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Archive for the tag “Socrates”

Philosophy as the Art of Dying

"Skeleton pondering", a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical "memento mori" image.

“Skeleton pondering”, a sketch from the Italian anatomist Vesalius and a typical “memento mori” image, and reminiscent of Hamlet pondering the skull of Yorick

“Who would Fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.”                                  Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

Hamlet is commonly considered the greatest achievement of that most superlative paragon of Western culture, William Shakespeare. What is greatest about the play is not its action, but its sublime lack of action. Hamlet’s dilemma is how to balance his desire for revenge with his fear of its consequences–namely, death. Hamlet’s fear of death paralyzes him and leads to much philosophizing throughout the play; indeed, perhaps it is no coincidence that Hamlet was a student of philosophy. Fear of death is an attribute common to all animals, but existential angst is a condition which seems to only affect mankind. The limits of philosophy are the limits of life itself, but at its heart it is a way to put our mortality into proper perspective and ward off the fear of death. As Montaigne said, channeling Cicero, “That to philosophize is to learn how to die.” Thus, in philosophizing we also learn how to live, and how to prepare for our own death and non-existence.

There are various ways to think about death, and one fruitful exercise is to look at what dead philosophers and writers of the past had to say about it. After all, we are alive and they are not, so are we not superior to them in one aspect? But they know something that we do not, which is the precise geography of that undiscovered country. A philosopher was “an apprentice to death” according to Montaigne, an author who is especially relevant because his Essays were begun after the death of a close friend and written as a way of meditating on death and his own life in order to find personal solace and happiness.

In the 6th century AD, the last Classical philosopher Boëthius’ Consolations of Philosophy, written from prison while awaiting execution for treason against the Gothic King of Italy Theoderic, is a dialogue between the author and the personified female form of Philosophy. One of the main arguments is the paradox that misfortune is better than good fortune because the former teaches us a lesson while the latter always deceives us about the illusory nature of all earthly happiness. This is reminiscent of the dialogue in Herodotus between Solon, one of the legendary Seven Sages of Greece, and Croesus, King of Lydia and the richest of men. Croesus beseeches Solon to tell him, from his wisdom and experience, who the happiest of men is (expecting himself to be named because of his great wealth and worldly success). Solon, instead, tells of a noble warrior who died on the battlefield; when pressed, he tells another story of two brothers who died in their sleep after carrying their mother to a temple. Croesus intervenes and asks why he has not been named, and Solon tells him that he can count no man happy until he is dead (that is, it is impossible to weigh the balance of a person’s happiness while he is still alive). Later, Croesus is defeated by the Persian King Cyrus and, just before being burned alive, cries out that Solon was right. Cyrus hears this and asks what he means, whereupon Croesus recounts the story to Cyrus and is subsequently released and made an advisor to the victorious king. The lesson, of course, is to take everything in stride–don’t be overly pleased in the good times, but don’t overly despair during the bad times. Things have a tendency to equal out over time as part of the normal vicissitudes of life. This basic lesson is similar to those taught by the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Buddhists.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death"

Hans Holbein, “The Dance of Death”

Contrary to the common use of the word today, the Stoics were not merely unemotional people, but practiced control of extreme emotions in the face of misfortune. For them, virtue was sufficient for human happiness, and freedom was to be used in the practice of constant virtue. It is interesting that the two most famous Stoic philosophers were a slave (Epictetus) and a Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius), both of whose writings show the tempering of emotions as a way to virtuous happiness despite their opposite positions in life. Like Platonism, it was a popular school in the Roman Empire that heavily influenced early Christianity, which is ironic considering that the Emperor Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD as being at odds with Christianity.

Contrary to the common idea today, the Epicureans did not merely seek pleasure as the ultimate happiness. Rather, such pleasure is achieved through modest living and the limits of one’s desires (and so the limits of one’s needs), and the search for knowledge of the world. This led eventually to a state of tranquillity and freedom from fear, which constitute the highest form of happiness. Very little of the writings of Epicurus survive, but the sublime “On the Nature of Things”, by the Roman poet Lucretius, is an encapsulation of Epicurean thought. On death, Epicurus was the author of the famous maxim, “Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us” (or more simply “when death is, I am not; when I am, death is not”).

