Monthly Archives: August 2015

Role of the Philosopher in Greek and Roman Society

Lately I have been drilling down to write about specific works by individual Greek authors. It seems worthwhile, though, to break for a bit to write generally about the role of the philosopher in Hellenistic society. By “Hellenistic” I mean not only the society of Greece in Socrates’ time, but also under the Macedonians and their successors and the thoroughly Hellenized pagan Rome. Indirectly, though, since our own western civilization is itself a successor to these cultures, considering how philosophers fit into them might yield some clues about the place of intellectuals in our own society.

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Many feel that philosophy was born in the work of epic poets, and no one can deny that works of Homer, at least, are laden with philosophical concepts. Philosophy and literature have always been linked. However, the first people we would consider to be philosophers, in the modern sense, all affluent men from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. The Greek economy had evolved and society had stabilized, to the point where the upper classes had leisure to contemplate the great questions and write down their conclusions for the edification of their friends. Interest in philosophy as an aristocratic hobby soon spread to the Sicily and the Greek mainland, particularly the Attic peninsula and the newly boobing town of Athens. For generations, however, no one considered philosophy to be a career: philosophy was something one did, not something one was. The business of Greek aristocrats to govern the polis and their own estates; philosophy was nothing but an interesting distraction.

By the time of the Periclean golden age, this was beginning to change. Sophists like Protagoras and Hippias earned fame and a comfortable living by teaching practical rhetoric, spiced with philosophy, to aspiring politicians. Judging by the descriptions of them in Plato’s dialogs, they were happy to accept free room and board on their travels and “sing for their supper” by lecturing or engaging in philosophical discourse. When Socrates became interested in philosophy, probably some time in his thirties, he began seeking these men out whenever he heard they were in town. Socrates, however, was a different kind of philosopher. While he was a member of the citizen class, he never seems to have been wealthy. He came from a family of stone cutters and probably followed the trade himself as a young man. Unlike some of his aristocratic friends, he spent at least half his life as a full time philosopher. Unlike the sophists, and to the consternation of his wife Xanthippe, he never attempted to charge tuition from his students. He was always desperately poor, and is the first and most famous of many in history to choose a life of philosophical poverty.

By the time of Plato, philosophy seems to have been regarded as a legitimate career choice. Young Plato considered becoming a politician like his uncle, almost became a playwright, and finally chose to be a philosopher after being influenced by Socrates. Plato had family money and his academy itself seems to have been bought with money originally raised by his friends to rescue him when he got in trouble during an ill-advised foray into in Sicilian politics, effectively making him the first endowed chair of philosophy in Western history. Even so, it is important to draw the distinction that he was a full time philosopher from an aristocratic background, rather than an a full time aristocrat who happened to be interested in philosophy.

Socrates and Plato became the archetypes for generations of philosophers who came to Athens from all over the known world to teach and study philosophy. Some were wealthy, others much less so, but material affluence had little affect on life at the Athenian academies. John Henry Newman, The University: Its Rise and Progress (of which I recently edited a new edition) describes the entry of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (born about a century later than Plato) in Athens,

So now let us fancy our Scythian, or Armenian, or African, or Italian, or Gallic student, after tossing on the Saronic waves, which would be his more ordinary course to Athens, at last casting anchor at Piraeus. He is of any condition or rank of life you please, and may be made to order, from a prince to a peasant. Perhaps he is some Cleanthes, who has been a boxer in the public games. How did it ever cross his brain to betake himself to Athens in search of wisdom? or, if he came thither by accident, how did the love of it ever touch his heart? But so it was, to Athens he came with three drachmas in his girdle, and he got his livelihood by drawing water, carrying loads, and the like servile occupations. He attached himself, of all philosophers, to Zeno the Stoic—to Zeno, the most high-minded, the most haughty of speculators; and out of his daily earnings the poor scholar brought his master the daily sum of an obolus, in payment for attending his lectures. Such progress did he make, that on Zeno’s death he actually was his successor in his school; and, if my memory does not play me false, he is the author of a hymn to the Supreme Being, which is one of the noblest effusions of the kind in classical poetry. Yet, even when he was the head of a school, he continued in his illiberal toil as if he had been a monk; and, it is said, that once, when the wind took his pallium, and blew it aside, he was discovered to have no other garment at all;—something like the German student who came up to Heidelberg with nothing upon him but a great coat and a pair of pistols.

