Man Knowledge: The Greek Philosophers

by A Manly Guest Contributor on February 4, 2010 · 57 comments

in Manly Knowledge, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ernesto Fernandez. Ernesto is a graduate student in the Philosophy Department of Biscayne College at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, FL.

So there you are, deadlocked in the men’s underwear section, torn between the solid and striped cotton boxer-briefs and wondering which one Chuck Norris would buy. And then you remember: Chuck Norris doesn’t wear underwear, just two pairs of pants.

Oh, how low we’ve fallen. Once upon a time, men called on their knowledge of the great, introspective minds of history to inform their decisions, not internet humor. These great men of the past made up an essential field for the man claiming any level of education or sophistication: philosophy.

In the heyday of American education, before schools became training centers for standardized tests, subjects like philosophy were indispensable parts of school curriculum. In fact, bachelor’s degrees until the 1950s meant a philosophy based curriculum, and it wasn’t until graduate school that an aspiring professional entered into his specific subject matter.

What Defines Philosophy?

The word philosophy comes from the Greek words for “love” and “wisdom” and generally refer to the pursuit of wisdom, moral discipline and knowledge through logic. Don’t be fooled, however, as philosophy is not just a place for high-minded, abstract thinking and hypothetical irrelevancy (though there’s certainly plenty of that, too).

Philosophy is the historical mother of all disciplines, the stomping grounds for exploring ideas too new for testing and observation until a whole new field breaks away dedicated to that particular subject; biology, physics, psychology, and even chemistry all originated as philosophy before becoming fields of their own. Isaac Newton and Sigmund Freud studied philosophy before moving on to their particular fields. Adam Smith and Karl Marx studied and became tenured professors of philosophy in England before pioneering the independent field of economics as we know it today.

Philosophy is the forward offensive line of human understanding; it is the highest calling of the thinking man, because his philosophy governs his every action. In short, philosophy is not just for bearded wisemen but a gentleman’s preoccupation, and I think its high time we brushed up on some of the great thinking men whose manly voices have come down to us as the baddest and burliest in history’s Great Conversation.

The Greeks

The ancient Greeks are the cornerstone of Western philosophy. If you were born in a country in Europe, a country settled by Europeans, or a country at any point ruled by a European power, the essence of Greek philosophy has found its way into your worldview in one way or the other, and that’s a fact. Capitalist or communist, liberal or conservative, Coke or Pepsi, the people who have had the greatest influence on the way we think and how we live in the Western world took their cues at some point from a Greek. Over 9 times out of 10 this Greek will be Plato or Aristotle of Athens, the city-state which was to philosophy in ancient Greece what Sparta was to kicking ass.

Plato

Plato the Greek was born in 428-429 BC, though Plato was not his real name. In fact, Plato is Greek for “broad” or “flat,” a nom de guerre he gave himself as a wrestler in the Isthmian Games due to his unusually broad shoulders. Really. This makes him first on the list of celebrities with one-word aliases, way before the likes of Prince and Sting. Alas, history had other plans for The Broad, as his failure to qualify for the Olympic Games necessitated an immediate career change.

Plato fell in with a wandering philosopher by the name of Socrates, of whom you may have heard, who encouraged his students to challenge conventional wisdom to the point that he was finally executed in 399 BC for corrupting the youth. This, Plato would say, was a major turning point in his life, and he fled Athens to avoid a similar fate by association. He wound up in Sicily, where he joined an order of Pythagoreans (something along the line of celibate math mystics), whose fixation with numbers would inspire the cosmology Plato would become famous for.

Truth with a capital T was abstract and eternal like numbers, which is to say it is immaterial and thus does not experience degeneration, and everything in the world was an expression of this abstract Truth. Plato effectively invented the word “perfection” as it is used today. A beer, for instance, was only a poor imitation of a beer; a mere knockoff of a more perfect beer that he called an ide (the Greek root of “idea”) that existed in the heavens. This is to say that these Ideas are literally up in the sky, among the stars, sun, and moon. In turn, that “more perfect” idea of a beer was a similarly cheap imitation of the even more perfect Idea of “Deliciousness.” Plato’s universe continues this way all the way up, up to the most perfect idea of “Goodness,” which was the common Idea in all things, including humans.

Plato also explains human existence in these terms, as humans are Good beings “fallen” from “the heavens” and trapped in the lowest, most imperfect level of the Universe, which is the world he and you and I and all of us live in. Plato believed that when a human being deduces or learns something they are in fact remembering something they already know by virtue of our eternal, divine nature, which is why we are attracted to certain things in this world; we recognize the Idea of “Goodness” in it from our time in the ether.

Thus, by denying our Passions with our Courage, which is governed by our Thinking (these three Plato believed to be the three levels of human nature), we could dust off all our Divine knowledge and return to the heavens upon death, avoiding another birth in the material world.

If all of this sounds strangely familiar to you, it ought to. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther are just some of the Neo-Platonists who borrowed from Plato when developing their worldview and theology. Another influential Neo-Platonist was the philosopher-psychologist Freud, who based his “Id, Ego, Superego” theory on Plato’s “Passion, Courage, Thinking” model.

What made them Neo-Platonists and not just plain old Platonists, you ask? Because they (or their teachers) all learned about Plato from Arab philosophers after the end of the Dark Ages – which, historically speaking, officially began when the early Christian Emperor Justinian closed Plato’s “Academy” in 529 A.D. Ironic, dontcha think?

