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The Story of PhilosophyThe Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers
By Will Durant
Pocket BooksCopyright © 1991 Will Durant
All right reserved.
I. THE CONTEXT OF PLATO
If you look at a map of Europe you will observe that Greece is a skeleton-like hand stretching its crooked fingers out into the Mediterranean Sea. South of it lies the great island of Crete, from which those grasping fingers captured, in the second millennium before Christ, the beginnings of civilization and culture. To the east, across the AEgean Sea, lies Asia Minor, quiet and apathetic now, but throbbing, in pre-Platonic days, with industry, commerce and speculation. To the west, across the Ionian, Italy stands, like a leaning tower in the sea, and Sicily and Spain, each in those days with thriving Greek colonies; and at the end, the "Pillars of Hercules" (which we call Gibraltar), that sombre portal through which not many an ancient mariner dared to pass. And on the north those still untamed and half-barbaric regions, then named Thessaly and Epirus and Macedonia, from which or through which the vigorous bands had come which fathered the geniuses of Homeric and Periclean Greece.
Look again at the map, and you see countless indentations of coast and elevations of land; everywhere gulfs and bays and theintrusive sea; and all the earth tumbled and tossed into mountains and hills. Greece was broken into isolated fragments by these natural barriers of sea and soil; travel and communication were far more difficult and dangerous then than now; every valley therefore developed its own self-sufficient economic life, its own sovereign government, its own institutions and dialect and religion and culture. In each case one or two cities, and around them, stretching up the mountainslopes, an agricultural hinterland: such were the "city-states" of Euba, and Locris, and tolia, and Phocis, and Botia, and Achaea, and Argolis, and Elis, and Arcadia, and Messenia, and Laconia - with its Sparta, and Attica - with its Athens.
Look at the map a last time, and observe the position of Athens: it is the farthest east of the larger cities of Greece. It was favorably placed to be the door through which the Greeks passed out to the busy cities of Asia Minor, and through which those elder cities sent their luxuries and their culture to adolescent Greece. It had an admirable port, Piraeus, where countless vessels might find a haven from the rough waters of the sea. And it had a great maritime fleet.
In 490-470 B. C. Sparta and Athens, forgetting their jealousies and joining their forces, fought off the effort of the Persians under Darius and Xerxes to turn Greece into a colony of an Asiatic empire. In this struggle of youthful Europe against the senile East, Sparta provided the army and Athens the navy. The war over, Sparta demobilized her troops, and suffered the economic disturbances natural to that process; while Athens turned her navy into a merchant fleet, and became one of the greatest trading cities of the ancient world. Sparta relapsed into agricultural seclusion and stagnation, while Athens became a busy mart and port, the meeting place of many races of men and of diverse cults and customs, whose contact and rivalry begot comparison, analysis and thought.
Traditions and dogmas rub one another down to a minimum in such centers of varied intercourse; where there are a thousand faiths we are apt to become sceptical of them all. Probably the traders were the first sceptics; they had seen too much to believe too much; and the general disposition of merchants to classify all men as either fools or knaves inclined them to question every creed. Gradually, too, they were developing science; mathematics grew with the increasing complexity of exchange, astronomy with the increasing audacity of navigation. The growth of wealth brought the leisure and security which are the prerequisite of research and speculation; men now asked the stars not only for guidance on the seas but as well for an answer to the riddles of the universe; the first Greek philosophers were astronomers. "Proud of their achievements," says Aristotle, "men pushed farther afield after the Persian wars; they took all knowledge for their province, and sought ever wider studies." Men grew bold enough to attempt natural explanations of processes and events before attributed to supernatural agencies and powers; magic and ritual slowly gave way to science and control; and philosophy began.
