Saturday, 27 May 2017

Excellence and the Knowledge of Divine Things

[This is a draft book chapter. Text uploaded May 27, 2017]

There is a telling passage in the seventh section of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Alexander’, concerning esoteric thought. It is couched in interesting terms, which we rarely associate with things which are hidden because they are associated with divine things. Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon,
seeing that his son was easily led, but could not be made to do anything by force, used always to manage him by persuasion, and never gave him orders. As he did not altogether care to entrust his education to the teachers whom he had obtained, but thought that it would be too difficult a task for them…. he sent for Aristotle, the most renowned philosopher of the age, to be his son's tutor, and paid him a handsome reward for doing so. He had captured and destroyed Aristotle's native city of Stageira; but now he rebuilt it, and repeopled it, ransoming the citizens, who had been, sold for slaves, and bringing back those who were living in exile. For Alexander and Aristotle he appointed the temple and grove of the nymphs, near the city of Mieza, as a school-house and dwelling; and there to this day are shown the stone seat where Aristotle sat, and the shady avenues where he used to walk.
Plutarch opens his life of Alexander with a cheerful complaint about the sheer extent of the materials available to him to write on Alexander, and defends some of the necessary omissions by saying that he is writing a biography, and not a history. So the details which are in his essay are there because he regarded them as important in showing Alexander’s character, his disposition, and the content of his mind. On the basis of his sources he says:
It is thought that Alexander was taught by him not only his doctrines of Morals and Politics, but also those more abstruse mysteries which are only communicated orally and are kept concealed from the vulgar: for after he had invaded Asia, hearing that Aristotle had published some treatises on these subjects, he wrote him a letter in which he defended the practice of keeping these speculations secret.
Plutarch references and quotes from several letters from Alexander, and from a diary, so it is likely that there were such things in circulation in Plutarch’s time, as well as the writings of his companions. Here he mentions Aristotle’s doctrines of morals and politics, which we would expect, given that he wrote extensively on these subjects (there is a volume on politics; he and his students compiled the constitutions of each Greek polis, only one of which has come down to us; and there are three different works on ethics extant, which are probably lecture notes compiled by his students); but he also references an esoteric level of teaching which Aristotle imparted – ‘those more abstruse mysteries… communicated orally and kept concealed from the vulgar’.

The esoteric is the opposite of the exoteric, or surface meaning of a doctrine. Plato’s teaching was also conducted at two levels, the inside and the outside, referred to as ta eso and ta exo in the Theatetus.

Plutarch however suggests by his wording that there is an esoteric level to an understanding of Aristotle’s teaching on both morals and politics, but the teaching of those mysteries are less abstruse.
How could we ever know what those abstruse mysteries might be? It would seem to be impossible. But the clue is in Alexander’s letter sent from Asia to complain about Aristotle’s publication of some treatises on these subjects. The letter is quoted as follows:
"Alexander to Aristotle wishes health. You have not done well in publishing abroad those sciences which should only be taught by word of mouth. For how shall we be distinguished from other men, if the knowledge which we have acquired be made the common property of all? I myself had rather excel others in excellency of learning than in greatness of power. Farewell."
This is a revealing answer. The objection is connected with the idea of excellence in learning and knowledge, and excelling in that knowledge, in order to be distinguished from other men. We can take from this statement, which places temporal greatness as a poor second to knowledge of abstruse things, that Alexander is referring knowledge of divine things, and consequently the principle of excellence itself.

This adds a whole new level to the endless references in the contemporary literature on Alexander to the question of whether or not he was divine by birth, whether he thought himself to be divine, whether or not he should receive divine honours, or if he was in pursuit of actual divinity.  In modern times the details and significance are not discussed as they were in antiquity, since scholars have no sense of how important such questions were at the time. We flatten everything into a discussion of the pursuit of power, status and political ideology. We have a glimpse here of the real context of Alexander’s understanding of what was important.

