This evening, Robert Mayhew asked if I might be interested in posting the following essay on Robert Tracinski’s discussion of the role of philosophy in the ancient world in his “What Went Right?” essays. I am happy to do so. (For those unfamiliar with his academic credentials, Robert Mayhew is a professor of philosophy at Seton Hall specializing in ancient philosophy.) Bewarned: The essay is fairly long. It is also well worth a slow read.

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“What went wrong with Robert Tracinski’s account of the ancient Greeks?”
Robert Mayhew

In the first half of the penultimate installment of “What Went Right?” (“The Summit and the Foundation”), Robert Tracinski presents a view of the development of ancient Greek philosophy, and its relationship to classical Greek culture generally, that is deeply flawed. Further, these flaws seem to stem not simply from his ignorance of the subject matter, but from a desire to have his alternative to the Objectivist philosophy of history seem to fit the facts.

Tracinski writes: “The development of Greek culture at its height did not go . . . from abstract philosophy down to art and the sciences. It went the other direction. . . .” He then presents a survey of some of the (purportedly pre-philosophical) achievements of the ancient Greeks. (All dates are BC. A minor point: few of these dates are known with the precision Tracinski’s presentation suggests, and I have altered some of them accordingly, though nothing of importance follows from these revisions.)

  • In medicine, Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease (c. last quarter of the 5th century)
  • In history, Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (last quarter of the 5th century)
  • Sculpture and architecture reach their peak with Phidias and the Parthenon (c. 490-430)
  • In drama, Aeschylus (525-426), Euripides (c. 480-406), and Sophocles (495-406)
  • Science “reached an important peak with the theories of Anaxagoras” (5th century)
  • In politics, “the Athenian state was fundamentally reformed by Solon” (late 7th, early 6th century), “while the statesman who presided over the height of Athenian power was Pericles” (495-429).

    Tracinski then asks: “How does all of this relate to the history of Greek philosophy?” He answers (sort of):

    Greek philosophy made some important innovations beginning with Thales (c. 624-526 BC), there was in these early years no strong differentiation between philosophy and science or the other specialized fields, and the views of the early Greek philosophers were a confusing maelstrom, ranging from those who taught that change was impossible (Parmenides, 515-480 BC) to those who taught that there was nothing but change (Heraclitus, c. 535-475 BC). Philosophy did not fully emerge as a separately defined field until Socrates (c. 470-399), who defined the specific questions addressed by the discipline.

    This does not really answer the question he posed, as it does not indicate the relationship between philosophy and the Greek cultural accomplishments that he surveys. Rather, it tells us that the first philosopher made some important innovations (no examples are given) but that philosophy in its early years was confusing and not properly distinguished from science. He sums up:

    Notice the pattern: Greek art, literature, science, history, and medicine reached a crescendo of achievement in the second half of the 5th century BC–while Greek philosophy reached its crescendo of achievement one to two generations later, in the middle of the 4th century BC. In short, Aristotle was a product of the Golden Age of Athens, not the other way around.

    If Tracinski were simply commenting on when the various disciplines reached their peaks, this might count as an interesting observation–though it is certainly questionable (not to say absurd) to claim that ancient Greek science reached its peak in the fifth century. (How much of fifth century science is better than Aristotle’s?) But even assuming that Tracinski has his facts straight, notice that it does not follow that if art, literature, medicine etc. “reached a crescendo of achievement” before philosophy reached its crescendo, then therefore art, literature, medicine, etc. must have come to be and/or developed independently of philosophy. Yet in some sense this is what he wants to claim. Recall his statement: “The development of Greek culture at its height did not go . . . from abstract philosophy down to art and the sciences,” rather it “went the other direction”–i.e., from art and the sciences up to abstract philosophy.

    What Tracinski wants us to conclude is that the greatness that is classical Greece had little to do with philosophy–though he conflates this idea, with another (more obviously true) one: that Aristotle did not come at the beginning of the development of classical culture, but at its end. We receive a stronger, more open, indication of his actual conclusion a bit later:

    This history suggests a progression that should, in fact, seem natural and unsurprising: that new ideas arose first from achievements in the special sciences–from physics, mathematics, history, medicine, biology, and politics. These achievements were paralleled by advances in literature and art, which expressed, often in implicit, non-verbal form, the new conception of human life that was suggested by advances in other disciplines. Then at the end of this process, a great philosopher was able to explain what made all of those previous achievements possible, to identify their implicit method, and to draw, in explicit terms, the widest implications for our conception of human life and potential.