Plato did have a way of overextending himself, however, which led him to apply the idea of the three separate levels of a human being to society in general. In The Republic he outlined a plan for what he believed to be a perfect society, one in which all children would be raised by the state, taught to see it as their only parent, and continuously evaluated and sorted as they grew up.

The weak and not-so-bright kids were allowed to live by their Passion. This group, which Plato called the Mob, were intended for unwitting servitude and strict control and assigned to be farmers and laborers. Distracted with jewelry and other frivolous things, they worked their lives away for the good of the whole society.

The strong and bright kids got to be warriors and live by their Courage. Without worldly possessions to distract them, these warriors would be able to focus on their duty of keeping order in society (they would be the only ones with swords or, say, MP40s). These Warrior-Guardians would be a completely male force. Plato did not have a high opinion of women.

The sharpest tools in the armory, meanwhile, would be promoted to the highest caste after demonstrating their superior intellectual ability and go on to study… you guessed it…

Philosophy! The Philosophers would live and love together, sharing all their belongings (and themselves) to keep free of corruption, and would be wise governors of a society ruled by pure thoughts.

Finally, from these specially selected philosopher-governors, a single Philosopher King would be chosen to act as the supreme authority over Plato’s fascist, homoerotic dystopia, in which the entire, perfect society was oriented to satisfy the will of the rulers in the way the entire soul should be oriented to satisfy the will of the rational mind.

This aspiration was more or less the end of Plato’s professional reputation. After failing in two separate stints as court philosopher to implement his Republic in the Kingdom of Syracuse, and ending up in prison both times, Plato retired from public life to the Academy, where he died in 347 BC.

Aristotle

When Plato died, he left his nephew Speusippus as his successor to run the Academy and secure the proper education of young minds in his philosophy. He was apparently quite right in doing so; his brightest and most famous student, Aristotle, who later became the private tutor of Alexander the Great, had no intention of continuing Plato’s legacy and ultimately undermined him with or without the Academy.

Aristotle was a scientist in the truest sense of his day and when good, scientific information was unavailable, he insisted on strict logic. Relativism, or the belief that the Truth is whatever most people believe it to be, had created a huge market for professional bullshit artists in Athens who instructed their students on how to effectively convince crowds with sneaky and faulty arguments, a practice called Sophistry (now an insult of the first degree).

So unforgiving was Aristotle’s nose for BS that he invented the first formal system of logic in the West, still in use to this day, which allows philosophical arguments to be written out as semi-mathematical formulas that can be easily examined, evaluated, then accepted or dismissed, and boy did he dismiss.

Aristotle also wrote a huge – and consequently unknown – number of books of scientific observations in biology, chemistry, and medicine in addition to his impressive amount of philosophical writing.

Aristotle’s fascination with the sciences, in contrast to Plato’s obsession with mathematics, logically produced a very different worldview, one which directly contradicted Plato’s. Aristotle rejected the Forms (the Ideas in the sky) and thereby the belief that “Perfection” exists in some heavenly realm above, separate from the material world we live in. In Aristotle’s universe, a thing was perfect when it did what that thing does naturally. Moment to moment, a thing lives out a natural life which is innately part of that thing’s DNA, so to speak. The better it lives out that nature, the more perfect it is.

Thus, a frog is not an imperfect imitation of some Superfrog in the sky; so long as it sits on its lily pad, swims in the pond, and does Budweiser commercials, it is essentially perfect.

Aristotle’s perfect man, consequently, does not deny his humanity the way Plato recommended; he perfects it.

In order for a man to perfect his humanity, he must be the best man he can be. To be his manly best, a man not only needed to cultivate proper intentions and an appropriate disposition, but put those intentions into real virtuous action. Aristotle called his hands-on form of constructive self-perfection eudaimonia, a word defined and redefined by virtually every Greek thinker, coming from the Greek words for “good” or “well” (eu) and “spirit” or “soul” (daimon).

Often translated as “happiness,” Aristotle’s eudaimonia is concerned most of all with the exercise of good actions. What makes actions good, you ask? Well, keeping in mind the relationship between Goodness and Perfection set forth by Aristotle’s teacher, Mr. Broad, it is clear that for a thing to be good it must strive “up the ladder” of perfection.

The frog on the lily pad again illustrates the point as it sits sagely, wades in the water and eats mosquitoes. What it is doing is what a frog naturally does, so it is perfect and its actions are good. It is that simple: a man who strives to achieve his potential as a man is doing good and, so long as he keeps up the fight, he is perfect.

With this understanding, we can see that eudaimonia is best understood simply as “natural potential” while eudaimon is best understood as living up to that potential. Aristotle believes that a man who is eudaimon  is virtuous. So, to Aristotle, man’s natural function is to exercise virtue. So that means that, by Aristotle’s understanding, a man who strives to live up to his potential is excelling in a man’s functions.

Aristotle believed that all knowledge was accumulated memories, collected through a long series of observations and connected by the mind into a single experience, like many pictures forming a single movie. Each picture leads into the next, following a progression we make sense of in our minds, until we reach a logical conclusion. Having seen certain actions lead to certain consequences before, an experienced man can see a particular picture and conclude what will happen next.  A man who can explain why one thing precedes the next thing and can invent an appropriate conclusion, on the other hand, is wise according to Aristotle.

