Plato and Plotinus on Love and Beauty

Unknown.pngWhat makes something beautiful? What is love (Baby don’t hurt me)? These are questions that we ask in our lives because we experience them both every day. They make up a large part of our experience, and without them, we know not what life would be like, nor whether it would be worth living. For this reason, these questions have been asked by philosophers, who, thinking about æsthetics, the philosophy of beauty and art, have also questioned these fundamental aspects of reality and the human condition. One of the most enduring contributions is from Plato. In today’s misguided world, many people, without having even read Plato’s principle work The Symposium, talk about “Platonic love,” throwing it about in conversations with friends and family, thinking, mistakenly, that it refers exclusively to a non-sexual relationship between two people. People like to claim that they and their coworker have a “Platonic relationship” without knowing what they are really saying, or without bothering to see what the great Greek philosopher himself had Unknown.jpegto say regarding love; for while the non-sexual aspect is important, this understanding is commonly used, but it does not capture the whole picture. Little do they know Plato originally referred to pederasty—relationships between older men and young boys, a common practice in Ancient Greece! A spiritual interpreter of Plato, Roman philosopher Plotinus continued Plato’s work in his Enneads. Together, Plato and Plotinus represent the ancient views on both beauty and love in their transcendental nature, whose ideas have shaped our understanding for ages to come.


symposium-vase.jpgThe Symposium is one of the more fun dialogues by Plato. In it, Plato, Socrates, and Aristophanes—a famous comic playwright—join a symposium, or drinking party, in which they go around the table sharing speeches, engaging in intellectual discussion on the subject of love, each of them drunk. Pausanias’ turn comes up, and he begins his speech by identifying two types of love. According to him, the other speakers had been mistaken in not defining what kind of love they were praising. So Pausanias corrects them by asserting that there actually two kinds, aligning with the two goddesses representative of them: The Common Aphrodite and the Heavenly Aphrodite. Beginning with the Common Aphrodite, Pausanias says that this kind of love, which is purely erotic—that is to say, inspired by Eros (Έρως)—is a shallow kind of love, insofar as it is a love of the body. Of the two kinds, this is the “wrong” love. Common love is temporary; because it is of the body, and because the body is temporal, subject to change with time, impermanent, it means the love, too, will be temporary. This Common love is very common these days; we see it all the time when we hear people saying, “This person is so hot” or “They are so beautiful.” This is not to say that it is wrong to call someone beautiful; rather, the problem lies in the intent. Are you attracted to this person purely for their looks, or is that an added benefit? There is nothing wrong with saying someone is beautiful—in fact, if you think that, then you should tell them. However, the problem with loving someone for their looks, Pausanias argues, is that their body will inevitably age and deteriorate. Interestingly, in the Buddhist tradition, if you are infatuated with someone, then you are instructed to meditate upon their decaying body as a reminder that their body is not images.jpegpermanent, but will wither with time, turning your mind off of their physical beauty, and onto their spiritual beauty, which is permanent. This same line of reasoning will be used by Pausanias. So what happens when someone, loving another for their looks, years later, does not look at this person the same, but decides they love them no more since they have changed? Well, because their love was attached to something temporary, their love is temporary, and so, Pausanias continues, the lover will flee. They were just in it for the beauty, yet when the beauty is gone, so are they. Similarly, he warns against loving someone for their possessions, namely their status or wealth. As with beauty, one’s reputation and financial situation are not always going to remain the same. If you love someone, and they lose all their money one day by chance because money is unreliable and everything can change in a moment, then you will love them no longer; the attachment was to a temporary thing. One’s money is not a part of them; it is external to them. Likewise, the regards of many are fickle. Who knows if someone will retain their reputation? Love must be directed toward the right object. Such material objects are just that, and they lack significant value. A Common lover is immature. He is not emotionally prepared for a committed relationship. He is full of energy, but empty in compassion. He wants passionate, sexual love. But once he wants it no more, he will leave. He is interested in one-night stands, not a devoted romantic relationship. Common love is short-lived.


Next, he explicates Heavenly love. This kind of love, as opposed to the Common, is of the soul and, therefore, righteous. Unlike Common love, Heavenly love is not shallow, but deep, in that it is spiritual and mutual: It is spiritual because it is literally of the spirit, the breath, the soul, and it is mutual because it is reciprocated—both lovers are Unknown-1.jpegin it for the sake of the other. It is also mutual in the sense Aristotle thought it mutual, namely that the lovers, in entering a romantic pact, agree thenceforth to help perfect each other; that is, they serve both themselves and the other, each aiding the other. Say one lover is trying to form a habit, the other to break a habit. In this situation, the lovers will love each other while at the same time mutually helping and perfecting themselves. It is two-way. Heavenly love is between two lovers, two subjects, not a lover and a beloved, a subject and an object. Heavenly love is profound, and reaches to the lowest depths. Temporary and lowly is Common love; permanent and transcendent is Heavenly love. The latter is permanent because it is not of the body, but of character. One’s looks can change very easily, and while one’s character is not exempt from changes, it is much slower and intentional than the body. Psychologists (and even Socrates will eventually say the same thing) argue that character is not a permanent thing, changing with age much as looks do. For the most part, however, character is a pretty stable, consistent thing, and it takes a lot to change it dramatically. Is it really worth loving someone who is physically attractive if they have a combative, unfriendly personality? In 40 years, will they still look the same as when you first loved them? No. In 40 years, will they still be combative and unfriendly? Yes. As such, a person’s body is not righteous, whereas character, one’s soul, is. Heavenly love is also transcendent. It is transcendent because it steps over the appearance of a person, the outer boundaries, the external face, the artificial construction, and it pierces through them, gives insight, sees not outer beauty, but inner beauty. Transcendental love loves a person for who they are inside, not outside. It is a love of their essence. And in contrast to the immature Common lover, the Heavenly lover is mature, prepared, and ready. This is a devoted, long-term relationship.


To evaluate Pausanias’ position, let us look at whether his views make sense. Just as he distinguishes between two kinds of love, one short and exciting, one long and content, so psychologist Elaine Hatfield distinguishes between two types of romantic love: Unknown-2.jpegPassionate and companionate. The first, passionate, is sexual and full of intense energy, although it only lasts for a short time. This is the kind of love teens have, when they are full of idealism and optimism, expecting great things from a partner; they are excited and will jump too quickly into things in the heat of the moment. This is embodied by Common Aphrodite. The second, companionate, is calm and full of compassion. Think not of teens in love, but a couple who has been married for 20 years. Here, you will see two people deeply in love with each other, neither of whom would leave the other at the drop of the hat, but who are, at their core, devoted to each Unknown-3.jpegother, devoted to perfecting each other. They have arguments, but they resolve them. They love, and will continue to love, each other. This is embodied by Heavenly Aphrodite. It seems Pausanias was spot on! Most often, this is the paradigm that is titled “Platonic love.” Plato gets a lot of backlash for his views these days. To “love someone for their personality” has become a universal joke. This is often said facetiously, with a smile on one’s face, meant to be ironic or sarcastic. And regarding those who actually mean it—they are met with derision. Consequently, almost nobody really means it when they say it. Yet then again, this is only a fraction of what “Platonic love” truly is.


The next speaker, Aristophanes, is the favorite of many, for his speech is the most remembered, the most entertaining, and, perhaps, the most influential even today. His is the speech on soulmates. Back in the day, relates Aristophanes, man and woman walked alongside a third sex, which was a combination of the two: A half-man, half-woman. It was a single organism, with two of every body part, seeing as it was two people put Unknown-4.jpegtogether, in a perfect, rolling circle, a symbol of perfection and completion, as Nussbaum points out [1]. These humans, composed of two people, were thus twice as powerful, and twice as ambitious. They decided, like the Giants, to attack the gods, which was a bad idea; Zeus promptly split up these dual humanoids. As a result, the two halves went about looking for their other half desperately, hoping to be reunited. Filled with longing and Eros, they wandered sadly, bereaved, dejected, almost to the point of depression. The halves could not function on their own; they needed each other. Since they spent all their time moping, busying themselves with finding their other halves, they were unable to make sacrifices for the gods. Zeus took pity on them and moved their sexual organs to the front to make mating easier. When two soulmates find each other, they immediately embrace, pressing their bodies together in an attempt to become one again, to press themselves into each other. They hug and kiss, holding themselves close, wrapping their arms around the other, then pulling tightly. Yet no matter how hard they try, no matter how hard they embrace each other, they cannot put themselves together again.

It is such reunions as these that impel [lovers] to spend their lives together, although they may be hard put to it to say what they really want with one another, and indeed, the purely sexual pleasures of their friendship could hardly account for the huge delight they take in one another’s company. The fact is that both their souls are longing for a something else—a something to which they can neither of them put a name, and which they can only give an inkling of in cryptic sayings and prophetic riddles (The Symposium, 192c-d).

So what is love? As Aristophanes reports, when lovers are asked this very question, they cannot answer. If you were to ask a teacher what teaching is, then you would expect them to know—it is their business. By nature, then, should not lovers, who are held tightly in the grip of love, know in what state they are? Surely, they should. On the contrary, love is such a powerful, binding force, such an irresistible pull, such an enigmatic drive—who could possibly define it while in its throes? Well, to answer the question of that at which love aims, Aristophanes proposes the following: Say Hephæstus were to ask the two halves if they wanted to be welded together so as to be inseparable for the rest of their lives, not even “until death do they part” (as they would remain together in the Underworld), a single entity forever. No one would refuse such an offer, for they want, deep down, to be “merged … into an utter oneness with the beloved” (The Symposium, 192e). The idea of soulmates is still popular till this day. Many of us believe we are just walking through life without an aim, a sinking feeling of incompleteness pervading our being, as though there is something more to life, something, someone, out there waiting for us, our other half, who is perfect, who is everything we want them to images.jpegbe, who will make us happy, who will be the missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle we call life, the summum bonum, the most absolutely beautiful person—and it is just a matter of finding them; but until then, we remain incomplete and, therefore, unhappy. This mythological story is at once humorous and enchanting. I really like the idea of hugging as an attempt to bring the other person to oneself, to make oneself complete; it is a creative, thoughtful moral that is poetic in its presentation, and I think it is very powerful. Whether or not this story is true, many of us still believe it, and it is yet another part of “Platonic love.”


Unknown-2.jpegThen comes Socrates’ turn. It is his speech which is left out of the everyday conception of “Platonic love,” despite Socrates’ being Plato’s mentor. In the dialogue, Socrates speaks on behalf of Diotima, a woman he met who taught him about the nature of love. What is love, exactly? Love is a desire, and a desire is for something, and if one already has what one desires, then it is not a desire any longer; therefore, love is a longing for something one does not have. What is this something? Is it Aristophanes’ other half? No. Love, says Socrates, is a desire for the Good, with a capital “G,” meaning the highest good, the ultimate good, that from which good things derive their goodness. Hence, what is beautiful is what is good and noble. Everyone wants goodness to an extent. This requires qualification. First, all objects of our desire, be it a living thing or a goal, are good. For example, if I want to write a blog, if my desire is to write a blog, then I am aiming at something which, if I investigate further, is essentially good since it is of benefit to me. Second, everyone, regardless of their disposition, wants the good, whether they know it or not. A doctor and a murderer both seek the good, although we say the latter is errant in his ways, or is ignorant thereof. In other words, even if we do not have an idea of what the Good is, we still want it anyway. It is natural. It is human. Nobody intentionally desires what is bad for them. But what separates desiring from loving is immortality, states Diotima. Whereas if my goal is to exercise more often, then I am seeking the Good, if I love someone, then I am seeking the Good in them, and, from what I gain therefrom: Longevity. It is a strange idea to read. However, what Socrates is saying is that we want the Good forever. We always want to have in our possession the Good—not today, not tomorrow, but for time immemorial. When we love someone, we tend to analyze them, parse them into traits, which we then classify as positive or negative. We look at people’s love-1.jpgpro’s and con’s. As is our nature, we like good traits and dislike bad traits in people. I like a person for her altruism but dislike her for her stubbornness. So when I say I like “her,” I really mean: I like the Good in her. This is similar to something Pascal wrote 2,000 years after Plato, that we love people not for themselves, but for their qualities. The reason we like good qualities in people is that they are reminiscent of the Good, and what is Good is good for us; a person’s good personality helps us to flourish. Using the previous instance, the altruism of a girl will help me, but her stubbornness will not. Furthermore, because we are mortal and fated die, and because we are terrified of death, we try to find ways to achieve immortality, at least artificially. We do this by creating something by which we will be remembered. We want a lasting name for ourselves. Some people do this by two means: Having children, so as to carry on the line, to bear one’s name, and creating art (art, here, is to be interpreted broadly as any kind of creation), so as to have a creation which manifests one’s ideas. Before continuing we can summarize Love in three points: First, love is of the Good and Beautiful (the two are synonymous); second, love is the same object for every desire and goal; third, love is for creation, be it through children or art, with the goal of longevity.


If the Beautiful is behind all things, and if we desire it so much, then how do we encounter it? What is the true purpose of love? Diotima introduces Socrates to a ladder, or ascent, of love, which leads up to Beauty. The ladder starts at the bottom and ends at Unknown.jpegthe top, rising from particulars to universals, concrete to abstract. Starting with a single, individual body we consider beautiful, we meditate upon it, find everything there is that is beautiful in it. In modern terms, we look at someone we love and find desirable traits, traits valued by our culture, traits that make someone beautiful. Having done this, we can then realize that the body of one person is just as beautiful as the body of another. There is a good message here: Everyone is beautiful in their own way. Each has their own unique beauty. While this person is beautiful for x reasons, this person is beautiful for y reasons, although they are both beautiful in the end. Once we grow accustomed to this, we can grasp that the mind and soul are more noble than the body. We move away from Commonly love and toward Heavenly love. Beauty is seen as permanent and virtuous. Next, we ascend to ideas, laws, customs, institutions. We learn to see knowledge as beautiful. Finally, once we have seen the Beautiful in all earthly and intellectual things, we can perceive Beauty as such, Beauty itself. The journey upward can be summarized thus:

And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is (The Symposium, 211c-d).

