Philosophical Musings on Athens

Philosophical Musings: Athens Contemplates Defeat

During the devastating war, some Athenians started asking themselves sobering questions about justice and the meaning of life. The answers they came up with led them down new pathways of thought—pathways that would permanently alter the direction of Western philosophy. Athenian politicians had promulgated the principle of moral relativism—whatever was good for them was right. At the time, some philosophers in Athens shared this belief. These Sophists (or “wise ones”) doubted the existence of universal truths and, instead, taught their followers how to influence public opinion and how to forward their own fortunes. Rather than seeking truth, the Sophists argued that “man is the measure of all things” and that people should therefore act in accordance with their own needs and desires.

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Socrates (ca. 470–399 b.c.e.), the first great philosopher of the West, developed his ideas as a reaction against the Sophists’ moral relativism. Supposedly, the Delphic oracle had reported that there was “no man wiser than Socrates.” After this revelation, the philosopher spent the rest of his life roaming the streets of Athens, questioning his fellow citizens in an effort to find someone wiser than he. Socrates His questions took the form of dialogues that forced people to examine their beliefs critically and confront the logical consequences of their ideas. Socrates came to the conclusion that, indeed, he was the wisest man because he alone understood that he knew nothing and that wisdom lies in the endless search for knowledge.

Socrates left no writings, so we know of his ideas only from the words of one of his students, Plato. According to these texts, Socrates expressed the idea that there were absolutes of truth and justice and excellence, and that a dormant knowledge of these absolutes rested within all people. In these inquiries, Socrates departed not only from the Sophists but from the early philosophers like Thales who wanted to know the nature of the world—Socrates wanted to explore the nature of right action. The method he employed was that of questioning and refuting students’ answers, and with this method—now called the Socratic method—he brought students to see the truth.

Socrates began his inquiries in the dynamic period before the Peloponnesian War, but in the times of disillusionment after the war, Athenian jurors were suspicious of anyone who seemed to oppose the democracy—even by pointing out humankind’s inadequacies. Socrates was brought to trial and accused of impiety and corruption of the young. As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, Socrates was found guilty, even though he shrewdly refuted the charges during his trial. He received the death penalty and drank a cup of the deadly poison hemlock.

Socrates’ ideas, however, did not die with him but lived on in his students. Plato, his best-known follower, wrote many dialogues in which he seems to Plato have preserved his teacher’s ideas, although historians are uncertain where Socrates’ teachings end and Plato’s begin. Plato believed that truth and justice existed only as ideal models, or forms, but that humans could apprehend those realities only to a limited degree. Real people, he argued, lived in the imperfect world of the senses, a world that revealed only shadows of reality. This was his answer to the relativist Sophists, who saw the imperfect world as the true measure of right and wrong. For Plato, the goal of philosophical inquiry was to find the abstract and perfect “right” that was so elusive in this world. He established a school in Athens called the Academy to educate young Greek men in the tenets of virtue, for he believed that only through long training in philosophy could one learn to understand the ideal forms that exist outside the human world.

Plato was disillusioned with the democracy that had killed his teacher, Socrates, and admired Sparta’s rigorous way of life. This political affinity shaped what is perhaps Plato’s best-known work, The Republic, in which he out lined the ideal form of government. Instead of encouraging democracy, he explained, states should be ruled autocratically by philosopher-kings. In this way, the world might exhibit almost perfect justice. In some respects, this work expresses an articulate disillusionment with the failure of Athenian democracy to conduct a long war with honor or to tolerate a decent man pointing out citizens’ shortcomings.

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Plato’s perfect state was never founded, but his ideas nevertheless had an enduring impact on Western civilization. Subsequent philosophers would confront his theory of ideal forms as they created other philosophic systems. His call for introspection and an awareness of self as the way to true knowledge would also have profound intellectual and religious implications.