For example, an apprentice who knows that stacking blocks that were given to him in a specific order will produce an arch is skilled and has experience. The master mason who knows that cutting blocks of that type stacked in that order will always produce an arch and understands how the whole device works is virtuous, because he is artistic and he possesses wisdom.

The pursuit of knowledge being a desirable and justified end in itself to Aristotle and the ancient Athenians in general, the highest calling of men was therefore to amass wisdom, becoming greater and greater artists in their own right through their ability to understand the universal application of knowledge (the “Why” and “How” of things) over the simple, practical function of actions (the inglorious “What”).

In another in-your-face contradiction of Plato, Aristotle insisted this knowledge had to be learned through firsthand experience – through observation with the senses and physical participation in the naturally perfect and good world – and not by denying the physical world. Where Plato would say that one could uncover their innate knowledge of how to play baseball by carefully reading a well-written book on the subject, Aristotle would reject the idea that anyone was born knowing how to play baseball and that there is any other way to learn other than to get out on the diamond, play the game, and create the new knowledge in your mind.

Why all this preoccupation with the kinesthetic nature of learning and knowledge? Because where Plato draws sharp lines between the physical man and the rational, spiritual man, Aristotle sees no such distinction. Ever the scientist, Aristotle saw the obvious leap of faith in Plato’s theories, in which a duality – or inherent double-nature – is accepted on Plato’s word alone. Aristotle asserts that the physical and the rational are not two parts of men but two dimensions of men. Thus, the exercise in good actions is as essential to the virtuous life as exercise in strength is to the physically healthy life.

Recommended Reading:

Great Dialogues of Plato by Plato, W. H. D. Rouse (Translator)

A valuable anthology of Plato’s works in a convenient and relatively (and I stress relatively) lighter package than more complete texts. Sorry, but I just can’t endorse any “Intro to” book over the man himself.

The Republic by Plato

A hefty guide to philosophical governance, ideological totalitarianism or drop on the head of home invaders from your second-floor balcony. Large print recommended.

Aristotle for Everybody by Mortimer J. Adler

A somewhat academic book providing as much Aristotle as the average person will need in a lifetime (and then some) in a surprisingly easy to read package by the author of the not-so-light “How to Read a Book.”

Looking at Philosophy by Donald Palmer

An extremely readable, accessible, and – dare I say – enjoyable textbook highly recommended to novice as well as intermediate students of philosophy. Great reference book with masterfully hand-drawn illustrations.

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Dovey February 4, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Wonderful article!

2 Peter Johnson February 4, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Interesting!

3 Yura February 5, 2010 at 12:01 am

Without Socrates this list seems to be incomplete.

4 Ernesto Fernandez February 5, 2010 at 12:07 am

Even with Socrates, I assure you, it would be incomplete.

5 Ernesto Fernandez February 5, 2010 at 12:08 am

And besides; everything we knew about Socrates came out of Plato’s mouth. ;-) That’s journalistic bias right there.

6 Nathanael February 5, 2010 at 1:01 am

This article provides a poor introduction to the subject, as it consists largely of caricatured views and sloppy reporting. To pick one point, Plato’s guardians were not “a completely male force.” Much of book 5 of The Republic is devoted to making entirely the opposite case. To provide one passage discussing the training and deployment of women as guardians, “Then the guardian women must strip for physical training, since they’ll wear virtue or excellence instead of clothes. They must share in war and the other guardian’s duties int he city and do nothing else.” The only concession to traditional gender roles is based on strength, “But the lighter parts must be assigned to them because of the weakness of their sex.” (457a in the Grube/Reeve translation).

The philosophical summaries are likewise poor, so much so that I wonder if the author has even read Plato and Aristotle, let alone the others he briefly mentions (Aquinas, for instance, is much more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist). Overall, this is an extremely shoddy article, even for a popularizing summary.

7 Shaun February 5, 2010 at 4:01 am

Another great article!

If anyone’s interested in learning more about philosophy, or wants to get involved in some great debates, why not check out the AoM Community’s Philisophers Group?

http://community.artofmanliness.com/group/philosphers

8 Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com February 5, 2010 at 4:15 am

Great choice of article. Greek philosophy is the root of all the western philosophy. Definitely necessary reading for every man.

9 EXPLORE ROY@LSELF February 5, 2010 at 5:55 am

Hi Ernesto,

Enjoyed.

I missed Socrates and Diogenes too.

I think, the book Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, also covers some of the great philosophers’ life and principles.

Cheers!

10 David February 5, 2010 at 7:26 am

Perhaps Nathanael would pen an article of a similar nature to better illustrate the points made in his post? This would then build on Ernesto’s piece.

11 Neal February 5, 2010 at 7:29 am

More articles like this please!

12 Jason February 5, 2010 at 7:43 am

I think Nathanael’s criticism is way over the top. So the author missed the part of women being a part of the Warrior class? but other than that it was really spot on. It was a fun read and was a good introduction to Plato and Aristotle. Oh, and I’m a philosophy major who focused on ancient philosophy.

If people want more info, they can always read the books that the author suggests at the end.

13 mike February 5, 2010 at 7:45 am

But then he’d actually be contributing instead of just criticizing other people’s work, and where’ the fun in that?

