectually apprehended. Even in contemporary languages, beyond a few words for material objects, it is practically impossible to translate a word so as to give exactly the same impression to a foreigner as is given by the original to those who hear it in their own country.