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The Glory That Was Greece
“In all history,” the philosopher Bertrand Russell has said, “nothing is so surprising or so difficult to account for as the sudden rise of civilization in Greece.”
Until the sixth century b.c., the Greeks borrowed much of their culture from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and neighboring countries, but from the sixth to the fourth centuries they generated a stupendous body of new and distinctive cultural materials. Among other things, they created sophisticated new forms of literature, art, and architecture, wrote the first real histories (as opposed to mere annals), invented mathematics and science, developed schools and gymnasiums, and originated democratic government. Much of subsequent Western culture has been the lineal descendant of theirs; in particular, much of philosophy and science during the past twenty-five hundred years has been the outgrowth of the Greek philosophers’ attempts to understand the nature of the world. Above all, the story of psychology is the narrative of a continuing effort to answer the questions they first asked about the human mind.
It is mystifying that the Greek philosophers so suddenly began to theorize about human mental processes in psychological, or at least quasi-psychological, terms. For while the 150 or so Greek city-states around the Mediterranean had noble temples, elegant statues and fountains, and bustling marketplaces, living conditions in them were in many respects primitive and not, one would suppose, conducive to subtle psychological inquiry.
Few people could read or write; those who could had to scratch laboriously on wax tablets or, for permanent records, on strips of papyrus or parchment twenty to thirty feet long wrapped around a stick. Books—actually, hand-copied scrolls—were costly, rare, and awkward to use.
The Greeks, possessing neither clocks nor watches, had but a rudimentary sense of time. Sundials offered only approximations, were not transportable, and were of no help in cloudy weather; the water clocks used to limit oratory in court were merely bowls filled with water that emptied through a hole in about six minutes.
Lighting, such as it was, was provided by flickering oil lamps. A few of the well-to-do had bathrooms with running water, but most people, lacking water to wash with, cleansed themselves by rubbing their bodies with oil and then scraping it off with a crescent-shaped stick. (Fortunately, some three hundred days a year were sunny, and Athenians lived out of doors most of the time.) Few city streets were paved; most were dirt roads, dusty in dry weather and muddy in wet. Transport consisted of pack mules or springless, bone-bruising horse- drawn wagons. News was sometimes conveyed by fire beacons or carrier pigeons, but most often by human runners.
Illustrious Athens, the center of Greek culture, could not feed itself; the surrounding plains had poor soil, the hills and mountains were stony and infertile. The Athenians obtained much of their food through maritime commerce and conquest. (Athens established a number of colonies, and at times dominated the Aegean, receiving tribute from other city-states.) But while their ships had sails, the Athenians knew only how to rig them to be driven by a following wind; to proceed crosswind or into the wind or in a calm, they forced slaves to strain hour after hour at banks of oars, driving the ships at most eight miles per hour. The armies thus borne to far shores to advance Athenian interests fought much like their primitive ancestors, with spears, swords, and bows and arrows.
Slaves also provided most of the power in Greek workshops and silver mines; human muscles, feeble as they are compared to modern machinery, were, aside from beasts of burden, the only source of kinetic energy. Slavery was, in fact, the economic foundation of the Greek city-states; men, women, and children captured abroad by Greek armies made up much of the population of many cities. Even in democratic Athens and the neighboring associated towns of Attica, at least 115,000 of the 315,000 inhabitants were slaves. Of the 200,000 free Athenians only the forty-three thousand men who had been born to two Athenian parents possessed all civil rights, including the right to vote.
All in all, it was not a way of life in which one would expect reflective and searching philosophy, or its subdiscipline, psychology, to flourish.
What, then, accounts for the Greeks’ astonishing intellectual accomplishments, and for those of the Athenians in particular? Some have half-seriously suggested the climate; Cicero said that Athens’ clear air contributed to the keenness of the Attic mind. Certain present-day analysts have hypothesized that the Athenians’ living outdoors much of the time, in constant conversation with one another, induced questioning and thinking. Others have argued that commerce and conquest, bringing Athenians and other Greeks into contact with many other cultures, made them curious about the origin of human differences. Still others have said that the mix of cultural influences in the Greek city-states gave Greek culture a kind of hybrid vigor. Finally, some have pragmatically suggested that when civilization had developed to the point where day-to-day survival did not take up every hour of the day, human beings for the first time had leisure in which to theorize about their motives and thoughts, and those of other people.