    * * *

    I cannot here reply to everything in this installment which I find objectionable, nor can I take the time to deal with the interesting issue of why ancient Greek philosophy and culture did not continue to progress after Aristotle. I am concerned most of all with correcting Tracinski’s presentation of the history of ancient Greek philosophy. But to fully understand where he goes wrong, it is necessary to point out that he equivocates on the meaning of “philosophy.”

    Let me begin by making the following distinctions: First, “philosophy” in its broadest sense refers to a person’s (or culture’s) basic ideas about reality and man. It is in this sense that we can say, for example, that ancient Egypt was driven by a philosophy of death; it is also in this sense, I believe, that Ayn Rand claimed that “religion is a primitive form of philosophy” (“Philosophy and Sense of Life”). Second, “philosophy” also (and primarily) refers to the science that studies the fundamental nature of reality and man. Used in this sense, we would exclude the basic beliefs of pre-philosophical cultures, and say, for example, that philosophy was born in Greece (but did not exist, as such a discipline, in Egypt), and distinguish philosophy from religion. Finally, we can also speak of good philosophy and even the pinnacle of philosophy (in the ancient world, Aristotle’s). I mention these distinctions because Tracinski moves back and forth between the second and third of these–between when philosophy per se appears and exerts an influence, and when it reaches its pinnacle–and he gives the first sense little consideration (or credit) in assessing the role of philosophy in history. But the view that philosophy is the prime mover in history certainly includes (where relevant) philosophy in this most basic sense–especially when dealing with such an early period as archaic Greece. This is important to the present discussion, because it means that one cannot legitimately claim (certainly not without further argument) that philosophy could yield little or no influence in ancient Greece before it was fully developed and distinguished as an independent discipline (which is what Tracinski implies).

    The basic world-view of the ancient Greeks (their philosophy in the broadest sense) was already (before Thales) very good–relative to other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean. (I have in mind the implicit philosophy or basic ideas that we find in Homer and Hesiod, c. 8th-7th centuries.) It was essentially a this-wordly and pro-man outlook, which valued reason and argumentation. As primitive or pre- philosophies go, it provided an excellent potential background for development–a potential that was eventually actualized. But it was still primitive–it was still a conception of the universe as a place inhabited by supernatural deities that one was supposed to accept simply because they had always been believed in–by one’s family and one’s city.

    A somewhat transitional figure is Solon (late 7th, early 6th century). In my blurb on the back of John Lewis’ recent book on Solon, I say that he is arguably the first (and only) presocratic political philosopher. He saw the world as a rational, intelligible cosmos (albeit inhabited by some version of the Olympian gods), and he believed that the ancient Greek polis or city-state ought to be organized according to rational principles.

    The first philosopher proper–the person who deserves the title Father of Philosophy–is Thales of Miletus (early 6th century, a younger contemporary of Solon), for he did something truly revolutionary. He was the first person in human history to attempt to explain the universe in rational, naturalistic terms–that is, with arguments and without any reference to anthropomorphic gods (e.g., Zeus, Poseidon). The assumption driving Thales was that the universe is an intelligible place, and the human mind is capable of grasping fundamental truths about it through reason (as opposed to “truths” revealed by seers or Delphic oracles or Muse-inspired poets). Thales predicted an eclipse–something inconceivable on the mythological world view, which held eclipses to be omens from the gods (and in one archaic poem, proof of the feebleness of man’s mind). He held that everything was made of or came from water, and on the basis of this it seems he argued that earthquakes were the result of movements of the earth floating on water. This is not cutting edge philosophy or science by our standards, but it is a giant leap away from the traditional attribution of earthquakes to Poseidon’s anger. Thales’ basic outlook–rational, this-worldy, man-centered–set the trend for the next couple of centuries. Thales did not simply make “some important innovations.”

    Not long after Thales (and two other Miletian monists, Anaximander and Anaximenes), another Ionian–Xenophanes of Colophon–presented an alternative to the monism of Thales (Xenophanes holding that all things were earth and water) and for the first time, as far as we know, presented explicit arguments against the existence of the Olympian gods. (Xenophanes himself seems to have been some kind of pantheist.)

    In the history of presocratic philosophy that followed Thales and the other early Ionians, there continued to be errors, less-than-probative arguments, and major confusions–perhaps most of all about what did and did not count as philosophy. (Most ancient philosophers–including Aristotle–combined philosophy with what we now properly consider the separate sciences. See Ayn Rand’s comment on the problem with Thales’ approach to philosophy, Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 698-99.) And there were definitely some dead ends–the Pythagoreans, Heraclitus and Parmenides, for the most part–but the basic progression moved in the spirit of Thales.