In the ascent, in other words, we abandon the individual for the absolute. Love is no longer person-centered but idea-centered. The intellect takes over for the eye. Senses are devalued to thought. Instead of the material and lower, we see the Beautiful in the higher and spiritual. Once we have loved the Good, Beauty as such, we can find Beauty in all things. In short, there is no more favoritism. What this means is: No longer do I see Unknown-1.jpegbeautiful and ugly people, but I only see the Beauty in them. There is no one more beautiful than another, since we all share in the same Beauty. A true lover of Beauty does not discriminate, but rather sees Beauty everywhere, from people to animals to nature. Beauty is no longer temporary but permanent. The lover need not depend on a specific person or artwork to see Beauty, for it is everywhere. Suppose I derive a great pleasure in van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but in no other piece. This is an undeveloped love. However, after I have attained a vision of the Good, I soon find that every artwork is beautiful, not just “Starry Night”; for this reason, I am not dependent on a single beautiful thing to know Beauty. Universal love can be found anywhere once envisioned. And unlike the body, subject to change, Universal Beauty is changeless. Love is the guide up the ladder; it draws us toward the Beautiful through Eros, the daimon of Love. Plato compared “the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true” to “the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy” (The Phædrus, 249a). The philosopher, or lover of wisdom, is the same in purity as the lover of Beauty; for in wisdom, there is Beauty. What is the beautiful like? In this quote, Plato describes Unknown-2.jpegwhat the famous Realm of Forms is like: “There abides the very being with which true knowledge is concerned; the colourless, formless, intangible essence, visible only to mind, the pilot of the soul” (The Phædrus, 247c). From this we can gather that the Form of the Good or Beautiful is permanent and unchanging. It remains the same eternally. The Beautiful is absolute, not relative. Things are not “more beautiful” but are either beautiful or not-beautiful. Beauty, lastly, is the same to all things. A statue has as much beauty as does a shoe. It achieves this through instantiation: The partaking of instances. Explained in another way, beauty instantiates itself, by which it is meant that, a particular instance of beauty, for example Michelangelo’s “David,” is beautiful precisely because Beauty is inside of it. Love is a form of madness, Plato famously wrote. In a very poetic (and long) passage, Plato illustrates what it is like to be in love:

But he whose initiation is recent, and who has been the spectator of many glories in the other world, is amazed when he sees any one having a godlike face or form, which is the expression of divine beauty; and at first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him; then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god he reverences him, and if he were not afraid of being thought a downright madman, he would sacrifice to his beloved as to the image of a god; then while he gazes on him there is a sort of reaction, and the shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration; for, as he receives the effluence of beauty through the eyes, the wing moistens and he warms. And as he warms, the parts out of which the wing grew, and which had been hitherto closed and rigid, and had prevented the wing love-on-a-swing-Cropped.jpgfrom shooting forth, are melted, and as nourishment streams upon him, the lower end of the wing begins to swell and grow from the root upwards; and the growth extends under the whole soul—for once the whole was winged. During this process the whole soul is all in a state of ebullition and effervescence,—which may be compared to the irritation and uneasiness in the gums at the time of cutting teeth,—bubbles up, and has a feeling of uneasiness and tickling; but when in like manner the soul is beginning to grow wings, the beauty of the beloved meets her eye and she receives the sensible warm motion of particles which flow towards her, therefore called emotion, and is refreshed and warmed by them, and then she ceases from her pain with joy. But when she is parted from her beloved and her moisture fails, then the orifices of the passage out of which the wing shoots dry up and close, and intercept the germ of the wing; which, being shut up with the emotion, throbbing as with the pulsations of an artery, pricks the aperture which is long-distance-relationship-advice.jpgnearest, until at length the entire soul is pierced and maddened and pained, and at the recollection of beauty is again delighted. And from both of them together the soul is oppressed at the strangeness of her condition, and is in a great strait and excitement, and in her madness can neither sleep by night nor abide in her place by day. And wherever she thinks that she will behold the beautiful one, thither in her desire she runs. And when she has seen him, and bathed herself in the waters of beauty, her constraint is loosened, and she is refreshed, and has no more pangs and pains; and this is the sweetest of all pleasures at the time, and is the reason why the soul of the lover will never forsake his beautiful one, whom he esteems above all (The Phædrus, 251-2)

Anyone who has ever been in love—in other words, all of us—can appreciate the beauty with which Plato speaks here. “If … man’s life is ever worth living,” Diotima confides to Socrates, “it is when he has attained this vision of the very soul of beauty” (The Symposium, 211d).


What are we to make, then, of Platonic love? Despite all its transcendent glory, the ideal of Platonic love has its flaws. A professor of the Classics, Martha Nussbaum criticizes Plato’s account of love on three grounds: Compassion, reciprocity, and individuality.

  1. Unknown-1.jpegCompassion: According to Nussbaum, Platonic love lacks compassion. The practices for which he calls require that one look down upon “worldly” things as beneath oneself. Bodies, for example, are to be dismissed as gross presentations, renounced instead for mental pleasure. This kind of attitude instills an egotistical superiority. One thinks oneself superior to others, who are reduced to objects of desire; and these people are then devalued. The lover takes precedence. Also, suffering, which is a temporary condition, is frowned upon, demanding that the lover take on a Stoical indifference to pain, which is unnecessary. Homeless people, for example, are objectified as suffering for no reason, instead of contemplating the Forms.
  2. Unknown.jpegReciprocity: Platonic love is one-sided. To engage in this kind of love is to be egocentric. Only the self exists, and the opinions and emotions of others are not gauged, but ignored. It does not matter how the other person feels, as long as the lover, gets what they want: The Good. It is not like you love someone, and they love you back; rather, it is just you loving someone. In this sense, the beloved is not an end-in-themselves, but a means-to-an-end. You love someone not for their sake, but in order to reach the Good. The agency and autonomy of the beloved are ignored. They cannot act for themselves.  
  3. images.jpegIndividuality: Lastly, in pursuing Platonic love, the individual, the beloved, is dropped. When we say we love someone, do we ever consciously think, “I love x because in them is instantiated the Good”? No. We say we love them for who they are. The person with whom we are in love is considered unimportant in the long run, used as a stepping stone to the Good, a step ladder that will be discarded, cast away once it has been climbed. By treating the beloved as a sacrifice to reach the Good, we are, in effect, denying their faults, the things that make them different; i.e., we are denying their uniqueness, their individuality. As Nussbaum jokingly puts it, “‘I’ll love you only to the extent that you exemplify properties that I otherwise cherish.’”[2]

In short, Nussbaum argues that Platonic love is just far too objective, idealistic, and detached to be applicable. This is just one side, though. Others, like Paul Friedländer, cite that Platonic love actually does incorporate the individual beloved, and awards them a higher place. From personal experience, I agree that Platonic love tends to dismiss the beloved; but I do think the idea of Beauty manifest in individuals is quite real. Tell me your experiences in the comments, and whether or not you agree with Plato!


220px-Plotinus.jpgFrom hence we move to Plotinus, the Egyptian-Roman founder of Neoplatonism, whose spiritual ideas were based on Plato’s theories, and who influenced a nascent Christianity. Although we have covered the argument that Plato’s conception of love is idealistic, looking at Plotinus’ views makes Plato sound like a common-sense realist. Plotinus is even more spiritual than Plato, and even more contemptuous of the physical world, which he viewed as a hindrance. It is recorded that Plotinus constantly remarked that his body was ugly and that he looked forward to being released from it. In one anecdote, his student Porphyry wrote that an artist came to Plotinus’ school because he wanted to make a portrait of Plotinus; but Plotinus turned him away, ashamed to be seen in his body—how ghastly it would be to have a representation of such a hideous thing! Love for Plotinus is a unio mystica, a mystical union, drawing upon similar imagery to that of Aristophanes, but with God, whom he calls “the One.” Beauty lies in symmetry, in wholeness. When it comes to a certain instance of beauty, the whole is both greater than and equal to the sum of its parts—but this does not make a whole lot of sense. The whole is greater because it partakes in the Beautiful. It is equal because it must be constituted by only what is Beautiful. His reasoning is that all parts must be beautiful in order to be Beautiful. Beauty + beauty = Beauty, but beauty + ugly ≠ Beautiful. Therefore, a Beautiful Unknown.pngthing must be greater than its parts, but must also be composed of all-Beautiful parts. Put together, they all form a harmony in union. Evidently, Plotinus borrows Plato’s theory of instantiation: “[T]he material thing becomes beautiful—by communicating in the thought (Reason, Logos) that flows from the Divine” (The Enneads, I.VI.2). Put another way, a beautiful thing is beautiful because Beauty is in it. If there is no Beauty in it, then it is not beautiful. The things which make up the art are not beautiful in themselves; it depends on their symmetry in an arrangement. The Idea of Beauty is thus imposed on Matter itself. Imagine a blank canvas. It is not beautiful. Then, a bucket of different colors of paint is thrown onto the canvas. In this image, the canvas is matter, and the paint is Beauty. It is only when the canvas is so arranged that the paint can make it beautiful that it becomes Beautiful. Plotinus also references Plato’s ascent up the ladder, with a little change:

It [the Realm of Ideas] is to be reached by those who, born with the nature of the lover, are also authentically philosophic by inherent temper; in pain of love towards beauty but not held by material loveliness, taking refuge from that in things whose beauty is of the soul- such things as virtue, knowledge, institutions, law and custom- and thence, rising still a step, reach to the source of this loveliness of the Soul, thence to whatever be above that again, until the uttermost is reached. The First, the Principle whose beauty is self-springing: this attained, there is an end to the pain inassuageable before (The Enneads, V.IX.2).

istock-653098388-b874e6221d237c909723bbf13f388fadaa20e281-s900-c85.jpgJust like Plato, Plotinus believes the philosopher is most inclined toward love of the Beautiful. Also, the two agree that love ascends from the soul to virtue to knowledge to customs to Beauty itself. The difference lies in the starting point. For Plato, the lover begins with a person with whom they are in love; for Plotinus, the lover begins by shunning the person, by turning away from all things physical and material, jumping straight to the soul. Why does one jump immediately to the soul? Because the soul, Plotinus claims, is itself beautiful. There is a metaphor of “falling” in Plato and Plotinus, which mirrors that of Adam and Eve’s fall in The Bible, in which the immortal souls of men lived in the Realm of Forms, only to succumb to temptation, thereby causing it to fall into the material world of change and impermanence. This means that, just as Adam and Eve received Wisdom right before the Fall and retained some of it, so the souls of men received a vision of the Beautiful right before the Fall and retained some of it. By falling into the physical world, the soul became impure, ugly. As Plotinus puts it, “[A] soul becomes ugly … by a fall, a descent into the body, into Matter” (The Enneads, I.VI.5). The religious metaphors here are obvious. The soul thus becomes “ugly,” associated with grime and dirt. In my blog about Orphism and its influence on Pythagoreanism, we see the same kind of thinking: The body (σωμα) as a tomb (σημα), the pure trapped in the impure, seeking release, yearning for reunion with the World-soul, or, in this case, the self-love.jpeg.pngOne. Despite being a radical purist, Plotinus is a very wise guy with a lot of good things to say, and we should heed him. The following is a much-celebrated excerpt of Plotinus, one read and admired by many who find in it a beautiful and inspiring message, written with much the same elegance as Plato, considered the best of his writing. In it, he tells us all to look inside ourselves and realize that, deep down, beneath our appearances, we all have an inner beauty. Sometimes, we just need some self-love, and Plotinus reminds us to give ourselves this much-needed assurance. Read it for yourself:

Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, his other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labour to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiselling your statue, until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendour of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine (The Enneads, I.VI.9).


Unknown-1.pngWhat have we learned today? Well, what we have not learned for certain is what love and beauty are. Despite the brilliance of these thinkers, they are no closer to the truth than we are. As to what love and beauty are—my guess is as good as yours, and that is not a bad thing; I think it is rather a good thing, really, and perhaps it should stay that way. We should all ask ourselves what love and beauty are, because they are essential to a well-lived life. To ask what love and beauty are, and to experience them fully and intimately—this is a part of the examined images.pnglife. Plato and Plotinus’ ideas have survived for ages and shall continue to influence us in the future. Yet their wisdom is not perfect, and their theories are not flawless either. It has been shown that their views, debatably, are impractical. From soulmates to the Ancient Christians with their agape to the modern philosophers like Pascal to contemporary man seeking love in an unloving world, we are all asking the same question as Haddaway: What is love? A most mysterious emotion it is, one we barely beginning to understand. What is life without love? Without beauty? As soon as we start asking these questions, we are on the way to wisdom. To actively pursue the answers to these questions requires that we all be philosophers. If we want to know beauty and love, we must be lovers of wisdom, philo-sophers.  

 

 


[1] Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought, p. 483
[2] Id., p. 499

 

For further reading: The Greek Thinkers Vol. 2 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum (2001)
Plato: An Introduction by Paul Friedländer (1958)
On Plotinus by C. Wayne Mayhall (2004)
The Enneads by Plotinus (1991)
The Symposium by Plato (1973)
The Phædrus by Plato (1973) 

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Why Are Owls Wise?

Unknown-1.jpegWhat is more symbolic of wisdom than the owl? When asked to think of an animal that is smart, mysterious, or nocturnal, we automatically think of the owl, who alights upon the trees of the forest in the night, its big, piercing eyes glowing in the dark, its haunting call—Hoo, hoo—like a wistful calling for someone who is gone, its panoramic view taking into account the entire landscape, watching patiently at twilight. Some people like to think of the owl as their “spirit animal,” an animal that represents their inner nature, their personality, that symbolizes who they are. But from where do we get these associations? Why is it that we associate owls with wisdom? Were owls always wise, or did they mean something else at another time? I myself am quite fond of owls and am in possession of a collection of owl stuffed animals, so this question appealed to me. Reaching back over 2,000 years, we find yet another enduring contribution from the Ancient Greeks, from whom we get our archetypal “wise owl.”


owl-dark-birds.jpgIt is important to note that, as with many symbols, meanings can change. While we nowadays impute owls with wisdom, they were once regarded as evil. Cloaking themselves in the darkness, stalking silently and surreptitiously, owls represented solitude. They hid in the shadows, unseen, and so were viewed negatively, in some cultures as the bringer of death, or at least the messenger thereof. Like the raven, the owl became an image of death and the afterlife, thought to be the animal that guided the spirits from this life to the next. Ancient civilizations in Mexico, the Middle East, and especially China created horrible myths around the owl, making it the pet of Hell or the punisher of those who have done wrong. Its loud, longing screech was unsettling, and because of its ability to see in the dark, the owl could see into the future, but it also meant, in the Christian and Judaic traditions, blindness, or an inability to pierce through the darkness, ultimately preventing spiritual insight. As such, early people saw the owl as a negative force, rather than a positive one.


