Overweening Generalist

Monday, January 30, 2012

Intellectual Reputations: The Long View

I'm going to take as the paradigmatic case ancient Greek philosophers.

Socrates willfully quaffed some hemlock, probably in 399 BCE. He'd gotten busted. The charge: not believing in the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens. You know it's a lousy political climate when those in charge go for this kind of persecution. And so it goes. For the next 100 years philosophy exploded all over Greece, with the founding of many diverse schools, and almost all of them were founded by followers of Socrates, who never wrote a book in his life. (That we know of.)

Who were the most influential figures following in Socrates's wake? The Skeptics, The Cynics (which, every time I read about ancient Greek history, I still think sound like a punk rock band...and there is a very technically adept and thrilling - in my view - heavy metal band right now called Cynic, but I digress...) had as their founder Antisthenes, who was a known associate of Socrates. Antistenes listened to another of Socrates's pupils say there was a realm of Pure Being out there somewhere, and said bullshit: there are only bodies and pain, and that pain is true and good and beautiful, just look at all the great hero stories. (Why did the Pure Being guy seem to "make it big" while Antisthenes is...well, who evuh hoidda the guy, am I right?)

Diogenes of Sinope, AKA Diogenes the Cynic, can be traced to Antisthenes although there is no proof they ever met. Diogenes was said to admire Antisthenes's thought. Diogenes the Cynic said local culture is arbitrary and not special and he declared himself a cosmopolitan. His father had minted coins but Diogenes defaced them, made a virtue of poverty by living in a tub and carried a lantern around during the day, declaring he was searching for just one honest man. What a character! What a classic wise-ass! In his day Diogenes of Sinope was a major player, mocking Alexander and getting away with it (see Colbert, Stephen, White House Press Club Dinner Speech), and making Plato's life miserable by calling him out on his bogus use of Socrates's good name. Picture some guy as a mixture of Abbie Hoffman and Don Rickels, in a ragged not-quite tunic, and you have my interior image of Diogenes. (Of course he's still speaking some language I don't understand at all, but his rhythm is so deadly, his delivery so masterful, I laff at everything.) The way Chomsky has consistently attacked intellectuals in our lifetime? Diogenes was his day's intellectual anti-intellectual. But I get the feeling his tone was more Carlin than Chomsky. O! Diogenes the Cynic! We hardly knew ye. (And the textbooks for Philosophy 101 don't mention him these days, do they?)

Euclides of Megara - not the same "Euclid" who wrote the foundational text on geometry - was a celebrity philosopher and friend/pupil of Socrates too. He founded a school that made a big deal about argumentation and debate, and the Megarians did pioneering work in logic.

                                         Here's a rendering of what Socrates supposedly looked like. Nietzsche said 
                                        in Twilight of the Idols that Socrates was ugly, and questioned if he was even 
                                        Greek at all. Then Nietzsche mentions current 19th c. ideas about ugly people 
                                        as criminal types, which is still a popular notion, though refuted by science.
                                        Did Nietzsche feel threatened by Socrates for some reason? I doubt it.

Some of you may have studied a dialogue called Phaedo. Phaedo was another follower of Socrates, who  founded his own school at Elis, which was hot for awhile but burnt out quickly. The major approaches to knowledge were questioning everything, debate, and a big topic was the value of life itself.

Another one influenced by Socrates was a figure known as Isocrates, whose main game was the development of rhetoric, a man after my own heart.

We're still not to the year 300 BCE yet.

Aristippus was yet another disciple of Socrates, who founded the Cyrenaic school, which carried on in Socrates's tradition of omniquestioning and dialectic. This school culminated with two divergent philosophical stars, Hegesius and Theodorus. Then this school fizzled around 330 BCE. Aristippus was a serene character who thought only our feelings exist for us, and that we were responsible for our own happiness. (Why didn't this catch on in a bigger way and develop down to our time? My answer below.)

Lemme see...who am I missing here? I know there was one more student of Socrates who made a splash, but I just can't re...Oh right: Plato. Plato seemed to notice that Socrates's name was hallowed all over the greater metropolitan Athens area. Plato was not, as an adult, all that taken by his teacher's omniquestioning act; he was a rich kid, much more interested in metaphysics, which were heavily influenced by those extreme weirdos the Pythagoreans. Plato was also interested in aesthetics and politics, which were peripheral concerns among Socrates's students' competing and far more popular schools.