14 Leen February 5, 2010 at 7:59 am

I tend to agree that the article could have been better written, though I can’t argue with the essential message, and that is to know your philosophy. In fact, further study of philosophy would surely reveal the basis of what we call ‘manliness’. I say that there are philosophical underpinnings to ‘manliness’ mostly because of this book I read recently: http://www.amazon.com/Geography-Thought-Asians-Westerners-Differently/dp/0743216466
Its not hard to see that different cultures have different perceptions of what it means to be manly, and the book tries to explain how and why.

Oh and my own favourite Platonic resource: http://www.reasonandpersuasion.com/
(disclosure: the blog author taught me introductory philosophy in college)

15 DJ Wetzel February 5, 2010 at 8:13 am

I was a political science major back in college and our capstone class was political theory. By far the roughest class I took but also the most rewarding. It is always very revealing to study the beginnings of something to see how it has evolved over time.

Progress is a wonderful thing, but progress should always be tempered by the lessons of the past. A study of philosophy through the ages gives us great insight to the trends of manliness through the ages.

I would love to see more of these types of articles.

16 Paul February 5, 2010 at 8:19 am

Good article.

I was a Philosophy major in college. I use my philosophical training every day, whether choosing a course of action, evaluating arguments or making them myself. I found this training more useful than any other I’ve had.

As to the content of the article: since it was obviously meant to be a springboard for readers not otherwise acquainted with philosophy to develop an interest in that study, limiting the discussion to the high points of Plato’s and Aristotle’s divergent views was appropriate. A lengthy exegesis of Plato’s entire works or a broad discussion of other philosophers would have been overwhelming in this context.

17 Bruce Williamson February 5, 2010 at 8:24 am

Good article but no Socrates!? He’s almost as influential as the others. He even has a method of teaching named after him (which anyone studying law at any level is well aware of).

Maybe this should be a series.

18 Wayne Key February 5, 2010 at 9:20 am

As someone who was fascinated by philosophy from my early teens and who spent most of my twenties reading it seriously and finally decided to do a degree in it, I would like to say that “cut to the crucial essentials” this is a fine article. What most academic philosophers can’t find a way to do is exactly that “cut to the essentials.” It is that essence that matters most, the attendant details are just that details.

Thumbs up to the Art of Manliness for an excellent article. And for taking the chance of boring some to educate others in some of those crucial essentials.

For those interested in next steps, I would recommend my favorite of Aristitoe’s works: The Nicomachean Ethics.

19 Erasmus February 5, 2010 at 9:22 am

Although I can see the vaildity in some of Nathanael’s objections, come on dude, take a pill. This is a fast and dirty review of some of the most complex thinkers of our time. I will, however, support two of your objections.

First, there is no way you can call Aquinas a Neo-Platonist! He’s the mideval embodiment of Ariostotle. In fact in his Summa Theologiae, in which he gives many of the thinkers that he references nick names, he simply refers to Aristotle as THE Philosopher. He basically took everything that Aristotle said as a given and went from there.

Second, I think the characterization of Plato’s Republic is a little harsh. This isn’t uncommon. It just comes from forgetting that the whole Republic is meant to serve as a metaphor for the human soul. Now, that picture of the soul may be unpleasant to your sensibilities, but I don’t think Socrates ever meant to establish a philosophical fascist regime.

And lastly, everyone needs to stop talking about Socrates like he’s distinct from Plato. Seriously show me a work by Socrates that hasn’t come from Plato. Yeah…

20 Jason February 5, 2010 at 9:37 am

Erasmus-

I disagree with your assessment of Plato’s Republic. If you read his “Laws” he lays out what his ideal government and state would look like and it’s pretty much the same one he describes in the Republic. And in his Laws, there’s no mention of his perfect state being some sort of metaphor for the human soul, like he did in the Republic which leads me to conclude that Plato really wanted to establish a philosophical utopia.

And fascist is a pretty good way to describe it. Some of the laws are just crazy-

Men must marry between the age of 30-35 and have kids. If they don’t have kids, they have to pay a yearly fine. You can’t marry who you want, but what the state determines would be good for the state. I could go on. But the man really wanted to control almost every aspect of human life in order to create this philosophical utopia. If you haven’t read Plato’s laws, check them. It’s a lot of fun to read.

21 JeffC February 5, 2010 at 10:01 am

Decent enough introduction to the thought of Plato and Aristotle, but I found it to contain many errors. A few are below:

First, do not equate Aristotle’s logical thought with the semi-matheical logic that is known as symbolic logic. Syllogistic logic is different because a syllogism can take the form of a paragraph, or even several paragraphs. Symbolic logic uses abstract symbols to represent propositions and conclusions so that an entire argument can be viewed quickly.

Second, to whom are Aristotle’s works unknown? Those living today? Those living 200 years ago? If they are unknown today it is because contemporary science has disproved much of his science (e.g. his theory of celestial spheres set forth in book VIII of the Physics).

Third, St. Thomas a Neo-Platonist???? On what planet? Clearly you know nothing of the thought of the Angelic Doctor who, as another comment noted above, referred to Aristotle as The Philosopher.

Finally, please re-read the De Anima and note that Aristotle was a dualist as well. The human (rational) soul is separable from matter and immaterial and it is through the powers of the rational soul that we are able to possess knowledge of universals that we derive from our knowledge of particular things.

If I had time, I’m sure I could find more errors to point out. Just in case you were wondering, I have an M.A. in Philosophy specializing in Medieval Philosophy and more particularly the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. I have taught undergraduate ethics before as well.