Plato’s ideas were not accepted universally in the Greek world. The career of his student Aristotle is one example. The son of a physician, Aristotle studied at Plato’s Academy and Aristotle then spent another twenty years refining his thinking, debating his ideas, and writing. As much as Aristotle valued his teacher, he departed from Plato’s theory of “perfect forms” and declared that ideas cannot exist outside their physical manifestations. Therefore, Aristotle concluded, to study anything—from plants to poetics to politics—one had to observe and study actual entities. He approached these studies through logic, which, in his hands, became a primary tool of philosophy and science. Aristotle’s approach represented a major departure from the perspective of Plato, who argued that one should think about ideals instead of studying the imperfect nature of this world.

Aristotle also departed from his teacher on the subject of politics. As was his custom, the philosopher studied the different kinds of governments—monarchies, aristocracies, and republics—and discussed how each style could degenerate into corruption. He thought the ideal state was a small polis with a mixed constitution and a powerful middle class to prevent extremes. Aristotle recoiled from extremes in all aspects of life and argued for a balance—in his famous phrase, a “golden mean”—that would bring happiness. The philosopher extended his idea of moderation to the realm of ethics, arguing that the lack of excess would yield virtue.

Tragedy and Comedy: Innovations in Greek Theater

Athens’s disillusioning war with Sparta had prompted philosophers to explore challenging questions of justice and virtue. Athenian theater, too, underwent change during the conflict. The playwright Euripides Euripides (485–406 b.c.e.) wrote tragedies in which people grappled with anguish on a heroic scale. In these plays, he expressed an intense pessimism and the lack of a divine moral order that marked Athens after the Peloponnesian War. In Women of Troy, Euripides explored the pain of a small group of captured Trojan women. Though set in the era of the war immortalized by Homer, Women of Troy also had a strong contemporary message. When a character mused, “Strange how intolerable the indignity of slavery is to those born free,” Euripides was really asking the Athenians to reflect on their own actions. In foretelling destruction to the Greeks who abused the women of Troy, Euripides predicted the eventual downfall of Athens.

Tragedy was not the only way to challenge contemporary society; talented playwrights also used comedy. As Greeks laughed at the crudest of sexual jokes and bathroom humor, they criticized public figures and conquered their own anxieties. These plays appeal less to modern audiences than do the Greek tragedies, for in their intense fascination with human nature, Greeks embraced even our basest inclinations.

While people laughed at comic portrayals, the greatest of the comic playwrights also used humor for serious purposes. Aristophanes (455–385 b.c.e.), for example, used costumes and crude humor to deliver biting Aristophanes political satire. This esteemed Athenian playwright delivered a ruthless criticism of contemporary Athens. Like many citizens, Aristophanes longed for peace. In 411 b.c.e.—at the height of the Peloponnesian War—he wrote Lysistrata, a hilarious antiwar play in which the women of Athens force their men to make peace by refusing to have sexual intercourse with them until they comply. With Lysistrata, Aristophanes reminded people that life and sex are more important than death and war.

Cynics, Epicureans, and Stoics: Cosmopolitan Philosophy

Like their literary counterparts, Hellenistic philosophers also narrowed the focus of their inquiry. Most of them no longer tackled the lofty questions of truth and justice that had preoccupied Socrates and Plato. Instead, they considered how an individual could achieve happiness in an age in which vast, impersonal kingdoms produced pain and weariness.

The sensibilities of the Hellenistic age had been first foreshadowed by Diogenes (ca. 400–ca. 325 b.c.e.), an early proponent of the philosophic school called Cynicism. Diogenes was disgusted with the hypocrisy and materialism emerging around him in the transformed life Cynics of Athens as traditional polis life deteriorated. Diogenes and his followers believed that the only way for people to live happily in a fundamentally evil world was to involve themselves as little as possible in that world. The Cynics therefore claimed that the more people rejected the goods and connections of this world—property, marriage, religion, luxury—the more they would achieve spiritual happiness. To demonstrate his rejection of all material things, Diogenes reputedly lived in a large tub.

