Greek Philosophy


Greek Philosophy Essay, Research Paper

Greece. The word evokes images of sunny islands, music and dancing, cruise ships, and magnificentcrumbling ruins. It also conjures up thoughts of dusty tomes filled with difficult ramblings by thinkers who died more than two thousand years ago. It wasn’t like that in ancient times, of course. The islands were as sunny and the waters as blue and inviting as ever, but philosophers were celebrities. Almost everyone knew about their lives and doings, and each of the most famous had an enthusiastic group of students spreading his doctrines widely. In those days, “philosophy” included many areas ofknowledge that are separated into different disciplines now. A philosopher of those days might havebeen concerned with mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, metaphysics, biology, ethics,psychology, and more. Philosophers were pretty much the only game in town in the area of highereducation. Well-to-do citizens who wanted their children to have some education beyond the rudimentsof reading, writing, arithmetic sent them to study with philosophers. For the same reason, bright youngpeople flocked to them and idolized them.1 Greece has given us more philosophy than any other place in the Western World. To survey it alltakes volumes. This paper is a look at the highlights of its psychological side, including the realm ofethics, which partakes of both philosphy and psychology. Remember throughout it the place and times.From start to end, our stage is the edge of the Mediterranean, from the Turkish coast to Athens to NorthAfrica to Rome, drenched in sun for much of the year but lashed by cold storms in winter, a land whichhad once been rich in forests, but 500 B.C. already deforested and turned to stony pasture. In inlandGreece people eked out a living on tired, rocky soil; near the sea, many lived by fishing and trading.2 Greek philosophy as we know it came after the rise and fall of the high culture on Crete, its endnow thought to have been hastened by a giant tidal wave due to a major volcanic eruption. On themainland, the Mycenaean civilization had prospered, spread, and then perished. After these civilizationsperished came Achaean Greece, the Heroic Age of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which lasted fromaround 1300 to 1100 B.C. This culture was a step backward from the civilizations that had flourishedbefore it, but its people kept alive some of the old arts and knowledge. Then came the invasion of theDorian Greeks from the north, at a time when savage peoples were overrunning civilized peoplesthroughout the Mediterranean, and in Greece it was the start of a “Dark Age” of over 400 years fromwhich hardly a tale or a word survives. The people returned to an age of hard work and poverty in whichmost of the achievements of past high cultures perished completely.3 The first city to begin to rise out of this dark age was Sparta, in the heart of the PeloponnesianPeninsula, the heartland of Southern Greece. Music was the most popular of its arts, and composers andmusicians came from all over Greece to compete in its contests. The communal spirit was strong andchoral music dominated, especially patriotic and military music. For a brief time poetry and the artsflourished as well, until the Messenian wars ended such pastimes. Thirty thousand Spartan citizensmanaged to suppress and rule over eleven times as many subjects only by abandoning the arts andturning every Spartan into a soldier. Except for its political and military achievements, Sparta withdrewfrom the stage of history. Lycurgus, who lived sometime between 900 and 600 B.C., was a statesmanand philosopher who developed the remarkable code of laws which produced the kind of behaviorwhich even today we call “Spartan.” These laws were extensive. Infants were brought before stateinspectors and any who appeared defective were thrown off a cliff. At age seven a boy was taken fromhis family and enrolled in a school which was both a military regimen and a scholastic class. Older menprovoked quarrels among the youth, to test their fortitude and bravery. All faced trials of hardship andmisfortune, to teach them to endure pain. After age twelve, a boy was allowed just one garment for ayear. Until he was thirty he lived in a military barracks and knew no comforts of home and hearth.Reading and writing were taught, but barely, for most education was by oral training. Spartans learnedto forage in the fields for food, or starve, and to steal in permissible ways. Girls were taught games meant to make them strong and healthy for perfect motherhood. Bothyoung women and young men went naked in public dances and processions, to help them learn propercare of their bodies, but, declares Plutarch, “modesty attended them, and all wantonness was excluded.”Sexual freedom was widespread, but love was subordinated to war and marriage was strictly controlledby the state. Men were expected to marry at thirty and women at twenty. Celibacy was a crime andavoiders of marriage could not vote and were punished by public ridicule. Marriage was arranged byparents, divorce was rare, and Spartan women were more powerful and privileged than anywhere else inGreece. Plutarch writes that they “were bold and masculine, overbearing to their husbands…andspeaking openly even on the most important subjects.” Durant adds, “Nearly half the wealth of Spartawas in their hands. They lived a life of luxury and liberty at home while the men bore the brunt offrequent war, or dined on simple fare in the public mess.”5 The Spartans insulated themselves from outside influences, so that foreign styles of clothing,freedom, thought, luxury, and the arts would not corrupt them. They became the world’s best soldiers,but most of the rest of what we call “civilized” perished. The other city states of Greece came to