June 26, 2019

1. Jaeger on Ancient Greece:
Pre-Socratic Philosophy

Jaeger says that the Pre-Socratic philosophers were solitary thinkers whose impact on their society was modest. “The poet was still the undisputed leader of his people; and he was being joined by the law-giver and statesman.”1 The Pre-Socratic philosophers (Thales, Pythagoras, Anaximander, etc.) pondered the nature of the universe, but said little about the nature of man or the problem of education.

On the other hand, the sophists focused on education, and said little about the nature of the universe. The sophists emerged after Thales and the other pre-Socratics; the sophists emerged around the time of Socrates. The sophists had an impact on society, they “were really cultural innovators.... Their general contributions to philosophical theory were trifling.”

Aristotle had little use for the sophists because he viewed philosophy as “a science concerned with the investigation of reality.”2 On the other hand, Socrates and Plato were interested in the “educational problem,” so they took the sophists more seriously. (My own philosophy is equally interested in “the investigation of reality” and education. My theory of history deals with reality not education, while my Realms of Gold deals with education not reality.)

One might suppose that philosophical thinking begins with a rejection of myth. But Jaeger argues that philosophy and myth are interwoven; “the history of Greek thought is an organic unity.” For example, Thales said that “water is the basic principle of the universe,” and Homer had said much the same thing. Hesiod’s Theogony deals with the Greek gods, but it’s also “a rational system, deliberately built up by logical inquiry into the origin and nature of the world.” The philosopher Empedocles said that Love and Hate were the chief forces in the universe; this idea is related, Jaeger says, to Hesiod’s idea of a “cosmogonic Eros.” “Even in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle we can find genuine mythologizing: for instance, the Platonic myth of the soul, or Aristotle’s description of the love which all things have for the unmoved Mover of the universe.”3 So Greek philosophy doesn’t reject myth, it’s interwoven with it.

The first Greek conception of the universe was religious/mythical, then philosophy gradually rationalized this mythical worldview. Greek philosophy began with a rational account of the universe, the cosmos, and gradually made its way toward man. The Pre-Socratics focused on the cosmos, while Socrates and Plato focus on man. Plato’s soul-myth was a revival of the mythical worldview, a rebellion against rationalization, and it paved the way for Christianity; “the Christian religion came to possess and use the newly re-made world of myth.”

Some may find it odd that Greek philosophers pondered the stars and planets before pondering man. Perhaps we have an analogy in modern times: Newton and Kepler preceded Freud and Jung. In the history of modern science, psychology is a latecomer.

The Greeks did not think of human nature as a theoretical problem until, by studying the external world, especially through medicine and mathematics, they had established an exact technique on which to begin a study of the inner nature of man.4

Over the entrance to his Academy, Plato inscribed, “Let no one enter here who hasn’t studied geometry.”

The Pre-Socratics were renowned for their devotion to knowledge. It was said that Thales fell into a well while observing the stars. “Pythagoras, asked why he lives, replies, ‘To look at heaven and nature.’” When Anaxagoras is accused of neglecting his family and his country, he points to the sky and says, “There is my country.” The Greeks thought that the philosopher was too ambitious, that his hubris had carried him beyond the human sphere, and that he was prone to melancholy.

One of the key concepts in Pre-Socratic philosophy was cause, aitia. Anaximander argued that cause is akin to retribution, cause is a kind of justice. When one part of nature gets too big, it is cut down to size, like a thief who is forced to give up what he has stolen. Solon believed (as we saw above) that “Sooner or later punishment comes, and man’s hubris must pay the penalty for overstepping the bounds set by justice.” Anaximander’s view of nature resembles Solon’s view of society: greed/pleonexia/aggrandizement is eventually struck down, and the balance is restored. Thus, human justice became a symbol of the “justice” of nature; human law and natural law are similar.5

Anaximander argued that the universe has a geometrical structure.6 His emphasis on geometry/number probably influenced Pythagoras, who may have been his student. Pythagoras discovered a link, an equation, between the length of a lyre-string and the tone it produced. He decided that numbers/equations could be discovered everywhere in nature. “Pythagoras universalized his newly discovered laws, and declared that the whole cosmos and human life itself was ruled by number.”

