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NA644412 - GRIFFITH, T.: ANCIENT GREEK PHILOSOPHY - An Introduction (Unabridged)

Ancient Greek Philosophy
An Introduction
Compiled by Tom Griffith and Hugh Griffith



Bruce - Alexander Socrates
Oliver Ford Davies - Diogenes Laertius
Crawford Logan - Aristotle
Ian Marr - Meno
Louis Williams - Boy
Andrew Wincott - Narrator


The history of western philosophy, it has been said, is merely a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. Of course, there is a touch of exaggeration here. The Greeks may have been clever, but they weren’t that clever. Or at least, not obviously cleverer than Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein and a host of others who came up with some very intriguing ideas of their own. Still, the point remains. Plato and Aristotle were the first to produce well-reasoned theories that could provide coherent, sometimes even cogent, answers to the most intractable questions of our universe, relying on rational argument rather than the picturesque fables of mythology. Those who came after found the ground already cleared, with signs posted to mark the limits of the territory and instructions for avoiding most of the possible traps.

Philosophy is an activity where having predecessors is an enormous help, particularly when you are sure they got the answer wrong. Aristotle spent much of his time correcting Plato (as he saw it), and before that Plato himself had found that demolishing old ideas was often the best way to start thinking about new ones. Exactly how these old ideas were originally expressed is not always easy for us to establish at a distance of some two and a half millennia. Apart from a few fragments, the texts of the earliest Greek philosophers have disappeared, so even when we are lucky enough to know something specific that they said, their reasons for saying it may still be hazy. Nor are there any neat lines dividing the various objects of their interest into separate disciplines. Astronomy, cosmology, religion and ethics are mingled together in this proto-philosophy.

There was no essential disagreement between these pioneer speculators about what they could see or hear going on around them. The appearances, or ‘phenomena’ (to use their own word), were plain enough, give or take a few mirages in the desert or straight sticks suddenly looking bent when placed in water. But appearances were not sufficient to explain what the reality was like. Viewed simply as appearances, they were for ever changing. Clouds formed and dropped rain, seeds grew into trees, fruit ripened and then rotted, wood thrown on a fire burst into flames and turned into ash. Yet beyond or behind this ceaseless bustle, there seemed to be something constant that endured. How was it possible that everything was always changing but the world remained the same? More than any other, it was this contradiction that prompted the first rather haphazard musings on the first principles of a theory of nature. There must be a basic substance, said Thales, from which everything is derived, and this is water. Not water, said Anaximenes, but air. Impossible, said Parmenides; the basic substance, being the only thing that truly exists, must be single, indivisible, motionless and perfect. Therefore all change is an illusion. On the contrary, said Democritus. The world is made up of an infinite number of tiny atoms, scattered through a vast void and perpetually in motion. And so it went on.

If talk of atomic particles sounds surprisingly similar to the standard model of our own physics, that is certainly fascinating; but it does not mean that any of these early philosophers were scientists, as we would now understand the term. They did not carry out experiments or make controlled observations in order to confirm or disprove their hypotheses. Their concern was to order the world conceptually in a way that would accommodate nature’s whirls and flurries without inviting chaos. Although this kind of thinking was rarefied, it was not carried out in ivory towers. Greek philosophers tended to form schools around themselves, whose influence extended right into the daily workings of the cities where they lived. Thales gave advice to the Ionian Greeks, living on the western coast of Asia Minor, on forming a political federation with a single capital; Parmenides was said to have framed the laws for his own city of Elea in southern Italy; Empedocles was a strong supporter of the democratic principle, who was offered, and turned down, the kingship at Acragas in Sicily.

No one expected that any philosopher in these times would prefer to withdraw from the world’s affairs in order to enjoy peace and quiet. In the case of Socrates, the appetite for social involvement led him all the way to trial, condemnation and execution, an extraordinary fate for someone who was quite devoid of personal ambition. But the Athenians were never slow to make an example of their philosophers, especially those who appeared hostile to their beloved democracy. Anaxagoras, teacher and friend of Pericles, had also been found guilty of impiety, some time around 450 B.C., though unlike Socrates he agreed to play by the unwritten rules of this particular game, which laid down that whatever sentence might be passed, the accused was welcome to escape his punishment so long as he went to live somewhere else. Aristotle, in his turn, was forced to leave Athens at the end of his life, in 323 B.C. to save himself from a prosecution for impiety; as usual the charge was a cover for a different grievance, in this case Aristotle’s long association with the hated kings of Macedon.

Individual philosophers might come and go, but their influence lived on in the schools they had founded. Athens remained the main centre of instruction, as home to all the most important centres of inquiry: Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, the Garden of Epicurus and the Stoa of Zeno. The names of these last two will not qualify for inclusion in any university course of western philosophy, yet their competing ideas about the best way to lead one’s life continued to give inspiration and guidance to ordinary Greeks and Romans for hundreds of years after their deaths. Tradition, as so often, has distorted their message. Epicurus did not believe the pleasures of food and sex were the most important things in life; the Stoics did not simply exhort us to grin and bear it. For a truer account, listen on.

Hugh Griffith

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