Unknown.jpegHowever, this was not true for all the world, for other cultures, like the Native Americans and Greeks, designed elaborate mythologies that lionized, not demonized, the owl. What the eagle was to the sun, the owl was to the moon. Whereas other cultures linked the owl’s nocturnal nature with depravity, the Greeks linked its night vision with a special sight, a clairvoyance. Fortune tellers, seers, soothsayers, and augurs, all of whom specialized in predicting the future, had as their symbol the owl. It seems plausible, too, that owls’ nocturnal vision suggests a kind of sight that, by lighting up the dark, is revelatory, or which is diametrically opposed to darkness, a kind of clearing therein, or, as some Unknown-2.jpegscholars say, an ability to see through the shroud of obscurity. In the dark, things appear faint, in mere outlines, unable to made out; but the owl is wholly perceptive and has clear vision. The owl stands for rational, inner knowledge because it, like a mirror, reflects the light of the moon. This lunar reflection leads to the owl’s being described as pensive, as deeply thoughtful, and, consequently, as reflective. Quiet, reserved, yet vigilant, the owl kept watch, observant, cautious, curious. Owls tilt their heads to the sides, much as we do when we are confused or puzzled, as though they are mimicking our curiosity—their way of scratching their heads. Thus, it is no surprise why the Greeks related learning and studying to owls. The aloofness of the owl also lends itself to the idea of “bookishness” or “studiousness,” an image closely related to the scholar who stays up at night, working by lamplight (lucubration), disengaged from the rest of the world. It is from this comparison that we call people “owlish,” referring to the silent, intellectual type, who resembles the owl, both behaviorally and physically, in that they stereotypically wear big glasses, which look like an owl’s blank, penetrating stare. Owls seem to stay where they are and rarely move. They are some of the most patient birds we know. It is as if they are waiting for something, as if owls are awaiting images.jpegsomething. Perhaps it is their prophetic wisdom at work. Owls seem to know something we do not. They are symbols of inner-knowledge, of looking-inward. They are serious and lack humor. They are constantly engaged in thought. Being able to fly, to soar high above us, and to see in the dark, where everything appears concealed, owls have a perspective much more inclusive than ours: Owls have a bird’s eye view, an ability to look down upon us, to ponder and perceive the insignificance of our actions. Maybe when they are sitting in their trees, or hiding in their little nooks, they are, like a knowing parent, shaking their heads, wondering if we humans will ever learn; and therein lies the owl’s wisdom—to be patient and consider things from a grand point of view, with matters brought forth from the dark into the light, wide-eyed, all-knowing, and waiting until we are ready to receive their wisdom. But this does not yet answer the question: Why are owls wise?


little-owl.jpgAllow me to introduce to you the little owl, known also as the Athene noctua, from the family Strigidæ. Only 8.5 inches, or 22cm, long, it dawns a wide, low, and small forehead, putting it in a scowl, and it lives in wide, open spaces, like fields. What is so special about this small bird? The little owl is the very owl that rests on the Greek goddess Athena’s shoulder! Yes, that is right: The famous Owl of Athena, or Owl of Minerva in the Roman tradition, is a real owl—the little owl. The little owl became Athena’s symbol because they could be found everywhere in Athens. As Matt Sewell writes in his charming little book Owls, “The Acropolis [a fort in a Greek city-state, or polis] was once full of Little Owls, living amongst the pillars and rocks, looking down upon a great civilization.”[1] Again the imagery of “looking down upon” is supposed to connote protection and vigilance and insight. There is an idiom—”bringing an owl to Athens”—that refers to the abundance of owls in Greece; to bring an owl to Athens would be completely unnecessary, given the large numbers that already frequented it. Athens was one of the most famous Greek poleis, and after it was named the goddess Unknown-4.jpegAthena, who happened to be the goddess of wisdom. The logic goes: Because the goddess protected the city, she was named after the city, and because little owls could be found within the said city, they were to be associated with the goddess. Hence, little owls came to be Athena’s symbol. Later, at about the first quarter of the 5th century (c. 420 B.C.), Athens adopted its silver coinage with the owl of Athena printed on one side. There are many versions of Athena, including Pallas Athena and Athena Pronoia. Pronoia (πρόνοια) means “Providence,” or “foresight,” in Greek, from which came the idea that owls could see into the future.


G.W.F. Hegel in The Philosophy of Right wrote in his preface, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”[2]. In other words, what Hegel is saying is: True insight, or wisdom, can come only in retrospect. Dusk is the latest part of the day, the end of the night, and so, metaphorically, the owl of Minerva, representing foresight, reveals the lessons of life only after they have happened; it is then that they are taught to us, and that we can apply them.


So what can we take from the majestic owl? From the owl, we can all learn to be patient, attentive, humble, introspective, thoughtful, and reflective. Then, and only then, can we hope to achieve wisdom.

happy_owl_by_henrieke.jpg

 


[1] Sewell, Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, p. 19
[2] Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, p. 7 

 

For further reading: Owls: Our Most Charming Birds by Matt Sewell (2014)
The Complete Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tresidder (2004)
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann (1992)
A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier (1994)
Birds of the World by Colin Harrison (1993)

Human Rights During the Industrial Revolution

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In the beginning of the 18th-century, people lived in small, isolated rural environments where they worked their farms. Families looked after their farms and grew what they needed, from which they got subsistence. Because they were small, everyone knew each other. Wealthy landowners began to enclose these rural lands, forcing farmers to emigrate to the cities. Here, the farmers thought, they could find work and create a new life. Factories were beginning to replace farms as the source of energy and production. The spreading use of coal improved these factories, making them more plentiful, but also more dangerous. As more people moved to the cities, and as factories began popping up by the tens, the cities became massive centers of civilization, increasing substantially in size from the 1750’s to the late 1800’s. The Industrial Revolution was dramatically harmful to human rights because, although it provided opportunities for work and a new life, it violated people’s rights to social services and work more so than it did to further them.


During the process of industrialization, people’s right to social security—being secure in their lives—and service were being infringed upon because they could not support themselves. According to Elizabeth Gaskell, those living in industrial Manchester lived sordidly in cheap, low-quality apartments called tenements in which the conditions were unsightly and barely suitable for humans (Gaskell, A Tale of Manchester Life). This book was written by Gaskell in the middle of the industrialization of Manchester for audiences outside of England so that they could read about the horrors of living in the city. She was a writer, so it was her job to write objectively yet entertainingly. She has a negative attitude towards the living conditions of the people as evidenced by the fact that she criticizes the homes in which the people lived, pointing out how hastily made they were, Unknown-1.jpegsuch that they posed a danger to those living in them. This supports the idea that social security was not present in Manchester, because everyday people could not afford to live in a safe home. In comparison to their previous lives on their farms, the people were miserable, having moved to the city, for they could not support themselves with the meager wages they made during the day. Because residents could often not pay for education or for a nice home, it confirms that social security was lacking during the Industrial period. Timelines.tv says in a documentary that residents in Manchester were crowded into tiny spaces and shared bathrooms along the river, which propagated cholera. Cramped together, they got each other sick and could only afford shabby houses crudely built. The documentary’s description confirms the terrible standards of living in Manchester. Confined to small spaces, which are not good for full families, and susceptible to diseases, residents’ lives were always in danger, whether inside or out. Despite advances in medicine from the agricultural days, the people were less prone to diseases before moving to the city. After moving, though, they lost their rights to comfortable housing, affordable medical care, good food, security, and livelihood.


Unknown-2.jpegFactories were the powerhouses of the Industrial Revolution, and the workers who worked them were deprived of their rights as laborers. Flora Tristan wrote that in Manchester, the workers were in bad condition: Poor, starved, choked, unhealthy, and forced to labor all day, they lived miserable lives. Half of the day they spent working, only to return home with an empty stomach and without proper comfort (Source J). An activist and defender of women’s rights, Tristan wrote her journal as a response to the industrialization around her, to the rapid changes which were occurring in 1842, the focus being on how people were treated. Her journal was published, so it was most likely publicized with the intent of letting people know why working conditions in Manchester were abhorrent, or maybe with the intent of getting more reforms to help out. Based on her background, it is clear she would have looked down upon industrialization, particularly on how it debased human rights. As such, it was a plea for help in order to make workers’ conditions more humane. Tristan attests to the poor treatment of workers, who, before living in the city, were their own bosses, worked their own hours, and got their respective pay. The work in the factory was long, tedious, and demanding, yet the workers were not paid fairly, according to their work; as a result of their unfair wages, workers were not given their right to a dignified existence from their work, but had to go home to a run-down apartment, sparse in furniture, lacking clothes, and filled with Unknown-3.jpegalcohol forced upon them by their unfulfilling lives. In the article “Why did Great Britain Industrialize 1st?”, it says that industrial England had no unions and actively banned them, meaning workers could not come together and argue for their rights; hence, entrepreneurs could do whatever they liked with them. The article reveals the unfairness and inequality with which workers were treated, because workers guilds were able to keep workers from being exploited, established to create representation for them; but when the city banned guilds, it left them open to exploitation, and they were in the hands of rich business owners. This supports the idea that workers were deprived of their right to form a union because unions themselves were discouraged and disbanded; therefore, workers could not represent themselves as they had in the past, but had their rights violated at the hands of the government.


In order to industrialize effectively without impinging on human rights, it is necessary to go slowly and thoughtfully, and not to rush. Industrialization requires that businesses are made so the economy can prosper, and also that more jobs can become available. All of these things are vital to making progress, as they improved human rights. But when unions are removed, exposing workers; when houses are made quickly and without thought, close together and dirty, dark and dank; when factories are built in the tens, with no supervision, then industrialization turns into a nightmare. Hence, it is important that an industrializing nation take into account the coordination and planning involved in creating a nation that helps, not hinders, the people.

Who was Solon?

Unknown.jpegToday’s politics hardly takes itself seriously. With weak leadership, horrible class inequality, and polarization, this generation is going through a rough time in a democracy where its voice is rarely heard, let alone acted upon. Back in Ancient Greece, politics was everybody’s business; it was every citizen’s duty to contribute to the polis and partake in its affairs. At a young age, children were taught rhetoric and advised in politics in order to prepare them for leadership, as a good leader was valued above else. The Greeks had the same struggles we have today, including the abuse of power by the rich, select few; the inept distribution of wealth; and conflicting party viewpoints. And like today, the Greeks had their fair share of bad leadership and lack of prudence, which resulted terribly. One man in 6th-century Athens, however, took his place in office and, resisting the temptations of power, tried his best to bring equality and prospering to his city, his legacy one of great wisdom mixed with triumphs and failures, a story of a man who struggled to make Athens free. Solon of Athens, although he did not create democracy, laid the necessary foundations for it.


As with most very old historical figures, the date of Solon’s birth is not exact, nor is his death, but it is generally thought to be in 638 B.C. The son of either Euphorion or Execestides, Solon was nonetheless of noble birth, an aristocrat—a eupatrid, meaning “of a good father.” Despite his upbringing, Solon was sympathetic toward the poor, with whom he shared an affinity, which would influence his views as a politician. To make ends meet, he became a merchant so he could travel and make money. Plutarch claimed he had not money in mind, but experience: “It is certain that he was a lover of Unknown-1.jpegknowledge (φιλόμαθος), for when he was old he would say, that he — ‘Each day grew older, and learnt something new.’”[1] Solon was able to travel across seas as a merchant, giving him access to all sorts of knowledge; already at a young age, he showed signs of being a devoted man of wisdom and learning. He gained his reputation as a brilliant strategist after he defeated the island of Salamis for Athens. Having been stolen by the Megarians, Salamis was heavily fortified, and many attempts had been made to take it back, but all in vain. Solon rallied the Athenians in the market and told them of a plan, which, when carried out, successfully got the island back, earning him respect from all the Athenians, who were all indebted to him. So, in 594 the Athenians unanimously voted to have Solon be the archon. The condition of Athens was horrible at the time; it was in a state of crisis: The poor could not pay for their land, so they sold themselves to the aristocrats, who treated them unfairly, causing the peasants to revolt against their masters. Precipitously close to civil war, desperate for a peaceful, bloodless resolution, the Athenians, poor and rich alike, turned their heads to the one man they knew could resolve it in all his wisdom: Solon—the single man who managed to get Salamis from the Megarians, and who defeated Crisa two years earlier. Those who lived on the coasts of Athens wanted the focus to be on the economy, those on the plains land; the Hills wanted a democracy, the Plains an oligarchy, and the Coast a mixed government. Humble, modest, and temperate, Solon was suspicious of power, fearing its ability to take control of a man’s better senses. He declined. The people insisted, and he was conferred the title of dictatorship, which allowed him to do anything at all without question. A popular poem mocks Solon’s humility:

Solon surely was a dreamer, and a man of simple mind;
When the gods would give him fortune, he of his own will declined;
When the nets was full of fishs, over-heavy thinking it,
He declined to hail it up, through want of heart and want of wit.
Had I but the chances of riches and kingship, for one day,
I would give my horse for flaying, and my house to die away.

Solon was a man of virtue. He detested wealth and greed, preferring virtue to vice, of which he thought wealth and greed were two. In one of his own poems, he disdains those of wealth, and champions those who live virtuous lives:

Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor,
We will not change our virtue for their store:
Virtue’s a thing that none can take away;
But money changes owners all the day.

Solon’s famous reforms are thought by some historians to have occurred 20 years after his election to the archonship, in the 570’s B.C., but no one knows for sure. His first, most infamous reform was known as the Seisachtheia (σεισαχθεια), the “shaking off of burdens.” Before his election, the Greek farmers had barely any money, and they could not manage to pay for their land. As a result, they became serfs and worked on the nobles’ lands, paying ⅙ of their yield every harvest, giving them the name “Hektemoroi,” (εκτημοροι) or “sixth-partner.” Some were better off than others: Those who were lucky became serfs and had to pay their debt off, while others had to sell themselves as slaves, sort of like indentured servants, and pay off their debt that way. The Hektemor system, images.jpegthen, was an early form of the feudalism that would become prevalent in Medieval Europe. Noble lords would have peasants, known as serfs or vassals, who would do all the work and pay them as a debt, just as those who live in apartments pay their landowners. This system created a lot of unhappiness and inequality. Seeing as the upper class got to get paid and have their own slaves, they were happy; but the lower class, evidently, was not, motivating them to want to revolt. Upon becoming archon, Solon cleared all debts whatsoever, allowing the poor to never have to pay a cent to their former owners. As he put it, “The mortgage-stones that covered her, by me / Removed, —the land that was a slave is free.” Solon removed all traces of serfdom, going so far as to buy back all slaves who had been sold across the ocean, claiming, “—so far their lot to roam, / They forgot the language of their home.” His closeness to and pity for the poor inspired him to bring everyone home. They had been so long, he says, they had even forgotten how to speak their birth language. Furthermore, Solon banned all future loans on the body, making it illegal for anyone to pay off a debt through slavery. One might think the Hektemoroi would be happy because they were now free men. Unfortunately, the Hektemoroi were no more pleased than when they had been enslaved, for they desired a redistribution of land, land Solon never gave back. On the other hand, the upper classes were unhappy, too, because they had lost their slaves. Solon, disappointed, reflected,

Formerly they boasted of me vainly; with averted eyes
Now they look askance upon me; friends no more, but enemies.

