Western civilization had begun toying with something entirely new when Thales and those who followed him began the reasoned investigation of nature. But these efforts were not systematic enough or sustained enough to distinguish Western civilization’s inchoate version of science from other civilizations’ similar efforts. More importantly, science itself is not the essential or distinctive feature of Western civilization, because its development was an effect of a more fundamental cause. To tell the story of that cause’s emergence requires this installment to detour into the political and cultural history of one particular city in Greece: Athens.
In the Greek-speaking world of Classical civilization, the prominent form of political organization was the polis. In English, polis is translated as “city-state,” and is the antecedent of our words “politics” and “police.” A city-state is an independent country that consists of a single city and the surrounding area. Athens was the foremost city-state of the time (rivaled principally by another city-state, Sparta), and it commanded great wealth and military power, eventually developing into an empire. (This last development, through confrontation with Sparta, would lead to its downfall.)
Athens began experimenting with democracy in earnest after a particularly unpopular ruler, Draco (from whose name we get the adjective “draconian”) left upper-class Athenians wanting more control over their own fates within the polis. There were fits and starts, but by the beginning of the 5th Century, democracy had solidified its grip on Athens, and Greece began the era of furious cultural productivity that is now sometimes referred to as its Golden Age. Socrates, Plato, Diogenes of Sinope, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Euclid, Pericles, and Alexander the Great were all figures of this era.
Although early Greek philosophy, following Thales, had tended to focus on the natural world, the great wealth and power of Athens perhaps made its upper-class inhabitants less concerned about mastering nature; they had all the goods they needed, and plenty of leisure time in which to enjoy them. Greek philosophy took a turn, in the democratic 5th Century, away from Thales’ interests, what would later be called “natural philosophy” or “science,” toward ethics and political philosophy. Put differently, Greek philosophy took a turn away from nature and a turn toward people, toward human values and human modes of social life. The man who initiated this turn, his hand unwittingly on the helm of world history, was Socrates.
In a dictatorship, there is no point in debating justice. Justice is whatever draconian nonsense Stalin says it is. In a democracy, though, competing notions of justice jostle for position. Athenian democracy was not like contemporary American governance. There was no separation of powers among different branches of government. The Athenian assembly was judge, jury, and executioner. It made laws, judged cases, and enforced judgments. There were no limits whatsoever on the kinds of laws that could be made, judgments handed down, or actions executed. Your neighbor could take you before the assembly and “sue” you for having a funny face, and demand that all of your property be handed over to him in recompense. He could have you tortured to death in the town square because you ate too many lamb kabobs at his last barbecue. All he would have to do was convince enough of the assembly to see things his way. Socrates lived in this climate, and it would, eventually kill him.
Socrates would eventually be executed at the assembly’s order, but long before he would be found guilty on charges of “impiety,” “corrupting the youth,” and “making the worse argument appear better,” other aristocratic Athenians realized that the whims of the assembly were a threat, not primarily to their lives, but to their livelihoods. If the assembly were to decide a case the wrong way, a fortune could be lost in a day. So when traveling teachers of rhetoric began offering instruction to aristocratic Athenians, it caused something of a craze. These teachers, called “sophists” offered instruction in the art of persuasion, for a fee. (“Sophist” comes from “sophia,” the Greek word for “wisdom”; it is the antecedent of “sophisticated,” and half antecedent of “sophomore.”) Aristocratic Greeks considered it a sort of public duty to share any wisdom you happened to posses, so this practice of charging fees for teaching was considered a bit unsavory, possibly blasphemous, even criminal. Perhaps because trying to convince an assembly of random Athenians to punish a sophist for sophistry would have been a little like challenging ’87-vintage Mike Tyson to an underground boxing match, the general grumbling against sophists went nowhere. They taught their techniques, collected their fees, rubbed elbows with aristocrats, offended Greek sensibilities, and got away with it.
As Plato tells the story (and we have to rely largely on Plato — who was a student and ardent admirer of Socrates — because Socrates left no writing of his own), many Athenians seemed to have thought Socrates was, himself, a sophist. As Plato portrays it, though, Socrates was their opposite. First, he never charged fees for teaching. Second, he claimed to be totally incapable of teaching anything. Indeed, Socrates claimed that he could teach nothing, because he knew nothing.