So Plato made Socrates his mouthpiece, even though Socrates was long dead and never really showed much interest in Plato's ideas. A ballsy move, that.

Aristotle studied under Plato, and he took philosophy in yet another direction. You may have heard of this Aristotle guy...He made it to The Show.

Here's the question: Why are Plato and Aristotle the Big Deal these days, and not Aristippus, Diogenes, Phaedo, Euclides, or Theodorus?

The answer - my answer, my educated guess as of the date above - is: the general turns and trends in thought far after these guys were dead have made them immortal thinkers; they had no idea they were going to be a big deal! A lot of it seems like luck to me; they had great ideas, but I don't think the one and only reason they "won out" was because they were "really" the best ideas. There were other fantastic ideas, now long out of favor. These guys - Socrates/Plato/Aristotle - were passionate thinkers, creative, lots of energy, created relatively detailed and coherent systems, and cultivated a large enough network of associates and pupils, but this never guarantees lasting fame. The most we can assume is that, whatever the content, immortal thinkers created a large enough thought-space for subsequent thinkers to play in. Lasting fame seems to me more like a chance operation than what we're led to believe by the textbooks, which tend to enshrine and encourage the idea that, as soon as these guys hit the public stage as Thinkers, a particularly bright star was seen to appear in the East, and a chorus of angels gave the high sign by singing something in four-part harmony, like a Bach fugue. No. Worse: the notion that these guys are big-time because their thought somehow very closely "corresponds" to "the truth"...

(Speaking of J.S. Bach: he had no idea he would be a god to us now. In his day he was thought of as merely the dude who totally shreds on organ. That weird old dude with tons of kids, all hopped up on coffee and smiling, could improvise on the spot a fugue on any given theme: dude's a MANIAC! But Bach had no inkling of what he'd be to us...and he died in 1750 CE. This business of posthumous reputation is a tricky one. We ought to say something similar for the person named William Shakespeare, who died in 1616.)

Back to Socrates/Plato/Aristotle: their reputations waxed and waned and had all kinds of colorful turns before they reached us.

Socrates as an influential figure largely died out around the year 100 CE, probably because he hadn't written anything, but who knows? He's known to us as that iconic figure who appears in Plato's books, first as probably something like how he really was (although Xenophon and Aristophanes should definitely be consulted on this), later as the speaker of Plato's own ideas, which diverged quite a bit from his beloved teacher's.

Plato turned out to be a huge influence on Christianity, Neoplatonism (of course!), gnosticism, the occult, mathematics, and Bertrand Russell's esteemed colleague Alfred North Whitehead said that the history of Western philosophy consisted of "a series of footnotes to Plato."

Aristotle, after minor stardom, got bigger and then, in his old age, scored a chart-topper by being Alexander the Great's tutor. There are stories he was a "millionaire" in his day, but when Alexander died he had to flee for his life in 323 BCE. He had the most interesting road to our day. In his day his ideas - a solution of Platonic idealism dissolved in some materialism - were fairly influential for a couple generations after he died. Then for the next 100 years or so his "school" became more interested in empirical science. Then his school fizzled as Rome became a bigger deal. His own texts were rediscovered around 75-50 BCE and his fame rose again, but the intense ferment of ideas around Greece and Rome (this latter where you went to "make it" as a philosopher, much like rock bands used to go to Hollywood) had his ideas mixed in with Plato's and other's to such an extent that Aristotle (called "Arry" by Ezra Pound) kept moderate fame for the first 600 years of the Common Era, but was thought of as a quasi-Platonic thinker. 

Then, a lull for what is usually known as the Dark Ages in Europe. 

The Muslims recovered Aristotle's texts, transcribed them, and his star shot through the roof. Arry was on top of the world. He was suddenly big in Baghdad. Who could've predicted that? His texts filtered back into medieval Europe, and St. Thomas Aquinas calls him simply "The Philosopher." Arry had a tremendous influence on what we now call Catholicism. That was big-time for Arry's reputation. In the Renaissance, one faction of Humanists idolized him, and used him against a self-described "modern" group of philosophers. 

Aristotle's been the big winner, it seems of all those pupils of Socrates. (Arry was a pupil of a pupil.) But Plato's not far behind. 