Even though they were quick to ask for his judgment, the Athenians ultimately ended up turning their backs to him, their hero, their miracle who was supposed to fix everything. They held expectations that were too high and too much to ask of Solon without becoming unfair, and thus he was made to live with his decision. The next thing Solon sought to reform was the government. Slow and steady, Solon transformed Athens from an oligarchy to a timocracy, replacing blood with wealth, family with property. This was known as the “timocratic principle”—the movement away from privilege to success. He Unknown-1.jpegdivided the Athenians into four classes: The Pentakosiomedimnoi (πεντακοσιομέδιμνοι), so named because they produced 500 of any product, who were of the highest rank and consequently eligible for the highest offices, such as archon, treasurer (ταμιας), and magistry; the Hippeis (Iππος), who were of the second greatest wealth and were able to afford horses (hence the name, which also means horse) with between 500-300 products in their name, making them eligible for the cavalry and magistry; the Zeugitai (ζευγίται), who produced 300-200 products and were able to fill lower offices, and were reserved for the hoplite phalanx, which back then was the infantry; and the Thetes (θητες), the lowest class, which made under 200 products and was incapable of taking office, their only options being to become a worker or join the assembly. Next, he made economic reforms that greatly benefitted Athens. First, he banned all exports of anything but olive oil. Grains were hard to grow on the mountainous, rough terrain of Greece, a region more fitted to the growing of olive trees. Hence, grains were difficult to grow and rare, and the Greeks needed it more than other cities did. As olive trees grow longer and were more abundant, they were to be the focus of the economy—and a great success it was! Thanks to Solon, the economy grew much quicker and more efficiently than before. Second, he invited artisans and craftsmen from other poleis to settle down in Athens with their families, so as to improve both the population and the tradesmanship of the city-state. Because Solon believed strongly in self-reliance and developing one’s skills, he wanted people to learn the importance of tehkne (τέχνη), an important term in Greek that refers to “knowledge of a craft” and “skill.” (Whence we get “technique” and Unknown-1.jpeg“technology.”) He promoted apprenticing, confident he could make Athens a great center for arts and crafts. It was made mandatory that a father teach his son his craft; if he did not, if the child had no craft, he was not in any way obligated to look after his father in his later years. In granting citizenship to foreigners, Solon was seen as very liberal, for citizenship was theretofore strict and reserved; such a law, however, led to the rise, historians say, to the amazing pottery we today see and admire from Athens. Metics (μέτοικος), or resident aliens, were able to get Athenian citizenship. Moving on to political reforms, Solon created a law which “disenfranchize[d] all who st[ood] neuter in a sedition.”[2] In other words, during a revolt, anyone who did not join a side was arrested. Sounds kinda counter-intuitive doesn’t it? Solon’s intention was to enforce loyalty and patriotism: Politics was everyone’s business, so Solon expected his people to fight for one side, a side they thought worthy of fighting for. Two of his greatest reforms came when he devised the Ekklesia (Eκκλησια) and Heliaia (Ηλιαία). The former was a probouleutic, 400-member council whose role was comparable to that of the assembly. As a probouleutic council, its job was to hold preliminary discussions and debates before passing them onto the main assembly. It was composed of 100 representatives from each of the four Attic tribes. The latter was a court system, of which the Thetes could be a part, but from which women, slaves, and metics were excluded. The role of the Heliaia was to handle public litigation; thitherto, cases could only be taken up which regarded familial or tribal matters, such as if one person harmed another, then only the family could get the case, not an individual. Therefore, the power of the law extended beyond the family and unto the community. If an individual was robbed, he could now litigate. Further, if one was unhappy with one’s verdict, one could appeal to the Heliaia, much as one can do today to the Supreme Court, whose equivalence was in Greece the Council of Areopagus. In this way, the court system of Athens was a nomothetic dikastery; i.e., it was a law-giving (nomothetic) institution consisting of a jury trial (dikastery). Aristotle commented that Solon “formed the courts of law out of all the citizens, thus creating the democracy.”[3] Solon went on to formulate ancient_police-greece.jpgnew laws, having removed all of Draco’s, except that regarding homicide. He thus reduced the severity of the Athenian law and granted amnesty to all criminals, save murderers. Regarding family matters, Solon was skeptical of the rich and powerful families who had held supremacy for a long time in the city. He made it so that every childless man—like himself—could give his property to whomever he wanted; formerly, the property automatically went to his relatives.  He placed stringent regulations on women and the size of funerals. Favoring the poor, he did not like seeing the rich flaunt their money in public. “In all other marriages,” wrote Plutarch, “he forbade dowries” because marriages were not supposed to be “for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and the birth of children.”[4]  


Solon finally decided after all he had done to leave Athens for 10 years. While he claimed to have left because he wanted “to travel,” most think it was because he was trying to escape from the inevitable criticisms he would face regarding his reforms, which were unpopular with everybody. In the end, in spite of everything he did for Athens, for the Athenians, he had appeased no one; no one walked out the victor, none the loser either. “In large things,” he would say, “it is hard to please everyone.”[5]

Such power I gave the people as might do,
Abridged not what they had, now lavished new,
Those that were great in wealth and high in place
My counsel likewise kept from all disgrace.
Before them both I held my shield of might,
And let not either touch the other’s right.

Here, Solon talks about how he attempted to give the Athenians what was equitable. He tried to the best of his abilities to preserve equality among the poor and rich, giving them what they needed, not what they wanted. Although he favored the poor and wanted the best for them, he also sought to remain impartial, as justice is, and give the rich what they deserved as well, careful not to imbalance the social order, the only thing standing between the two, the keeper of order, the defender of peace. Looking at the political situation after he left, it is easy to compare it to the French Revolution in a way, insofar as the poor were radical, the rich reactionary; the former wanted more than what they got, and they wanted the change to happen immediately, in hopes of erasing the visages of aristocratic life; the latter wanted to go back to the way things were, when they were in charge, when they could show off what wealth they had. Either way, no party got what they wanted, and so what seemed a failure for Solon was really a success. During his travels, Solon decreed that his laws were to stay in place for 100 years, so they were tmp903725021887725569.jpgrecorded on axones, wooden posts, in the agora for everyone to see. Of course, many of the poor were illiterate and could therefore not understand many of the laws, but those who could, and who broke them anyway, had to dedicate a golden statue to the square in their name. Meanwhile, Solon was off seeing the world. He visited Egypt and encountered a priest named Sais, through whom he learned of the tale of Atlantis, the very tale which would be told to Plato. The historian Herodotus recounted that Solon also visited Crœsus, but scholars object to this, stating it is anachronistic—the two lived during different times. Returning to Athens, Solon found Athens under the sway of the young Peisistratus; Solon proceeded to warn the Athenians not to trust him, to no avail; he had, during his travels, lost his credibility, power, and esteem. He died in 559 B.C. at about the age of 80. Solon was named one of the Seven Sages, earning the title of “sophist,” a title that, ironically, would be interpreted in a much more negative way in the next century. The famous adage “Nothing in excess”—μηδέν ἄγαν—is attributed to him. Appropriately, he said, “But the hardest thing of all is to recognize the invisible Mean of judgment, which alone contains the limits of all things.”[6] Perhaps the greatest part of Solon’s legacy is his reputation as a politician-poet, a leader who led with wisdom, grace, beauty, and eloquence. His poems, some of which have been quoted above, reveal his morals and political motives:

I gave to the mass of the people such rank as befitted their need,
I took not away their honor, and I granted naught to their greed;
While those who were rich in power, who in wealth were glorious and great,
I bethought me that naught should befall them unworthy their splendor and state;
So I stood with my shield outstretched, and both were safe in its sight,
And I would not that either should triumph, when triumph was not with right.

Dark Earth, thou best canst witness, from whose breast
I swept the pillars broadcast planted there,
And made thee free, who hadst been slave of yore.
And many a man whom fraud or law had sold
For from his god-built land, an outcast slave,
I brought back again to Athens; yea, and some,
Exiles from home through debt’s oppressive load,
Speaking no more the dear Athenian tongue,
But wandering far and wide, I brought again;
And those that here in vilest slavery
Crouched ‘neath a master’s frown, I set them free.
Thus might and right were yoked in harmony,
Since by the force of law I won my ends
And kept my promise. Equal laws I gave
To evil and to good, with even hand
Drawing straight justice for the lots of each.
But had another held the goad as I,
One in whose heart was guile and greediness,
He had not kept the people back from strife.
For had I granted, now what pleased the one,
Then what their foes devised in counterpoise,
Of many a man this state had been bereft.
Therefore I showed my might on every side,
Turning at bay like wolf among the hounds.

So popular were they, imbued with such moral value, they were customarily memorized by children. Solon’s political philosophy was centered around “Eunomia” (Ευνομια), which translates roughly to “well-government,” referring to the exact stability and equality of which Solon himself dreamed. He defined Eunomia as the goddess of “peace and harmony of the whole social cosmos”—the well-being of the people, and, in general, communal happiness.[7] Also, another large part of his philosophy was the divine principle of Justice (Δικη); Justice played the role of not divine punishment, but political and social punishment, a penalty imposed on the people when there was strife and inequality. Jæger said, “It is the first objective statement of the universal truth that the violation of justice means the disruption of the life of the community.”[8] Solon believed injustice was human-caused; he therefore believed in the responsibility of the individual Unknown-1.jpegto bear the consequences of his actions, and specifically, of his vices, which affect not only himself, but his community as a whole. Most importantly, though, Solon is revered as the founder of democracy. It would be imprecise to call him the founder per se, because it is Cleisthenes who is regarded as the founder of democracy, but it was Solon who made it possible. In giving power to the masses and opening up the rights of citizenship, he “put an end to the exclusiveness of the oligarchy, emancipated the people, established the ancient Athenian democracy, and harmonized the different elements of the state.”[9] Jæger, I feel, does Solon more justice than Aristotle in describing his impact: “Because he brought together the state and the spirit, the community and the individual, he was the first Athenian.”[10]


[1] Plutarch, Twelve Lives, p. 82
[2] Id., p. 96
[3] Aristotle, Politics, II.12.1274a1-5
[4] Plutarch, ibid. 
[5] Pomeroy, Ancient Greece, p. 187
[6] Jæger, Paideia, Vol. 1, p. 148
[7] Id., p. 141
[8] Ibid.
[9] Aristotle, op. cit., 1273b35-40
[10] Jæger, op. cit., p. 149

 

For further reading: Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History 2nd ed. by Sarah B. Pomeroy (2008)
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
Ancient Greece and the Near East by Richard Mansfield Haywood (1968)
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece
by Nigel Rodgers (2017)
Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture 
Vol. 1 by Werner Jæger (1945)
A History of the Ancient World
by Chester C. Starr (1991)

The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
A History of Greece Vol. 3 by George Grote (1899) 
Twelve Lives
by Plutarch (1950)

Who Was Giordano Bruno?

The Renaissance was one of the most groundbreaking periods in history, as it saw the revival of classical thinking, yet it also paved the way for future ideas. The time was ripe with ideas; philosophers, artists, and scientists began to break away from religion and propose new ideas, which were scientific in nature, and did not rely on the Church’s dogma. Unfortunately, countless intellectuals from the period were persecuted by the Church, which denounced them as heretics, burning their books, trying as hard as possible to stunt the growth of scientific thought. Among these thinkers was the legendary Giordano Bruno: philosopher, cosmologist, and occult mage.


unknown-6Born in 1548 to a poor family in Nola, Italy, Bruno at a young age joined the Dominican Order, which was the common thing to do in his time. Eager to learn, Bruno saw the Order as a great means through which to get an education, seeing as he could not afford a formal one. It did not take long for a young Bruno to take a disliking to Catholicism, for early on he stripped his cell of everything but the cross. Later on, he was accused of heresy, and in 1576, he was exiled from the Order, destined to a life of itinerancy, wandering from one place to another for refuge from an institution which, at the time, seemed to be everywhere, inescapable. During his time at the Order, Bruno studied the great thinkers that had come before him: Lull, Plotinus, Aquinas, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Cusa, and Copernicus, the latter of whom would imprint himself on Bruno’s thought most saliently. Bruno’s exile took him all across Europe, from Switzerland to France to England and thence to Germany. To afford his non-stop traveling, Bruno worked as both a public lecturer and private tutor. Geneva, he found, provided no safety for him, so upon receiving a letter from Henry III, King of France, who insisted he come, Bruno absquatulated to France, where he was welcomed to the court. There he taught the King and enjoyed tranquility for some time. He also lectured at a number of eminent colleges, such as the University of Paris, Oxford,[1] and Wittenberg. Bruno came into contact with many Protestants who were also hiding from the Church, although he came to dislike them, for they were, according to him, narrow-minded; likewise, the Protestants did not consider themselves sympathetic to philosophers like Bruno. Throughout his wandering, Bruno never really enjoyed any belonging, nor any peace. Unwanted, homeless, an outcast, Bruno had no place to call home—which is why he was delighted to get a letter from Giovanni Mocenigo on May 23, 1592, who was from his native Italy, whereupon Bruno quickly went to Venice, which was still heavily Catholic. Bruno was aware of the apparent danger posed by his returning to Italy, but he took Mocenigo’s amiable invitation as a sign that he was in good terms, that it was safe to come back. Mocenigo was fascinated by Bruno’s work in mnemonics. Bruno took this opportunity to also get a position at the University of Padua, at which he lectured for his stay. Unbeknownst to the philosopher, Mocenigo was convinced Bruno was actually an Occult mage trained in black magic. When he was unsatisfied with his learning, upset that Bruno was apparently holding out on teaching 310px-Galileo_before_the_Holy_Office.jpghim the dark arts, feeling betrayed, Mocenigo secretly alerted the Venice Inquisition. Locked in Mocenigo’s basement, Bruno was then taken to the Inquisition. He was tortured and forced to recant all his heretic beliefs. Bruno was pardoned, but soon the court at Rome requested his hearing. For eight years Bruno sat rotting in the prisons of Rome. The Inquisition at Rome was not as lenient as the Venetian, and much more austere. Whereas the latter let him off the hook and took pity on him, the former would listen to nothing he said. On February 17, 1600, at the Campo de’ Fiori, Giordano Bruno, after spending his whole life in exile, after spending eight years in prison, was burned alive.