Although Plato had dismissed Diogenes as “Socrates gone mad,” Cynicism became popular during the Hellenistic period as people searched for meaning in their personal lives, rather than justice for their polis. Some men and women chose to live an ascetic life of the mind instead of involving themselves in the day-to-day activities of the Hellenistic cities. However, most found it difficult to reject material goods completely.

Other Hellenistic philosophies offered more practical solutions to the question of where to find personal happiness in an impersonal world. Epicurus (ca. 342–ca. 270 b.c.e.), for example, founded a school of philosophy that built on Democritus’s (460–370 b.c.e.) theory of a universe made of atoms (described in Chapter 2). Envisioning a purposeless world of randomly colliding atoms, Epicurus proclaimed that happiness came from seeking pleasure while being free from pain in both body and mind. From a practical standpoint, this search for happiness involved pursuing pleasures that did not bring pain. Activities such as overeating or overdrinking, which ended in pain, should thus be Epicurus avoided. In Epicurus’s view, the ideal life was one of moderation, which consisted of being surrounded by friends and free of the burdens of the public sphere. His circle of followers included women and slaves. The Roman Epicurean Lucretius Carus (ca. 99–ca. 55 b.c.e.) articulated Epicurus’s ideal: “This is the greatest joy of all: to stand aloof in a quiet citadel, stoutly fortified by the teaching of the wise, and to gaze down from that elevation on others wandering aimlessly in a vain search for the way of life.” Of course, this “greatest joy” required money with which to purchase the pain-free pleasures that Epicurus advocated. His was not a philosophy that everyone could afford.

While Epicurus honed his philosophy in his private garden, the public marketplace of Athens gave rise to a third great Hellenistic philosophy: Stoicism. Named after stoa, the covered walkways surrounding the marketplace, the school of Stoicism was Stoics founded by Zeno (ca. 335–ca. 261 b.c.e.). Zeno exemplified the cosmopolitan citizen of the Hellenistic world, for he was born in Cyprus of non-Greek ancestry and spent most of his life in Athens.

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At age 22, Zeno was a follower of Crates the Cynic, but later he abandoned his early connection to Cynicism, arguing that people could possess material goods as long as they were not emotionally attached to them. Indeed, the Stoic philosophers advocated indifference to external things. While this attitude paralleled Epicurus’s desire to avoid pain, Zeno and the Stoics did not frame their philosophy in terms of the materialism of an atomic universe. Instead, they argued for the existence of a Universal Reason or God that governed the universe. As they explained, seeds of the Universal Reason lay within each individual, so everyone was linked in a universal brotherhood. In quasi-religious terms, this belief validated Alexander’s supposed goal of unifying diverse peoples.

The Stoics’ belief in a Universal Reason led them to explain the apparent turbulence of the world differently than the Epicureans. Stoics did not believe in random events but instead posited a rational world with laws and structures—an idea that would have a long history in the West. While individuals could not control this universe, they could control their own responses to the apparent vagaries of the world. Followers were implored to pursue virtue in a way that kept them in harmony with rational nature, not fighting it. The ideal Stoic renounced passions (including anger) even while enduring the pain and suffering that inevitably accompany life. Through self-control, Stoics might achieve the tranquillity that Epicureans and Cynics desired.

Cynicism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism had many things in common. Arising in settings where individuals felt unable to influence their world, they all emphasized control of the self and personal tranquillity. Whereas the classical Greeks had found meaning through participation in the public life of their poleis, Hellenistic philosophers claimed that individuals could find contentment through some form of withdrawal from the turbulent life of the impersonal cosmopolitan cities. Moreover, all three philosophies appealed primarily to people with some measure of wealth. The indifferent, pain-free life of both the Epicureans and the Stoics required money, and the self-denial of the Cynics seldom appealed to really destitute people.

Sherman, Dennis. The West in the World, Vol. 1, Ed. V, McGraw-Hill, 46-47, 68-69.


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