22 Deron (DrD) February 5, 2010 at 10:10 am

Agreat and timely post, and a well-written article. As a professor in Philosophy, it stresses a point that needs to be made, and champions the pursuit of Philosophy to be a ‘manly’ pursuit. Two points for reference: the Neo-Platonists came out of Plotinus (a later Platonist who attempted to revamp Plato for his Roman time); the other point is that Thomas Aquinas, and later theologians from him, are heavily influenced by Aristotle and the Renaissance thinkers guided by a re-reading of Plato. A great article for an introduction, though, and one that I might even have to share in class to inform my students already caught up with Philosophy about the even further greatness of the Love of Wisdom and the pursuit of the excellent life.

23 Daniel H. February 5, 2010 at 10:33 am

@ Erasmus:

Although there are no works by Socrates himself, Plato’s work is not the only perspective afforded of the historical figure and his thought. Socrates is satirized by the playwright Aristophanes in “The Clouds” and Xenophon (a follower of Socrates, much like Plato) wrote a number of works (some of which take the form of “Socratic dialogues”) purporting to report the historical Socrates’ thought, including an alternative version of the events described in Plato’s “Apology”. Finally, I think that Aristotle makes some remarks about the content of the historical Socrates’ thought. These are some examples of sources other than Plato. But I think the spirit of your point is absolutely right: it’s difficult to say what exactly Socrates himself thought or was like, given that all we have are the portraits painted of him by other writers (each of whom surely had an agenda of his own).

24 Jason February 5, 2010 at 10:55 am

Its interesting to hear about Plato’s Forms being interested in his love of maths. I loved my first year philosophy class so much that I decided to take some other philosophy classes despite being a biology major. The next philosophy class I took, philosophy of religion, started with Plato’s Forms and then went on to Heidegger, at which point I quickly dropped the course. I was ill equipped at the time to argue with said ideas, and since my background was in science, I had an overwhelming feeling that these ideas can’t be right. I’ve kept an interest in philosophy since, but my second encounter almost turned me of the subject forever. I can understand why a philosophy major would need to know the progression of ideas over time, but for us non-majors it would be nice if there were classes that focused less on history and more on what most current philosophers think about the world.

25 Corey Comstock February 5, 2010 at 11:05 am

I agree with Nathaneal – a sloppy and unkind oversimplification of these two masters. It does have the merit of bringing the subject to light, however amateurishly.

I am troubled by Mr. Fernandez’s uncertain knowledge of the subject – I would guess that he has learned of these men mainly from interpretive textbooks rather than from reading the books themselves. His modernistic interpretations of the Republic, for example, suggest this. I am also troubled by his lack of grammatical rigor – “who’s” instead of “whose” being the most obvious error.

My main criticism, though, is that the essential manliness of Greek philosophy is only touched upon. Here, those who note the absence of Socrates are spot-on.

While we only know of Socrates from Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, & Aristophanes, what we do know paints the very picture of manliness and virtue – a man who went unshod in winter, who did what he thought correct, despite the consequences to himself, fought in wars to protect his city, worked tirelessly and selflessly to right the wrongs he saw in his city, and gave his life trying to save that city from her own short-sighted and self-serving errors. When he was threatened with death for telling the truth, he not only refused to apologize or cease his teachings, but afterward refused to escape from that sentence because it would violate his principles. He died as an example of true civic duty, following the laws even when he knew the judgment was in error, motivated by his shaming of the judges and founded on false witness.

Socrates is the highest example of the practical and manly philosophy of the Greeks. Mr. Fernandez is correct in describing Greek philosophy as a corner-stone of Western culture. The other side of the coin is that most (at least) of the ills of the modern West are the results of modern philosophy, particularly the German philosophers. Kant, Hegel, & Nietzsche: these are men who made popular the ideas that philosophy was a rarefied, purely theoretical subject for Ivory Tower, and that nothing could be truly known, while Marx’s foolish ideas, when put into practice, have the effect of destroying countries and peoples – our current economic troubles here in America are rooted in Marx’s absurd theories. Whereas the Greeks looked at philosophy as the search for wisdom that would guide their everyday lives and improve virtue, the Germans looked at philosophy as a mental game without answers, inviting relativism. While the Greek philosophy gave the practical rules that allowed for the rise of Western culture, the Germans have brought about its decline. Greek philosophy has dirt under its nails, from working hard and going to war when necessary; German philosophy is pale and sickly from being indoors all its life, and cannot motivate a man to do a single day’s honest work. It is no overstatement that all of the decay of manliness and gentlemanliness, as well as the unbalanced, intemperate clamor of all those who serve only pride and selfishness under the guise of justice, are the result of the rejection of practical Classical philosophy and the embrace of immoral, impractical German philosophy. Aristotle lauded Virtue, and Plato enumerated the Cardinal Virtues; Nietzsche Campaigned against Morality, and worked to move philosophy “Beyond Good and Evil.” Which is more appropriate to manliness?

p.s. Max – that sounds great. I attended St. John’s in Annapolis where I attended Adler’s Great Books Program, and while I am the least perfect example of a Johnny, I will second the importance of Adler’s attempt to revive real learning in the West.

26 Ernesto Fernandez February 5, 2010 at 11:28 am

Greetings folks! Glad this article got everyone talking.