Bruno had an unorthodox education, having read, in addition to the classic philosophers, Egyptian mystical works and Hermetic writings. He read the Hermetic Corpus, a mystical work written by a supposed Hermes Trismegistus, a prophet of Egyptian religion. From Unknown-1.jpeghis readings in Hermeticism he derived the ideas of metempsychosis (from Orphism), or transmigration of the soul, and pantheism, from which he came to the conclusion, “God in all things.”[2] Another important belief he got was that movement was equivalent to energy. Where there was energy, there was movement, and vice versa. Before the 19th-century, scholars and historians, based on superficial reading, considered Bruno to be a deist and magician; both conceptions have still carried on today and hang over his name, but have mostly been rejected through serious reading. He read Aristotle, whom he thought pedantic and dry; Copernicus, whose cosmological theory impacted Bruno; Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, from which he borrowed the doctrine of infinite world; and Nicholas of Cusa, who provided for Bruno theological inspiration.


Unknown-2.jpegThe Art of Memory and On the Shadows of Ideas were published in 1582. These two works were written by Bruno on mnemonics and were considered to be alchemical and occult in nature. With seemingly divine inspiration, Bruno devised secret techniques to memorize things, allowing him, it is said, to visualize and draw out a mental map of the entire cosmos in his head. The art of memory, as he put it, was reserved for mystics and was conceived of as obscure, a practice only for those trained in it, people like Paracelsus. This is the main reason many compared him to a mage-like figure, as the art of mnemonics was comparable to magic. Bruno ascribed to the cosmos a system of relativism, asserting that there was no “center of the Universe.” Despite increasing infinitely, the Universe had no center; center, for Bruno, was relative to where a spectator was standing. At any point in the Universe a person could say he is at the center. Just as there is no fixed center, there is no absolute motion or time. Motion, it is important to remember, requires a reference point. An object is in motion insofar as it is moving in relation to an object, meaning that motion is relative. Similarly, time is not some absolute unit of measurement, but is rather used to measure something in reference to something else, usually motion. Epicurus, interestingly, offered a similar view: “As for unbounded space, we should not predicate ‘above’ or ‘below’ of any parts of it in the sense of a highest or lowest point. We can refer to what is over our heads relative to where we stand.”[3] Further, Aristotle was wrong about absolute weight, Bruno said. There is no intrinsic heaviness or lightness of a Heliocentric.jpgplanet, as Aristotle said; rather, every planet’s weight was to be determined respective to itself. Bruno was a champion of Heliocentrism, the belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not the other way around. This theory was first propounded by Aristarchus of Samos, but was taken up most memorably by Copernicus, who revolutionized it. The Roman astronomer Ptolemy wrote that the Earth was the body around which the Sun revolved, and it stuck, ultimately being taken up by the Church, which it held to be factual. Thus, Bruno made himself a target to the Church, but he would be proven right centuries later. He claimed, albeit incorrectly, that all planetary bodies had a  circular course. Aristotle posed the question of a Prime Mover, taken by some to be an argument for God, to account for the motion of the Celestial bodies: If causation is based on some prior cause, what was the first cause that started it all? According to Aristotle, some kind of Supreme being must have caused the first thing in the Universe, giving way to the rest of the Universe. Bruno, however, disagreed with this notion, relying instead on his Hermeticism and Hylozoism—the belief that matter is alive, which he borrowed from Aristotle, incidentally—to explain that the planets had their own intrinsic movement. Bruno thought energy and movement were related, so he stated that the planets moved by themselves, as though they had their own impetus. There is no need for a Prime Mover in Bruno’s world because the planets move themselves. Most famously, Bruno supported the idea that there is a plurality of worlds out there in space. His magnum 3-plurality-of-worlds-leonhard-euler-science-source.jpgopuses On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (1591) and On the Immeasurable and Countless Worlds outline his theory in detail. In them Bruno argues that if the Universe is infinite and always growing, there must be infinite planets and habitable Earths like ours. He also said that Copernicus could only make out eight planets in the solar system; but if the senses are limited in their capacities, Bruno argued, that would mean they could not grasp the possibly unlimited planets beyond us. Some mistakenly attribute to Bruno the creation of this theory; however, Epicurus again sets the precedent: “And the number of worlds is infinite, some worlds being similar to this one, while other worlds are very different.”[4] Medieval scholars believed the Heavenly bodies were composed of the fifth element, Æther, which they borrowed from Aristotle. Bruno thought otherwise: He maintained they there composed of the four classical elements; there was no need for the unbounded Æther. This placed him at odds, once more, with the Church, considering this conception completely opposed Genesis. The central idea in Bruno’s philosophy is God. Combining Neoplatonism with Egyptian mysticism, Bruno’s pantheism declared God to be causa immanens, or immanent cause; in other words, God is self-caused, independent of any external causation. God exists in essence of himself. As though anticipating Leibniz, Bruno produced a theory of monadology, basically saying that reality is composed of infinite, self-contained entities called monads. God was, of course, the monas monadum—the highest monad. From this vision of God, Bruno deduced that all substance—that is to say, matter—is One, i.e., all matter is derived from the being of God; matter and God are one and the same. Particulars (circonstanzie) are explained as being specific manifestations of substance. To use an example to clarify: A chair is made of substance, substance being permeated by God, and chairs may come in many shapes and sizes, many particulars, in other words, of the one substance that is chair. Another statement Bruno makes is that God is the Universe, and the Universe God. The Universe has always existed and shall always continue to exist. There was no creation of the Universe; it did not just go poof! and appear, as it did in the Big Bang. Here, one can see the blatant influence of Parmenides. God is eternal, having no beginning, nor end; He simply has been and will be.


giordano_bruno.jpgMoments before his auto-da-fé, Bruno was offered the cross, to which he replied, “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”[5] These fearless words uttered from a man who was about to die carry immense heroism. Here, a man who stood up against the Church, his fate in their hands, as he says these words. What he meant by saying this was that he, Bruno, was dying for a greater cause. He devoted his life to and died in the name of Truth, knowing that while he was but a mortal man, transient in nature, Truth was undying and eternal, an ideal he fought for till the end. The Church, on the other hand, was stubborn and eschewed Truth. They say you can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea—Bruno’s judges knew this. By killing Bruno in an attempt to cover up the Truth, they were not making things better, but rather released something greater and beyond their control. While he is not remembered today despite his ingenious thought regarding the cosmos, Bruno remains a martyr for science, belonging up there with Galileo. In the words of John Addington Symonds, “Bruno was a hero in the battle for freedom of the conscience, for the right of man to think and speak in liberty.”[6]

 


[1] He despised Oxford and its professors, describing them as pedantic; he got into a quarrel over an accusation of plagiarism.
[2] EdwardsThe Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 406
[3] Epicurus, Letters and Sayings of Epicurus, “Letter to Herodotus,” p. 13
[4] Id., p. 6
[5] Hecht, Doubt: A History, p. 295
[6] Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, Vol. 2, p. 799

 

For further reading: An Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World Vol. 2 by Harry Elmer Barnes (1965)
Renaissance in Italy Vol. 2 by John Addington Symonds (1935)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Vol. 1 by Paul Edwards (1967)

Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht (2003)
The Idea of Nature by R.G. Collingwood (1960)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)

Is Man a Machine?

Of all living organisms in the world, arguably the most complex, enigmatic, and independent, and as a result, interesting—is man. From its physiology to its psychology, the human is one of the most studied yet most misunderstood organism, the most intriguing living thing of which we know. Generally understood to have free will, we can will our own actions, and we are self-conscious, unlike other animals, and we can question ourselves. And as genius inventors, we have even created artificial intelligence, robots, machines, non-living things capable of logical reasoning. It is quite easy, though, to distinguish animals and machines from humans—or is it? During the 17th- and 18th-centuries, it was not uncommon to think of man as a functional, conscious machine, a mere sum of parts.


Unknown.jpegThe first philosopher to elaborate on the idea of organisms as machines was French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), who was famous for stating his immortal, “I think, therefore I am.” When it came to living things, Descartes practiced biological reductionism, which meant that he viewed living things not in terms of wholes, but as sums of parts. To illustrate this, think of a computer: As a whole, it is a computer, but we can break it down to its core components, like its keyboard, trackpad, screen, and we can go further, reducing it to smaller parts, like the microprocessor. Similarly, Descartes took man and reduced him to smaller parts. After all, the human body is really just a system of interchangeable parts. We are humans as a whole, but we are made up of numerous body parts, each of which could theoretically be replaced. If we can build a machine with replaceable parts, thought Descartes, what was to distinguish us humans, then, from machines? Another aspect of machines is the fact that they are passive, which is to say that they do not act but react. It is safe to say, for the sake of this argument, that machines have no free will; they cannot act voluntarily. Descartes saw us the same way, reminding us that man is subject to physical laws, over which we have no control, such as gravity and temperature. We may be able to adapt to them, but they cannot be avoided altogether. As such, Descartes concluded that humans were passive and reactive. There was a fundamental difference between humans and animals, whom Descartes designated pejoratively as “brutes,” he conceded. (Apparently, comparing man to a machine was not as degrading, and for that matter dehumanizing, as comparing him to a lowly animal.) Descartes attributed to all living things a will, a drive from which all actions are derived, from which instincts arise. Within all animals, Unknown-1.jpegthere is some kind of “animal spirit” coursing through their blood in their veins. We say that our thoughts cause our actions; in the same manner, Descartes asserted that these “animal spirits” were the source of action. For this reason, his idea of “will” is different from ours in that it does not cause directly. Accordingly, animals function entirely by involuntary actions, by fulfilling their survival instincts; no room is there in the animal for voluntary contemplation, as its only actions are those which are carried out for the sake of its survival, which themselves are unconscious. Here Descartes provides the distinction between brute and man: the Soul. Being the dualist that he was, Descartes marked a fine line between the physical and mental, body and mind. Man had a soul, unlike animals. The soul was a vital, animating force that made man conscious. The link between mind and body lay in the pineal gland, said Descartes. Endowed with a soul, man was able to take control voluntarily over his animal spirits, thereby allowing him to have free will.


A contemporary of Descartes, the next mechanistic thinker was Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). The political philosopher who authored The Leviathan was influenced by Newtonian physics, and this interest in the natural sciences would play a major rule in his view of human nature. Hobbes was a physicalist, meaning he thought only physical bodies exist, and that reality consisted solely thereof. There was no room for God, nor for some kind of “soul,” as Descartes posited—no form of vitalism. Everything, Hobbes confidently said, could be explained by motion, which he defined as Unknown-2.jpeg“a continual relinquishing of one place and acquiring of another.”[1] Armed with Newtonian mechanics, a physicalist view of reality, and a naturalistic metaphysics based on motion, Hobbes was determined to prove that human nature could be reduced to pure physical motion, and nothing else. The basic drive of organisms was movement, and of that, there were two types: vital and voluntary. Vital movement was unconscious and consisted of necessary living functions—one can see the parallel to Descartes’ animal spirits. Humans need to eat and drink, so they choose vital movement, resulting in the act of eating or drinking, respectively. And remember that the acts of eating and drinking are physical, enacted in terms of motion, namely the picking up of said nourishment and the actual process of ingesting it. Along with vital movement, there is voluntary movement, which is conscious and willed. Voluntary movement is unnecessary to the extent that it is not required for survival. Watching television or playing sports is voluntary because we choose to do it and do not need to do it. This, however, left a large problem for Hobbes, the same one that plagued Descartes, and even neurologists today: Unknown.pngHow do we account for mental thoughts physically? Hobbes explained thought in terms of motion. When we eat, it is because our voluntary movement tells us to, and our voluntary movement tells us to, because we think it, so thought causes movement, which in turn causes whatever process we thought of. Hobbes was an empiricist, fittingly, when it came to explaining thought processes. He proposed that thoughts are derived from experience. All thoughts are of phenomena we have experienced, so our thoughts are based on perception. The process of thinking is merely a process of internalizing; we experience an outside phenomena, creating a mental image, which itself is not mental, but physical, manifest in motion. All perceptions Hobbes called “phantasms.” Phantasms can be either objects perceived or qualities of an object that are perceived; either way, Unknown-3.jpegboth are involved. For example, a green ball, while one perception, consists visually of two phantasms: the ball, the object, and the greenness, the quality of the ball. But if thought is perceptual, it meant Hobbes had to come up with an answer to the fact that we can conjure up thoughts out of thin air. To this Hobbes replied that humans have an ability he called “imagination.” Imagination was the “decay” of perception—in other words, a memory. We are able to think of previous perceptions because we can recall them. Keep in mind, again, that all these processes are to be thought of in terms of physical motion. Memory is chronological, but its chain of events can be interrupted, Hobbes suggested, thus accounting for inaccurate memories. However, it seems Hobbes did not account for synthetic a priori truths. In this way, Hobbes managed to reduce man, a complex organism, to a mere object of physical laws, nowise more animate than a robot. He, like Descartes, said man was different from animals because he possessed the ability to create “signs” and “names” symbolic of objects. We call a door a “door” and assign it that value; animals cannot do that. He also grants us two types of knowledge that we can use to our advantage: factual and consequential. The former is the ability to recall facts, and the latter to create causal connections between A and B. Further, Hobbes says man can use logic, which he defined as the ability to add or subtract abstractions. The idea of Man can be added with another abstract concept (Hobbes said “Man” was abstract), like Love, or subtracted from another, like Nature.