Just as the Stoics knew that “we should not complain of life, for the door of the prison is open”, Camus claimed that suicide is the fundamental problem of philosophy. As much as they may discuss the act, philosophers do not kill themselves at a higher rate than other people (one of several notable exceptions was the cynic Diogenes, who reportedly died by holding his breath). Rather than lamenting or killing oneself, there are other recourses for finding a meaning to life. According to Schopenhauer, there are four “avenues of escape”: aesthetic contemplation; cultivation of sympathy for one’s fellow beings; music; lose the ‘will to live’. Nietzsche, also a great admirer of music, found that struggle was the key to transcendence into some type of being above that which is all too human. Marx said that “Philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” That is, to make the world better than it currently is, though your idea of better will be different from mine. Sometimes, then, the collective spirit of community and sympathy with others gives purpose in life, but for the most part this is just a remedy and not the cause. The search for meaning is always an individual one, just as one’s life and death are always one person’s alone. Wittgenstein expressed his thoughts as, “Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.” Solipsistic perhaps, but there is a lot of leeway to the injunction of “improve yourself”.

As Camus describes in The Myth of Sisyphus, sometimes it is the struggle to live that gives life its meaning, especially in opposition to some great burden. Thus, opposing death can be seen as an end in itself. I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s great film The Seventh Seal, in which a knight plays chess with Death. The film is a metaphor for coming to terms with death in general, and the great struggle is ended with a sort of satisfaction of the resignation to one’s fate despite doing one’s best. Living with a sense of humor and irony helps gives this satisfaction. One of the countless epigrams of the great skeptic philosopher George Santayana is, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” Compare a line of Milan Kundera in the novel Immortality, “You make a common error: namely, considering death a tragedy”, or the famous humor of Mark Twain in the following bon mots which strikes an almost Epicurean tone: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Such irreverence is contrasted with high-minded seriousness as written by the Italian novelist Italo Svevo, “The image of death is enough to occupy the entire intellect. The efforts needed to restrain and repel it is titanic”. (L’immagine della morte è bastevole ad occupare tutto un intelletto. Gli sforzi per trattenerla o per respingerla sono titanici.) Another modernist writer, Vladimir Nabokov had this to say, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.” I find this line by the philosophical writer Jorge Luis Borges telling: “I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to one’s own immortality is extraordinarily rare.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.” Like almost all writers, Borges’ main theme was human mortality, which drew him often to the concept of infinity (a relevant example is his short story “A Weary Man’s Utopia”).

For courage in facing death, philosophers give many examples. Most obviously, Socrates refused to fight against the injustice of his death sentence or to escape, and spent the last hours of his life in carefree conversation with his closest friends. Georg Hegel said, “Dialectics (or Philosophy) does not run from death and devastation. But it tarries with it a while, and looks it in the face.” Spinoza’s outlook is intended to liberate men from the tyranny of fear: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death; and his wisdom is a meditation not of death, but of life.” Spinoza lived up to this precept very completely, as Bertrand Russell comments in his A History of Western Philosophy. Russell himself penned these singularly eloquent lines, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I’m not young and I love life, but I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end. Nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold. Surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

Philosophy, especially as understood by the ancients after Socrates, is not merely its intellectual content and doctrines, but rather an art of living that can transform our lives and help us develop ourselves day by day. This is shown once again by Montaigne, whose friend’s death caused him to write his Essays and to seek a good and fully realized life, which led him to quit his job, travel widely, get into and then out of politics, and deal with a disease and then death with dignity.

There have been a number of recent books by both academic philosophers and popular thinkers which directly confront these issues of philosophy as a way of living and dying, including but not limited to: The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton; How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne, by Sarah Bakewell; Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, by James Miller; All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly; Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers, by Costica Bradatan; The Book of Dead Philosophers, by Simon Critchley. All of these seem like worthy and fruitful reads, but I can only personally attest to the first and the last. De Botton’s book does well by the original version by Boëthius. He uses six historical philosophers’ ideas (Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche) as ways to potentially deal with six different everyday problems everyone encounters in life at some time or other. He gives funny and easy to understand examples and generally tries to make philosophy more useful and accessible to normal readers, part of his on-going life project.

