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 convinceÂ 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”Â 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 ofÂ 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 governorsÂ to warriors; from craftsmenÂ 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 highestÂ understanding should rule over those with lesser understanding.
- Philosophers are those with the highestÂ understanding, because they can, by developing their superiorÂ nature, come to understand the One True Good that transcendsÂ 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 reasonÂ that academics are fond of calling Christianity, “Platonism for the people.”
If the development of ClassicalÂ philosophy had ended with Plato, Western civilization as we know it today would likely never have come into being. But Golden-Age Athens would becomeÂ the stomping ground for at least one moreÂ world-shaking genius: Plato’s student, friend, and rival — a foreigner named Aristotle.
[Edit 9/15/16: Added a comma.]