Unknown-4.jpegFinally, the last and most infamous of the mechanists was the French thinker Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751). Having studied physiology under the famed physician Herman Boerhaave, La Mettrie would later serve as the physician to Frederick the Great, but between then, his background in medicine would pave the way for his controversial philosophy. La Mettrie was practically a villain in 18th-century France, called everything from an atheist to a determinist to a hedonist to a materialist, the last of which was commonplace and not derogatory. His books were burned publicly and outlawed by the government after they were read, and he was exiled on several occasions. His philosophy was a combination of naturalism, biology, and Cartesian mechanism and resulted in a mechanistic view of man. In his 1745 work Histoire Naturelle de l’Âme, Natural History of the Soul, he dismissed any idea of a soul, rejecting any form of vitalism, stating that there was no animating element in living things. He completely rejected Cartesian dualism, demanding that there was only matter and bodies. His next work was his magnum opus Unknown.jpegand served as a major tour de force. L’Homme Machine (1748), translated as “Man a Machine,” was La Mettrie’s masterpiece, and in it he wrote that there was no free will. Our actions, as we discussed with Hobbes, are considered to be the result of our thoughts. La Mettrie argued that even our thoughts are not technically our own, seeing as our thoughts are determined first by the condition of our body or health. We are not able to do things we would normally be able to do when we are healthy when we are sick, and vice versa. Depending on the state of our health, we are disposed to certain things, and the state of our health, as we know, is seldom within our control, but left, rather, to other determinants. La Mettrie was also an opponent of Leibniz, who wrote about monads, self-contained entities. In response, he wrote, “They [non-materialists] have spiritualized matter rather than materializing the soul. How can we define a being whose nature is utterly unknown to us?”[2] Thinkers like Leibniz he criticized for advocating a form of vitalism by positing a force of some kind. Likewise, Descartes would have been targeted by this comment and blamed for “spiritualizing matter” because he talked of his animal man_science.jpgspirits—a foolish mistake to La Mettrie. Instead, he, Descartes, should have explained these animal spirits physically, as Hobbes did. La Mettrie then wrote Les Animaux plus que Machines (Animals More Than Machines) wherein he created his own way of bypassing vitalism while at the same time advancing a type sentience in animals, humans included. He said that animals were not alive, so to speak, which is to say that they did not possess some kind of living spirit, but they had the ability to feel. La Mettrie in the same book described his own theory of evolution that saw each evolution increase in its desires. Plants had very little needs but were simple organism, and they evolved into animals, which had more needs, and they evolved into humans, who have many needs, whereof many are unnecessary. La Mettrie then wrote that thoughts are physical and cause emotions and bodily sensations within the body, a view similar to Hobbes’. His ethical works consist of Discours sur le Bonheur (1748), Discourse on Happiness, and L’Art de Jouir (1751), The Art of Enjoyment. The first work depicted virtue as a dual development of amour de soi, a love for oneself, and happiness. This is unlike other philosophers, who inverted the equation, equating happiness with virtue, not the other way around. He also wrote that laws were a social necessity. His later work, as can be surmised by the title, was more sensual and detailed a hedonistic ethical theory. La Mettrie identified pleasure as either debauchery (débauche) or enjoyment (volupté). Debauchery, as La Mettrie saw it, was better than enjoyment, for it did no harm, whereas enjoyment does. For this reason, La Mettrie is sometimes said to be a Utilitarian, as he preferred the former to the latter, non-harm to harm.  


Looking back at the history of ideas, we cannot help but think some foolish, others wise beyond their years. Nowadays, were someone to ask if we were machines, we would think them crazy: How could we, such complex, thoughtful beings, possibly be mindless A.I.? It is unfair, though, to judge an idea 400 years old, considering we have made considerable advances, both in biology and neurology, that have disproved this notion. This is not to dismiss the idea completely, however, as it is an interesting topic worthy of discussion even today—food for thought, if you will. In fact, how do we know we aren’t machines ourselves, built by some other complex race of intelligent beings? Who knows.

 


[1] Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, p. 220
[2] Arp, 1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think, p. 405

 

For further reading: 
The Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment by John. W. Yolton (1992)
1001 Ideas that Changed the Way We Think by Robert Arp (2013)
A History of Modern Philosophy Vol. 1 by Harald Høffding (1955)
A Critical History of Western Philosophy by D.J. O’Connor (1964)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 4 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 9 by Will Durant (1965)
Socrates to Sartre by Enoch Samuel Stumpf (1982)

What Was Orphism?

Unknown.jpegBack in Ancient Greece, religion was a critical part of daily life. In addition to their rich, extensive mythology, the Greeks could be initiated into mysteries, secretive and occult groups, almost like secret societies, such as the infamous Eleusinian Mysteries. The groups all coexisted, and they all had unique rituals, and some taught different stories about the creation of the world. The idea of reincarnation, thought outlandish by some, is actually a commonly accepted belief practiced worldwide, and one particular creed in Greece, called Orphism, played a monumental role in Greek culture, not to mention philosophy, its teachings adopted by Pythagoras and even as far as Plato. Little can be said about the creation of the group, no less about the founder; further, the literature that is attributed to the society is scant, and authors have yet to be identified.


According to Orphic cosmological tradition, the universe was conceived of in a cosmic egg. In other words, the cosmos was initially an embryo, self-contained, which at a certain point hatched, the upper half of the egg forming the Heavens, the lower, Earth. There was chaos at first. Then, the three realms—Heaven, Earth, and Sea—were bound by Æther. This substance, described as the fifth element by Aristotle, was like a belt that held the three realms together tightly, creating a compact universe. The Orphics believed in an omnipotent creator, a demiurge, whom they called Phanes, who was the embodiment of both male and female, and thus the objective progenitor of humanity. img_phanes.jpgPhanes was the mightiest of the deities, the god of all gods, until he was devoured by Zeus—a common motif in Greek mythology. It is considered by scholars that this creation story was most likely inspired by contemporary civilizations like Egypt, India, and Babylon, each of which had a creation story of the almost exact structure. Orphism was named after the mythical musician Orpheus, who, so skilled at playing the lyre he could lull rocks and Hades’ three-headed dog Cerberus, tried to retrieve his wife from the Underworld under the condition that he not look at her. He failed in the end and was killed by mænads, passionate followers of Dionysus. The actual religious foundations for the society derive from another myth: that of Dionysus. Born to Zeus and Persephone, Dionysus was dismembered and eaten by the Titans. An angered Zeus struck the Titans with his thunderbolt, disintegrating them, and reviving from their ashes a reincarnated Dionysus, along with man.

Unknown-1.jpeg


Man, born divine and depraved, half-god and half-Titan, was therefore impure. His holy blood from Dionysus’ ashes was tainted with the blood of the corrupt Titans. This mirrors the Christian doctrine of original sin in that it assigns man an innate evil that is up to him to remove, through virtuous action. For this reason, the Orphics thought the body (soma, σωμα) was a tomb (sema, σημα). The body was an impediment, something of which to be ridden, as it reminded man of his corporeality, as opposed to his spirituality, his imperfection, as opposed to his perfection. Plato attested, “I have heard a philosopher [Pythagoras] say that at this moment we are actually dead, and that the body is our tomb…”.[1] To the Orphics, the body was on the same plane of being dead; so tainted is it, that it is like a sarcophagus. Only through certain religious rituals could an individual temporarily transcend his earthly tomb and become one with his divinity. During rituals, the goers would try to enter a state of “enthusiasm,” or an intense and passionate fervor, usually achieved through music, dance, or meditation. The objective of the participant was to escape his body, to relinquish his consciousness, to relieve his sense of self, and to unite with his divine side, in an attempt to reunite with God. Thus, Orphics tried to induce ecstasy, which means etymologically “to stand outside oneself”—literally to escape oneself. In the afterlife, said the Orphics, the soul would be put through judgment, where it would be subject to rigorous testing to see whether its bodily owner was virtuous or not. Sinners would be punished accordingly. The luckier ones had to face Hades, while those who were worse off would be reincarnated until they purified their soul. On the other hand, those who properly tended to their soul were able to be reunited with the World-soul, an overarching, all-inclusive spirit that permeated the world—a pantheistic spirit—from which they came. Central to Orphic doctrine was metempsychosis, a nice way of saying reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul. This concept is similar to the Buddhist idea of Samsara, the wheel of rebirth: If, when we die, we have not balanced our Karma, we are condemned to another life, ad infinitum, until we do so.


When one brings up Orphism, the next topic that will come up, most probably, would be Pythagoreanism, the philosophical brotherhood started by Pythagoras, inventor of the Pythagorean Theorem, since he took many of their doctrines and implemented them into his teachings. Historians accredit Pythagoras with being the first to call himself a philosopher; as such, he took philosophy seriously, considering it a way of life. To him, the happy life was one of contemplation; philosophy was a theoretical life, lived in Unknown-2.jpeginquiry, in discussion, in experimentation. He is said to have “intellectualized” Orphism, applying scientific thinking and reasoning to its beliefs, making it a viable way of life, rather than a mystery. Again, we have Plato to testify: “[T]hey say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but never destroyed. And the moral is, that man ought to live always in perfect holiness.”[2] Here, Plato describes the ethical system of Orphism, explaining the idea of purification, which is required if one wants to join the World-soul. Moreover, he sets up the idea of the immortality of the soul advocated by Pythagoras—an idea that Socrates would have taught him and that would play a crucial role in his philosophy. The soul exists eternally and can never be destroyed; if it is impure at the end of its body’s life, it is to take the body of a new person, and then another, until purification; if, however, at death, the soul is pure, it can go to the World-soul. This last sequence can be detected in Platonic thought in the Phædrus. If Pythagoras considered philosophy a way of life, if a good life was one of purity, what then did purification look like, and what good did philosophy do anyone? For Pythagoreans, a virtuous life consisted of dutiful moral responsibility and ascetic self-constraint. The body, remember, was a tomb, but the soul was holy and needed to be pure if it wanted to return to divinity; hence, the life of the Pythagorean was dedicated to caring for and tending to the soul, cautious not to commit any vices. In the afterlife, the soul was judged by its scars, which of course were not physical, but spiritual, symbolic of the vices of which the body was guilty. Based on this belief, the soul was of paramount importance and took precedence over the well-being of the body.


One of the key beliefs of the Pythagoreans, derived from Orphism, was the transmigration of the soul. In fact, there are several stories about Pythagoras and his belief therein. “Once they said that he [Pythagoras] was passing by when a puppy was being whipped, and he took pity and said: Stop, do not beat it; for it is the soul of a friend that I recognized when I heard it giving tongue,” reported Xenophanes.[3] In this story, Pythagoras remembered the voice of a friend of his and reasoned that his soul must have been reincarnated as a dog. Pythagoras was famously a vegetarian. Anyone who joined qm1428642438.jpgthe Pythagorean creed was a vegetarian, on the basis that animals could be the host of either a friend’s or an ancestor’s soul. Similarly, beans were to be refrained from, for Pythagoras said they were the seeds from which humans were birthed. To eat a bean, was to eat a fellow human. Interestingly, it is worth pointing out that, according to legend, Pythagoras died because he was chased to a bean field by an angry mob, and, not wanting to trample the beans, decided to surrender himself to the mob instead. The eating of meat or beans was called Adikia (αδικια). It was a grave vice. Plato recounts, “[M]en are said to have lived a sort of Orphic life, having the use of all lifeless things, but abstaining from all living things.”[4] Orphism was practically synonymous with vegetarianism as a result. The Pythagoreans, it can be entertained, were pantheistic, insofar as they believed all life was interconnected, like a web, which was connected to Unknown-3.jpegthe World-soul, of which all living things were a part. Another story in Pythagorean tradition tells of a man named Æthalides who was bestowed by Hermes the gift of being able to remember his past lives. Upon passing, he was reincarnated as Euphorbus, who was slain by Menelaus in the Trojan War; his soul went to Hermotimus, who went to a temple and allegedly pointed out the shield used by Menelaus, proving he was Euphorbus in his previous life; then, Hermotimus died and became Pyrrhus; and finally, the soul went on to inhabit yours truly, Pythagoras. Pythagoras urged his followers every night to go through their previous day, recalling as much detail as possible, as a way of strengthening their memory, whereby they could eventually remember as far back as their own previous lives. Herodotus also mentions a strange ritual practiced by the Pythagoreans in his Histories:

Nothing of woolen, however, is taken into their temples or buried with them, as their religion forbids it. Here their practice resembles the rites called Orphic and Bacchic, but which are in reality Egyptian and Pythagorean; for no one initiated into these mysteries can be buried in a woolen shroud, a religious reason being assigned for the observance.[5]

Another Presocratic philosopher who borrowed from Orphic thought was Empedocles, the originator of the four elements, who claimed, “For by now I have been born a boy, girl, plant, bird, and dumb seafish.”[6] It is important to note how exactly Pythagoras—and Empedocles for that matter—came into knowledge, specifically, of the Orphic teachings, and generally, his own teachings. Scholar Theodor Gomperz suggested that Unknown-4.jpegPythagoras was influenced by nearby civilizations, like Egypt, Babylon, and India; as I explained earlier, the creation stories of the Orphics, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Indians were all related. Of these traditions, Gomperz said, India was most likely the connection. After all, it is not that unreasonable, seeing as Pythagoras was a contemporary of the Buddha through the 6th- and 5th-centuries BC. More evidence is that during this time, India and Greece were united under Cyrus’ Persian Empire, meaning there were definitive interactions between the two. The similarities between Pythagoreanism and Buddhism are numerous, from the shared tradition of vegetarianism to the theory of reincarnation.


Conclusively, Orphism, while now outdated, impacted ancient civilization on a considerable scale, having been used by Pythagoras, the Buddha, Empedocles, and Plato. Categorizing Orphism is as difficult as categorizing Buddhism, as it is neither a religion nor a philosophy in its proper sense, although it does share some characteristics of the ritualistic mysteries of Ancient Greece, along with its literature. The practices of vegetarianism, pantheism, and immortality and transmigration of the soul, while seemingly foreign to the Western world—the latter two more so—have undeniably defined Western culture.

 


[1] Plato, Gorgias, 493a
[2] Plato, Meno, 81a
[3] Diogenes Läertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 8.36.12-15
[4] Plato, Laws, VII, 782c
[5] Herodotus, Histories, II.81
[6] Empedocles, 117

 

For further reading: Philosophic Classics: Ancient Philosophy by Forrest E. Baird (2000)
A History of Ancient Western Philosophy by Joseph Owens (1959)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 6 by Paul Edwards (1967)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy Vol. 1 by Frederick Copleston (1993)
The Greek Thinkers Vol. 1 by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Dream of Reason  by Anthony Gottlieb (2013)
History of Philosophy by Julian Marías (1967)
Socrates to Sartre by Enoch S. Stumpf (1982)

Athletics in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is remembered for many things, among them philosophy, science, architecture, and drama. Rich in culture and diversity, the Greek city-states were the perfect place for new innovations and achievements. In addition to the intellectual climate, the Greeks were famous for their athletics as well. In Ancient Greece, the athlete received just as much honor as the intellectual, and thus the mental and the physical flourished together. Of the athletic achievements in Greece, the most notable are the Olympics. The Games saw the coming together of the city-states in a collective embrace of the athlete and his feats. And outside of the Olympics, the Greeks continued their love for sport.