Simon Critchley’s 2008 The Book of Dead Philosophers is what he calls a “romp” through how 190 or so philosophers’ deaths related to their ideas. Nearly every entry is full of funny and irreverent quips about the protagonists’ lives and deaths, and is not a bad survey of a wide range of philosophers from around the world, men and women. Some examples of short summaries given in the intro are: “Pythagoras allowed himself to be slaughtered rather than cross a field of beans”; “Bacon died after stuffing a chicken with snow in the streets of London to assess the effects of refrigeration”; “Diderot choked to death on an apricot, presumably to show that pleasure could be had until the very last breath.” One of the book’s strengths (besides the excellent bibliography) lies in its long introductory essay thoughtfully preparing us for how to use the examples given, which is to begin to think clearly about what death is and how to face it. It does not provide any solutions, for there are none to be had, but raises some of the questions that we all must ask ourselves of our place in the world. Since to be a philosopher is to learn how to die, it is first necessary to have a proper attitude towards death. Critchley quotes Marcus Aurelius as writing “it is one of the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” “Unknowing and uncertain,” Critchley comments, “the philosopher walks.” Indeed, in this case we must all be philosophers, not crawling, and not running away, but walking upright towards our fate while looking it squarely in the eye. Only when we confront our own mortality can be be truly human, and truly free to live our lives. The Greek writer Kazantzakis chose for his epitaph these lines, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” That is the goal not only of the philosopher, but of mankind.

Defining Philosophy and its Uses

The unexamined life is not worth living for man. Thus spoke Socrates through the writings of his greatest pupil, Plato. With this remark, Socrates, who is acknowledged as the first philosopher to direct his attention primarily at ethics in human affairs, might have come as close as anyone ever has in finding the solution to the questions of what is philosophy and how is it used. To him, it is an examination of one’s life. Nevertheless, let us expand on these questions to search for its role in the modern world, in which it is sometimes believed that science and technology have rendered obsolete the “love of wisdom.”

I believe it is de rigueur, when discussing any point about philosophy, to first refer to the twin titans of ancient Greece thought for their opinions on the matter (pun intended)–even if their opinions tend to be somewhat less than credible by today’s standards.

Plato, Theaetetus:

Wonder (Greek: thaumata) is the only beginning of philosophy.” (155d)

Aristotle, Metaphysics:

It is owing to their wonder (thaumata) that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” (982b)

They unexpectedly seem to agree on something in this case. To my mind, however, the sense of wonder brought about by pondering the mysteries of nature does not necessarily lead directly to philosophy. Nor does philosophy always begin with this sense of wonder. It could come from, say, doubt, or perhaps insatiable curiosity. As for the uses of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle spend the rest of their respective careers attempting to expound on them. They rarely came to the same conclusions, and today we are unlikely to find much sense in either one, but they both are entitled to the claim of setting the boundaries of philosophy and its subfields.

Martin Heidegger, from the essay What is Philosophy? (1955):

Thaumazein (to wonder or marvel at) is the astonishment wherein philosophizing originates.

There seems to be, in this case, a curious similarity between the Athenian and the Stagirite, and the German. In his essay, Heidegger further explains that “For, to be sure, although we do remain always and everywhere in correspondence to the Being of being, … only at times does it become an unfolding attitude specifically adopted by us. Only when this happens do we really correspond to that which concerns philosophy.” (75) Even if I can try to make myself understand what Heidegger is talking about, it is hard for me to grasp anything meaningful and useful in his abstractions. A definition or description should be, at a minimum, comprehensible (which is a word seldom ascribed to Heidegger). Let’s move on.

Bertrand Russell, from ‘Introduction’ of A History of Western Philosophy (1945):

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge-so I should contend-belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and  water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? If there is a way of living that is noble, in what does it consist, and how shall we achieve it? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly? To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.

Why, then, you may ask, waste time on such insoluble problems? To this one may answer as a historian, or as an individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness.

The answer of the historian, in so far as I am capable of giving it, will appear in the course of this work. Ever since men became capable of free speculation, their actions, in innumerable important respects, have depended upon their theories as to the world and human life, as to what is good and what is evil. This is as true in the present day as at any former time. To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers. There is here a reciprocal causation: the circumstances of men’s lives do much to determine their philosophy, but, conversely, their philosophy does much to determine their circumstances. This interaction throughout the centuries will be the topic of the following pages.

There is also, however, a more personal answer. Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance, and by doing so generates a kind of impertinent insolence towards the universe. Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales. It is not good either to forget the questions that philosophy asks, or to persuade ourselves that we have found indubitable answers to them. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.