Going back to my texts, I have checked, confirmed, and accept two criticisms:

1. Yup, women Guardians! I forgot that. It’s been so long, I probably crossed wires at some point, but of course I must concede the point.
2. St. Thomas Aquinas was definitely an Aristotelian. Again, wires crossed. I was thinking Church leaders, and Aquinas must have snuck in. Just replace Aquinus with Calvin. All better!
3. Any issues in grammar or formatting are due to an unmentionable but very good reason. Just accept our apologies on that.

Other than that, however, I proudly stand by this article. Is it over simplified? Of course! A little exaggerated? Why not!

This isn’t a textbook, ladies and gentlemen; it’s a webzine. My goals was to leave our as-of-yet uninformed readership with a general understanding of the philosopher’s cosmology in a vivid, amusing and tangible narrative. Certainly the article is a bit opinionated and I knew when I submitted it that it would disturb some people, particularly Platonists. I meant to do it.

While concentration is primarily in Southeast Asian Buddhism and not Western Philosophy, I am satisfied I explored these thinkers in a sufficient (however necessarily superficial) way, they’re not my favorite.

Whatever the case, I am very glad to know that this article has people thinking and re-engaging with the ancient Greeks, even if it is to refute me! Mission Accomplished.

27 Ben R February 5, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Fun article to read. Was never really into the ancients though. Personally I am a big fan of Richard Rorty, George Herbert Mead, and Dewey.

28 Gregory February 5, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I’ve been waiting for an article like this for a while and am glad to see it.

By default, men naturally think rationally while women discern thinks emotionally. It is a beautiful contrast that Pope John Paul II, another great philosopher, speaks of in his great work, the “Theology of the Body,” which I highly recommend to men. It is especially important for men to have a solid grounding in philosophy.

I would like to clarify a point in this article: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were not necessarily both neo-Platonists. St. Augustine perfected Plato’s work, while St. Thomas Aquinas perfected Aristotle’s. In his greatest work, “Summa Theologica,” St. Thomas often refers to Aristotle as “the Philosopher.”

29 Colton February 5, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Any brief explanation of philosophers must be incomplete and fall into generalizations, but the notion that the Sophists were merely able to “convince crowds with sneaky and faulty arguments” is wholly false and unfairly obscures their contribution to Western thought. If one were to read only the works of Plato and Aristotle, then yes, the Sophists will appear as little more than devious wordsmiths (the Socratics were particularly vitriolic in their denunciations), but I highly recommend that serious readers look more closely at the extant works of Gorgias, Protagoras, and others. There’s more to the “counterpart of cookery” than meets the eye.

30 Nathanael February 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm

First, I’m hardly a Platonist, but I find this sort of third-hand rehashing of Karl Popper’s “Plato was a proto-fascist” critiques thin gruel. Besides, many modern Platonists would simply dodge the question by following Bloom’s interpretation (i.e. Plato wasn’t serious about implementing the ideal regime outlined in the Republic).
Second, instead of the usual focus on the Republic, I’d suggest the Gorgias and the Laws (and contra a comment above, the Laws are not just a rehashing of the Republic), as well as the dialogues centered around the trial and death of Socrates.
Third, for secondary literature, I’d recommend the Hallowell and Porter textbook on political philosophy, or Eric Voegelin’s Plato and Aristotle for those interested in a challenge. I recall Ernest Barker being fairly sound on the subject as well.
Fourth, Mr. Fernandez, I’d feel very uncomfortable writing an introduction to Buddhism, with which I have only a nodding scholarly acquaintance, and I wonder that you didn’t feel such discomfort writing an introduction to the early Western philosophers.
Finally, in response to a couple of comments: I’d be happy to write articles explaining key figures in Western philosophy if AoM commissioned them. However, failing that, I am not going to spend many hours of my time producing comments that will be skipped over as giant walls of text. That would be a complete waste of time.

31 CoffeeZombie February 5, 2010 at 3:00 pm

I fail to see how Blessed Augustine could have learned about Plato form Arabs “after the end of the [so-called] Dark Ages,” which is here dated to begin in the 6th Century, when Augustine himself lived in the 4th-5th Centuries.

32 genevieve February 5, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Thanks for the article. Yes all of us are influenced consciously or unconsciously by philosophy. Better to be able to recognize it: thoughts (philosophies of life) have consequences. St. Thomas Aquinas was definitely an Aristotelian, thanks for clearing that up.

33 Brucifer February 5, 2010 at 3:26 pm

The opening point in the article that I particularly liked was that many bachelors degrees and even master’s degrees today are little more than glorified trade school – vocational school programs. Thus, we have far too many people these days who might be subject matter experts, but philosophical dunces. This situation bodes ill for western civilization.

34 Ben T February 5, 2010 at 3:44 pm

As a fairly well read, non-philosopher I’ll add a little fuel to this heated discussion. Let’s get beyond the errors, which the author admits of and remember why you clicked on the article to read it in the first place. Philosophy is denegrated in the wider public sphere, or even worse, is usually not considered at all. But as all the readers here know, thinking is sexy; thinking is manly. In many articles I’ve read on AoM, men are entreated to be purposeful in their lives. How the heck can you do that without really thinking about the “deep” things in life? A man considering the nature of the world and of his place in it has a leg up on being able to lead the life to which he aspires.