The academy of Athens continued until it was finally closed at the order of Justinian I in 529 AD. In other parts of the Greek world we find professional philosophers serving as tutors to royals and nobles, as Aristotle did to Alexander, or occasionally as state employees, such as those at the library of Alexandria under the Ptolemies. Everywhere in the East though, the philosophy was considered a respectable–if rarely lucrative–profession.

Ancient Library of Alexandria.  O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient Library of Alexandria. O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In Rome and the eastern Mediterranean things were somewhat different. Roman culture had been heavily influenced by Greece from a very early point. After Rome annexed the Greek mainland following the Third Macedonian War (an event Will Durant called “The Conquest By Greece”) Roman and Greek high culture became nearly indistinguishable. However, the professional philosopher never attained the same stature as in the east. Ironically, philosophy itself was extremely popular in the pagan Roman Empire. All young upper class Romans (of both sexes) were exposed to Greek philosophy as part of their education and some even studied in Athens. All individuals of cultivation were expected to have articulate opinions on philosophy. Many leading citizens identified with particular philosophic sects: most often Stoicism, but sometimes Epicureanism, Cynicism, or Neo-Platonism. Paul Veyne, in A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium writes about how it was fashionable for senators and even emperors to style themselves as “philosophers” and adopt the unkempt beards and simple robes of the profession, yet few or none of them actually practiced the ideals of this philosophy in their daily lives. They were far too busy holding offices, running their estates, and finding ways to become even more wealthy.

These Romans were very much like a modern American bourgeoisie who takes yoga classes and wears yoga clothes everywhere, yet doesn’t bother to integrate the teachings into her career in any way. According to Veyne, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was actually a writing assignment, one of the “steps” of a three step self-help program.

There were professional philosophers in the Western Empire, but most of them seem to have been attached to the household staff of wealthy Romans, and at least some of them were slaves (as were many many doctors, accountants, and other professionals in Rome). As tutors to the pater familias and his children they probably had a high status relative to other household servants, but they were still poor and dependent on their patrons for protection. Those who didn’t have a patron tried to find one quickly, or else headed back East.

The one group of affluent Romans who came closest to actually practicing philosophy were the philosophical poets of the early Imperial period: particularly Lucretius, but also Horace, Virgil, and others. Clearly, there work contains much philosophy, but were they themselves philosophers? George Santayana dealt with this question in Three Philosophical Poets,

Here, I think, we have the solution to our doubt. The reasonings and investigations of philosophy are arduous, and if poetry is to be linked with them, it can be artificially only, and with a bad grace. But the vision of philosophy is sublime. The order it reveals in the world is something beautiful, tragic, sympathetic to the mind, and just what every poet, on a small or on a large scale, is always trying to catch.

[E]ven if we grant that the philosopher, in his best moments, is a poet, we may suspect that the poet has his worst moments when he tries to be a philosopher, or rather, when he succeeds in being one.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Lucretius and his fellows did not discover any great new ideas in philosophy. Every truth which they included in their poems, no matter how beautifully and clearly, was parroted from one or another of the Greeks. There work, like Homer’s before, is great literature. It is not great philosophy.

And so, the Eastern and Western halves of the Hellenistic world had more or less similar conceptions of the amateur gentleman-philosopher, and very different ideas of the professional philosopher. In Greece and the East he became a revered academic who devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophic truth. In Rome and the West he was simply one more hanger-on of the well equipped household, almost a human fashion accessory. At this time I am not going to comment on the present status of philosophers in Western Civilization, having already run some six centuries ahead of myself in my Great Books program. I will say only that our own society’s views contain elements of both the Greek and the Roman, yet seem to be trending more towards the Roman as time passes.