    Incidentally, there is no reason to single out Anaxagoras’ achievements in the field of science, nor to count what he did as science in contrast to philosophy. (Presenting him as a scientist was extremely tendentious on Tracinski’s part.) And on an important related issue, there is no reason to treat the Hippocratic corpus (mostly 5th-4th century, no works of which can be confidently attributed to Hippocrates) apart from ancient philosophy. That corpus has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves, and it is clear that many of the most important works in it (including On the Sacred Disease) represent fusions of philosophy and science in the manner of the presocratics, except that most of them also deal with medicine. (For example, many of the Hippocratic treatises contain presocratic-like cosmologies of their own–see On Breaths and the very different On the Nature of Man, to name just two.)

    We turn finally to Socrates. Tracinski claims that “Philosophy did not fully emerge as a separately defined field until Socrates.” This is inaccurate, as Socrates was interested in moral philosophy alone. As the Roman philosopher Cicero observed:

    Socrates I think–indeed it is universally agreed–was the first to divert philosophy from matters which nature herself wrapped in obscurity, with which all philosophers before him had been concerned, and apply it to ordinary life, directing its inquiries to virtues and vices, and in general to good and evil. Celestial phenomena he regarded as beyond our comprehension, or at any rate, however well we might understand them, as irrelevant to the good life. (Academia 1.4.15)

    Cicero says that Socrates diverted philosophy away from one area–that which interested the presocratics primarily–and focused it on another: moral philosophy. (The sophists–whatever their differences from Socrates–made pretty much the same move, and for the same reason: their conviction that we cannot know anything about the fundamental nature of physical reality. There were exceptions, however: Prodicus of Ceos was a sophist who dabbled in the study of nature, and at least two of the works in the Hippocratic corpus were arguably written by sophists or thinkers influenced by sophists.)

    From Thales and the Ionian materialists through the Atomists, Empedocles, and Anaxagoras to Diagoras of Apollonia, and including the unknown authors of the bulk of the works of the Hippocratic corpus, we are dealing with the progression of one cultural movement–the history of ancient Greek philosophy. One might claim that Socrates and the sophists temporarily changed its primary focus, but his student Plato put all the parts together and became the first systematic philosopher. He may have placed less of an emphasis on the issues that we now properly consider science and not philosophy–e.g., the movement of the planets, the nature of matter–but he certainly did deal with them, as did his student Aristotle (to say the least).

    Again, what I have described (as briefly as possible) is basically one ongoing development–one series of accomplishments (and confusions and errors)–from Thales in the early sixth century to Aristotle in the fourth. In light of this development, it simply makes no sense to say: first there were major developments in medicine and history and the arts, and then there were the major developments in philosophy. (I’ll have something to say on the arts shortly.) They all developed at the same time and no doubt influenced each other–in complex, fascinating ways that specialists try to detail–and there was no doubt a spiraling effect. But there is no reason to think that anything other than philosophy–especially the basic philosophical outlook that I sketched at the outset–was the most fundamental force driving the culture. That is to say–in general terms (though an historian of ideas would try to show the details of the steps)–without the first moves made by philosophers like Thales and Xenophanes, beginning in the 6th century, and those who carried the torch after them, there could not have appeared the Hippocratic On the Sacred Disease or Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War in the last quarter of the fifth century–or for that matter, Aristotle in the fourth.

    * * *

    I’d like to turn briefly to Greek art. I know very little about ancient Greek architecture and sculpture, so I have little to say on the connection between those arts and philosophy. But I think I can say with some confidence that they reflect a rational, pro-man outlook, and reasonably speculate that it is unlikely that this was in no way an effect of the basic ideas that I have described. These basic ideas–this-worldy, pro-reason, and man-centered–were in the air; they were part of the culture, and I would be surprised if architecture and the visual arts did not feed off of them, while also fueling them.

    I do have sufficient knowledge of ancient Greek drama to say something a bit more substantial about how the development of philosophy helped to make possible the achievements of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. In fact, I would say that many if not most of the great ancient Greek plays have conflicts driven by the cultural conflict between traditional Greek religion and the emerging philosophical outlook. (This is hardly an original or idiosyncratic observation on my part; one encounters it all over the place in the secondary literature.) In his great Oresteia, Aeschylus attempts to resolve a problem with the traditional conception of justice, and the religion it is based on–which in some respects he admires–namely: how to prevent the application of justice (which is crucially important to a civilized existence) from descending into bloody tribal vengeance. His brilliant solution (whatever its flaws, and largely borrowed from political developments around him) involves the application of reason and law to the execution of justice. It seems highly unlikely that such a trilogy of plays could have been written outside a cultural context like the one I have described.