At first this philosophy was physical; it looked out upon the material world and asked what was the final and irreducible constituent of things. The natural termination of this line of thought was the materialism of Democritus (460-360 B. C.) - "in reality there is nothing but atoms and space." This was one of the main streams of Greek speculation; it passed underground for a time in Plato's day, but emerged in Epicurus (342-270), and became a torrent of eloquence in Lucretius (98-55 B. C.). But the most characteristic and fertile developments of Greek philosophy took form with the Sophists, travelling teachers of wisdom, who looked within upon their own thought and nature, rather than out upon the world of things. They were all clever men (Gorgias and Hippias, for example), and many of them were profound (Protagoras, Prodicus); there is hardly a problem or a solution in our current philosophy of mind and conduct which they did not realize and discuss. They asked questions about anything; they stood unafraid in the presence of religious or political taboos; and boldly subpoenaed every creed and institution to appear before the judgment-seat of reason. In politics they divided into two schools. One, like Rousseau, argued that nature is good, and civilization bad; that by nature all men are equal, becoming unequal only by class-made institutions: and that law is an invention of the strong to chain and rule the weak. Another school, like Nietzsche, claimed that nature is beyond good and evil; that by nature all men are unequal; that morality is an invention of the weak to limit and deter the strong; that power is the supreme virtue and the supreme desire of man; and that of all forms of government the wisest and most natural is aristocracy.
No doubt this attack on democracy reflected the rise of a wealthy minority at Athens which called itself the Oligarchical Party, and denounced democracy as an incompetent sham. In a sense there was not much democracy to denounce; for of the 400,000 inhabitants of Athens 250,000 were slaves, without political rights of any kind; and of the 150,000 freemen or citizens only a small number presented themselves at the Ecclesia, or general assembly, where the policies of the state were discussed and determined. Yet what democracy they had was as thorough as never since; the general assembly was the supreme power; and tho highest official body, the Dikasteria, or supreme court, consisted of over a thousand members (to make bribery expensive), selected by alphabetical rote from the roll of all the citizens. No institution could have been more democratic, nor, said its opponents, more absurd.
During the great generation-long Peloponnesian war (430-400 B. C.), in which the military power of Sparta fought and at last defeated the naval power of Athens, the Athenian oligarchic party, led by Critias, advocated the abandonment of democracy on the score of its inefficiency in war, and secretly lauded the aristocratic government of Sparta. Many of the oligarchic leaders were exiled; but when at last Athens surrendered, one of the peace conditions imposed by Sparta was the recall of these exiled aristocrats. They had hardly returned when, with Critias at their head, they declared a rich man's revolution against the "democratic" party that had ruled during the disastrous war. The revolution failed, and Critias was killed on the field of battle.
Now Critias was a pupil of Socrates, and an uncle of Plato.
If we may judge from the bust that has come down to us as part of the ruins of ancient sculpture, Socrates was as far from being handsome as even a philosopher can be. A bald head, a great round face, deep-set staring eyes, a broad and flowery nose that gave vivid testimony to many a Symposium - it was rather the head of a porter than that of the most famous of philosophers. But if we look again we see, through the crudity of the stone, something of that human kindliness and unassuming simplicity which made this homely thinker a teacher beloved of the finest youths in Athens. We know so little about him, and yet we know him so much more intimately than the aristocratic Plato or the reserved and scholarly Aristotle. Across two thousand three hundred years we can yet see his ungainly figure, clad always in the same rumpled tunic, walking leisurely through the agora, undisturbed by the bedlam of politics, buttonholing his prey, gathering the young and the learned about him, luring them into some shady nook of the temple porticos, and asking them to define their terms.
They were a motley crowd, these youths who flocked about him and helped him to create European philosophy. There were rich young men like Plato and Alcibiades, who relished his satirical analysis of Athenian democracy; there were socialists like Antisthenes, who liked the master's careless poverty, and made a religion of it; there was even an anarchist or two among them, like Aristippus, who aspired to a world in which there would be neither masters nor slaves, and all would be as worrilessly free as Socrates. All the problems that agitate human society to-day, and provide the material of youth's endless debate, agitated as well that little band of thinkers and talkers, who felt, with their teacher, that life without discourse would be unworthy of a man. Every school of social thought had there its representative, and perhaps its origin.