The story is told in Plato’s dialogue, Apology, which recounts (although none can say how accurately) what happened when Socrates went before the assembly to defend himself (“apology,” in this context, means “defense”) from the aforementioned charges. Socrates claims before the assembly that a friend of his, Chaerephon, asked the mystic oracle at Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The answer was “No.” When Chaerephon recounted this to Socrates, Socrates was gobsmacked. On the one hand, as a pious Greek, he could not doubt the oracle. On the other hand, Socrates believed he knew nothing. He decided to puzzle out what the oracle could have meant. His method? Socrates went around asking questions of people who had a reputation for wisdom. Every single time, it would turn out that they weren’t particularly wise after all. For example, a reciter of poetry (“rhapsode”) might be “wise” in performing Homer’s epics, and though he thought his wisdom in this area meant he was wise in other areas too, his blustering answers to Socrates’s questions would invariably prove otherwise. Socrates eventually concluded that the gods had called him wisest of all because he, at least, understood that he knew nothing, whereas everyone else knew nothing, but failed to understand this basic truth about themselves.
Apparently Athens’ elite didn’t take kindly to Socrates’ probing questions. Although the details of Socrates’ trial and execution might not have been just as they are portrayed in Plato’s dialogues, certainly Socrates was hauled before the assembly, certainly he was found guilty of offending the leading citizens’ sensibilities, and certainly he died as a result. Unfortunately for the reputations of all the Athenians involved in this trial and execution, Plato, who witnessed this miscarriage of justice, and seems to have all-but worshiped his mentor, turned out to be both one of the greatest writers and one of the greatest philosophers of all time.
Having the full attention of Plato’s world-class mind did wonders for the longevity of Greek philosophy. While a mere pamphlet’s-worth of writing survives from the nature-focused school of Thales and the other per-Socratic philosophers, a dictionary-thick stack of Plato’s dialogues survives to this day. What made his writing last, I think, was not just that it was extraordinarily well crafted, but that it dealt with subjects that are of great interest to people who have power and position, and want to retain or enhance them. For Plato realized — if democracy meant that matters of justice, of wealth and power, and of life and death, could be decided by persuasive speeches, if, in other words, the power of the polis could be governed by wise words (either sophistry or philosophy or a mixture of both) — why couldn’t the basic nature of the polis be governed this way? If the assembly could be convinced to disband itself, to take a very simple example, democracy could destroy democracy. If you were an Athenian aristocrat, bitter over your relative loss of position in the newly democratic polis, you might find Plato’s arguments so interesting that you would have a scribe make a copy of them, and a courier hand-deliver them to your friend in another city, where perhaps the rabble were making noises in favor of a democratic revolution. Perhaps copies of copies of copies, all this copying paid for by the aristocrats who could afford it, spread this way, letting Plato’s writing survive the centuries. But however it happened, and for whatever reasons, Plato’s dialogues did endure, and not as mere curiosities. The ideas he puts forth in his dialogues are the dominant ideas in Western civilization even today, although they are not the most distinctively Western ideas. In fact, many of Plato’s ideas are distinctively anti-Western:
- The world we encounter through our senses is a low-quality shadow of a high-quality world that exists beyond our senses.
- Ideas, which come from the higher world, are more real than things, which are mere shadows.
- The soul is something like an idea.
- All souls existed in the higher world of ideas before coming to the lower world of the senses.
- When we die, our souls return to the higher world.
- Souls are immortal.
- When immortal souls return to the higher world, they reconnect with the benevolent ruling power of the universe: the Good Itself.
- There is a natural hierarchy of men. Each person is suited to fill a particular role in society, from governors to warriors; from craftsmen to slaves.
- The most productive and just society will have a place for everyone, and everyone will be in their place.
- Those who have the highest understanding should rule over those with lesser understanding.
- Philosophers are those with the highest understanding, because they can, by developing their superior nature, come to understand the One True Good that transcends all apparent good things.