I have already written a two-part essay based around excerpts from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, and this segment is taken from the introduction in which he gives his definition and use of philosophy. It is self-explanatory, and I have nothing to add other than to say that I hope the reader is as inspired by Russell as the author of this website.

Ludwig WittgensteinPhilosophical Investigations (1953):

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” (§ 109)

The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” (§ 127)

A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.‘” (§123), therefore the aim of philosophy is “to show the fly out of the fly-bottle.” (§ 309)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I have cited Russell’s brilliant protégé because his position represents arguably the furthest possible development of thought within logical and philosophical analysis. Wittgenstein attempted to prove that all philosophical problems could be attributed simply to problems of language involving grammar and syntax, as shown in his ‘language games’. Here, logic is king and mathematical precision can be used to solve formerly insoluble problems. This conclusion is useful in some respects, but, I think, clearly lacks something substantial. Ethics and politics, for example. In his own life, Wittgenstein was a restless man of action who in a certain sense had no use for his own philosophical conclusions, rather embodying the maxim of primum vivere, deinde philosophari–“first one must live, then one may philosophize.”

Will Durant (1885-1981), from ‘Introduction’ to The Story of Philosophy (1926):

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.

The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.

Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and. when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.

Durant continues by listing the five fields of philosophical study and discourse: logic, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and metaphysics. Logic, though it has been instrumental in improving methods of thinking and research, has been relocated, since the developments of Frege, Cantor, and Russell and Whitehead, into the field of pure science and mathematics. Aesthetics is the most subjective of the five fields, and ultimately finds a better fit in the area of psychology rather than philosophy. According to Durant, ontology (the study of ‘being’) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) are subsets of metaphysics. Epistemology, which must now be considered within the province of neuroscience, was unapologetically neglected by Durant except in the chapter on Kant, and it was, he claims, “largely responsible for the decadence of philosophy” in the 19th century by the followers of Kant. I happily concur with Durant on this point. I also find it more than mere coincidence that one of the few points of convergence between the Analytic and Continental traditions is the insignificance or total irrelevance of metaphysics in modern philosophy.

There remain only two fields of interest, then, that are applicable, in theory and in practice, to the modern, non-scientific but practical-minded philosopher: ethics and politics. The former is “the study of ideal conduct”, which emphasizes especially individual behavior (How should we act?); the latter is “the study of ideal social organization”, and, thus, focuses on the role of individuals within society (What kind of government should we have? What is freedom?).

I have chosen to conclude with the wonderful prose excerpt from Durant because, in this case, on the definition of philosophy and its uses, I agree with his position that philosophy is necessary to synthesize knowledge from diverse areas into something understandable.

Here is a shorter version of the same idea from the article “What is Philosophy?”:

We shall define philosophy as “total perspective,” as mind overspreading life and forging chaos into unity… Philosophy is harmonized knowledge making a harmonious life; it is the self-discipline which leads us to security and freedom. Knowledge is power, but only wisdom is liberty.

And here is an examination of the idea of ‘wisdom’ from the article “What is Wisdom?” (1957):

The first lesson of philosophy is that philosophy is the study of any part of experience in the light of our whole experience; the second lesson is that the philosopher is a very small part in a very large whole. Just as philosopher means not a “possessor” but a “lover” of wisdom, so we can only seek wisdom devotedly, like a lover fated, as on Keats’ Grecian urn, never to possess, but only to desire. Perhaps it is more blessed to desire than to possess.

Bertrand Russell on Plato and Aristotle

Bertrand Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, 1872-1970.

Bertrand Russell must be considered, by any standards, one of the greatest intellectuals and human beings of the 20th century. Upon completing his magisterial A History of Western Philosophy, one can also understand why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, chiefly for this work– the citation states that the award was “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” These varied writings consist of more than 90 published works in philosophy, logic, mathematics, political theory, education, and social commentary over the course of 74 years, until his death at the age of 97. The details of his life are equally varied and significant, though I will only provide here a couple of my favorite anecdotes. He was the godchild of John Stuart Mill (whom I discussed here), orphaned by the age of 6, and raised by his grandfather who was the former Prime Minister (and who had visited Napoleon on Elba!). He was one of the most important founders of the Analytic school of philosophy, along with his brilliant student Ludwig Wittgenstein, and attempted to provide a mathematical and logical solution for all problems of philosophy. He was imprisoned during World War I for pacifism, which did not stop him from receiving the Order of Merit from the King 30 years later. He co-authored the Russell-Einstein manifesto of 1955 calling for nuclear disarmament, and remained an anti-war activist, especially in regards to Vietnam and the Israeli-Arab wars, until his last days. An online sample of some of his writings can be found here. Perhaps these opening lines from his autobiography, completed the year before his death, most eloquently encapsulate the man (video excerpt is here):

