Monday, 20 April 2015

How Old is Philosophy?

This is a sample chapter from The Sacred History of Being:


‘…protect with merciful patience
Him who stumbles yet on so strange a path’[1]


Through a statement by Protagoras about the history of the sophists, Plato seems to suggest that the concept of the philosopher or sage was very old, rather than an idea contemporary with the presocratics or the sophists.  

Philosophy is very ancient among the Greeks, and particularly in Crete and Lacedaemon; and there are more sophists there than in any other country. They dissemble, however, and pretend that they are unlearned, in order that it may not be manifest that they surpass the rest of the Greeks in wisdom (just as Protagoras has said respecting the sophists); but that they may appear to excel in military skills and fortitude; thinking if their real character were known, that all men would engage in the same pursuit. But now, concealing this, they deceive those who laconize in other cities.[2]

This rather startling pronouncement perhaps supplies an explanation of Plato’s admiration of the Spartans. To us his admiration has always seemed rather improbable, since we have followed the account of the Spartans written by Xenophon which reveals nothing which supports the idea that the Spartans were superior in philosophy – nor even that they were interested in the practice.[3]

This is a puzzle. Why should the Spartans want to keep their pursuit of philosophy secret? The reason given by Plato is rather lame – why should they be concerned if all men pursued philosophy? What advantage could they gain for themselves by restricting public understanding of their practice of philosophy? The clue is perhaps in the use of the word ‘wisdom’ in connection with the Spartan practice of philosophy: we are accustomed to keeping philosophy and religion apart in the study of the past; however ‘wisdom’ is a concept which appears in antique sources in the context of both philosophy and religion. If the practice of philosophy among the Spartans was in some way connected with their religion, and perhaps their model of reality, this would perhaps supply an explanation of their reticence, and the general reticence of Greeks in discussing religious matters.[4]

If so, it would appear that we owe our knowledge of the practice of philosophy in Greece to the fact that in Attica, in the middle years of the first millennium B.C.E., the practice of philosophy was somehow prised free from its religious context, in that we have a very public show of philosophy from the presocratics onwards. That philosophy was understood to be, however, not entirely beyond the scope of the arbitration by the religious authorities, is shown by the charges brought against Plato’s master Socrates, and the severity of the judgement against him.[5]


The question of the nature of mind in the past, and whether or not it can be understood as having a principal interest in the nature of reality, or being the means of securing practical needs, can be considered in different ways, using different analytical models. We necessarily start from a position of relative ignorance, due to the elapse of time, the paucity of evidence, and changing patterns of belief about how the world works.  We create theories and frames of reference which help us to understand the evidence which we have. We create different theoretical frameworks, because we do not share the explanatory models of the ancient world (where we know them), and no single model suffices for the evidence. But these theories, though they are supposed to arise to some extent from a consideration of the evidence, often arise from distinctly modern agendas, both scholarly and unscholarly.

Necessarily we make certain assumptions. It is more or less axiomatic that the ancient mind was, before Aristotle, incapable of sound logical understanding of anything, as we would understand it, at least in practice, and certainly incapable of a scientific understanding of the forces at work in both the world and the human psyche. As a consequence, modern theories, formed with a logical rigour, clarity, and a scientific approach to the evidence, are, it is assumed, necessarily superior tools for the analysis of the evidence than, say, an attempt to understand the ancient mind from inside ancient intellectual structures, however such an understanding might be achieved.

I believe this assumption to be unwise. This study, in contrast, attempts to understand ancient patterns of thought in something like the terms in which these ideas would have been understood in antiquity. This necessarily involves a good deal of difficulty, and a great deal of unpicking of the intellectual history of man - the baggage we have acquired since the invention of writing alone, a period of around 5,000 years, is very great.

