Friday, May 18, 2007

The Purpose of Greek Philosophy

There is a wonderful sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus about a football match between teams of Greek and German Philosophers (Marx should be the left winger, Nietzsche on the right. I'd always thought Socrates ended up playing for Brazil for some reason). In the skit (on You Tube), when the whistle goes, the two sides press their fists to their foreheads and try to out think the opposition.

The fact is , the image we have of Greek science is of a bunch of toga-clad savants wandering around thinking deep thoughts. It’s gradually been dawning on me (as I’m sure it’s dawned on everyone who’s looked hard at Greek science) that it wasn’t like that. For a start, many of the philosophers had day jobs, usually as teachers of rhetoric. More importantly, there is nothing disinterested about the scientific systems of thought they cooked up. Their primary interest was ethics and politics. They were not so concerned with explaining how the world worked, as with how man should live. Oddly enough, most Greek ethics looks suspiciously like idealised Greek society.

With Plato the centrality of ethics is something you can easily accept. The ‘good’ is clearly his central concern and most of what passes for science or metaphysics in his works is derived from his ethical precepts. With Aristotle, though, you might have thought that natural philosophy was more of an issue. Not really. Ethics is still the supreme subject and all other kinds of philosophy branch off from that. His natural world, which is eternal, hierarchical and orderly, is a reflection of his moral thought. Aristotle’s key to virtue was the golden mean between extremes. Again and again, we find that his physics attempts to find a middle way between his rival schools of philosophy. He believed that men, slave or free, should stay in the place ordained for them. Exactly the same view informs his ideas about the planets and the animal kingdom.

The stoics and epicureans were both undoubtedly far more interested in morality than science. The materialist world of the epicureans, described by Lucretius in On the Nature of Things, is designed to provide a stable platform for the epicurean ethic. Their atomism is not the result of a disinterested analysis of nature. They did not postulate atoms to explain the world but to free man from the ethical constraints implicit in a supernatural order. The stoics’ views on nature were just as subjective. Although they were essentially theists, their metaphysics was no more than an extension of their ethics. Their science was intended as a support for their morality.

This explains why early Christians, who had no problem with science per se, were so hostile to atomism and materialism. They could see that these ideas were tacked onto ethical systems that they found unacceptable. They didn’t attack atomism because they didn’t like atoms, but because atomism was always used as a prop for atheism. Richard Carrier argues that the Christian assault on atomism shows they were anti-science. It shows nothing of the sort. Early Christians were simply anti-atheist. Now there’s a surprise.

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