Unknown.jpegThe first Olympics, it is said, were held in 776 BCE, its purpose not athletic but religious. When the Olympics were first conceived, the Greeks intended for it to be a religious ceremony, a way for them to honor Zeus. Introducing athletics into the Olympics was a way of pleasing the Gods, as the performance, they hoped, would entertain the gods. However, the ceremony was not wholly religious in that the Greeks did it also to celebrate their humanism, specifically that of which the body was capable. Athletic achievement was one of the highest honors; it showed to what discipline and dedication could lead, and it inspired others by example. Originally, the competitions extended only to foot races and wrestling. Only later were horse and chariot racing, boxing, and javelin added. The popularity of the Games grew thereafter, and in 582 BCE Delphi initiated the Pythian Games; a year later, Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games; and in 573 BCE, Nemea had their own Olympic Games. Popular legend says the marathon is derived from the historical battle of the same name. The historian Herodotus recorded that the Greeks “sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner…. The Athenians… established in his honour yearly sacrifices and a torch-race.”[1] Pheidippides gave word to Sparta that Athens had defeated a massive Persian army, running 26 miles, it is said, in a day, which led to the creation of the modern-day marathon. In 394, the Olympic Games were outlawed by Theodosius.


Unknown-1.jpegThe standard performance was the Pentathlon, a five-event competition consisting of the broad jump, discus, javelin, wrestling, and 200-yard dash. Jumpers would begin at a stand still, dumbbells in hand, and leap; discus throwers used 12lb-weights; wrestlers were graded by referees based on takedowns and form; and the dash was called the stadion (σταδιον), since it was the length of a stadium. Running in Ancient Greece was comparably tantamount to today, with up to three events: the diaulos (διαυλος), a single lap around a stadium; the dolichos (δολιχος), 12 laps around a stadium; and the images.jpegarmor race, which was adapted from military training, and was a race in which the competitors sprinted with a full suit of armor on. Evidence of marble sprinting blocks can be found in stadiums, dilapidated, worn-down, from repeated usage. Boxing was a popular sport, more so than today, and attracted large audiences. Hide gloves that extended to the elbows were worn by boxers, and hits were restricted to the head alone. There were no rounds; the winner was determined by whoever surrendered first. Unlike modern boxing, the Greeks did not compete based on weight classes, so the competition devolved from a sport of skill to a sport of pure brawn and muscle. A hippodrome, built specifically for horse-racing, was constructed for the Olympics, the arena wide enough for 10 four-horse chariots to race at once, everyone scrambling around the 23 turns that awaited them at every corner. To the enjoyment of the crowd, this affair would usually end with one racer making it to the Unknown-2.jpegfinish line successfully—the others, due both to the lack of space and tight corners, all wiping out. Like today, this event caught the attention of rich bidders, who would bet on horses; if their bet paid off, they—not the racer—got the horse. More popular than all the other events combined was the pankration (παγκρατιον), which translates to “all-strength.” This event was a mix of boxing and wrestling. The only rules were no stomping and no finger-breaking. Gory tales of famous pankratiasts survive, some accounts telling of one who killed his opponent by ripping out his innards. Women were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games, so they got their own version: the Heraea, which had but one event, which was running.


Today, athletes have four years to train for the Olympics, whereas the Greeks had 10-months of training. Athletes trained in gymnasiums (γυμνασιον) or xystos (ξυστος), a type of colonnade. Wrestlers had their own training grounds called palæstra (παλαιστρα). Runners, on the other hand, trained outside. “They [athletes] also set the Artist-re-creation-of-ancient-wrestling.jpgexample of contending naked, publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises. Formerly, even in the Olympic contests, the athletes who contended wore belts across their middles,” wrote Thucydides [2]. A shocking fact to some, the Greeks competed naked, covering themselves in olive oil to prevent themselves from getting dirtied from the mud, as well as to make themselves more mobile and slippery. Married women were not allowed to spectate during the games, but girls were allowed to because then they could find future husbands. Every city-state came to a truce during the Games, even if they were in the middle of the war, because everyone looked forward to the games, which occurred every four years, like today. The city-states even had separate games for younger athletes, those who were not yet matured. Olympia and Pythia had a boys division, and Nemea and Isthmia had an intermediate (ageneioi, αγενειοι) competition. So competitive were the Greeks that they had only first place prizes; there was no second or third, nor was there a team prize; the individual athlete had his time to shine in the Olympics—it was, after all, a celebration of the body and human excellence. The Greek roots athlon-, meaning prize, and agon-, meaning game, from which comes agony and antagonist, all embodied suffering. The agonistic games were not meant for fun for the athletes; rather, they were vigorous, challenging tests that put them to their limits, forcing them to endure more. Each Game, it is estimated 40-50,000 spectators came from around Greece, and each athlete was announced by their name, followed by their home city.


Upon winning an event, the victor would be crowned. The Olympia gave out olive wreaths, Pythia laurel, and Isthmia and Nemea parsley. Those who won were awarded lavishly. Plutarch said Solon had a handsome reward for those who got first: “[T]he victor in the Isthmian games was to have for reward an hundred drachmas; the conqueror in the Olympian, five hundred.”[3] During the winner’s celebration they were showered in leaves (phyllobolia, φυλλοβολια), given free food for a lifetime by their home polis (sitesis, συτησις), awarded with all kinds of gifts, promised free seats at future Unknown-3.jpegGames (prohedria, προεδρια), praised by poets, made into sculptures, and bestowed the honor of having their name engraved into the corridors which led to the arena. The Persians, when they witnessed the Olympic Games, purportedly remarked that the Greeks were “men who contend with one another, not for money, but for honour!”[4] It was strange to them, that these people would commit themselves to such arduous training, to fight their brethren for their namesake, and not out of anticipation of compensation. But according to Homer, “there is no greater glory that can befall a man than what he achieves by speed of his feet or strength of his hands.”[5] Those who lost at the Olympics, understandably, fell victim to depression and carried with them tremendous shame, a stigma which stuck with them through life.


During childhood, children would play in ball rooms (sphairisteria, σφαιριστερια), where they would play, you might guess, ball. It is thought that they played a version of wall ball, in which they would bounce a ball, either on the wall or on the ground, catch it, then throw it back. Evidence also shows that they might have had their own version of lacrosse. With sticks with nets at the end, they would play on two teams, each trying to get the ball past the other. Youths had trainers of their own, paidotribai (παιδοτριβαι) and gymnastai (γυμνασται), who respectively were the equivalent of wrestling coaches and physical educators. Some other games they played were khytrinda, a variation of monkey-in-the-middle and tag; posinda, a guessing game; and drapinda, which was like duck-duck-goose, where the objective was to catch the other children, who pretended to be “runaway slaves.”


Amidst the philosophical contemplation, political strife, and cultural growth, the Ancient Greeks found the time to enjoy their four-yearly Olympic Games that united all the city-states, reminding them of the common joy they shared for athletic competitiveness and glory. Victory odes from poets are plenteous and tell of the greatest athletes, all of whom trained hard, fought hard, and won hard. Sometimes we forget how similar we are to the Ancients, who once you think about them, are not so far of from us as we think: We share the same love of athletics and the same appreciation for the wonders the body can do when put to the test.


[1] Herodotus, The Histories, VI.105
[2] Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, I.6
[3] Plutarch, Twelve Lives, p. 99
[4] Herodotus, op. cit., VIII.26
[5] Homer, The Odyssey, VIII.145

For further reading: Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History 2nd ed. by Sarah B. Pomeroy (2008)
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2: The Life of Greece by Will Durant (1966)
Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture Vol. 1 by Werner Jaeger (1945)
The Story of Man: Greece and Rome by Paul MacKendrick (1977)
The Western Experience 6th ed. by Mortimer Chambers (1995)
The Founders of the Western World by Michael Grant (1991)
The History of the Peloponnesian War
by Thucydides (1990)

The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox (2006)
The Histories by Herodotus (1990)
Twelve Lives by Plutarch (1950)
The Odyssey by Homer (1990)
The Illiad by Homer (1990)

What is Sophism?

Fifth-century Athens, known as the Golden Age of Athens, oversaw the flourishing of Classical Greek Philosophy, dominated by the teacher-student duo of Plato and Socrates, two men dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom, who searched tirelessly for objective knowledge, who wanted to uncover the truth, who planted the seeds of knowledge that would influence ages to come. It was also during this period that a new breed of seekers came, whom Plato despised, whom we today connote with negativity: the Sophist. Nowadays, to call someone a sophist, or to say an argument is sophistic, is to call them deceitful, glib, and a fraud. However, while this figure is buried in stigma by history, there lies a greater story about this controversial lover of wisdom.

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Before the word “sophist” acquired its negative connotations, it originally came from the Greek word for wisdom, σοφός, and was used to designate a wise man or sage, such as Thales, who was called one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, or even just a craftsman or artisan who was highly skilled at his trade. It was an honor, then, to be called a Sophist (σοφιστής), so teachers were quick to adopt the name, proud to bear its glory as they spread their knowledge throughout the lands. The Sophists were traveling teachers. They had no place they called home, and they went from city-state to city-state, looking for pupils, stopping at every public festival, where they could gather a crowd and amaze them with their impressive rhetoric, where they could present speeches designed to attract customers and get their name known. To Gomperz, the Sophist reminded him of a “half professor and half journalist,” for he wasted no time jumping upon new opportunities, seeking a new job, a new student in whom he could invest his knowledge.[1] The Sophist was, early in his career, regarded as a true sage, and he was bestowed great honors and respected by his peers for his vast areas of expertise. In public the Sophist spoke through epideixis (ἐπιδεικτικός), a form of oration in which the speaker is able to exhibit his skills or to praise some particular thing; and in private study the Sophist taught through dialectic (διαλεκτική), the same question-and-answer technique made famous by Socrates. Evidently, the Sophist was highly adaptable, and because he was always on the move, he was able to attract a large following and gain a reputation of the same magnitude. paulathenssmall.jpgHowever, the Sophists taught by mouth alone, not pen, and none of their writings were written, as they were made with the intent of being performed in public, in front of an audience, not in private, for the delight of a reader. The fact that none of them established a school, too, contributes to a lack of primary sources regarding the Sophists’ ideas. Further, because no schools were made, and because their students were not permanent, there exist no student records. Other philosophers, like Socrates and Epictetus, despite not writing what they taught, have extant writings, because their students, Plato and Arrian, recorded them; the Sophists, contrarily, had no students to do so. Fortunately for the Sophist, he was able to prosper in a thriving intellectual climate, as Athens was, at the time, the center of philosophical thought, and it experienced a tremendous surge in intellectual pursuits brought forth by the leadership of Pericles. Education was therefore a major focus—perfect for the Sophists.


The targeted audience of the Sophists was select: their primary customers were young, eager-to-learn Athenian men, of whom there were plenty. Central to sophistic curriculum was political virtue, or areté (αρετέ). As Jaeger put it, “[T]he aim of the educational movement… was not to educate the people, but to educate the leaders of the people.”[2] Just as we in today’s education advertise school as a way of training our future leaders, so the Sophists in Athens’ education advertised their tutoring as a way of training their Unknown-1.jpegfuture leaders. Pericles was the paragon of democratic leadership, so it was important that youths were taught to emulate how he ruled. The best way to lead well, the Sophists believed, is through rhetoric, the art of speaking well (ευ λεγειν), of persuasion, of using language to the best of its abilities. Interestingly, the word “politician,” in Ancient Greece, was used interchangeably with “rhetor;” they were perfectly synonymous. Therefore, it was important that a good leader learn rhetoric, especially when he is young. So dedicated were they to their craft that the Sophists considered their teaching a techné (τέχνη), an art. For Sophist to refer to a trained craftsmen, and to have teaching be a craft, is to confirm that education, schooling, was first given its value in Ancient Athens, and for that we owe the Sophists. We find in Athens the idea that teaching is a delicate craft which requires perfecting and which is integral to a culture’s being. In addition to rhetoric, the Sophists tried to teach both practical and theoretical things, of the former day-to-day necessities, the latter liberal arts. So wide was their knowledge that they taught everything from natural science to metaphysics, grammar to poetry. For the most part, the Sophists accepted Pre-Socratic thinking, but they rejected Eleatic thought. Thus, cosmology was a popular subject, and students were taught the essentials, from Thales to Anaxagoras. Since grammar and rhetoric were taught, it was necessary that logic, too, was taught, meaning the Sophists were the inventors of the original trivium comprising grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Their lessons, for example, featured all kinds of logical problems and rules, and Unknown-2.jpegthey also taught about different fallacies and how to avoid them in reasoning. Of theoretical knowledge there were two types the Sophists taught: factual and formal knowledge. Factual knowledge was just as it sounds, consisting of general, wide-ranging facts, encyclopedic in extent; formal knowledge was specific, and its intent was not so much on learning but training, specifically how to use knowledge to think critically and practically. According to the Sophists, who viewed teaching as a craft, virtue was teachable. Political virtue, areté, as well as virtues like temperance and courage, were able to be taught and were not acquired specially. The Appeal to Nature is commonly associated with the Sophists, the argument that whatever is natural is good, whatever is unnatural is bad. While this does not apply to every Sophist, it does capture the essence of their conflicting views regarding Nature. The disagreement was between convention (νομος) and nature herself (φύση), man-made law and natural law. Thrasymachus thought self-interest was morally right and that the stronger is better than the weaker; Callicles thought our self-conscious is what is right; and Iamblichus chose convention, stating that we ought to do whatever state laws tell us.