    In Sophocles’ Antigone, we see a clash between an individualist defender of moral absolutes rooted in the existence of the gods (but presented in language that is highly philosophical for a play) and a social-subjectivist conception of morality and politics that may reflect certain views of the early sophists. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles is again struggling with an intellectual conflict–between his admiration for the new, pro-reason, fifth century enlightenment outlook (he clearly admires the intellectual acumen and confidence of Oedipus, who scholars have long noted uses language and concepts similar to those employed in contemporary intellectual circles) and his concern over the ongoing attacks on traditional religion, which he seemed to think gave morality its foundation. For instance, Oedipus Rex contains criticisms of the notion of prophecy–perhaps the most important aspect of ancient Greek religious practice–which were no doubt in the air in the second half of the fifth century.

    Euripides was simultaneously the most explicitly philosophical Greek playwright and the one most at odds with the spirit of Greek philosophy. For example, it has long been argued that in the Medea, he is responding to and rejecting the Socratic view that no one knowingly does what is wrong–for on Euripides’ view, reason is impotent in the face of irrational emotion. (In lines 1078-80, Medea says she knows or understands [manthanô] what evil deeds she is going to dare to do, but her anger or spirit [thumos] overpowers her faculty of deliberation [bouleumatôn]. She is planning to kill her own children to get revenge on Jason.) And his Bacchae is in effect a hymn to the irrational that is clearly aware of (and at odds with) the pro-reason outlook of contemporary ancient Greek philosophy.

    Setting aside the creative genius of these playwrights, which is primary, the greatness of ancient Greek drama is at least as much the product of what came before it as it is material which helped to make possible later philosophical achievements.

    * * *

    At some level, Tracinski seems to be aware of some of these problems with his account. I think this is why he conflates philosophy exerting an influence and philosophy reaching its peak. All that he is really able to conclude from his (flawed) presentation of the development of ancient Greek culture is the entirely non-controversial point that Aristotle arrives late in the history of Classical Greece. But even on this point, Tracinski is tendentious: “the greatest Greek philosopher, Aristotle, comes last, after most of the important developments in Greek science, politics, literature, and art.” Why not add “and philosophy”? (Aristotle certainly comes after most of the important developments in ancient Greek philosophy.) Because that would not fit the broader conclusion Tracinski wants us to come to (the one not supported by the evidence), namely, that philosophy did not have the primary causal role in the history of ancient Greece that many of us think it had. Again, he seems to be aware that something is amiss with his account, because elsewhere he says “the achievements of earlier scientists (and scientist-philosophers), laid the foundations for Aristotle.”

    Tracinski writes that “The role of the philosopher, historically, is not as the sole motor of all progress, but rather as the observer, defender, promoter, and intellectual amplifier of that progress.” (This is unclear. Is the “but rather” meant to contrast the list of roles that follow with being a motor or with being the sole motor? Does he think the philosopher’s role is exhausted by being “the observer, defender, promoter, and intellectual amplifier of that progress”?) I prefer to speak of philosophy and not simply of philosophers. And in my view, good philosophy is the fundamental (not sole) motor of all progress, and it is so, in part by being “the observer, defender, promoter, and intellectual amplifier of that progress,” but most of all, and at its best, through the identification, demonstration and dissemination of fundamental truths–truths that make possible a culture open to all that the other disciplines and activities contribute to human progress.

    The purpose of Tracinski’s discussion of the ancient Greeks is to show that philosophy–whatever its merits and importance–is not the prime mover in human history. The same is true, he believes, of the philosopher. This explains the lukewarm nature of Tracinski’s portrait of Aristotle (at least that’s how it comes across to this Aristotle-scholar): Aristotle is a product of the Golden Age of Athens, a catalyst and source of the later Classical revival. I prefer (and I’ll end with) Ayn Rand’s more accurate and reverential account of Aristotle’s influence, as it is relevant to the issue of the role of philosophy in history:

    If we consider the fact that to this day everything that makes us civilized beings, every rational value that we possess–including the birth of science, the industrial revolution, the creation of the United States, even the structure of our language–is the result of Aristotle’s influence, of the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, men accepted his epistemological principles, we would have to say: never have so many owed so much to one man. (“For the New Intellectual”)

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    Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha