Saturday, April 2, 2011

Plato’s Protagoras, the Abilities of Man, and Virtue

The Greeks of antiquity were remarkable not only for being the first great thinkers, but also for the depth of their thinking. In the cruel world of antiquity where living itself was a struggle, they contemplated the unity of man and his relationship with others of his species. This manner of deep thinking is vividly demonstrated in Plato's dialogs, specifically in The Protagoras.

Plato, in the Protagoras, uses the famous sophist of that name to explain how man was given the skills he needed to survive in the world. One of them, virtue, must be taught because it does not come easily to human beings.

Socrates asserts that virtue cannot be taught and Protagoras, disagreeing, responds in the following way:

“Once upon a time there were gods only, and no mortal creatures. But when the time came that these also should be created, the gods fashioned them out of earth and fire and various mixtures of both elements in the interior of the earth; and when they were about to bring them into the light of day, they ordered Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them, and to distribute to them severally their proper qualities. Epimetheus said to Prometheus: "Let me distribute, and you inspect." This was agreed, and Epimetheus made the distribution. There were some to whom he gave strength without swiftness, while he equipped the weaker with swiftness; some he armed, and others he left unarmed; and devised for the latter some other means of preservation, making some large, and having their size as a protection, and others small, whose nature was to fly in the air or burrow in the ground; this was to be their way of escape…

Thus did Epimetheus, who, not being very wise, forgot that he had distributed among the brute animals all the qualities which he had to give-and when he came to man, who was still unprovided, he was terribly perplexed. Now while he was in this perplexity, Prometheus came to inspect the distribution, and he found that the other animals were suitably furnished, but that man alone was naked and shoeless, and had neither bed nor arms of defense.

The appointed hour was approaching when man in his turn was to go forth into the light of day; and Prometheus, not knowing how he could devise his salvation, stole the mechanical arts of Hephaestus and Athena, and fire with them and gave them to man. Thus man had the wisdom necessary to the support of life, but political wisdom he had not…

Now man, having a share of the divine attributes, was at first the only one of the animals who had any gods, because he alone was of their kindred; and he would raise altars and images of them. He was not long in inventing articulate speech and names; and he also constructed houses and clothes and shoes and beds, and drew sustenance from the earth. Thus provided, mankind at first lived dispersed, and there were no cities. But the consequence was that they were destroyed by the wild beasts, for they were utterly weak in comparison of them, and their art was only sufficient to provide them with the means of life, and did not enable them to carry on war against the animals: food they had, but not as yet the art of government, of which the art of war is a part. After a while the desire of self-preservation gathered them into cities; but when they were gathered together, having no art of government, they evil entreated one another, and were again in process of dispersion and destruction. Zeus feared that the entire race would be exterminated, and so he sent Hermes to them, bearing reverence and justice to be the ordering principles of cities and the bonds of friendship and conciliation. Hermes asked Zeus how he should impart justice and reverence among men: Should he distribute them as the arts are distributed; that is to say, to a favored few only, one skilled individual having enough of medicine or of any other art for many unskilled ones? "Shall this be the manner in which I am to distribute justice and reverence among men, or shall I give them to all?" "To all," said Zeus; "I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts…

And this is the reason, Socrates, why the Athenians and mankind in general, when the question relates to carpentering or any other mechanical art, allow but a few to share in their deliberations; and when anyone else interferes, then, as you say, they object, if he be not of the favored few; which, as I reply, is very natural. But when they meet to deliberate about political virtue, which proceeds only by way of justice and wisdom, they are patient enough of any man who speaks of them, as is also natural, because they think that every man ought to share in this sort of virtue, and that states could not exist if this were otherwise…

And that you may not suppose yourself to be deceived in thinking that all men regard every man as having a share of justice or honesty and of every other political virtue, let me give you a further proof, which is this. In other cases, as you are aware, if a man says that he is a good flute-player, or skilful in any other art in which he has no skill, people either laugh at him or are angry with him, and his relations think that he is mad and go and admonish him; but when honesty is in question, or some other political virtue, even if they know that he is dishonest, yet, if the man comes publicly forward and tells the truth about his dishonesty, then, what in the other case was held by them to be good sense, they now deem to be madness. They say that all men ought to profess honesty whether they are honest or not, and that a man is out of his mind who says anything else. Their notion is, that a man must have some degree of honesty; and that if he has none at all he ought not to be in the world.”