- Therefore, philosophers should rule the polis.
- Common men, since they cannot “see” the transcendent ideas upon which philosophers base their just rulership of the polis, can never understand the true reasons for the ruling order of the polis.
- Therefore, for their own good, and for the good of the polis, the common men should be told lies.
- Because these lies serve the One True Good, they are Noble Lies. The rulers of the city should not feel bad about telling them.
If you have any familiarity with Christian theology at all, the fact that Plato lived hundreds of years before Christ should, if this is your first exposure to his ideas, raise an eyebrow. It is not without reason that academics are fond of calling Christianity, “Platonism for the people.”
If the development of Classical philosophy had ended with Plato, Western civilization as we know it today would likely never have come into being. But Golden-Age Athens would become the stomping ground for at least one more world-shaking genius: Plato’s student, friend, and rival — a foreigner named Aristotle.
[Edit 9/15/16: Added a comma.]
Picture a practical joke, played by an older brother on his younger brother. The little brother is having cereal for breakfast. He pours out a serving from the cereal box, which is nearly full, and so has some small heft. The big brother distracts him, “Look behind you!” As the little brother looks away, the big brother swaps boxes. The replacement is nearly empty, but looks the same. A bit later, the little brother goes to refill his bowl, but he jerks the lighter box up way too quickly, then over-corrects, sending bits of cereal flying up, then falling down in a shower into his hair, over the kitchen table, and onto the floor. Big brother has a good laugh.
The little brother’s senses might seem, at first, to have told him that the cereal box was both heavy and light at the same time and in the same way. But then he checks his premises. Things in the world don’t normally behave like this.
Of the two values most distinctive and essential to Western civilization, individual rights and reason, reason is the more fundamental. What is reason? I know of no better definition than that offered by the philosopher Ayn Rand: “Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.” Reason operates by a particular method: logic. “Logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.” What does this mean in practice?
To use reason is to investigate or examine the world by means of the senses and then to check the various (provisional) conclusions one comes to about the world against each other. If there is a conflict discovered among these provisional conclusions, then logic is applied to sort it out. Contradictions do not exist in reality; a thing cannot be both heavy and light, for example, at the same time and in the same way.
A reasonable little brother might realize this. If the cereal box that had been nearly full was suddenly nearly empty, perhaps it wasn’t the same box after all? Or perhaps someone had emptied it? And since the little brother knows he had neither emptied nor switched it himself … it would suggest that big brother should get a bowl of milk and cereal bits dumped in his lap, right away, if not sooner.
Man is the “rational animal.” Human beings reason; this has been true since man has existed, and has been true in every culture and in every civilization. If we did not try to make an ordered, logical sense out of our sensory experience of the world, but instead treated every phenomenon as entirely unique, entirely unrelated to every other phenomenon, we would not have lasted as a species. It would have been impossible even to feed ourselves, since we would have had no means for concluding, for example, that because the first rock we bit wasn’t food, the next one wouldn’t somehow turn out to be.
While people in civilizations other than Classical civilization (which is Western civilization’s antecedent in this context), used reason to develop sophisticated life-improving technologies and enduring socio-political structures, only in Western civilization would reason itself become a core value, and only in Western civilization would systematic reasoning about the natural world become a prominent area of inquiry. The historical record is sparse, but this process seems to have started with a man called Thales, who lived in the 6th Century BCE, in what is now Turkey.
Thales seems to have been concerned with finding what Aristotle would later call the archē, or ruling principle, behind matter. He wanted to understand what made all of the physical stuff in the world — rocks, trees, animals, men, etc. — exist as it existed, and change as it changed. Note that it is precisely this line of inquiry that recently led to the discovery of the Higgs boson. In other words, modern science derives directly from the attempts to answer the questions that Thales and others in Classical civilization started asking. Thales is often recognized (more because it is convenient to pin the movement to a name we know, and less because we actually know that Thales started the movement) as the founder of Western philosophy.