35 warriorpoet912 February 5, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I have to wholeheartedly agree with Ben T in regards to the idea of thinking about thinking on a larger scale. When I hear someone like Nathanael constantly point out flaws and how “if I were writing this…”, I am reminded of Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure when Keanu mentions “So-krates.” Most adults can’t even pronounce the names let alone discuss their ideas, so the mere dialogue this has been generated is a great jumping off point for those of us just trying to make sense of this crazy existence.

36 Nathanael February 5, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Oh come off it, mate. A shabby and inaccurate piece is hardly redeemed because it generates “dialogue”. If that were the case AoM might as well dispense with actual articles and just have a discussion topic of the day. Good articles provide a sound and informative foundation for discussion and intelligent disagreement. Bad articles hamstring discussion by forcing it toward damage control (i.e. Aquinas was not a neo-Platonist, nor should Plato be reduced to Ideas and proto-fascism).

37 warriorpoet912 February 5, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Alright Nathanel, it appears you have enough time to respond to all those who mention your name, so I guess it means you have enough time to write your own article here on AOM to enlighten us all. If you took what you’ve said so far in all your previous comments, but it all together, you’d be done. Thrown in a biblio and there you go, MATE.

38 Greg February 5, 2010 at 6:01 pm

A quibble with the blogger’s description of an undergraduate collegiate education. The undergraduate curriculum prior to 1950 (approximately) was not solely philosophy, witness the 19th century degrees in the hard sciences, engineering, medicine and physics. Perhaps he has confused the 18th century term “natural philosopher” , ie., observational and experimental scientist, with ”philosopher”, i.e., one working with logic and reason in the theoretical realm.

39 Nathanael February 5, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Heh, warriorpoet912, I wondered how long it would take until someone would turn this into a personal pissing match. I dunno why you’re so keen to defend the author, but that’s your problem. Anyway, there’s little point in my writing an article, since it would only be a long comment (easily 4 or 5 times all my previous comments combined) read by very few. Nor is there much reason for further comment. Some of the problems with the original piece have been pointed out, suggestions for further reading have been made, and I doubt it’s worth my while to try to convince you that asking only that an article prompt “discussion” is a poor standard.

40 Josh English February 5, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Great article. Another good practical introduction to philosophy is Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? This was the text in my Intro to Philosophy class twenty years ago, and I still re-read it every year or two just think about things.

If a link is allowed: http://www.librarything.com/work/46629/book/2243552

41 Ernesto Fernandez February 5, 2010 at 7:25 pm

To CoffeeZombie: Augustine was North African, not European, and traveled Asia Minor where Plato and Aristotle were still very current. He didn’t have to wait until the end of the “Dark Ages”.

42 Derek February 5, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Ahh, great to finally see some good, old-fashioned philosophy on this site. I must say I’ve been waiting for it for some time.

43 Wes February 6, 2010 at 12:39 am

I would have to say that I agree with Nathanael on this one.

The importance of this topic deserves an essay of higher quality. I’d be interested to see Nathanael’s improvements written in length.

On another note, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Piersig* (spelling?) is a fantastic way to begin an endeavor into philosophy.

44 kafkaBro February 6, 2010 at 2:23 am

@JeffC

What about Aristotle’s lost book on comedy? [via Name of the Rose]

@

Even though the St. Thomas Aquinas reference was baffling and it was my understanding that Aristotle’s notion of substance wasn’t too different from Plato’s concept of form, I was really glad to hear someone trying to generate interest in Philosophy and I thought the paper read well. By the way, my understanding of Aristotle comes from Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy.”

If anyone is looking for an interesting primer in Philosophy, I would definitely recommend Bertrand Russell’s book. He covers most of the names someone with a passing interest in Philosophy will encounter (from before the turn of the 20th century). Russell is an analytic philosopher who played a large part in forming the foundation of modern mathematics. He played a large part in creating the scaffolding that all mathematics rests on: set theory and number theory. He also seems to love drama and the absurd. Read this book and you’ll see Schoepenhouer throwing people down stairwells, Pythagoras claiming to be a deity, an edgy defensive Nietzsche arguing with the Buddha, Kant being the man,
and some serious shit talking about Aristotle. He also refuses to call Alexander “the Great” which I find admirable.

45 Ettore Grillo February 6, 2010 at 5:59 am

What is philosophy? The word tells its meaning by itself. Philos means friend, sophy means wisdom. So whoever try to understand the meaning of the things, of the life, of the universe is a philosopher. Philosophy means thinking for understanding the ultimate nature of the phenomena. To try to understand the difference from how the things appear to us and how they really are, their true nature.
The book I have recently written deepens many religious and philosophical issues. I want to draw it to your attention, as you may be interested in it. The title is “Travels of the Mind” and it is available at http://www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/TravelsOfTheMind.html
If you have any questions, I am most willing to offer my views on this topic.
Ettore Grillo

46 Yash February 6, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Socrates was technically executed for “corrupting the youth” but he was more of a scapegoat and an example than the root of the problem. In fact, Socrates was of the old school of thought. Many scholars believe his trial and subsequent execution for corrupting the youth originates to one of Aristophanes’ plays, called “Clouds” where he portrays Socrates as a teacher of the modern philosophical school, or a Sophist.