A man should be removed from society if he admits he is not virtuous, because virtue is a requirement for men to live together.

Protagoras is saying that society contains some men who have no potentiality for virtue and, therefore, have no place in society. The great majority, however, have the ability to learn justice and respect for others if they are willing to be taught. We do not ridicule men who are deformed because they cannot help their condition, but men with vices are admonished when they operate contrary to civic virtue. Men are punished not because of the crime they committed but to prevent the next crime --punishment teaches virtue.

The overarching political theme of the Sophists is the unity of man through the talents given him by the gods.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Dreams of Aristotle

Aristotle wrote two short pieces on dreams and their meaning: On Dreams and On Prophesying on Dreams. In the first he presents arguments for the origin of dreams and their relationship to other aspects of human existence. In the second he analyzes whether dreams can foreshadow the future.

Aristotle approaches his subject as a scientist, looking for a practical explanation for an experience men found mysterious and frightful. Given that the only ways to acquire knowledge are through sense perception or intelligence, and that our senses are not operating during sleep, he asserts that the senses cannot contribute to dreaming. That means dreams must originate in our intellect. Of course the experiences in dreams are still based on sense perception (we see things when we dream), but that experience is disconnected from reality.

Residual perceptions are common in everyday life. If you look at the sun briefly and then look away, the image of the sun remains in your eye for a while. In the same way, Aristotle asserts that when the external object of a perception has been removed, there still remains an impression which itself is an object of perception. While we sleep, these impressions are re-created in dreams.

Sensory impressions present themselves when an individual is awake and asleep, but the senses work with the brain during the day to keep reality in perspective. At night there is no balance between impressions because the senses are not available, so dreams produce wild and obscure sensations.

Aristotle describes the dream sequence as “little eddies in a river forming and breaking into other forms by colliding with obstacles.” He believed there could be no dreaming immediately after a meal because the heat caused by digestion disturbed the flow of phantasms in the brain. Similarly, dreams that occur during a fever or intoxication reflect a disturbed state of the body in their weirdness of form and character.

In On Prophesying on Dreams, Aristotle contemplates what he calls the divination that takes place during sleep and whether it caused by dreams. Since there is no known cause of this divination it is normal to be skeptical about it. It cannot come from a god because these experiences occur in common people and god does not communicate to them. So is it merely that dreams act as causes or tokens of divination? Indeed, it may be that some of these representations are the causes of actions cognate to them. We may think and plan some activity during the day whose significance causes a vivid dream at night. In this case the activity has paved the way for the dream. But the converse is also true, because thoughts which occur first in sleep may be the starting points of something that occurs when we are awake.

Aristotle believes that most “prophetic” dreams are coincidences based on the fact that the dreamer has no real participation in the story of the dream. We often mention things during conversation that later come to pass and this same phenomena occurs in dreams. Because the engine of both wakefulness and dreams is the brain, we understand why this has to be so. Again, because god does not communicate to the common people, their visions must be a random result of their physical temperament – “excitable and garrulous”. The common people have chance experiences where visions play a part in their slumber, like the gambler who plays even and odd.

Prophetic dreams are caused by the condition of sleep; the fact that there is less to disturb the body than during the day. There is no wind at night to disturb the senses and compete with the visions of our dreams.

To Aristotle, the most skillful interpreter of dreams is the man who is able to observe resemblances in them. That is he can make sense out the forms in disturbed water; to put the pieces together which, to the common man, can only be seen when the water is calm.

The Length and Breadth of Aristotle

It doesn’t take long, once one examines the works of Aristotle, to appreciate the accomplishments of this great ancient philosopher and scientist. I call him a tertiary thinker – taking human thought to the highest levels and building a world view around its components.

Perhaps the best way to impress you is through a simple listing of his works and subject areas. I have placed relevant quotes under some of the sections and noted the quote's relationship to modern thinking where appropriate.