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair… This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

A History of Western Philosophy was written in the United States, which Russell had fled to while it was still neutral, in the last years of World War II, and it was published in 1945. Over the course of 76 chapters and 836 pages it traces the history and evolution of ideas from early Babylonians and Egyptians to the Greeks and on to the 20th century (ending with a justification for his own school of logical analysis). Divided into three large sections, the longest and most comprehensive is “Ancient Philosophy”, the shortest and most tedious is the medieval “Catholic Philosophy”, and the most interesting is, in my opinion, “Modern Philosophy”. The strengths of the work include not only its great “clarity, erudition, grace, and wit”, but also the historical context and continuity derived from a single-volume work that sheds light on the influences and origins of modern ideas, as well as the useful commentary by the author, an eminent philosopher in his own right. Its weaknesses include its cursory treatment or outright omission of certain philosophers (mostly in the section on “Modern Philosophy”–Kierkegaard is famously not mentioned, nor is Pascal; and unfortunately Husserl’s Phenomenology and Heidegger’s and Sartre’s Existentialism seem to have been too recent; curiously, Russell’s student and friend Wittgenstein is unnamed in the final chapter on the Analytics), as well as his highly partisan treatment against many philosophers (especially those in the Continental tradition from Rousseau to Kant to Nietzsche).

In this post, I intend only to highlight some examples of Russell’s witty and useful commentary on those most influential of all ancient philosophers– Plato and Aristotle. Russell provides a concise summary of the thoughts of both of these men, as well as painting a picture as to why they are so important, despite being wrong about almost everything. To begin, I will give some context from his chapter on the pre-Socratic atomists, such as Democritus (whom I wrote about here), as well as from the chapter on Protagoras, a sophist and subject of one of Plato’s dialogues.

The Atomists

Democritus– such, at least, is my opinion– is the last of the Greek philosophers to be free from a certain fault which vitiated all later ancient and medieval thought… From this point onwards, there are first certain seeds of decay, in spite of previously unmatched achievement, and then a gradual decadence. What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe. First comes scepticism, with the Sophists, leading to a study of how we know rather than to the attempt to acquire fresh knowledge. Then comes, with Socrates, the emphasis on ethics; with Plato, the rejection of the world of sense in favour of the self-created world of pure thought; with Aristotle, the belief in purpose as the fundamental concept in science. In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. A partially new outlook arose as a result of the victory of Catholic orthodoxy; but it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterize the predecessors of Socrates.

Protagoras

Plato is always concerned to advocate views that will make people what he thinks virtuous; he is hardly ever intellectually honest, because he allows himself to judge doctrines by their social consequences. Even about this he is not honest; he pretends to follow the argument and to be judging by purely theoretical standards, when in fact he is twisting the discussion so as to lead to a virtuous result. He introduced this vice into philosophy, where it has persisted ever since. It was probably largely hostility to the Sophists that gave this character to his dialogues. One of the defects of all philosophers since Plato is that their inquiries into ethics proceed on the assumption that they already know the conclusions to be reached.

The Sources of Plato’s Opinions

Plato

Plato possessed the art to dress up illiberal suggestions in such a way that they deceived future ages, which admired the Republic without ever becoming aware of what was involved in its proposals. It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.

Plato’s Utopia

When we ask: what will Plato’s Republic achieve? The answer is rather humdrum. It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish.

The Theory of Ideas

Plato is perpetually getting into trouble through not understanding relative terms. He thinks that if A is greater than B and less than C, then A is at once great and small, which seems to him a contradiction. Such troubles are among the infantile diseases of philosophy.

The belief in the good as the key to the scientific understanding of the world was useful, at a certain stage, in astronomy, but at every later stage it was harmful. The ethical and aesthetic bias of Plato, and still more of Aristotle, did much to kill Greek science.

