INTELLECTUAL HERITAGE (at Temple
Delphi- A Focal Point for IH 51 Texts
Subject Study Aids:
Aeschylus' Libation Bearers
Oedipus and the Sphinx Lecture
J's Illustrated Pericles' Funeral Oration
J's Illustrated Pericles and America
J's Illustrated Pericles and Philadelphia
J's Illustrated Aeschylus' Oresteia
J's Curse of the House of Atreus Outline
Background Lecture on Greek Philosophy
J's Apology Study Questions
J's Illustrated Plato's Apology
and the Apology Lecture
Dr. J's Plutarch's Pericles
Sundiata Study Guide
Epic Qualities of the Sundiata
and Humanism Lecture
FOUNDATIONS OF CLASSICAL GREECE
(needs some pruning):
in Classical Culture:
The Legend of the House of Atreus: Greek Tragedy in Greece
Religious Foundations of Greek Culture
The Intersection of Myth and History
The Ancient Greek Cultural Nexus- Art, Archaeology, Literature and Topography
From 1996-2001 I taught in the
Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania. This page is part of my teaching materials for Intellectual
Heritage 51, a course covering literature and ideas from Sappho through
Philosophy as we know it was born in the
7e BC in Greece. The word philosophy is composed of two Greek words, philos
(love of) and sophos (wisdom). So to the Greeks, philosophy simply meant the
"pursuit of knowledge or wisdom" and they embraced the pursuit of all kinds of
knowledge later divided into separate and distinct avenues of inquiry: natural science
(such as biology, chemistry, geology), social science (sociology, political science) and
metaphysics (consideration of metaphysical questions concerning the meaning of life,
mans place in the universe, or the existence of God).
These were the first Greek philosophers,
"natural philosophers" called cosmologists (cosmos in Greek means
"order" and "universe" at the same time because the Greeks saw the
universe as being a perfectly orderly construction ruled by the principles of mathematics;
its opposite, of course, is chaos) Cosmologists inquired about the nature of
the universe as well as mans place in it. They rejected the old explanatory (or aetiological)
myths concerning why the world is the way it is and sought to explain the workings of the
universe by material processes alone. For example, they rejected the old theories
attributing natural processes to supernatural causes much like when we mature we no longer
believe that "thunder is just God bowling.") Cosmologists began with the
basic question "what is the world made of." Here are some of their conclusions:
|Thales (7th c. BC) concluded that
the basic element was water
Anaximander (c.610-540's BC) found fossilized shells and fish in the
mountains and concluded that life began in the oceans. First theory of evolution.
Anaximenes (590's-c.525) - claimed that
air was the primary element in order to explain how the spirit gets trapped in the body.
Their inquiries eventually led them to
consider such basic questions as "what is the nature of the soul"? The
pre-Socratic philosophers were united in their belief that the individual soul
corresponded directly with the orderly construction of the universe and that the same laws
applied to weather patterns, for example, as well as to the workings of the soul:
Pythagoras (c. 531) came up with
the idea that the soul is an immortal construct and that after death, souls migrated into
new bodies. Pythagoras also ascribed the workings of the universe to mathematical
principles, and his interest in numeric relationships led him to discover the 8-note
Heraclitus (6th century) concluded
that the human soul is made of the same elements as the universe, and we must be aware
that we are a part of a higher unity.
This interest in the soul is the basis
for Plato's writing, for it is the soul that allows us to understand principles not
visible in our physical world. But more on that later. 5e BC philosophers
disagreed on the exact nature of the universe, but agreed that we could "know"
it if we figured out the puzzle:
Empedocles agreed with Parmenides
that the universe is permanent and everlasting and agreed with Heraclitus that we perceive
the world through our senses (Heraclitus); he identified four primary elements of which
all matter is composed: fire, air, water and earth.
Leucippus and Democritus: offer a rival
theory - that all matter is composed of indivisible, tiny pellets of matter, which they
called atoms (literally, "without parts").
Anaxagoras: expanded Parmenides' ideas,
but he was expelled from Periclean Athens for asserting that the sun was not a divinity
but only a white-hot stone somewhat larger than the Peloponnesus.
Sophists were philosophers who turned
their attention away from investigation of the natural world and adopted a much more
practical approach to the use of philosophy. Sophists traveled wherever they could find a
client, and they earned their living by teaching such arts as rhetoric and argumentation,
skills that people eagerly paid to learn and use (and often abuse).
Protagoras (481-411 BC), earliest of the
Sophists: credited with saying "man is the measure of all things." Protagoras
will be expelled from Athens in 415 BC.
Sophists pointed out that while physis
(nature) is controlled by an unchanging set of laws that remain the same wherever you go, nomos
(custom, or man-made law) is arbitrary and changes from state to state. This empowered men
to think that they could shape the world and be masters of their own fates. Originally,
the goal of sophistry was defined as "teaching excellence or virtue (arete)"
primarily through public speaking (the way any Greek of the 5th century made his way). But
sophistry became known as unscrupulous teaching that leads to unscrupulous behavior. If
there was no objective way to measure arete, or "excellence," then how
was one supposed to know what really was "good" and what really was
"bad?" Did "goodness" really exist or was everything relative? Some
sophists came to the conclusion that you could successfully argue anything two ways, that
the logic of such arguments could lead you to outrageous conclusions, and that the
stronger argument, whether right or wrong, should win.