Logic (Organon)

Categories – enumeration of things that can be the subject or predicate of a proposition
On Interpretation – describes the relationship between language and logic
Prior Analytics – inferences and how they are used in syllogisms.
Posterior Analytics – describes deductive reasoning
Topics – treatise on the art of the dialectic
Sophistical Refutations – discussion of thirteen logical fallacies

Physics (the study of nature) – discusses the principle causes of change, movement, and motion

“Why then should it not be the same with the parts in nature, e.g. that our teeth should come up of necessity-the front teeth sharp, fitted for tearing, the molars broad and useful for grinding down the food-since they did not arise for this end, but it was merely a coincident result; and so with all other parts in which we suppose that there is purpose? Wherever then all the parts came about just what they would have been if they had come be for an end, such things survived, being organized spontaneously in a fitting way; whereas those which grew otherwise perished and continue to perish, as Empedocles says his 'man-faced ox-progeny' did.” (Darwin’s evolution and natural selection)

“Further, no one could say why a thing once set in motion should stop anywhere; for why should it stop here rather than here? So that a thing will either be at rest or must be moved ad infinitum, unless something more powerful get in its way.” (Newton’s first law of motion)

On the Heavens – behavior of heavenly bodies

“There are similar disputes about the shape of the earth. Some think it is spherical, others that it is flat and drum-shaped. For evidence they bring the fact that, as the sun rises and sets, the part concealed by the earth shows a straight and not a curved edge, whereas if the earth were spherical the line of section would have to be circular. In this they leave out of account the great distance of the sun from the earth and the great size of the circumference, which, seen from a distance on these apparently small circles appears straight.

“Also, those mathematicians who try to calculate the size of the earth's circumference arrive at the figure 400,000 stades (45,000 miles). This indicates not only that the earth's mass is spherical in shape, but also that as compared with the stars it is not of great size.”

“That the heaven as a whole neither came into being nor admits of destruction, as some assert, but is one and eternal, with no end or beginning of its total duration, containing and embracing in itself the infinity of time, we may convince ourselves not only by the arguments already set forth but also by a consideration of the views of those who differ from us in providing for its generation.”

“Secondly, like the upward movement of fire, the downward movement of earth and all heavy things makes equal angles on every side with the earth's surface: it must therefore be directed towards the centre. Whether it is really the centre of the earth and not rather that of the whole to which it moves, may be left to another inquiry, since these are coincident.” (Gravitation)

On Generation and Corruption – do things come from causes, prime material, or alteration?

On the Soul – the kinds of souls possessed by living things. This does not mean soul in the religious sense but the character of the mind (ego?).

Little Physical Treatises

On Memory and Reminiscence
On Dreams
On Prophesying by Dreams

The History of Animals – zoology and natural history

The Parts of Animals – the character of natural science and a defense of the study of animal structure.

On the Generation of Animals – Sexual reproduction in animals and plants

Metaphysics (above physics) – what can be asserted about anything that exists apart from its qualities. Causation, form and matter, and God.

“Now all causes must be eternal, but especially these; for they are the causes that operate on so much of the divine as appears to us. There must, then, be three theoretical philosophies, mathematics, physics, and what we may call theology (or metaphysics), since it is obvious that if the divine is present anywhere, it is present in things of this sort. And the highest science must deal with the highest genus. Thus, while the theoretical sciences are more to be desired than the other sciences, this is more to be desired than the other theoretical sciences.”

Ethics – moral problems as related to political circumstances
Politics – things concerning the Polis, origin and structure of the state

Rhetoric – the art of persuasion
Poetics – treatise on drama as an art form

Thursday, March 17, 2011

More Sophistry

We find the Sophists interesting and want to continue our discussion about them.

Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 B.C.) wrote many books including, The Art of Controversy, On Wrestling, On What is in Hades, and On the Misdeeds of Men.

He was a pupil of Democritus, the atomist, and his father, a wealthy Thracian, was a friend of the Persian King Xerxes. Xerxes granted the young Protagoras instruction from the King’s priestly cult, the Magoi.

The Magoi communed with the gods in secret and in public denied any belief in the Divine. Later, when Protagoras stated that he was perplexed about whether or not the gods existed, he was ostracized and his books were burned.