Plutarch gives the import of Aristotle’s reply to Alexander, saying that:
To pacify him…. [he] wrote …. that these doctrines were published, and yet not published: meaning that his treatise on Metaphysics was only written for those who had been instructed in philosophy by himself, and would be quite useless in other hands.
The emphasis is mine. So again, we have the assertion, this time from Aristotle, that there is an inside and an outside understanding of his doctrine, and accepts that details of both are in the text. He excuses this on the grounds that it was ‘only written for those who had been instructed in philosophy… and would be quite useless in other hands’.

So the clue is in the teaching of philosophy. Philosophy, at least when taught at an esoteric level, gives useful knowledge of what is excellent, and what is divine. Without philosophy, such knowledge is not to be had. This is a clear indication that philosophy and philosophical questions and puzzles were understood to lie behind doctrine and teaching concerning the divine.

Plutarch then goes on to illustrate Alexander’s interest in excellence, by suggesting that Aristotle:
… more than anyone else implanted a love of medicine in Alexander, who was not only fond of discussing the theory, but used to prescribe for his friends when they were sick, and order them to follow special courses of treatment and diet, as we gather from his letters. He was likewise fond of literature and of reading, and we are told by Onesikritus that he was wont to call the Iliad a complete manual of the military art, and that he always carried with him Aristotle's recension of Homer's poems, which is called 'the casket copy,' and placed it under his pillow together with his dagger. Being without books when in the interior of Asia, he ordered Harpalus to send him some. Harpalus sent him the histories of Philistus, several plays of Euripides, Sophokles, and Æschylus, and the dithyrambic hymns of Telestus and Philoxenus.
Again, Plutarch reinforces the importance of excellence to Alexander, saying that when he was a youth:
… used to love and admire Aristotle more even than his father, for he said that the latter had enabled him to live, but that the former had taught him to live well.
And living well is a main focus of Aristotle’s published work. Though the relationship later cooled,
he never lost that interest in philosophical speculation which he had acquired in his youth, as is proved by the honours which he paid to Anaxarchus, the fifty talents which he sent as a present to Xenokrates, and the protection and encouragement which he gave to Dandamris and Kalanus.
Philosophical speculation of course implies a degree of conjecture in discussion, and the fact that not everything is known or knowable by the merely mortal. Knowledge of the importance of excellence is however one way in which the divine can be approached, and that appears to have been an important component in Alexander’s mission.

This idea can be traced in Plato’s writing also. In the Protagoras, he suggests (through Protagoras) that the practice of philosophy is very ancient among the Greeks, and not something relatively newly invented. He suggests that it is widespread,
and particularly in Crete and Lacedaemon; and there are more sophists there than in any other country. 
Echoing Alexander’s view that philosophy, at least at an esoteric level, should be communicated only by oral teaching, in order that those who have studied philosophy should excel others in the knowledge of excellence, Protagoras says that:
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. [Protagoras 342a-b]
So the Cretans and the Spartans wished not only to conceal knowledge of excellence, but to conceal that they excelled in knowledge of excellent things. 

To us Plato’s admiration of the Spartans 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. 

What advantage could they gain for themselves by restricting public understanding of their practice of philosophy? The exchange between Aristotle and Alexander gives us the clue. It is about the knowledge of excellence, and of divine things which is attained through the practice of philosophy. The use of the word ‘wisdom’ in connection with the Spartan practice of philosophy is significant: we are accustomed to keeping philosophy and religion apart in the study of the past; however ‘wisdom’ is a concept which appears in ancient 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 supply an explanation of their reticence, and the general reticence of Greeks in discussing religious matters.
Plato’s Protagoras tells us that the Lacedaemonians have imitators, who imitate only surface details because they have no knowledge of their real interests and skills.
But the Lacedaemonians, when they wish to speak freely with their own sophists,… 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.
Protagoras also tells us that:
…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 reminds 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]

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’.

Socrates was forced to drink the poison Hemlock after being found guilty of both corrupting the youth of Athens and of 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. 

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. 

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