An example of a sophistic argument is that
you can just as easily prove that a shipwreck is good as you can prove it is bad. A
shipwreck is certainly bad if you are on the ship, if people die, if goods are
irretrievably lost. But a shipwreck is certainly good for the shipbuilder who gets the
contract to replace it! This kind of "moral relativism" left everyone
if something is good in this case, but bad in that case
then how can
anyone ever be sure what is good and what is bad? Socrates philosophy offers a
solution to this problem of "moral relativism."
The Periclean Age playwright Aristophanes
even wrote a harsh comedy in which he mercilessly mocks the concept of sophistry as
embodied in its greatest proponenrt (says he), Socrates. In the play, Socrates runs a
school attended by people who wish to learn how to abuse the art of rhetoric in order to
accomplish unscrupulous goals, such as weaseling out of legitimate obligations or debts.
In th play, a man sends his son to learn the art of "Unjust Logic." We recall
that all Athenians depended on their communication skills to advance in Athenian society
you acted as your own lawyer, for example, and needed to have a quick wit and
tongue to match. So sophistic skills were a hot commodity: but concern over which argument
was more just became replaced with concern over which argument would win.
Socrates (469-399 BC)
In fact, Socrates was unfairly
caricatured by Aristophanes (see notes on the Apology) and spent his life trying to
convince people that such people only showed their lack of understanding about the real
workings of the universe and their lack of wisdom about the meaning of life. Of course,
Socrates never wrote anything, but his student Plato preserved his ideas.
Platonic Ideas or Forms
Platonic metaphysics is founded on the
idea that everything that we can perceive with our senses is guided by an underlying
principle which we cannot perceive directly, but only as seen through the dirty and
smudged filter of our physical world. These principles are called Forms or Ideas.
But Plato was not concerned with the laws of the natural world like the older cosmologists
Plato understood this concept as applying to abstract principles which guide our
lives. To Plato, abstract concepts such as Virtue or Justice were just as real as the law
of gravity is to us you cant see gravity, you cant hold gravity, but it
is an undisputed fact that gravity exists. Ditto Justice.
Realm of Ideas
But the problem remains that we cant see or hold Virtue of Justice. In fact,
everything that we can perceive in this world, everything from a chair to
"courage", is but a pale imitation of its real existence
This "somewhere else" Plato called the Realm of Ideas. Everything we see
is a manifestation of a principle that is real but not present in this reality.
"Justice," for example, is real; but how can we ever know it if we cant
perceive it with our senses?
The sad fact is that what we know
(perceive with our senses) is only a derivation, not the real McCoy. But interestingly,
while we cannot see the Form of Courage, for example, directly, we do know it when
we see it. A courageous act is seen to be courageous when it manifests the principle of
Courage and therefore reveals the essesntial quality of Courage that marks all things
Courageous. Think of it this way: if the performance of an act reveals the
principle or form that guides it, them a witness to that performance becomes
informed! He has gained knowledge of a universal, unchanging truth as manifested in
the imperfect, human world.
Try to come up with a working definition
of "courage." You wont be able to do so without resorting to using other
abstract terms in your definition. Or the definition you come up with will not work all
the time and thus must be rejected. You might be able to argue that a particular act would
be considered courageous in one instance, but not in another. This argument that "it
depends on the circumstances" is called "moral relativism." This is the
reason that Socrates tells Crito (in the Crito) that the opinions of others have no
bearing on what is just or unjust, good or evil, for Truth concerning these concepts
exists and cannot be argued.
So how do we access this Realm of the
Ideas where all the answers are?
And wouldnt it be nice if, since
these answers really exist, we couldnt all just tap into the Realm of Ideas and find
out what truly is Just and what is not. It would sure save a lot of trouble. Well, we can.
We can tap into the immortal, never-changing universe where these eternal principles
reside by using our soul, the bridge between "immutable realities" and the
"material world." Through the immortal, never-changing part of ourselves
our soul we can reach upwards and grasp the unchanging principles by which the
universe is governed. Everything has its purpose and the well-being of the individual soul
- at its greatest and best - is the natural end (TELOS) of all movement and endeavor. And
that is why Socrates says that "the primary business of life is the care and tending
of the soul," so we can develop the ability to tap into the Realm. How do we
cultivate the soul? By living a life of constant inquiry and examination, by experiencing
Plato has Socrates address this issue in
the Apology. Although he never explicitly mentions the Realm of Ideas, it helps to
understand the underlying philosophy. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain Socrates
confidence in knowing how to tell the difference between Justice and Injustice. Socrates
acknowledges that Agathon, The Ultimate Form of Goodness - is the defining form,
suggesting that the plan of the universe is a morally directed one. But like with any
other form, we cannot become GOOD of JUST but we can know it when we see it, and we
can do our best to manifest it - PerFORM it through our actions.
Socrates primary tenets all draw
from this theory:
"An unexamined life is not worth
"An evil man can't hurt a good
"No man commits evil
he is just uninformed as to the Good"
"The care and tending of the soul is
the major business is life"
"Nothing can harm a good man either
in life or after death and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the
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send comments to: Janice Siegel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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