Plato’s Gorgias

The Gorgias is probably among the last dialogs of Plato’s early period. In it we see him experimenting with the longer format, using multiple interlocutors, which he will later use to great effect in his magnum opus, The Republic. In it also, we get the sense that Plato is coming up against the limitations of the Socratic elenchus (question and answer technique) as a way of teaching philosophy; two of the three interlocutors remain unconvinced and refuse to change their position after Socrates questions them.
The second of these, Callicles, becomes openly hostile and refuses to continue, forcing Socrates to finish up in the sort of monologue argument which he hates. The fundamental weakness of the Socratic method, as any of us who have used it in the classroom know, is that it requires full participation from both sides (which is why I used to give my students a participation point every time they asked or answered a question in discussion section).

Gorgias was a prominent teacher of oratory (public speaking) from Sicily. The dialog opens with Socrates and his side-kick Chaerophon (whom we met in Clouds and heard mentioned in The Apology) waiting to meet Gorgias as he leaves a dinner party. They have heard that he is in town, and want to question him regarding Socrates’ current inquiry: what is the nature of oratory, and is it one of the true arts? When Gorgias comes out he is accompanied by Polus, a younger and less famous teacher of rhetoric, and Callicles, a budding Athenian politician who is hosting Gorgias while he is in town.

The School of Athens.  Rafael.  [public domain via Wikimedia]

The School of Athens. Rafael. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Gorgias good-naturedly agrees to answer Socrates’ questions, and Socrates soon proves to his own satisfaction that oratory, far from being the highest art, as Gorgias believes, is a spurious art–more of a knack, really. It relates to the true art of politics the same way that cooking relates to medicine and cosmology relates to physical training: it panders people’s enjoyment but isn’t actually good for them on any deep level.

At this point Polus wades into the discussion to defend his profession. His argument is that oratory is a good because those who become skilled in it can obtain great power and take advantage of those who are less skilled in court and the assembly. Socrates then launches a series of questions intended to school Polus on the difference between ends and means. Means cannot be good in themselves, but ends can. Next, Socrates introduces one of the most radical concepts in Platonic philosophy: it is better to suffer an injustice than to do one. Thus a man who uses oratory to become a tyrant and take unfair advantage of others is harming himself worst of all. Polus is clearly unconvinced by these assertions, but just as clearly out of his depth trading words with Socrates.

Callicles, who has been quiet so far, can restrain himself no longer. Socrates, he says, has been using logical tricks to take advantage of Gorgias and Polus, and they are too noble to call him on it. Socrates’ position is ridiculous because the natural law of the world is for stronger and “better” men to take from their inferiors. I was reminded of the line from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeny Todd,

In all of the whole human race Mrs Lovett
There are two kinds of men and only two,
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.
Look at me Mrs. Lovett look at you.

Socrates, of course, is able to refute Callicles’ position in short order, and Callicles responds by shifting his position and even resorting to personal insults. Unable to hold his ground and unwilling to admit that he is wrong, he tries to end the conversation. Gorgias, however, who is now enjoying himself, urges him to continue. For the rest of the dialog he answers sullenly and agrees with Socrates only to get the discussion over with faster. Eventually he becomes so unresponsive that Socrates is forced basically to lecture. Meanwhile Socrates has broadened the topic to how a man should live virtuously to achieve the good live (i.e. eudaimonia). A great leader, according to Socrates, would live his life with order and self control. He would speak to the people in order to educate them and improve them in virtue, not merely to talk them into things and pander to them. Even famous men like Pericles and Cimon, while adequate as civil servants, were not great leaders because they used oratory and didn’t actually improve the people in their charge. At this point, the dialog has cycled back to Socrates’ initial conclusion that oratory is not more than a pseudo-art used to pander to the masses.

