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What Have the Greeks Ever Done for Us?

by Rick Lewis

“Criticism, the Greekest of Greekness… When criticism was overlooked we had the dark ages. A bit of bile on the Ionian Coast and we’re on our way to the stars.” Tibor Fischer, The Thought Gang

Two and a half thousand years ago, the shores of the Aegean were home to dozens of Greek city states, statelets, and colonies, trading, squabbling, fiercely competing, making and breaking alliances. The intellectual competition was just as fierce. In places like the port of Miletus on the Ionian Coast, some of the first philosophers were speculating about what the universe was made of, or about the nature of change, constantly disputing, always trying to pick holes in one anothers’ theories and develop better ones. In Athens, starting just a little later, were philosophers making the most sophisticated arguments about ethics and justice and piety, and what we owe to the gods and to each other. A.N. Whitehead once wrote that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

People are often drawn into philosophy by the fascinating and vital questions with which it deals. How should we live? What can we know? They are sometimes impatient when they hear of modern philosophers spending all their time on the texts of Plato and Aristotle. “Come on,” they say, “why not write something new about these important questions? Surely philosophy must have progressed at least a little in all the centuries since? Leave Plato and Epicurus to the classics scholars in their dusty libraries.” Yet philosophers carry on finding the writings of the Greeks to be (as Whitehead, again, put it) “an inexhaustible mine of suggestions.” So, in this issue our theme section looks at whether ancient Greek philosophy really can help us in modern times.

Appropriately, several articles in this issue are in dialogue format. Plato wrote exclusively dialogues in which his old teacher Socrates was the main character. To give a clearer idea of how this worked, Michael Baumann’s ‘The Pandemos’ imagines Socrates debating with a Covid sceptic. Writing realistic-sounding dialogues is tricky, but Baumann captures the atmosphere and style of Plato’s very well. He conveys a good sense of how Plato’s dialogues are structured, and of how Socrates’ method of philosophical inquiry, known as elenchus or co-operative debate, proceeded. If the dialogue irritates you, if you spring up saying “No Socrates, that’s not fair, that’s not quite what the other guy meant!”, then that’s good, for it means that you are getting something like the full Socrates experience. After all, he was a thinker so annoying that a jury of his fellow citizens, self-declared democrats, sentenced him to drink hemlock for nothing worse than asking a few questions.

In truth it is hard to avoid the Greeks. They were the first to think of many of philosophy’s best moves and pithiest concepts. So why shouldn’t we try out their tools on the problems we face today? But Prof Sansom warns in his article that we have to be careful to understand the social and historical contexts of ancient thinkers and their works and to apply their opinions to today’s problems only with the utmost caution. Our world is very different from theirs. For example, they had slavery, and a tightly hierarchical society that excluded women. Their thoughts and dreams were haunted by an astonishing array of gods and superstitions. The cool of classical marble statues and their association with the Renaissance reinforces the impression of all ancient Greeks as paragons of cool reasonableness. But in their own time those statues and buildings were painted in all sorts of garish hues, and the reasonable arguments of the philosophers no doubt were coloured with the emotions and passions of the reasoners – passions now inaccessible to us. This doesn’t mean we can’t use them as inspiration, but should perhaps hesitate before invoking them as authorities to back up our own theories.

The ancient Greeks knew little science, because they had only just invented it. The last of the articles in our special section is about Eratosthenes and his ingenious and accurate measurement of the Earth’s circumference. You might complain that this is an example of science or mathematics, not philosophy, but the modern division between science and philosophy is only a few centuries old. In Ancient Greece and for long after, it was all seen as the same activity: the use of reason to understand the cosmos. Even the word ‘scientist’ was only invented in 1834. Anyway, to put it in modern terms, the Greeks were the progenitors not only of philosophy today but also of today’s science too. That, for both better and worse, is part of what the Greeks have done for us. All the blessings and dangers of modern science flow from that time. How should we feel about that? The Greeks and their myths again help us to process the world. Pandora opened her famous box and out of it flew every kind of misery, but the last thing left in the box was hope.

The philosophical legacy of the Greeks in terms of theories was rich and gives us many ideas we can apply today. Perhaps, though, as the novelist Tibor Fischer implies in the quotation at the top of this page, their most valuable legacy is not any particular theory but a general attitude of scepticism, a willingness to dispute any intellectual authority, to criticize any theory, to try to pull it down, look for its weaknesses, to poke holes in it, to develop a better theory.

(Many thanks to Anthony Arthurton for helping us put together the Greek Philosophy section of this issue.)

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