He said, “Concerning the gods, I am not in a position to know whether or not they exist, or they do not exist; for there are many obstacles in the way of such knowledge, notably the intrinsic obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”

Protagoras had a close personal relationship with Pericles, as demonstrated by the following story. A pentathlete, accidently struck Epitimus with a javelin and killed him. When Pericles heard about this he spent an entire day with Protagoras debating whether the javelin, the thrower, or the officials who organized the contest were to blame for the accident.

Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. That is what is perceived to be the case by one man really is the case for him. By this definition, that which is must also be not, or is at the same time both good and bad, based on the perception of the viewer.

Being, for things that are, consists of their being perceived. “It is clear to you, being present, that I am sitting. To one who is not present, however, it is not clear that I am sitting. Therefore it is unclear whether I am sitting or not sitting.”

The Sophists

Societies evolve and change over time. Whether the causes are economic, driven by war, or merely fallout of an evolving political system, the results are the same. New generations have new outlooks and seldom embrace tradition.

So it was in Athens during the middle of the Golden Age, when the Sophists began their rise to prominence. Athens, during that time, had grown more man-centered, not unlike the Renaissance two thousand years later, when traditional views were called into question. The Greeks decided they wanted to rule themselves instead of being ruled by the unseen world of myth.

Wealthy men sought better academic training for their sons and began to look about for professional educators. In the Sophists they found a way to supplement traditional elementary education with the knowledge required to become an influential citizen. “Sophist” originally meant a person who makes it his business to be wise, but later the word was used to designate a class of men who sold wisdom for pay.

The Sophists helped create new currents in intellectual thought – some of which made a permanent mark on human society. What follows is a discussion of these ideas, all of which have had an impact on human history, the concept of political systems, and the relationship of man to his world.

Idea number 1 -- Those who sought teachers for their sons wanted them to develop the skill to gain the voluntary support of other men. What a profound step this was to overcome “might makes right” with logic in a way that would put man on a path to rational behavior. We owe the stable political systems of today to this concept, and, even though men fall back to the use of force from time to time, the world as a whole has accepted the legitimacy of a government based on wisdom instead of force.

The Sophists built a system of higher education in Athens around a concept of Greek culture different from the culture of non-Greeks. There was a sense of pride on the accomplishments of Athens and the power of the new Athenian Empire. Maybe this was overdone and more hubris than pride, but it was a natural result of the position Athens held at the time.

The first well known Sophist was Gorgias (c. 473-386 B.C.) of Sicily, who brought rhetoric to Athens. He traveled throughout Greece, giving speeches for pay, taking impromptu questions from audiences, and answering them. He was particularly fond of taking an absurd position and making it seem stronger than its rational opposite. Gorgias introduced the concept of paradoxical arguments.

Idea number 2 – The Sophists disconnected rhetoric from ethics to the horror of the traditionalists who saw rhetoric only as a technique to support proof of the ideal. This “disconnection” made rhetoric the most valuable tool for debate – fortifying a position with logic instead of arguing its innate rightness or wrongness.

Protagoras (c. 490-420 B.C.), another of the great Sophists, wrote an essay on the Gods where he questioned their very existence. He labeled man as “the measure of all things”. This idea was revolutionary because the traditional view had been that the universe was an objective entity external to man. Similarly, Antiphon (dates unknown), stressed the difference between the laws of men and the laws of nature. He instructed his pupils to “develop their own nature”.

Idea number 3 – These Sophist positions made relativism fashionable. If a man could create his own nature as an individual, then that nature would be different from someone else’s nature and relative to it. Relativism is the subject of much debate today, as a part of the post-modernist milieu. Post-modernists deny universals while their opponents, including the Christian Church, argue for a unity of the spirit.

These ideas are samples of the revolutionary thinking of the Sophists. Unfortunately, their tone became darker during the Peloponnesean War as they shared the starvation and suffering of the Athenian people. Ultimately, their questioning of traditional Athenian values helped undermine the strength of the Polis and push it into decline.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Stoic Philosophy of the Greeks

Stoic philosophy, as introduced by Zeno in 300 B.C, was an important philosophical school through the time of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who died in 180 A.D. Quiet during the Middle Ages, it rose again as an intellectual force in the modern age. In spite its position as secular philosophy, Stoicism has a connection to Christian philosophy, particularly as it relates to the inner kinship man has with God and the inherent evil of mankind.