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After the fifth-century, Sophism all but died out, but it was revived again in Rome during the Second Sophistic period, which ranges from approximately 60-230 A.D. The traveling teacher was brought back, and he became a sensation in a Roman-influenced Greece, where philosophy was going strong. However, the importance was shifted from philosophy to rhetoric, and as Will Durant writes, “It [philosophy] had been swallowed up in an ocean of rhetoric, and had ceased to think when it learned to speak.”[3] No longer was philosophy based on systematic thinking and the art of living; it had been replaced by rhetoric, and speech was valued above action, signaling the beginning of the decline of philosophy in the Western world. It was not all bad, though, and some good did come of the Second Sophistic; from it comes, like the value of education, arguably the first advocation of individualism. It was at this time that we saw men, without true homes, without anything to show for their work, traveling land to land, living off of that at which they were good, teaching whoever could pay them; we see true individualism—independent individuals making their way doing what they love, as though it were some kind of ancient American Dream. The Pre-Socratic philosophers philosophized about nature, the cosmos, and produced theories regarding that which was external to them; the Sophists, on the other hand, turned inwards, philosophizing about their fellow men. Consequently, there was a move from the theoretical to the practical, the cosmological to the humanistic, nature to man. The Sophists were “empirico-inductive” in their methods, examining what was before them and producing their theories from there, not from looking up at the stars, but at the society that surrounded them—humanity.[4]


So far, the Sophist seems a respectable figure responsible for the beginnings of higher education, humanism, and rhetoric; however, there is another side of the story, one that paints them in another, more sinister light. Probably the most distinctive thing about the Sophists was how they made money. As a pretty much homeless, traveling teacher, the Sophist had to make easy money, so he placed a fee on his lessons. While some Sophists were fair in their prices, most of them were not, pricing their lessons up to 10,000 Drachmas, equivalent to about $10,000 in today’s money. Because the prices were so high, only rich Athenians could afford lessons, a disadvantage to the poor and underprivileged. To exacerbate these conditions, Athens was the city-state with the most lawsuits, and since only rich men could get lessons in logic and rhetoric, it meant they could easily win. This is not to mention, of course, that it was considered dishonorable, ignoble, in Ancient Greece, to pay for another man’s knowledge. Many also thought professionalism boring and made fun of the Sophists for conducting their lessons accordingly, rebuking them for their private lessons taught in the privacy of one’s house. To say one’s argument is sophistic is an insult, for it means they have used cunning, deceitful, devious, and specious reasoning. This makes sense, because some Sophists could manipulate logic, easily able to win either side of an argument. Commonly, to show off, Sophists and later Skeptics would propose one side of an argument, present their case, then immediately switch to the other side and present an equally balanced argument. For this reason, the issue of lawsuits was even worse, for litigators could be taught unfair logical devices to beat their opponents.

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Of the critics of the Sophists, Plato is the worst, evidenced by multiple of his dialogues, which make fun of the Sophists and poke holes in their reasoning. One thing Plato disapproved of was the fact that Sophists discounted objective knowledge, looking instead for relative knowledge, for according to the Sophists, only relative knowledge was possible. What is true for one person may not be true to another. Similarly, he scoffed at them for their phenomenalism. Plato believed in a higher realm, the world of Forms, in which all perfect entities exist, in which object knowledge resides; for the Sophists to claim that the phenomenal, or natural, world was the only existent thing, was, to Plato, distasteful and worthy of contempt. To believe that this imperfect world was the sole reality, thought Plato, is insane and an insult to objectivity. Regarding the lesson fees, Plato joked that if the fees were too low, it meant the lesson was just as worthless; and if they were too high, it meant it was outrageously expensive. One of the reasons Plato was repulsed by the Sophists was because they gave a bad name to Socrates. Socrates was considered a Sophist in its positive sense, and he used the dialectic properly in the search for truth; Unknown-7.jpegbut to compare him to the Sophists of Plato’s time was like comparing God to Satan—unthinkable, a downright insult. Plato blamed the Sophists, in part, for Socrates’ death, seeing as they gave him a bad name, tainting his reputation forever. Plato called the Sophists “anti-logical” and eristic, since they sought not actual knowledge, but argumentation. Like teacher like student, Aristotle, too, following in the footsteps of Plato, turned his pen against the Sophists. He wrote that the Sophists practiced “wisdom which exists only in semblance” and “what appears to be philosophy but is not.”[5] In his Sophistical Refutations, he adds, “[T]he sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom.”[6] For a long time Aristotle waged a philosophical war against the Megarian School (also known as the Eristics), infamous for its paradoxes and logic problems, at one point calling them “sophists,” thus creating the first official usage of the word as a negative one. From that point on, even throughout Imperial times, philosophers began accusing each other of being “sophists.”


The Sophist is a polarizing figure, on one side an educational hero, on the other an anti-logical fraud. Whether he is one or the other cannot be solved by history, as there are always two sides. In the end, while we can frown upon them, laughing at their professional ways, exposing their deceiving logic, we must also be grateful for all that they have done, for making education as important as it is today in our culture, for creating the trivium to which we are dedicated in English, for living the true American Dream, and most of all, for angering Plato and Socrates.

 


[1] Gomperz, The Greek Thinkers, Vol. 1, p. 414
[2] Jaeger, Paideia, Vol. 1, p. 290
[3] Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 3, p. 489
[4] Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 83
[5] Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1004b20-27
[6] Aristotle, Sophistical Refutations, 165a22-24

 

For further reading:
The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower (1998)
A History of Ancient Western Philosophy by Joseph Owens (1959)
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol. 7 by Paul Edwards (1967)
A History of Philosophy Vol. 1 by Frederick Copleston (1993)
A Short History of Philosophy by Robert C. Solomon (1996)
The Greek Thinkers Vol 1. by Theodor Gomperz (1964)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 2 by Will Durant (1966)
The Story of Civilization Vol. 3 by Will Durant (1972)
Paideia Vol. 1 by Werner Jaeger (1945)

Battles of the Thirty Years’ War

The 17th century oversaw the modernization of war, from upgrades in weaponry to revaluations of battle tactics, from the replacement of old arms with new ones to the invention of new army procedures and formations. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), in particular, was one of the largest battles of the century, and it was responsible for creating new dynasties and destroying others, with improved weapons of destruction. Commanders thought of creative strategies to outwit their enemies and new ways to up their efficacy in battle. In this blog, I will be looking at 10 of the most decisive battles of the Thirty Years’ War.


Unknown.jpegThe first battle was fought at White Mountain on November 8, 1620, between the Catholic League and the Protestant Union, shortly after the deposition of Ferdinand II. Leading the Catholics was the Count of Tilly (1559-1632), a Catholic at birth who at one point considered becoming a Jesuit. With an army of 20,000 men, he went to White Castle to confront Protestant commander Christian of Anhalt, who had an army of 24,000. Tilly easily defeated the Protestants, banishing anything that was not Catholicism—a major setback to the Protestants.


The next major battle was fought six years later at Dessau Bridge on April 25. Albrecht von Wallenstein (1583-1634), general of the Catholics, was originally a Protestant but converted to Catholicism, quickly amassing a great wealth for his time, his riches in the billions, it is thought. Wallenstein derived his riches from the land he owned, taxing them, contributing to his power, which he used to raise a massive army, taking with him 20,000 soldiers to defeat the Protestants. Having arrived at the bridge early, Wallenstein stored his weapons and ammunition beneath the bridge, hiding his men there, too, so he could launch a surprise attack on the enemy when they crossed. Ernst von Mansfeld (1580-1626) had no idea what he was walking into when he and his 12,000-man army crossed the bridge. Wallenstein ambushed Mansfeld, utterly destroying his army, using his artillery to blast them, then sending his troops to finish them off. When the smoke cleared, Wallenstein gained an effortless victory, the casualties numbering 4,000. Mansfeld, unlike Wallenstein, went from being a Catholic to being a Protestant; yet like Wallenstein, he was a highly requested general, for he was able to muster up an army whenever he wanted. His loyalty to the Protestants was weak, as he joined only for the money.


Magdeburg_1631.jpgSo far, the Catholics looked as though they were going to win, having devastated the Protestants in two major battles without breaking a sweat. This changed, however, on May 20, 1626. Imperial forces were launching a full-on siege at the town of Magdeburg, and for months they hammered at it in vain with their cannons. Eventually they brought down the walls, and the soldiers, drunk, rushed in, brandishing their weapons, slaying every innocent civilian, setting fire to the houses, raping women, killing children, stealing everything they could find, leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. The massacre was horrendous, and it painted a bad picture of the Catholics. Tilly, who was on duty at the time, was blamed for the massacre, the event permanently tainting his reputation, labeling him a monster. Deaths are estimated to be between 20,000-25,000. It appeared the tides had changed.


Gustav “the Lion of the North” Adolf II of Sweden (1594-1632) had experience leading battles at a young age; upon taking the throne, he had to defend his kingdom from the Dutch and Polish. During that time, the Swedish army was pathetic, its navy even worse. But Gustav, ever the innovative commander, was able to take the untrained Swedish army and turn it into a war machine, hiring trained mercenaries, cutting down the army so that it consisted only of a select few men who were trained. When Wallenstein stepped foot in the Baltics, Gustav got worried and took action, sailing with his men to Pomerania to assist the townspeople at Magdeburg. The Swedish king liked to assemble his men into squadrons of 1,200-1,500 men, packing them six lines deep, alternating lines between pikes and muskets, backing them up with reserves. His tactics differed from other methods at the time, insofar as he prioritized mobility above all else, using only the lightest cannons, favoring the cavalry charge to break up his enemies. Meeting Tilly and Unknown-1.jpegPappenheim at Breitenfeld on September 15, 1631, Gustav set up two lines of soldiers, his Saxon ally John George preparing alongside him. Tilly commenced a slow yet steady barrage of artillery strikes in order, he hoped, to inflict heavy damage upon the Swedish. His cannons were too far to be effective. Tilly used the Spanish formation of the tercio, which consisted of 1,500 musketeers and pikemen in large blocks. The pike, despite being outdated, was extremely popular, as it allowed soldiers to attack from afar, letting them penetrate armor. Pappenheim was getting anxious, so he and his side charged without Tilly’s consent. Using armored horse riders armed with wheel lock pistols, a recent invention allowing the gun to be charged mechanically, called cuirassiers, Pappenheim forced John George, who barely put up a fight, to flee, leaving Gustav to finish the fight by himself. The Swedish army managed to repel the cuirassier charges with their cavalry and arquebuses, or matchlock muskets, which used lead bullets at the time. After taking out the Swedes’ left flank, Pappenheim charged them seven times in a row, each time being rejected by the highly disciplined forces. Gustav sent in his reserves, wounding both Pappenheim and Tilly, forcing them to surrender. Of the 35,000 Catholics that fought, 8,000 of them perished; and of the 42,000 Swedish, 4,000.


The next year, Tilly was hit by a cannonball and died. It was at this time as well that the Battle of Lützen was fought on November 16. Wallenstein was assigned the task of 300px-Battle_of_Lutzen.jpgdefeating the seemingly unstoppable Gustav, but, come winter, he decided to retreat, 6,000 cavalry on the left, 13,000 footmen on the right. Gustav took advantage of this movement and followed them with his 12,800 men and 6,200 horses. Thick fog had enveloped the area, blinding both forces; Gustav attacked anyway, diving into the battle. About halfway through, Gustav, who always enjoyed leading his cavalry without armor, charged the Imperial forces. The king was wounded during the charge and died, his fellow commander Bernard of Weimar taking over. John Forbes, a soldier who partook in the battle, wrote,

They seing us marching toward them, they advanced likewise toward us, and come so close to an another that joyning battalions together, wee came to pushe of pike and disputed the buysinesse so long, till it pleased God, that we routed them, and gave us the victorie [sic].[1]

The Swedish won the battle, despite losing their king, sustaining 5-6,000 deaths, whereas the Catholics lost 6-8,000 personnel.


Jan_van_der_Hoecke_-_The_Battle_of_Nördlingen,_1634.jpgDemoralized from the last battle, the Swedish lost again at Nördlingen in 1634. The date was September 6, and the Imperial Spanish had already set up their forces, half of them in front of the town, half of them situated on a hill. Their 20,000 men and 13,000 cavalry were to face off against the Swedes’ 16,000 men and 9,000 cavalry. The Swedish forces found themselves held up on a series of lower hills, and their plan was this: at daybreak, the forces would split up and attack through the valley and the town. Not to their aid was a wooded region through which they would have to traverse first. As they went through the woods, the army got confused, leading to friendly fire, the Swedish killing some of their own soldiers in the mix-up. Disoriented and weakened, the Swedish were like fish in a barrel, surrounded and taken out with ease by the Spanish. Friedrich Schiller said in his History of the Thirty Years’ War, “At this unfortunate moment a barrel of powder blew up, and created the greatest disorder amongst the Swedes. The imperial cavalry charged… and the flight became universal.” After the battle, 7,000 Swedes were dead, another 4,000 taken prisoner.


Once more, a reversal came on November 12, 1642 at the Second Battle of Breitenfeld. Catholics Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and Ottavio Piccolomini had 20,000 men, compared to the new Swedish commander Lennart Torstennson’s (1603-1651)  22,000 men. Similar to the first battle, the Catholics began with artillery fire, proceeding to send their cavalry. Torstensson fought off the invading forces in the left but in doing so lost the right side. He then wrapped around, using his remaining forces to strike the center, finishing off the Catholics. Outraged, Leopold court-martialed his commanding officers, decapitated those below them, and did the Roman tradition of decimation, killing every tenth soldier in line.


rocroi-a.jpgThe Battle of Rocroi occurred on May 19, 1643, between French commander Duc d’Enghien (1621-1686) and Spanish commander Francisco de Melo. De Melo attacked the left flank and succeeded, while d’Enghien did the same to de Melo’s right. The French then struck the center, but the Spanish regrouped, resisting all further attacks. Determined to break their defenses, d’Enghien charged the Spanish four times, consecutively, until he finally broke them. Now surrounded the Spanish had no choice but to surrender. As the Spaniards were letting down their weapons, though, a stray gun fired, and the French, startled, slaughtered half of the Spanish soldiers on the spot. The Spanish had 8,000 men and 19,000 horses, of which 8,000 died and 7,000 were held captive; the French had 15,000 men and 7,000 horses. Rocroi proved d’Enghien’s battle skills—it should be noted, too, that he was only 22 at the time when he won the battle. He fought after the Thirty Years’ War, participating in the war against Louis XIV but was then recruited by him.


March 5, 1645 was the Battle of Jankov, where Torstensson beat the Imperial forces in an evenly matched battle of 15,000 men.


Finally, on March 17, 1648, the Battle of Zusmarshausen was fought. Peter Melander and Raimondo Montecuccoli went up against Henri, Vicomte de Turenne, by whom they were outnumbered. While retreating, Melander was killed and Montecuccoli was arrested. Later that year, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, ending the war.

 

 


[1] Grant, Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat, p. 151

 

For further reading:
100 Battles: Decisive Conflicts That Have Shaped the World by Martin J. Dougherty (2012)
Battle: A Visual Journey Through 5,000 Years of Combat by R.G. Grant (2005)
Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders by R.G. Grant (2010)
Weapons: A Visual History of Arms and Armor by Paula Regan (2006)
War: The Definitive Visual History by Saul David (2009)