We think of numbers as mere quantities, but the Greeks viewed them differently. “The Greek conception of number originally contained a qualitative element... the process by which numbers were reduced to pure quantities was slow and gradual.” Today we laugh at numerology, but Jaeger points out that “the age which discovered that number is the ruling principle of several important aspects of existence had made a great forward step in the search for the meaning of the universe.” Pythagoras and his cohorts “had come appreciably nearer to showing that all nature is ruled by an inner law.”

Pythagoras connected music with math. Jaeger speaks of “the importance of music in early Greek culture,” and he says that “the connection between music and mathematics which Pythagoras established was thenceforward a constant possession of the Greek spirit.”

I’ve often argued that the Greeks discovered reason/logic, and over-emphasized its importance. The same is true of Pythagoras’ discovery — it was an important step forward, but it was over-emphasized. Jaeger: “The discovery [made by Pythagoras] — like all great advances in systematic knowledge — was given exaggerated importance at the time [and] was misused in practice.”

We saw above that Anaximander viewed the universe as a courtroom, and he viewed cause as retribution; when one part of nature gets too big, it is cut down to size. The principle of the universe, according to Anaximander, is justice. The Pythagoreans believed that the principle of the universe is harmony — “beautiful concord between different sounds, and harmonious mathematical structure on rigid geometrical rules.” The idea of harmony sank deep roots in Greek culture. “It affected not only sculpture and architecture, but poetry and rhetoric, religion and morality.” At first the Greeks found harmony in nature, later they applied the ideas of harmony/rhythm/mean to human life (one thinks of Aristotle’s theory that virtue is a mean between two extremes).

Some people believe that Pythagoras was initiated into the Orphic mysteries. This might explain why Pythagoras was said to be a vegetarian (Orphism preached abstinence from meat). Orphism had considerable influence, meeting spiritual needs that the “official religions” didn’t meet. It preached that “the soul comes from God and does not perish.” This leads to “the abrupt cleavage between soul and body, and so to the idea that the body is essentially bad.” Orphism influenced Plato and Aristotle, who argued “that the human spirit is divine, and that man’s sensual nature can be dissociated from his real self.” We should probably view Orphism as one of the precursors of Christianity.

Turning to Xenophanes, Jaeger says that Xenophanes was neither systematic nor original. Xenophanes expressed philosophical ideas in poetry, and tried to reach a broad audience. He shows that philosophy was becoming a “cultural force,” which claimed “complete supremacy over the whole soul, with its domination of reason and emotion alike.”7 He may have inspired other philosophers to write poetry; both Empedocles and Parmenides wrote in poetic form.

Xenophanes took a dim view of Homer’s anthropomorphic gods, with their thefts, adulteries, etc. Xenophanes said that “God is the same as the whole universe. There is only one God.... God is like mortals neither in shape nor in mind.” Xenophanes aimed to replace Homer’s worldview with a philosophical worldview, “a natural and logical explanation of events.”

Xenophanes didn’t develop this philosophical worldview, he acquired it from earlier philosophers, and he preached it with “passionate conviction.” He was inspired by the new ideas because they could “destroy outworn beliefs,” and because of their “creative religious and moral force.” (I’ve often argued that the Philosophy of Today not only destroys “outworn beliefs,” but also has “creative religious and moral force.”)

Homer had equated areté with prowess in battle and sport. Xenophanes presents a new concept of areté, philosophical areté, the areté of wisdom. “The city loads the victor in the games with honors and gifts, [Xenophanes] cries, ‘and yet he does not deserve them as I do; for this wisdom of ours is better than the strength of men and horses!’” Athletic success is useless to the polis, Xenophanes says; it doesn’t lead to eunomia (order, justice), and it doesn’t fill the store-rooms. Xenophanes’ areté is the third and final chapter in the Greek conception of areté, after courage and prudence/justice.

Turning to Parmenides, Jaeger says that Parmenides (unlike Xenophanes) was an original thinker, “one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived.” Jaeger says that the first “basic form” of Greek thought was Milesian natural philosophy (the theories of philosophers from Miletus, such as Thales and Anaximander). The second basic form of Greek thought was the “arithmetical theories of the Pythagoreans.” The third was logic, which was introduced by Parmenides.