None of these explanations is really satisfactory, although perhaps all of them taken together, along with still others, are. Athens reached the zenith of its greatness, its Golden Age (480 to 399), after it and its allies defeated the Persians. Victory, wealth, and the need to rebuild the temples on the Acropolis that the Persian leader Xerxes had burned, in addition to the favorable influences mentioned above, may have produced a kind of cultural critical mass and an explosion of creativity.
Along with their many other speculations, a number of the Greek philosophers of the sixth and early fifth centuries began proposing naturalistic explanations of human mental processes; these hypotheses and their derivatives have been at the core of Western psychology ever since.
What kinds of persons were they? What caused or at least enabled them to think about human cognition in this radically new fashion? We know their names—Thales, Alcmaeon, Empedocles, Anaxogoras, Hippocrates, Democritus, and others—but about many of them we know little else; about the others what we know consists largely of hagiography and legend.
We read, for instance, that Thales of Miletus (624–546), first of the philosophers, was an absentminded dreamer who, studying the nighttime heavens, could be so absorbed in glorious thoughts as to tumble ingloriously into a ditch. We read, too, that he paid no heed to money until, tired of being mocked for his poverty, he used his astrological expertise one winter to foretell a bumper crop of olives, cheaply leased all the oil presses in the area, and later, at harvest time, charged top prices for their use.
Gossipy chroniclers tell us that Empedocles (500?–430), of Acragas in southern Sicily, had such vast scientific knowledge that he could control the winds and once brought back to life a woman who had been dead for thirty days. Believing himself a god, in his old age he leaped into Etna in order to die without leaving a human trace; as some later poetaster jested, “Great Empedocles, that ardent soul / Leaped into Etna, and was roasted whole.” But Etna vomited his brazen slippers back onto the rim of the crater and thereby proclaimed him mortal.
Such details hardly help us fathom the psychophilosophers, if we may so call them. Nor did any of them set down an account—at least, none exists—of how or why they became interested in the workings of the mind. We can only suppose that in the dawn of philosophy, when thoughtful men began to ask all sorts of searching questions about the nature of the world and of humankind, it was natural that they would also ask how their own thoughts about such things arose and where their ideas came from.
One or two did actual research that touched on the physical equipment involved in psychological processes. Alcmaeon (fl. 520), a physician of Croton in southern Italy, performed dissections on animals (dissecting the human body was taboo) and discovered the optic nerve, connecting the eye to the brain. Most, however, were neither hands-on investigators nor experimentalists but men of leisure, who, starting with self-evident truths and their own observations of everyday phenomena, sought to deduce the nature of the world and of the mind.
The psychophilosophers most often carried on their reasoning while strolling or sitting with their students in the marketplaces of their cities or courtyards of their academies, endlessly debating the questions that intrigued them. And probably, like Thales gazing at the stars, they also spent periods alone in deep meditation. But little remains of the fruits of their labors; nearly all copies of their writings were lost or destroyed. Most of what we know of their thinking comes from brief citations in the works of later writers. Yet even these bits and pieces indicate that they asked a number of the major questions—to which they offered some sensible and some outlandish answers—that have concerned psychologists ever since.
We can surmise from the few obscure and tantalizing allusions by later writers to the philosophers’ ideas that among the questions they asked themselves concerning nous (which they variously identified as soul, mind, or both) were what its nature is (what it is made of), and how so seemingly intangible an entity could be connected to and influence the body.
Thales pondered these matters, although a single sentence in Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul) is the only surviving record of those thoughts: “Judging from the anecdotes related of him [Thales], he conceived soul as a cause of motion, if it be true that he affirmed the lodestone to possess soul because it moves iron.” Little as this is to go on, it indicates that Thales considered soul or mind the source of human behavior and its mode of action a kind of physical force inherent in it, a view radically unlike the earlier Greek belief that human behavior was directed by supernatural forces.