I think Aristotle's actual texts have been hugely influential on all our lives, whether we know it or not, a large reason for this being his enormous contribution to logic and especially the Law of the Excluded Middle.

On the other hand and whereas, the diverse interpretations of Plato's texts may have an even bigger influence, because of what I'll call the Legacy Software of his thought. To be absurdly perfunctory about it: the notion that abstract notions, ideas that we can create out of nothing, just imagination, are reified, and have some Real reality somewhere else, but "appear" as a sort of washed-out copy of a copy in our mundane reality. By doing certain things, we get closer to the real Reality. This notion seems hyperseductive to a certain caste of mind. (I see it largely as a mistake in understanding the role of language and metaphor in our nervous systems, but as I say: it's complicated. There are some otherworldy-smart mathematicians who'd dispute me on this, and I'd lose the argument, probably.)

This all seems like a wonderfully perplexing puzzle, which I might try to tease out some other day here, playing the OG role. Suffice: Plato is probably, along with Nietzsche, the greatest writer in Western philosophy, which is ironic because Socrates taught that writing was debased speech and harmed memory and put us further away from getting at the Truth, which was best gotten at by a fierce talking style with others called dialectic. It could be that great writing so dazzles various audiences and readers down the vast channels and throughout history that their ideas will be picked up like shiny objects on a vast beach and used in ways the writer never intended. Or it could be that some aspect of the human nervous system prefers ideas like Plato's metaphysics (in fact, I think as history has marched on we humans have gravitated more and more to a sort of self-medicating psychotropy, whether in thought, or in engagement with others, via technology, or drugs...we want to feel good), and once someone's metaphysics get used by other Leaders and New Schools, under pressure of historical forces and with an insurgent rise in the need to Dream Big...ahhh...but this is blah-blah-blah speculation.

One wonders how large figures like Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Frederic Jameson, and Jacques Lacan - who were major philosophical stars on college campuses in Unistat and Europe in the late 1970s through to around 2000 - will loom in history of philosophy textbooks 100 or 200 years from now? 

I have not proven anything about intellectual reputations in philosophy, but I have tried to make some interesting assertions, and let my Dear Reader(s) do with them as they wish.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Great post as usual. I think Shakespeare thought he might have some lasting impact with his hints at immortal legacy in the sonnets. Yeah, that idea of poetry lasting for the ages seems a common conceit, but with Shakespeare it has proven true. I also think of Dante's success in building a large structure which has lasted and which people still chose to investigate.

Re: Greek and learning languages. Late in the Cantos, Pound says something like I'll have to study some Greek to finish this poem, but so will you.

Dr. Johnson, your writing often makes me want to ask you for a basic reading list, but then I fear I would fall behind in all my other reading. One of these years...

michael said...

I'm sure sure of the notion of long view posthumous rep for the Greeks (their conception of history was too different from ours for me to guess), but I wd think that certainly, since the era of mass printing, almost every thinker and artist worth their salt has harbored dreams of immortality of reputation.

I don't read Greek. I get my stuff via translation, which is a whole 'nother ball of wax.

There are a bunch of fat books that seem encyclopedic to me, but aren't labeled as such. I own a lot of these and read in them constantly. I don't consider this type of reading to be the same type that RAW advocated, but I do consider RAW's syllabi as more germane to the heart of my own interests.

I still find the idea of a Basic Canon to have one great point to it: a large community of readers who could potentially, engage in philosophical and metaphysical talks, having read the same texts. This was the impetus behind Adler and Hutchins, et.al and their Great Books of the Western World.

But I see to many downsides to the idea. It largely offends my values and sensibilities about people realizing something inside themselves and making their own long daisy-chain list of books that mean something TO THEM. I think this idea, in the long run, makes culture richer. In a sense, I don't want You, The Reader, the Public, to read what I read. Unless they really wanna. I LOVE the idea of people thinking about their own values constantly, and they're dynamic, subject o new information always, and people choosing texts that feed them intellectually, spiritually, emotionally...but really GRAPPLING with deep stuff is great, whatever the texts.

michael said...

I meant I'm NOT sure of the long-term posthumous idea the Greeks had about, as a rapper might say, "My rep get large."

These comment boxes pop up and are TINY, and often I guess I don't really see what I'm writing. Sorry!

Annabel Lee said...

Totally unrelated to the conversation, just shameless promotion for you, OG.