Free yourself from the illusory world of the senses, Parmenides says. Truth can only be reached by pure reason, logical argument; everything else is mere opinion (doxa). The truth that Parmenides proclaims is utterly abstract: “Being is without birth and therefore deathless; it is one; it is complete.” Did Parmenides prove the power of logic, or the uselessness of logic?

Jaeger is certainly a member of Parmenides’ fan club:

[Parmenides] presents his reasoning with a majestic sublimity and a deep religious emotion which makes it inspiring as well as convincing. For it is enthralling to watch him, in his search for knowledge, freeing himself and men for the first time from the appearances which impose on sense.... His discovery... brought into action one of the fundamental forces of the Greek genius for educating humanity and comprehending the universe. Every line he wrote pulsates with his ardent faith in the newly discovered powers of pure reason.

According to Jaeger, Parmenides speaks of philosophy as one might speak of a mystery religion (such as Orphism). This shows, Jaeger says, that “philosophy was consciously taking the place of religion.... Parmenides considers thought and the truth which it apprehends to be something very like religion.” (I’ve often argued that the Philosophy of Today is “very like religion.”)

Turning to Heraclitus, Jaeger says that, while the abstract philosophy of Parmenides takes no account of human beings, Heraclitus focuses on man. Heraclitus realized that his own drives/energies were the drives/energies of the cosmos, and vice versa. By observing his own nature, he could gain an insight into the universe. “Heraclitus gave man his place as a completely cosmic being.”

While earlier philosophers had observed the stars and planets, Heraclitus said, “I sought for myself.” And he realized that, as the universe is infinite, so human nature is infinitely complex: “Travel over every road,” Heraclitus said, “you cannot discover the boundaries of the soul — it has so deep a logos.”8 A philosopher finds what is hidden, he solves riddles. “Nature loves to hide herself.”9

In the first sentence of his book, Heraclitus says that knowledge is connected to life, it enables us to do consciously what we would otherwise do unconsciously (or as he puts it, do while awake what we would otherwise do while asleep). “Logos can give a new life of conscious knowledge. It affects every sphere of human action.”10

Truth is universal, it raises the individual above private opinions and goals, it creates a larger community than the polis. “There is a law in the universe, as in the city. This uniquely Greek idea appears here for the first time in history.”

As my theory of history sees a conflict between the life-instinct and the death-instinct, renaissance and decadence, so Heraclitus sees

warring forces within the unity of nature.... He saw both intellectual and physical activity as a strange complex unity, a bipolar life.... Conflict was “the father of everything”.... “That which opposes, fits; different elements make the finest harmony” [Is this why people often marry someone of opposite personality?].... Throughout nature there are abundance and lack — the causes of war. She is full of sharp opposites: day and night, summer and winter, heat and cold, war and peace, life and death succeed each other in eternal interchange.... “It rests by changing”.... As symbols for the clash and harmony of opposites in the cosmos, Heraclitus uses the bow and the lyre.... Heraclitean unity is full of tension. This brilliant insight into the meaning of life was to give an enormous stimulus to the thought of subsequent ages: it has not, in fact, been estimated at its true value until our own time.

My theory of history says that a renaissance occurs when decadence has reached an extreme — an example of Heraclitus’ enantiodromia (running toward the opposite). The Chinese also believed that things move to an extreme, then flip to the opposite.11

2. Renaissance and Decadence

I was chatting with a friend about renaissance and decadence, and she tried to visualize history as a spiral, with each renaissance higher than the previous renaissance. I argued that every renaissance is equal, and every decadence is equal. The creative spirit in Tolstoy, Goethe, and Shakespeare is equal, we can’t say Tolstoy is higher than Goethe, or Goethe is higher than Shakespeare. Rembrandt may be a good example of a renaissance-type painter, but is he higher, more creative, more “renaissance” than Leonardo or Michelangelo?

Perhaps my friend was thinking of how philosophy and science advance over time, and climb higher — Nietzsche, for example, goes beyond Schopenhauer, Newton goes beyond Kepler, etc. The advance of science and philosophy is largely independent of renaissance and decadence.

“So your theory of history deals only with artistic creativity?” Actually, the ethical attitude of a philosopher figures prominently in my theory; repressive ethics is a sign of decadence, natural ethics a sign of renaissance. We need to distinguish between the advance of philosophical knowledge and the ethical attitude of philosophers; the advance of philosophical knowledge is independent of renaissance/decadence, but the ethical attitude of philosophers is determined by renaissance/decadence.