How the master lived hardly anybody knew. He never worked, and he took no thought of the morrow. He ate when his disciples asked him to honor their tables; they must have liked his company, for he gave every indication of physiological prosperity. He was not so welcome at home, for he neglected his wife and children; and from Xanthippe's point of view he was a good-for-nothing idler who brought to his family more notoriety than bread. Xanthippe liked to talk almost as much as Socrates did, and they seem to have had some dialogues which Plato failed to record. Yet she, too, loved him, and could not contentedly see him die even after three-score years and ten.
Why did his pupils reverence him so? Perhaps because he was a man as well as a philosopher: he had at great risk saved the life of Alcibiades in battle; and he could drink like a gentleman - without fear and without excess. But no doubt they liked best in him the modesty of his wisdom: he did not claim to have wisdom, but only to seek it lovingly; he was wisdom's amateur, not its professional. It was said that the oracle at Delphi, with unusual good sense, had pronounced him the wisest of the Greeks; and he had interpreted this as an approval of the agnosticism which was the starting-point of his philosophy - "One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing." Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt - particularly to doubt one's cherished beliefs, one's dogmas and one's axioms. Who knows how these cherished beliefs became certainties with us, and whether some secret wish did not furtively beget them, clothing desire in the dress of thought? There is no real philosophy until the mind turns round and examines itself. Gnothi seauton, said Socrates: Know thyself.
There had been philosophers before him, of course: strong men like Thales and Heraclitus, subtle men like Parmenides and Zeno of Elea, seers like Pythagoras and Empedocles; but for the most part they had been physical philosophers; they had sought for the physis or nature of external things, the laws and constituents of the material and measurable world. That is very good, said Socrates; but there is an infinitely worthier subject for philosophers than all these trees and stones, and even all those stars; there is the mind of man. What is man, and what can he become?
So he went about prying into the human soul, uncovering assumptions and questioning certainties. If men discoursed too readily of justice, ho asked them, quietly, to ti? - what is it? What do you mean by these abstract words with which you so easily settle the problems of life and death? What do you mean by honor, virtue, morality, patriotism? What do you mean by yourself? It was with such moral and psychological questions that Socrates loved to deal. Some who suffered from this "Socratic method," this demand for accurate definitions, and clear thinking, and exact analysis, objected that he asked more than he answered, and left men's minds more confused than before. Nevertheless he bequeathed to philosophy two very definite answers to two of our most difficult problems - What is the meaning of virtue? and What is the best state?
No topics could have been more vital than these to the young Athenians of that generation. The Sophists had destroyed the faith these youths had once had in the gods and goddesses of Olympus, and in the moral code that had taken its sanction so largely from the fear men had for these ubiquitous and innumerable deities; apparently there was no reason now why a man should not do as he pleased, so long as he remained within the law. A disintegrating individualism had weakened the Athenian character, and left the city a prey at last to the sternly-nurtured Spartans. And as for the state, what could have been more ridiculous than this mob-led, passion-ridden democracy, this government by a debating-society, this precipitate selection and dismissal and execution of generals, this un-choice choice of simple farmers and tradesmen, in alphabetical rotation, as members of the supreme court of the land? How could a new and natural morality be developed in Athens, and how could the state be saved?
It was his reply to these questions that gave Socrates death and immortality. The older citizens would have honored him had he tried to restore the ancient polytheistic faith; if he had led his band of emancipated souls to the temples and the sacred groves, and bade them sacrifice again to the gods of their fathers. But he felt that that was a hopeless and suicidal policy, a progress backward, into and not "over the tombs." He had his own religious faith: he believed in one God, and hoped in his modest way that death would not quite destroy him; but he knew that a lasting moral code could not be based upon so uncertain a theology. If one could build a system of morality absolutely independent of religious doctrine, as valid for the atheist as for the pietist, then theologies might come and go without loosening the moral cement that makes of wilful individuals the peaceful citizens of a community.
Excerpted from The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant Copyright © 1991 by Will Durant. Excerpted by permission.
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