sodetest Sparta that when it crumbled, hardly a tear fell to moisten the Greek soil.6 From 600 to 400 B.C. first Corinth and then Megara, which sit astride the narrow strip of landthat connects Athens to the Peloponnesus, became important trading centers, but their pursuit was ofgold rather than philosophy and they left us few ideas to remember.7 Aristotle himself appears to have been much more openminded and pragmatic than the term”Aristotelian Logic” would suggest. He was not, of course, right about everything. He claimed that to befully worthy of honor, a person must be well-endowed wth the conventional goods or values of fortune,such as good birth, power, wealth, and a large body, that falling rocks accelerate because they are happyto be getting home, and that snakes have no testacles because they have no legs. (Nichomachean EthicsIV, Oates 292, Palmer 79.) Nonetheless, Artistotle enriched and systematized the knowledge of his timein almost all the sciences of nature. The volume of research carried out at the well-funded Lyceum wasenormous. Perhaps Aristotle’s greatest contribution was in combining detailed systematic observationwith careful reasoning, both inductive and deductive. He began science as we know it. “In Aristotle and Plato together,” writes Tarnas, there is an “elegant balance and tension betweenempirical analysis and spiritual intuition.” He points to Raphael’s Renaissance painting The School ofAthens, in which, “in the center of the many Greek philosophers and scientists gathered in livelydiscussion, stand the elder Plato and the younger Aristotle, with Plato pointing upward to the heavens, tothe invisible and transcendent, while Aristotle motions his hand outward and down to the earth, to thevisible and immanent.”9 FROM THE HELLENIC TO THE HELLENISTIC PERIOD Hellenic Greece was an era of small city states marked by a combination of a fierceindividualism and an equally fierce commitment to the local polis. Like Buddha with his “GoldenMean,” Aristotle held that finding a balance between extremes is an important part of wisdom. TheAthenians had trouble finding that balance and it contributed to their unwillingness to make peace withSparta and to their ultimate defeat, just as it contributed to the collective defeat of the individualisticcity-states at the hands of Alexander’s disciplined Macedonian army.10 By the time Alexander the Great died in 323, Greece had entered a different era.11 TheHellenistic Age, when Greek ideas but not Greek power dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, is datedfrom Alexander’s death to Rome’s conquest of Greece in 146 B.C., but a few threads of Greek thoughtcontinued to develop until barbarians began to invade the Roman Empire around 235 A.D. During theHellenistic Period, Greeks continued to fan outward from the denuded hills and exhausted soils of the

Greek peninsula and islands to colonies all around the border of the Mediterranean, carrying their ideasand culture with them. “Greece fell just as it culminated, yet spread triumphantly just as it submitted,”writes Tarnas. “As planned by Alexander, the large cosmopolitan cities of the empire–above allAlexandria, which he founded in Egypt, became vital centers of cultural learning, in whose libraries andacademies the classical Greek inheritance survived and flourished…. the Roman conquest, Greek highculture still presided over the educated classes of the greater Mediterranean world…. TheRomans…more pragmatic genius lay in the realm of law, political administration, and military strategy.In philosophy, literature, science, art, and education, Greece remained the most compelling culturalforce in the ancient world. As the Roman poet Horace noted, the Greeks, captive, took the victorscaptive.”12 During the Hellenistic period, philosopy changed with the changing world. Aristotle’s expansionand classification of the sciences had done much to separate science from philosophy. As aconsequence, the Hellenistic schools strove “less from the passion to comprehend the world in itsmystery and magnitude, and more from the need to give human beings some stable belief system andinner peace” in the face of an environment that was at once more chaotic, more cosmopolitan, andfrequently more hostile.12 Alexander’s belief that a universal humanity united everyone became more prominent, while atthe same time, citizens’ control over their political destiny was largely lost, first to Alexander’s empireand then to Rome. There was little opportunity in these empires for most people to be politically active,influential, and responsible, hence little room for political philosophy. But there was an increasingawareness of individuality, especially in art and literature. Philosophy took a humanistic turn as peoplebegan to scrutinize human nature for laws to guide their actions, rather than looking to custom or thegods for an objective notion of the “right.” Several competing schools, each tracing its ancestry to someaspect of Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle’s teachings, competed for the people’s allegiance. “Athens, toopoor to maintain its state medical service, nevertheless opened private universities that made it…the’school of Hellas,’ the intellectual capital and arbiter of Greece.’14 A largely-forgotten Stoic philosopher named Diognetus was one of the principal teachers ofMarcus Aurelius Antoninus, who was born in Rome in 121 A.D., became emperor in 161 and ruled theuntil his death in 180. The Emperor found his central inspiration in the writings of Epictetus, whichwere brought to his attention by another philosopher, Junius Rusticus. His Meditations, written inGreek, are the last major contribution to Stoic philosophy.15 The emperor who preceded him, Antoninus Pius, is widely recognized as the ablest and wisestman who ruled Rome before Marcus. In every area he was an