The name Stoic comes from the Greek “Stoa” which is a covered colonnade. Zeno and his friends would hold their meetings at the Stoa adjacent to the market in the center of Athens, and the name of the group became associated with it. Zeno, himself, was born in Citium, a large Hellenized city in Cyprus. Drawn to the teachings of Socrates, he traveled to Athens at age twenty two and began to study with the prominent Greek philosophers of the day. He came under the influence of the cynic Crates, Polemo head of Plato’s Academy, and Stilpo.

These men served as the wellspring for Zeno’s ethics.

The centerpiece of his ethics is moral advancement based on conformity with nature. That is health and wealth are not goods but instead natural objects of pursuit. We should seek to obtain them not because they make our lives better, but because they help us live in agreement with nature. This leads to rationality, happiness, and a good life. This Stoic belief system is eerily similar to the Christian “be sinless and be happy”, creating a link between harmony with nature and loving God.

In order to achieve harmony, man must exercise self-control by using reason to control the passions – treat good and bad as equal and react equally to both. Resist the passions because they pull the individual away from harmony.

Greek Tragedy As Intellectual Expression

We’ve been talking about the intellectual accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and unique contribution they made to the history of mankind. This creative capability existed in both the Dorian and Ionian races because we know that Sparta made a contribution to the arts before its militaristic political system cut off artistic expression. Still the majority of the output occurred in Athens where the people’s sense of freedom combined with the wonder they felt about life produced a wellspring for creativity.

Tragic drama is an interesting facet of the Greek cultural contribution because the body of work is monumental. Indeed, as scholars rate the great dramatic playwrights of all time, three out of the top four were Greeks from the golden age of Athens – Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

The drama plays began as a part of the Festival of Dionysus in the sixth century B.C. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, inspirer of madness and ecstasy, and the god of theater. He was celebrated in a rural Dionysia in late fall and a city Dionysia in March. The Greeks loved to dance and sing so a festival honoring the wine god would certainly be a wonderful pretext for merriment. The Dionysia was a merging of religion and joy like no other. The first day of the festival featured a grand parade ending at the Theater of Dionysus. Included in the procession were sacrificial animals, sons of those who died in battle, and the political leadership of Athens.

On the second day, the schedule of dramatic plays was announced and judges were selected by lot. Three playwrights put on three of their own dramatic plays along with one satyr play. The satyr play featured a mythology-based plot in a burlesque style probably designed to be a break for the audience after the intensity of the dramas.

The dramas were designed to teach the public the important virtues of life, validate the political system of Athens, and criticize its enemies. All the public was invited including the poor who were given money to buy their tickets. Many times the comment has been made that the drama plays were more democratic than the democracy of Athens because the plots included groups, like women and slaves, who had no rights in the political system.

The plays were very structured: in meter with a specific format to the dialog. Each play featured a chorus that sang or provided an external view of the action. The number of actors was limited to three and they wore masks. There was also a chorus included which took the role of an external observer of the action.

Once a dramas were concluded, the judges voted and the winners were announced. Of the three giants of Greek drama, Aeschylus wrote 70-90 plays of which seven survive. All seven won first prize at the Dionysia. Sophocles wrote 123 plays of which seven survive. He won twenty-four times and never finished lower than second. Euripides wrote 91 plays of which eighteen survive. Euripides won first prize four times.

Aeschylus was considered the father of Greek drama. As a religious man and philosopher, his plays were more rough in structure as he developed the model. Sophocles brought the form to its highest level in terms of structure and balance between the story and the moral. Euripides, impatient with what came before him and overtly emotional, brought the inner thoughts and anxieties of his characters into his plays. His works represent a drop off in the traditional form. After Euripides, drama declined and it was replaced by comedy, most notably that of Aristophanes.

The great period of Greek drama spanned the period from 472 B.C, when Aeschylus’ The Persians was performed, to 401, when Sophocles Oedipus of Colonus was performed posthumously. The form had been created, reached perfection, and died in a century. Because art reflects the mood of a culture, the end of classical drama in Greece is not surprising when one considers the impact of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Perhaps the Greeks found their dramas too depressing and needed comedies to help them deal with the occupation of the Spartans.