Plato’s Theory of Immortality

The Platonic Socrates was a pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages. What are we to think of him ethically? His merits are obvious. He is indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humourous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be truth than for anything else whatever. He has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric. His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.

Plato’s Cosmogony

Plato’s cosmogony is set forth in the Timaeus, which was translated into Latin by Cicero, and was, in consequence, the only one of the dialogues that was known in the West in the Middle Ages… As philosophy, it is unimportant, but historically it was so influential that it must be considered in some detail.

It is difficult to know what to take seriously in the Timaeus, and what to regard as play of fancy.

Knowledge and Perception in Plato

All that Plato says about existence is bad grammar, or rather bad syntax. This point is important, not only in connection with Plato, but also with other matters such as the ontological argument for the existence of the Deity.

Plato, under the influence of the Pythagoreans, assimilated other knowledge too much to mathematics. He shared this mistake with many of the greatest philosophers, but it was a mistake none the less.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics

Aristotle’s metaphysics, roughly speaking, may be described as Plato diluted by common sense. He is difficult because Plato and common sense do not mix easily.

His doctrine on this point (theory of universals), as on many others, is a common-sense prejudice pedantically expressed.

Aristotle’s Ethics

Aristotle

This book (Nicomachean Ethics) appeals to the respectable middle-aged, and has been used by them, especially since the seventeenth century, to repress the ardours and enthusiasms of the young. But to a man with any depth of feeling it cannot but be repulsive.

There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what may be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally… More generally, there is an emotional poverty in the Ethics, which is not found in the earlier philosophers. There is something unduly smug and comfortable about Aristotle’s speculations on human affairs; everything that makes men feel a passionate interest in each other seems to be forgotten. Even his account of friendship is tepid… For these reasons, in my judgment, his Ethics, in spite of its fame, is lacking in intrinsic importance.

Aristotle’s Politics

Plato’s communism annoys Aristotle. It would lead, he says, to anger against lazy people, and to the sort of quarrels that are common between fellow-travellers. It is better if each minds his own business. Property should be private, but people should be so trained in benevolence as to allow the use of it to be largely common… Finally we are told that, if Plato’s plans were good, someone would have thought of them sooner. I do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle’s arguments against him.

Aristotle concludes that there is no wickedness too great for a tyrant. There is, however, he says, another method of preserving a tyranny, namely by moderation and by seeming religious. There is no decision as to which method is likely to prove the more successful.

Aristotle’s fundamental assumptions, in his Politics, are very different from those of any modern writer. The aim of the State, in his view, is to produce cultured gentlemen– men who combine the aristocratic mentality with love of learning and the arts… Various forces have put an end to this state of affairs (government by cultured gentlemen). First, democracy, as embodied by the French Revolution and its aftermath. The cultured gentlemen, as after the age of Pericles, had to defend their privileges against the populace, and in the process ceased to be either gentlemen or cultured. A second cause was the rise of industrialism, with a scientific technique very different from traditional culture. A third cause was popular education, which conferred the power to read and write, but did not confer culture; this enabled a new type of demagogue to practice a new type of propaganda, as seen in the dictatorships. Both for good and evil, therefore, the day of the cultured gentleman is past.

Aristotle’s Logic

I conclude that the Aristotelian doctrines with which we have been concerned in this chapter are wholly false, with the exception of the formal theory of the syllogism, which is unimportant. Any person in the present day who wishes to learn logic will be wasting his time if he reads Aristotle or any of his disciples. None the less, Aristotle’s logical writings show great ability, and would have been useful to mankind if they had appeared at a time when intellectual originality was still active. Unfortunately, they appeared at the very end of the creative period of Greek thought, and therefore came to be accepted as authoritative.

Aristotle’s Physics

Words such as “quintessence” and “sublunary” are derived from the theories expressed in these books (Physics and On the Heavens). The historian of philosophy, accordingly, must study them, in spite of the fact that hardly a sentence in either can be accepted in the light of modern science.

Finally: The view that the heavenly bodies are eternal and incorruptible has had to be abandoned. The sun and stars have long lives, but do not live for ever. They are born from a nebula, and in the end they either explode or die of cold. Nothing in the visible world is exempt from change and decay; the Aristotelian belief to the contrary, though accepted by medieval Christians, is a product of the pagan worship of sun and moon and planets.

Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Plato is holding the Timaeus and Aristotle the Nichomachean Ethics.

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