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Step Out of My Sunlight!

by Anja Steinbauer

Looking back over the huge variety of themes explored in past issues of Philosophy Now, it strikes me once again that one of the many great things about philosophy is that you can philosophise about pretty much anything. The ancient Greek philosophers, particularly the Pre-Socratics, explored to the full the many possibilities of applying philosophical thought. It is remarkable that, in doing so, they often talked about aspects of everyday experience. The distance between ‘real life’ and abstract philosophical thought, that sometimes gives philosophy the popular reputation of being eccentric and strange was beginning to show, as becomes clear in The Clouds, Aristophanes’ satirical comedy about Socrates, but it was not yet dominant. This may be partly because the early philosophers were concerned not only with high order philosophical questions but also with real-world solutions to practical problems. The story which Plato tells of Thales falling into a well because he was thinking of abstract ideas rather than paying attention to what was immediately in front of him may give the wrong impression here: The earliest philosophers for instance shared an interest in mathematics and its practical, technological use. Thales accurately predicted an eclipse of the sun; Anaximander invented useful devices, such as a kind of sundial and was probably the first to ever draw a map of the world. The attractive practicality of early Greek philosophy must not be confused with a trivialising of philosophical activity. On the contrary, philosophy and its application was of vital importance to these thinkers. The great Pierre Hadot bluntly comments: “Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast, modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.”

Another reason why it is particularly appropriate for Philosophy Now to devote an issue to the early Greeks is that in a way many of them were committed to the same project as the magazine: bringing good quality critical thought to the general public. You will remember how the self-appointed Athenian ‘gadfly’ Socrates happily talked philosophy to the man in the street, until some found their heads buzzing. You may also have heard of Diogenes, who even lived in a public space – a barrel in the market – walking around Athens in bright daylight with a lit lantern, shining it into the faces of passers-by, claiming he was looking for an honest man. (If you’d like to find out more about Diogenes go straight to Roger Caldwell’s discussion of the barrelman and his fellow Cynics.) Diogenes’ student Crates, also known as the ‘door-opener’, used to unexpectedly barge into people’s houses to tell them off for their moral shortcomings. However, though the style and methods of these three were perhaps rather unusual, they were not unusual in practicing public philosophy. The early Greek thinkers were public intellectuals rather than hermits or university professors. It is, for instance, known that some of the Pre-Socratics, who wrote in verse, most likely gave performance recitals of their works at banquets. Xenophanes even wrote an essay on how to throw a successful party!

While the public nature of their activity would have made many of these thinkers well known to their contemporaries, most of them are not very familiar even to philosophy enthusiasts today. Partly this is due to the fact that many of their writings have been lost. But there is also the dominance of the three giants of classical Greek philosophy, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. No one doubts their profound influence on Western civilisation. But what about all the others? The ‘Pre-Socratics’ – an extremely diverse bunch of thinkers not all of whom in fact predate Socrates – are shrouded in a mist of myth and indifference. The fact that each of them seemed to have had a different idea about the deep nature of reality is thought to sum them up: water for Thales, air for Anaximenes, fire for Heraclitus, the elements for Empedocles, atoms for Democritus and so on. However, there is so much more to them, despite the scarce resources: From Xenophanes biting criticism of religion to Heraclitus’ ethics (Socrates was not the first philosopher to think about ethics), these early thinkers offer challenging perspectives. Chris Christensen and Will Bouwman introduce us to some of the complexities of pre-Socratic thought.

The ideas of the Greek philosophical movements – such as the Cynics, Sceptics, Epicureans and Stoics – definitely merit closer study too. They are often more famous for the anecdotes about the extraordinary individuals representing them: Empedocles who jumped into a volcano hoping his sudden vanishing would make him appear divine; Diogenes’ encounter with Alexander the Great during which the philosopher showed himself to be decidedly unimpressed with the superstardom of the king by asking him to step aside so as not to block the sunlight; Pyrrho the Sceptic distrusting his perception of dangers such as aggressive dogs and oncoming wagons to the degree that he had to be pulled off the street by his friends so as not to be run over. To find out if Scepticism of the Pyrrho brand is nonetheless a good idea, check out Eric Scheske’s article.

Can the ‘other’ Ancient Greeks still inspire us today? Sure they can, and I’ll follow the sound instruction of the famous Pythagoras right now as I remind myself that it’s time to come to a close: “Do not say a little in many words but a great deal in a few.” Good advice for all of us.

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