Within a century, some philosophers and the physician Alcmaeon suggested that the brain, rather than the heart or other organs, as earlier believed, was where nous existed and where thinking goes on. Some thought it was a kind of spirit, others that it was the very stuff of the brain itself, but in neither case did they say anything about how memory, reasoning, or other thought processes take place. They were preoccupied by the more elementary question of whence—since not from the gods—the mind obtains the raw materials of thought.
Their general answer was sense experience. Alcmaeon, for one, said that the sense organs send perceptions to the brain, where, by means of thinking, we interpret them and derive ideas from them. What intrigued him and others was how the perceptions get from the sense organs to the brain. Unaware of nerve impulses, even though he had discovered the optic nerve, and believing, on abstract metaphysical grounds, that air was the vital component of mind, he decided that perceptions must travel along air channels from the sense organs to the brain: No matter that he never saw any and that no such channels exist; reason told him it must be so. (Later Greek anatomists would refer to the air, pneuma, they thought was in the nerves and brain as “animal spirits,” and in one form or another this belief would dominate thinking about the nervous system until the eighteenth century.) Although Alcmaeon’s theory was wholly incorrect, his emphasis on perception as the source of knowledge was the beginning of epistemology—the study of how we acquire knowledge—and laid the ground for a debate about that topic that has gone on ever since.
Alcmaeon’s ideas were borne around the far-flung Greek cities by travelers; soon, philosophers in many places were devising their own explanations of how perception takes place, and a number of them asserted that it was the basis of all knowledge. But some saw the troubling implications of this view. Protagoras (485–411), best known of the Sophists (a term that then meant not fallacious reasoners but “teachers of wisdom”), unsettled his contemporaries and pupils by pointing out that, since perception was the only source of knowledge, there could be no absolute truth. His famous apothegm, “Man is the measure of all things,” meant, he explained, that any given thing is to me what it appears to me to be, and, if it appears different to you, is what it seems to you to be. Each perception is true—for each perceiver. Philosophers were willing to debate the point, but politicians considered it subversive. When Protagoras, visiting Athens, tactlessly applied his theory to religion, saying there was no way for him to know whether the gods exist or not, the outraged Assembly banished him and burned his writings. He fled and drowned at sea en route to Sicily.
Others carried on that line of inquiry, devising explanations of how perception takes place and maintaining that, since knowledge is based on perception, all truths are relative and subjective. The most sophisticated of such musings were those of Democritus (460–362) of Abdera, Thrace, the most learned man of his time. Vastly amused by the follies of humankind, he was known as the “laughing philosopher.” His main claim to fame, actually, derives not from his psychological reflections but from his extraordinary guess that all matter is composed of invisible particles (atoms) of different shapes linked together in different combinations, a conclusion he came to, without any experimental evidence, by sheer reasoning. Unlike Alcmaeon’s air channels, this theory would eventually be proven absolutely correct.
From his theory of atoms Democritus derived an explanation of perception. Every object gives off or imprints on the atoms of the air images of itself, which travel through the air, reach the eye of the beholder, and there interact with its atoms. The product of that interaction passes to the mind and, in turn, interacts with its atoms. He thus anticipated, albeit in largely incorrect detail, today’s theory of vision, which holds that photons of light, emanating from an object, travel to the eye, enter it, and stimulate the endings of the optic nerves, which send messages to the brain, where they act on the brain’s neurons.
All knowledge, according to Democritus, results from the interaction of the transmitted images with the mind. Like Protagoras, he concluded that this means we have no way of knowing whether our perceptions correctly represent what is outside or whether anyone else’s perception is identical with our own. As he put it, “We know nothing for certain, but only the changes produced in our body by the forces that impinge upon it.” That issue would vex philosophers and psychologists from then until now, driving many of them to devise elaborate theories in the effort to escape the solipsistic trap and to affirm that there is some way to know what is really true about the world.