Fashions come and go, and probably the fashion for this style of philosophy around the islands and coasts of 5th-Century Mediterranean would have died out eventually, or it would have been absorbed into other cultural traditions, such as local religions or schools of engineering and other practical arts, if the Greek-speaking people of that area had not become enormously wealthy (by the standards of the time), and if they had not developed a new social technology: democracy. With enormous wealth came both the desire, on the part of the rich, to keep as much of it as possible, and the leisure time to come up with novel strategies for doing so. With democracy came arguments, lots of arguments, and often these arguments were about wealth, who should have it, and what to do with it. When wealth, leisure, democracy, and the fashion for philosophy came together in Classical-age Athens, the most prominent city-state in the Greek-speaking world, a cultural crucible began to heat. Its molten mixture, when it was poured out, would be forged into weapons and tools unlike anything the world had ever seen. Many centuries later, with these weapons and tools, the West would conquer the world.
I have said that Western civilization faces a crucial choice: elect Donald Trump and struggle a little longer for life, or elect Hillary Clinton and resign itself to suicide. But what is Western civilization? What does it matter if it lives or dies?
Western civilization is the civilization “west of Greece,” the civilization that emerged from the ashes of the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome. It might also be called “European civilization” (although I will not be calling it this, for reasons that will become clear). Beginning more than 1500 years ago, as the Roman variant of Classical civilization declined and fell, a number of elements mixed: the cultures of the invading groups (Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, etc.); the emerging religion of Christianity, which bore with it cultural elements from Judaism; and the remnants of Classical culture and civilization. Of crucial importance to our concerns here, the remnants of Classical civilization connected the emerging Western civilization with the culture of Homer, Euclid, and Aristotle. This connected Western civilization to a tradition of reason (especially Greek philosophy), which would develop in tandem with the Judaeo-Christian tradition of faith. Because both Christianity and Greek philosophy have shaped the history of Western civilization at every turn, and because these two cultural forces have had a complicated and contentious relationship, the history of Western civilization has sometimes been understood as the story of the conflict and cooperation between Athens (Greek philosophy) and Jerusalem (Christianity). In sum: Western civilization is the civilization that developed in Europe after the fall of the Roman empire, mixing Classical reason and Judaeo-Christian faith, and developing from these twin foundations.
(Western civilization has been uniquely successful, and is now the dominant civilization on the planet. The United States of America, it must be noted here, is an outpost and an outgrowth of this civilization. Among other things, this means that if Western civilization were to fall, it would entail the end of the United States, either through its dissolution as sovereign state, or by being absorbed into another civilization, or both.)
Having a definition of Western civilization does not yet tell us whether it should continue to exist, or why it matters. To do that, we must consider civilizations in general, and we must have some standard for evaluating them. How, in general, would someone determine whether any civilization deserves to exist?
A popular answer these days might be that all civilizations deserve to exist. If people believed this, generally, you would see organized attempts to preserve any civilizations that were in decline, much like environmentalists engage in activism to protect endangered species. And, in fact, we do see some evidence of this kind of civilization-preserving activity, although, partly because civilizations are very big, and (usually) take a long, long time to die out, what we mostly see is activism directed at preserving smaller cultural groups. We see activists and linguists trying to preserve dying languages, for example. We see activists and anthropologists trying to preserve indigenous ways of life as they come into contact with Western civilization. But, although there is certainly value and beauty and irreplaceable uniqueness among the people of every civilization that exists, or that has ever existed, the popular answer is wrong. Not every civilization deserves to exist. For example, Soviet civilization has died, and we should all be glad that it is dead, and hope that it stays that way.
If the popular answer, that all civilizations deserve to exist, is wrong, we are still left with our previous question: How, in general, would someone determine whether any particular civilization deserves to exist? First, one would need to determine what any given civilization is, i.e., what is essential to that civilization or what is distinctive about it. Second, one would need to determine what values that civilization would nurture and what values it would weed out. Third, finally, and most importantly, one would need to have some way of evaluating these values: would it be good or bad that a civilization advances its particular values and holds back or destroys other values?
