Tuesday 7/09

The Wisest Man of Athens




Permit me to quote the opening paragraph of Kaufmann and Baird's "Ancient Philosophy":

Something unusual happened in Greece and the Greek colonies of the Aegean Sea some 2,500 years ago. Whereas the previous great cultures of the Mediterranean had used mythological stories of the gods to explain the operations of the world and the self, some of the Greeks began to discover new ways of explaining things. Instead of reading their ideas into, or out of, ancient scriptures or poems, they began to use reason, contemplation, and sensory observation to make sense of reality.

To be sure, this is not to say the Greeks lacked such a religious tradition. Homer's Illiad and Odyssey are substantially stories about the interventions of gods in the oft-hapless lives of mortal men and women. Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony catalog the important gods, their origins, and how they came to make the world as it is. As best we can tell, Homer and Hesiod were writing in approximately the 8th century BCE. Everything changed in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.

Greek thinkers--we unfairly lump them altogether and call them "presocratics"--at this time began to eschew supernatural explanations in favor of natural explanations. This is an extraordinary break which arguably set western philosophy (and, with it, the very sciences it would eventually birth) on a unique trajectory. Roughly, the presocratics' novel idea is that the natural world is intelligible on its own terms, should we make the effort of applying our faculty of reason and our senses to understanding it. Speculation about divine agency may make us feel we have an explanation, but such explanations invariably beg the question: Having explained the natural world in terms of the supernatural world, we find we have the altogether more obscure puzzle of explaining the supernatural world. Best stick to the natural world to see what philosophical--really, rational, and today broadly deemed 'scientific'--inquiry yields. As Kirk, Raven, and Schofield put it in The Presocratic Philosophers:

...the transition from myths to philosophy, from muthos to logos as it is sometimes put, is far more radical than that involved in a simple process of de-personifying or de-mythologizing, understood either as a rejection of allegory or as a kind of decoding; or even than what might be involved (if the idea is not complete nonsense) in an almost mystical mutation of ways of thinking, of intellectual process itself. Rather, it entails, and is the product of, a change this is political, social and religious rather than sheerly intellectual, away from the closed traditional society (which in its archetypal form is an oral society in which the telling of tales is an important instrument of stability and analysis) and toward an open society in which the values of the past become relatively unimportant and radically fresh opinions can be formed both of the community itself and of its expanding environment.

It is that kind of change that took place in Greece between the ninth and the sixth centuries B.C.--a change complicated, to be sure, by the exceptional persistence of non-literacy there. The growth of the polis, the independent city-state, out of earlier aristocratic structures, together with the development of foreign contacts and a monetary system, transformed the Hesiodic view of society and made the old divine and heroic archetypes seem obsolete and, except when they were directly protected by religious cult, irrelevant. Much, no doubt, of the rational undertone of the Homeric tradition, as well as the classificatory craft of Hesiod, survived; but in the speculative and cosmopolitan societies of Ionia, not least in Miletus itself, they took on a sharper form and were applied, without too much distraction from myths and religion, to a broader and more objective model of the world.

This was an important, even radical departure from the kind of supernatural explanation so typical in the rest of the world. (In fact, it is interesting to note that the pre-socratics are sometimes called 'proto-scientists', although I don't think this is quite fair to either science or the pre-socratics.)

Thus, in many respects the presocratics set much of the naturalist stage for Plato and Aristotle. In particular, the presocratics investigated such questions as

  • What is the fundamental stuff of the universe?
  • How is change possible?
  • What is real, and what is illusion?
  • How do we come to have knowledge of the universe?

To be sure, these are fairly traditional questions. What sets the presocratics apart is their refusal to allow supernatural explanations. In this they set western philosophy on a largely distinctive course, culminating in the various sciences and technologies we enjoy today. To the extent that supernatural explanations of natural phenomena are troublingly question-begging, that is to say, their insistence on natural explanations of natural phenomena presage philosophical--read, "rational"--inquiry and the enterprise of science itself. Of course, such a strategy is only possible if the universe is fundamentally explicable. So among other things, they had to assume that the universe was rationally intelligible, even if what we perceive to be the case is radically at odds with what turns out to be the case.

Where the presocratics did not differ much from their more poetic and religious predecessors is their tendency towards the authoritative pronouncement. That is, instead of working to discover and articulate the best arguments for their positions, they tended to focus on the positions first and let their authority as clever people stand for substantive argument.

In advocating the socratic method, writing his philosophy as dialogues, and never speaking for himself, Plato again reset the entire course of western philosophy by inviting the reader to be as much a part of the larger philosophical discussion as any of the characters in the dialogues. The Apology neatly illustrates this critical transition by relating Socrates' futile quest to prove the Oracle wrong.

Socrates, recall, begins his defense by pointing out that there are old charges and new charges. The old charges were that he i) studied matters in heaven and on earth and ii) made the stronger argument appear the weaker, and the weaker appear the stronger. The old charges are not why he is presently in court, so he passes over them. Yet he does note that these old charges are very much more difficult to defend against than the new charges.

The new charges, those brought by Meletus, are that he is i) impious, teaching false or no gods, and ii) a corrupter of the youth.

Socrates' defense is to argue that the resentment of his accusers is unwarranted, since all he was doing in pursuing dialogue with the politicians, poets, and craftsment of Athens was to prove the Oracle at Delphi mistaken in pronouncing he, Socrates, the wisest man of Athens.

Socrates' eventual realization, of course, was that he was the wisest man of Athens in the sense that he alone knew that he did not know, whereas everyone else believed they knew, but upon examination, did not. Thus the beginning of wisdom is recognizing that one does not know, and not pretending otherwise. Aporia, to bring this full circle, is the start of wisdom.

This is an important insight, and for many it is the most important insight of the Apology. Next time, however, I will set us on a different course. I want to know, not how Socrates responded to the new charges (Meletus' charges), but how he could have responded to the old charges.

We closed today with the first of our essays for the session. I'm eager to read them. I recognize, of course, that asking that a series of impossible questions be answered in an impossibly short time on impossibly short space is, well, impossible. Please rest assured that I don't have a 'right answer' in mind when I write these questions. Instead, I'm only curious to see how you think about it. What insights do you have? How do you present them? How do you argue for them? What ideas do you have about the problem we discuss? This can be frustrating to those weaned on scantron forms and standardized tests. Please ask yourself, however, what would Socrates say about standarized testing?