On the face of it, to attempt to understand ancient patterns of thought within their original context, would seem to be impossible. And indeed, if we had no clues to how this might be achieved, it would be impossible. However, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, we have many clues available to us, where we can recognise them. We are less disimilar in essential nature from our ancestors than we think, though the way in which our essential nature is given cultural expression in modern times appears to be entirely at odds with the cultural production of the ancient world. The similarities we – as a culture - do not dwell on, since they do not fit within our description of our own cultural agenda.

When the evidence is put back into its proper cultural context - from which it was wrenched by an enlightenment agenda some two hundred years ago, after some two thousand years of intermittent attrition  -  the craft of the sage appears in its proper place: his craft has always been the practice of philosophy, and that philosophy and the consideration of philosophical questions, have been an essential part of the discussion of reality and the world for many centuries.






[1]  Stefan Georg 1868-1933, from Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘The Book of the Hanging Gardens’ [trans. by Richard Stokes]
[2] Protagoras 342a-b
[3] The remainder of the passage is also illuminating: ‘ For there are some that in imitation of them [the Spartans, or Laconians] cut their ears, have a cord for their girdle, are lovers of severe exercise, and use short garments, as if the Lacedaemonians surpass in these things the other Greeks. But the Lacedaemonians, when they wish to speak freely with their own sophists, and are weary of conversing with them privately, expel these laconic imitators, and then discourse with their sophists, without admitting any strangers to be present at their conversations. Neither do they suffer any of their young men to travel into other cities, as neither do the Cretans, lest they should unlearn what they have learnt. But in these cities, there are not only men of profound erudition, but women also. And that I assert these things with truth, and that the Lacedaemonians are disciplined in the best manner in philosophy and discourse, you may know from the the following circumstance: For if any one wishes to converse with the meanest of the Lacedaemonians, he will at first find him, for the most part apparently despicable in conversation, but afterwards, when a proper opportunity presents itself, this same mean person, like a skilled jaculator, will hurl a sentence worthy of attention, short, and contorted; so that he who converses with him will appear to be in no respect  superior to a boy. That to laconize, therefore, consists much more in philosophising, than in the love of exercise, is understood by some of the present age, and was known to the ancients; they being persuaded that the ability of uttering such sentences as these is the province of a man perfectly learned. Among the number of those who were thus persuaded, were Thales the Milesian, Pittacus the Mitylenaean, Bias the Prienean, our Solon, Cleobulus the Lindian, Miso the Chenean, and the seventh of these is said to be the Lacedaemonian Chilo. All these were emulators, lovers, and disciples of the Lacedaemonian erudition.’ [342b-343a]

Protagoras also informs us that the Spartans…’assembling together, consecrated to Apollo the first fruits of their wisdom, writing in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi those sentences which are celebrated by all men, viz. “Know thyself”, and “Nothing too much”’. He tells us this in order ‘to show that the mode of philosophy  among the ancients was a certain laconic brevity of diction’ [343b]
[4] Of course it is always possible that this is an elaborate jest on Plato’s part: attributing a philosophical inclination to a people famous for a disinclination to the mental life. Yet many Spartan pronouncements are very famous (those in the preceding footnote included), and of course the Cretans are memorialized in the philosophical conundrum ‘All Cretans are liars: I am a Cretan’. If we imagine the history of Greek philosophy without any of the works of Plato and Aristotle, then the intellectual products of the Athenian world up to that time do not look markedly different from those in other parts of the Greek world (the sage pronouncements of Heraclitus, Thales, Anaximander, etc). In terms of form, (short and pithy) they have a resemblance to the utterances of sages in the Near East (though of course the focus on the physics and metaphysics in their statements does distinguish them, despite the obvious borrowings from Near Eastern accounts of creation, in their attribution of fire or water as the principal material of creation. That focus however may have much to do with their survival being dependent on having been extracted for inclusion in the dialogues and treatises of Plato and Aristotle).
[5] Socrates was forced to drink the poison Hemlock after being found guilty of both corrupting the youth of Athens and atheism. The first charge is related to the second in that he was sowing doubt among the youth of Athens about the existence of the gods. In other words, the sin of Socrates was seen among his peers as one committed against the religion of the Athenians.

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