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 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 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.
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.
Listen to our podcast on joining the Great Conversation about the Great Books:
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.
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.