Sunday, September 25, 2011

Why the Greeks Matter

Allen Bloom succinctly makes the case for why Classical Studies are so important.
The Greeks were the first people to divorce the notion that ethnicity implied superiority. Well, perhaps not the Greek people as a whole, but the Greek thinkers whose works have been preserved until today.

Just because I am Greek, German, American, does not mean that my way of doing things is the best. They began to question the preeminence of their traditions, then to wonder, what is the standard of excellence for anything? How can we know what is right and what is wrong if these questions cannot be dismissed simply by appealing to the wisdom, or more simply the traditions, of the ancestors of one’s community?

To question one’s tradition should not lead one to automatically to disown them all together. Where did they come from? Do they work? These are questions that simply cannot be answered in the one limited life time of one man, or one community. Philosophy is inevitably flawed because of this pursuit. Traditions work. Cultural evolution allowed philosophers to question the culture that they grew up in. Because they could not understand it completely, they believed that they could reject it outright. Philosophy has caused more problems, it seems. Either you believe, or you try to think your way through everything, and either way, you have to believe.

Thank you, Lord, for David Hume. He had the where-withal to blast philosophy as an intellectual impossibility.

What made these questions all the more prescient was the growth of trade which brought the Greek nations into contact with other peoples, whose notions of right and wrong, of righteousness and piety differed significantly from their own. “Who was right, and how do we find out?” Pondered the Greek thinkers.

From these inquiries was born philosophy, history, education.

The Greek city states seemed to function as respective laboratories for different forms of government, for different cultural and political traditions. The religions of today trace great influence to the writings and discussions of Greek statesmen and thinkers, poets and playwrights.

Socrates was the consummate Rationalist, in terms of what Friedrich Hayek describes in his book The Fatal Conceit. At least, that is what one could conclude based on Robin Waterfield’s revisionist account of the trial and execution of Socrates. His readings of Plato’s “Apology” and Xenophon’s writings all suggest that Socrates was more interested in creating a political system of enlightened despots, undermining the democratic system which was reinstated after the Athenian Civil War.

For all their intellect, the Greek Sophists, including Socrates, were incredible naive. To assume that knowing right from wrong was enough for one to do right is just untenable. Witness the carnage that humanity faces on a daily basis. How could Socrates, or Plato speaking through Socrates, conclude that right thinking would automatically lead to right doing? Men may set high standards for themselves, but they must realize at some point that they cannot reach those standards on their own. Perhaps they lower the standards, or they redefine their goals, or they simply lose themselves in the chase for absolutes which deep within themselves they have cynically dismissed once and for all as non-existent.

Thank you, Jesus, for the words of Scripture. The Psalmist made the right point when he begged You “Please cleanse me from secret sins”. Please wash each one of us from sins and faults that we are not aware of. Therein lies the dilemma for mankind, which the Greek sophists refuse to face. As much as we strive to know ourselves, we simply cannot. We can resolve to learn more about ourselves, but we should never assume that one day we will arrive at a full understanding of ourselves. In the end, such a concession does not have to lead any one of us to despair. In fact, we should rejoice, for this powerlessness leads us to trust in the One who made us, who knows what is best for us, who loves us in a way beyond our limited understanding.

Socrates’ solution, apparently, was that he did whatever the god told him to do. He hid beneath the guise of a cult. He knew right from wrong because the god told him what was right and wrong, or when he was trying to pin down absolutes, he would merely question them into aporia, not allowing himself or his listeners to agree on a practical definition for anything.

It seems a shame, then, that human philosophy would begin and ultimately end in this arrogant, self-referential tailspin. David Hume finally put a stop to all the Rationalist nonsense with the logical outcome of Skepticism. We really cannot know anything with one hundred percent certainty. The morals we live by are not the product of our reasons, not does good government result from perfected planning.

Within every human being is a desire to be free. . .? Perhaps the real desire is to feel pleasure and flee pain. How many are willing to give up their freedom, their ability to make decisions for themselves so that they do not have to hurt?

Liberty is a recent phenomenon, especially when consider in the light of its widespread application to greater masses of people. For thousands of years, the greater mass of people lived in slavery. Only recently have people felt that they should have some say in what they do with their lives, where they work, what they do with their property, what laws they should obey.

Yet as soon as anyone enjoys the blessings of liberty, he forgets the price of receiving and maintaining that liberty. People grow more dependent, wanting the material comforts, not the status which made the pursuit of one’s well-being possible. This explains the growth of the welfare state as well as the disaster end for the European nations after World War One, when scientists and artists were pursuing so many avenues of progress. The material well-being cannot uphold the commitment to respecting the dignity of each person.

Freedom ain’t free; there’s just no way around it. Perhaps it would be worth one’s while to allow someone else to make all the decisions. Then again, allowing anyone else to decide what’s best for me or for you is ultimately impossible. You just do not know me, nor do I know you. Besides, the wisest men have refused the responsibility of ruling over other men.

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