47 Brian February 6, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Great article! I randomly just read “Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics” by Henry Veatch over the last two days. I was very impressed. I can’t wait to start reading the originals. Thanks Ernesto for a great article to inspire interest, even if it wasn’t perfect. And to the critics, as Theodore Roosevelt would say:

TR’s speech, “The Man in the Arena.”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

48 Mark February 7, 2010 at 12:52 am

The thing about the ancient greeks is they were not cheifly theorists.
They put their philosophy’s to the test, not like modern philosophers like Immanuel Kant who sat in his house whining all day and never travelled outside of his backwater village.
They were also not nerds locked up in ivory towers, Plato was a champion of pankration, a “sport” (more like death match) that makes modern M.M.A bouts look like girl scouts having a pillow fight, and Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great, so he must have had some brass balls himself.
A good article.
Could have been written better, but all you whiners should realise this site is not your oxford philosophy club, it is a site cheifly written for laymen, and this is a good introduction to the topic.
The recommended reading is great also.

49 Tyler Logan February 8, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Nice and interesting post. Philosophy has always interested me – nice read.

50 CoffeeZombie February 8, 2010 at 4:42 pm

@Earnesto Right, and he would have learned about Plato from the Christians there, not from the Arabs (at least, not Muslim Arabs, as Islam didn’t even exist at that time), as the sentence I was complaining about implies.

51 Jeem February 9, 2010 at 9:32 am

I am not sure of the author intended a “dig” at the Christians by deeming it “ironic” that a Christian emperor who closed Plato’s academy, but it is certain that most readers may not realize that Christianity, esp. the Scholastic period, is the continuation of the ancient philosophy. perfecting them in the process. There is a great compatibility between faith and reason, which the Christian philosophers understood. (Ref. “Fides et Ratio,” by Pope John Paul II). Today, our culture rejects the Christian foundations in philosophy and broadly label all Christians as ignorant fundamentalists. Any serious study of philosophy or history would not be content to call the period of time from the fall of Rome to Modernity as “dark.”

52 CoffeeZombie February 10, 2010 at 10:54 am

@Jeem
On the one hand, I’m not sure how else to read the “ironic” statement as anything other than a “dig” at Christianity. If nothing else, the term “Dark Ages” is, itself, a dig at Christianity. It has been since at least the Enlightenment. Enlightenment scholars saw Europe as having emerged from the Dark Ages (an Age of Faith) to a brighter age (the Age of Reason). It is for this very reason that scholarship and academia have largely, to my understanding, ceased to use the term “Dark Ages.” The term is, itself, a judgment pronounced on a certain period of history, and an inaccurate one at that (many advancements across the board were made in Europe during the Medieval Era).

Not to mention, as evidenced by the art from the period, the people of the Medieval Era apparently saw themselves as living in a very bright and colorful time.

On the other hand, if I’m interpreting the statement correctly (it’s ironic that that the Dark Ages began when a Christian Emperor closed Plato’s Academy), it’s a rather ignorant statement, and I’d rather not assume that of the author. The beginning of any historical period, but particularly the Dark Ages, is not some objective demarcation. Historical periods are usually determined after the fact, by people looking back afterward.

In other words, Emperor Justinian’s closing the Academy did not immediately plunge Europe into a time of ignorance and darkness. If, in fact, the Dark Ages officially began there, it is only because a scholar at some point in time decided they began there. Given the prejudices of the Enlightenment scholars, for example, it really makes sense that they would see the closing of the Academy as a symbolic event displaying the end of one Age of Reason, and the descent of Europe into superstition.

By the way, while much classical knowledge may well have been lost in Western Europe, this would be more due to the invasions and destruction of the various barbarian groups that invaded and sacked the cities. However, classical knowledge was not all lost, thanks to the monasteries in which it was largely preserved.

In addition, while the Western Roman Empire fell, the Eastern Roman Empire (aka, the Byzantine Empire) continued on for centuries as a Christian empire. Not only did it continue, but it thrived in wealth, knowledge, etc. Where did the Muslim Arabs get the classical knowledge (and many of the advancements built on it) for the Europeans to later bring back (having witnessed it during the Crusades, another oft-misrepresented part of history)? From the Christians who they had conquered!

53 Joel February 10, 2010 at 11:42 am

I’ve always been curious about philosophy, and this article strengthened my resolve. I think it’s high time I hit the ol’ bookcase and dug out “The Republic”.

Thanks!

54 Tristan February 15, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I maintain, and have for some time, that everyone should have to take an introduction to philosophy class, if only because it makes arguing with people easier. It’s so difficult to convince a person of anything when their mind is filled with this “all truth is relative” nonsense. Philosophy departments have been moving away from post-modernism (and positivism before it) since I was born, but the lag between philosophy chairs and the philosophy people pick up from Oprah or on the radio is really frustrating.

55 Barber February 18, 2010 at 7:31 pm

St Thomas Aquinas is usually regarded as a neo-Aristotelian.
St Augustine is usually regarded as a neo-Platonist. As far as their metaphysics and epistemology goes.

56 Tommy from Chicago June 23, 2010 at 2:27 am

Besides the St Thomas Aquinas error which many people have already pointed out, I thought this was an excellent article! I find myself revisiting it quite often. As a political analyst in the Air Force, I am frequently called upon to comment on the differences between Liberals and Conservatives or Collectivists vs Individualists as it applies to various world leaders. My job would be so much easier if Philosophy was still commonly taught in public schools, (by reputable teachers), because I could just refer to Plato and Aristotle. To really get to the heart of the matter you must first understand thier very different ideologies and I frequently talk about many of the same points like in the article above. To understand the difference between Plato and Aristotle is to understand the root of political ideology today.

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