Instead of a spiral image, let’s try a clock image. Let’s think of a renaissance as 12. It lasts until, say, 12:45. It declines gradually until 6, when we enter decadence. Decadence intensifies gradually until it reaches an extreme about 11:15. Extreme decadence lasts from 11:15 until 11:59, then turns into its opposite, renaissance. The current time, in my view, is 12:20. We’re in the perfect renaissance, and it’s half over, it won’t come again for about 500 years.

Or we could use a circle, a colored circle, with red for decadence and green for renaissance. At the top of the circle, pure red would change abruptly into pure green. The green would fade gradually until, at the bottom of the circle, it would mix with red. Red would intensify gradually until it reached the top of the circle.

We can’t be certain that these cycles will continue. If civilization implodes, and higher culture implodes, then it might become pointless to talk about renaissance and decadence, and there won’t be any cultured people to think about such matters, or use such terms. So perhaps we shouldn’t confidently say, “Another renaissance will occur in 500 years.” Perhaps we should say, “Enjoy it while it lasts because it may never come again, this may be the swan song of civilization.” If I were to hazard a prediction about the future, I would say that it’s likely we’ll have another renaissance after the current one, but the outlook becomes dimmer after that. Perhaps the next renaissance will be the last one.

I should mention that the nations currently in a renaissance are the nations that had their last renaissance 500 years ago (France, England, Italy, Spain, and colonial offshoots like the U.S. and Canada). Since Germany had a renaissance about 225 years ago, it may not be in a renaissance now. And since Russia had a renaissance about 150 years ago, it may not be in a renaissance now. To use our clock metaphor, the time in Germany is about 6, and the time in Russia is about 4:15. So both of them are a long way from a renaissance, unless they’re swept up in the renaissance spirit of nearby nations. Perhaps all nations of the world will someday be “in sync,” with respect to decadence and renaissance.

© L. James Hammond 2019
visit Phlit home page
become a patron via Patreon
make a donation via PayPal

1. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, Ch. 9, p. 150 back
2. Ch. 9, footnote 3, p. 453. Jaeger says that modern pragmatists take the sophists seriously because pragmatists treat knowledge not as an end in itself, but as a tool for living. back
3. Ch. 9, pp. 151, 152. Jaeger contrasts the “organic unity” of Greek thought with the disconnect between medieval philosophy and medieval poetry. “Medieval philosophy was not an outgrowth of the epic of chivalry, but a scholastic adaptation of ancient philosophy.” back
4. Ch. 9, p. 152. Jaeger quotes Hegel: “The mind’s way is roundabout.” back
5. See Ch. 9, pp. 159-161. My philosophy also sees a parallel between the human sphere and nature. I speak of particle telepathy and human telepathy. Likewise, I see the life- and death-instincts at work in civilizations, and also at work in individuals and in all living things. back
6. Anaximander believed that the sun, moon, and stars orbited the earth. The sun’s orbit was 27 times the diameter of the earth, the moon’s 18 times, the stars’ 9 times.(Ch. 9, p. 157)

As the Greeks sought for order in the sky, so too they sought for order in their streets. “Hippodamus of Miletus [was] the great pioneer of town-planning,” Jaeger writes. “He re-designed the Piraeus in a series of square blocks, with the streets crossing one another at right angles. It was a geometrician’s ideal, and resembled his equally rationalistic, equally geometrical political theories.”(p. 340) back

7. Ch. 9, p. 170 back
8. Ch. 9, p. 180. I’ve changed “frontiers” to “boundaries.” Logos here seems to mean law, pattern, structure. back
9. Ch. 9, p. 181. This is a quote from Heraclitus, not Jaeger. back
10. Ch. 9, p. 180. This is a quote from Jaeger, not Heraclitus.

The wisdom of Heraclitus is phronesis, “knowledge related to action.” (Ch. 9, footnote 161, p. 460) back

11. The Chinese phrase for this is wu4 ji2 bi4 fan3

I’m not sure if this phrase originates with a particular Chinese thinker (it sounds like a phrase from Zhuang Zi). I’m told that this phrase comes from an encyclopedic book called Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals. back