outstanding administrator. He respectedthe rights and freedoms of his subjects and was greatly concerned with their welfare. Only Antoninus’adopted son Marcus outshone him. In one matter Antoninus did much better than Marcus: He choseMarcus as his adopted son and future emperor, while Marcus allowed the throne to pass to his own sonCommodus, who had a cruel streak and proved unfit to be emperor.16 Nonetheless, Marcus Aurelius himself ranks among the few true “philosopher-kings” of history.He governed with remarkable skill, was a brilliant military strategist, and left a written record of hisphilosophy. During his reign the far-flung empire was frequently challenged by barbarian armies, and itwas during his spare time on military campaigns that he wrote much what became his “Meditations.”Among the passages he penned are these:”Value nothing as profitable which compels you to break your promise, to lose your self-respect, to hateany person, to act the hypocrite, or to desire anything which needs walls and curtains.” Among thevirtues he praised were simplicity, modesty, gentleness, bravery, truth, fidelity, and contentment. He gave equal weight to inward self-control and to contributing in a useful way to hiscommunity and society. He had no intent to create a utopia. “Let it be sufficient,” he wrote, “that youhave in some degree ameliorated mankind, and do not think such improvement a matter of smallimportance.” He “devised legal protection for wards against dishonest guardians, for debtors againstcreditors, for provinces against governors…required the use of foiled weapons in gladiatorial contests,and did all that…custom would allow to banish death from the arena. The people protested with goodhumor, “He wants to force us to be philosophers.”17 He presaged Gestalt psychology, systems theory, and ecology in his comment, “Thou mustalways bear in mind, what is the nature of this whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related tothat, and what kind of a part it is of what kind of a whole.” He had a keen appreciation of history andpossibility but stressed action in the present moment: “Bear in mind that every man lives only thispresent time, which is an indivisible point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or it is uncertain.”Marcus Aurelius described the stoic ideal of an introspective psychology. “It is in thy power wheneverthou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere, either with more quiet or more freedom fromtrouble, does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts thatby looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity; and I affirm that tranquillity is nothingelse than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself;and let thy principles be brief and fundamental.”18 He counseled, “Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, ‘I have beenharmed.’ Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away…. Do not havesuch an opinion of things as he has who does thee wrong, or such as he wishes thee to have, but look atthem as they are in truth.”(213-14) He was content to have us do the best we can: “Benot…discouraged…if thou dost not succeed in doing everything according to right principles; but…becontent if the greater part of what thou doest is consistent with man’s nature.”19 He also counseled, “Do what is necessary, and discern what is not. Since the greatest part ofwhat we say and do is unnecessary, if you take this away you will have more leisure and less uneasiness.On every occasion you can ask yourself, ‘Is this necessary?’ This applies to thoughts as well as acts.” Heconsidered wisdom itself the most agreeable of all pleasures.20 The excerpts above are just a few from the Golden Sayings and the Meditations. I have read bothagain and again, and found more in them of value to me personally than in any other work of Greekphilosophy. A careful reading shows that, taken together, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius provided asolid foundation for cognitive-behavioral psychology. Much of the work of such figures as Albert Ellis,Aaron Beck, A. John Rush, and others might easily be viewed as built on the foundation of theseancients–or perhaps it was a matter of the same principles being independently realized, two thousandyears apart. After Commodus and a succession of other incompetent emperors, Christianity replacedphilosophy, the Empire crumbled, and for a thousand years Greek thought was largely forgotten. Notuntil the thinkers of the Renaissance began to read the ancient texts did the old Greek philosophers, whoin some ways seem so remarkably contemporary, begin to affect the Western World again.21 PHILOSOPHY, THE GODS, AND THE MYSTERIES With all its brilliance, Greek philosophy had its limits as a psychology. This was partly becauseexcept for Aristotle, the ancient thinkers systematically exalted reason and paid too little attention to therole of passion and action in human life. Contrast their outlook, for example, with that of NikosKazantzakis’ Zorba, whom perhaps only the Cynics and Cyrenaics would have welcomed as one of theirown.22 Nor did Greek philosophy have much use for the feminine half of the human race. Epicurus welcomed women among his followers, and there was Arete, the Light of Hellas, who inherited her mantle from her father Aristippus, but they were the exception. Greek philosophy was largely a masculine endeavor which tells us little of the feminine psyche or worldview. Greek society, the Hellenistic world, and Rome were patriarchal, male-dominated societies. Most of the discourses of women took place not in the academies and lecture-halls, but in the temples of the Gods and the sanctuaries of the mysteries. But that story goes beyond the boundaries of this paper, and is a tale for another time and place.

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