In my view, if it were well understood among Americans what Western civilization actually is, Hillary Clinton would have no chance of being elected. Therefore, I will focus in the next installment on identifying the essence of Western civilization and on identifying the values which would be preserved along with it; I will not attempt, at this time, to fully demonstrate why these particular values are worth preserving and advancing.
So what is distinctive about Western civilization? What makes it different than all other civilizations? In brief preview, the values distinctive to Western civilization, are, in order of ascending importance: individual rights and reason. These are the values a second Clinton presidency will work to torture to death. In the next installment, I will begin to explain why these values should be recognized as distinctive to Western civilization.
Western civilization is not prepared to face the choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But it is the nature of the most important tests that they do not come at the time of our choosing, but in their own time. Ready or not, willing or not, able or not, the test has begun. The West must not fail. Hillary Clinton must not take office as president.
The stakes are these: if Donald Trump wins, the West earns what looks likely to be its last reprieve. If Hillary Clinton wins, the West will return to business-as-usual. At present, business-as-usual means: suicide. If Hillary Clinton takes office, she will bring the West its draft of hemlock, and, like Socrates, even though it could easily refuse, it will drink. Socrates drank because he thought (or said) that life was a disease, and that service to the state was the most noble end. But life is not a disease. And there are better ends than service to a mob.
It has been wisely said that, “[t]he weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” The long-range consequences of human action (unless, say, they involve climate change) are, as a rule, not considered in contemporary politics. In fact, such considerations are implicitly forbidden. (Forbidden how, and by whom? — you should ask.) To even suggest that there could be a connection between something as mundane as a presidential election and something as grand as the fate of a civilization is considered bizarre, outré, even gauche. Since there is no way for me to escape these prejudices born of ignorance, I shall seek, in what follows, to overwhelm them with a mass of evidence.
As the evidence mounts, I will pursue two aims. First, to convince you to see Hillary as I do: as a Trojan horse stuffed, not with Greeks, but with Unitarians; a rough beast slouching toward Washington, a Fabian chimera of nurse Ratched and Lisa Simpson, an apocalypse in a pantsuit. Second, to convince you that the evaluative tools that mass education and mass media have provided are no tools at all, that it is impossible to make a responsible and informed decision about Hillary’s candidacy if one is armed merely with (synecdochically) a college degree and a copy of The New York Times.
As we proceed, please keep the following in mind:
- That Hillary is apocalyptically bad does not mean that Trump is good.
- Nothing I write here is to be taken as an endorsement of ordinary participation in the political process. I hold voting in contempt, because ballots are, ordinarily now, assault weapons wielded in gang savagery. But I do not hold self-defense in contempt, and voting against Hillary can be just that.
Gee, Google’s n-gram database is interesting.
My copy of The DIM Hypothesis arrived today!
On a whim, I started watching the live stream of the Republican National Convention just moments ago. I was well rewarded:
“And we have the ingénue-ity [sic] to develop alternative sources of energy too.” — Condoleezza Rice.
John Dewey gets name-dropped in a wandering bit of “sustainability” pabulum. What if a bunch of kids learn to do some things by themselves, but never for themselves?
A few years ago, I was contemplating Endarkenment and what might be done about it when I experienced a little epiphany. I saw the root cause of the Endarkenment for the first time, and it was immediately obvious the general method by which it might be torn up and burned out. I thought, no one is going to believe this.
(For reasons I’m not going to go into here, I haven’t spent much time working on detailing or communicating my method for rekindling Enlightenment culture. So far, the most I’ve said (publicly, anyhow) was to suggest that the rekindling will begin with higher men withdrawing their sanction from the status quo.)
As I have thought about how to begin to communicate my method, I have found myself revisiting old questions: What is a philosopher? Why are there so few philosophers? Why are the kinds of ideas philosophers trade in so difficult to communicate?
This revisiting has been due to the nature of my rhetorical challenge: I want to communicate directly to other philosophers, but philosophers are not, I think, used to being addressed directly. Philosophers are not, I think, generally aware that they constitute a class.
“Evil People Have Plans!” – MoC #18 (by comedian Lee Camp)
There’s lots to quibble with in this video. Still, he’s right.