At the conclusion of the dialog, Socrates offers one of the myths which appear in several of Plato’s dialogues. This particular one deals with the judgement that awaits people in the afterlife. Those who behave unjustly will damage their souls in ways that will be obvious to the judges, who will consign them to punishment in Tarterus. This myth serves as additional support against Callicles’ position, possibly more appealing to a man like Callicles, who is apparently immune to reason.

The Gorgias treats with several concepts which are worthy of further consideration. For instance, the doctrine of avoiding revenge because doing injustice harms the doer became a cornerstone of Platonism, and later of Christianity. Almost as radical was the idea that punishment for injustice was good for the person punished, which has also enjoyed a long currency in Western Civilization, particularly in the Catholic Church. The main theme of the dialog, the distinction between legitimate education and oratory, is of particular interest in the modern world. While we have less opportunity to watch orators in person than classical Greeks, we are barraged all day with advertising and “news” using all the ‘ old techniques and appeals. As Socrates points out, while some of it may pander to us by giving temporary pleasure and telling us what we want to hear, none of it is good for our souls. None of it will bring us closer to eudaimonia in any way.

The Crito of Plato

The Crito is an interesting addition to the Platonic canon. Stylistically and linguistically, it doesn’t seem to fit with the other dialogs. Most scholars explain these by assuming that it is either a very early or very late work. In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Hugh Tredennick explains that either of these poses difficulties. The majority theory that the Crito is one of Plato’s first dialogs is appealing because of the extreme simplicity of Socrates’ line of questioning–more a series of rhetorical questions than the knife-like elenchus we see in the other dialogs. However, there is still the problem of the inconsistent language and lack of Socratic Irony, as compared to the other earlier, more “Socratic” dialogs. There is also a line which seems to reference a later work by Polycrates the Sophist.

The less popular theory, that the Crito was written either by an elderly Plato or another Platonist, perhaps his nephew Speusippus. The simplicity of the Crito works against this theory, as does its failure to reference any of the sophisticated metaphysics which were such a feature of later Platonic works. These objections can be partly dealt with, however, if we assume that the Crito was deliberately kept simple because it was intended for a lay audience. This would explain the choice of Crito himself (respectable and affluent, but no intellectual giant) as a relatable interlocutor. The text itself also seems to imply that it was intended to overcome the criticism of Athenians who essentially asked, “If Socrates was so great, why did he let himself be killed?”,

Crito: …But, O! my beloved Socrates, let me entreat you once more to take my advice and escape. For if you die I shall not only lose a friend who can never be replaced, but there is another evil: people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to give money, but that I did not care. Now, can there be a worse disgrace than this- that I should be thought to value money more than the life of a friend? For the many will not be persuaded that I wanted you to escape, and that you refused.


Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy.  From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy. From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Despite its failure to joint neatly into the rest of the corpus, the Crito is unmistakably a Platonic work, even if it is not a work by Plato. The primary question is whether Socrates should allow himself to be rescued by Crito and his other friends. Crito argues that public opinion would be on Socrates’ side and that he has an obligation, under the general norms of their culture, so preserve himself so he can care for his family. Socrates reduces the argument to one of justice. In the eyes of Justice, any obligation he owes do to public opinion or norms is insignificant compared to that he owes to the laws–what we today might call “rule of law”. Socrates has been fairly condemned through due process of law. His conviction may have been unjust, but that does not free him to commit his own injustice against the law and reason.

To me this offers the most digestible justification for why Socrates allowed himself to die: he was a martyr for Reason. Having reasoned his way through an ethical dilemma and convinced himself of the just path, he could do nothing else without ceasing to be a philosopher; a philosopher who does not trust reason is no philosopher at all.

I like this justification much better than Xenophon‘s, that Socrates was ready to die and wanted to do so before his powers failed. It also seems more noble than the argument in the Phaedo that philosophers are destined to a better afterlife, or at least a more pleasant reincarnation, than normal people and should welcome death, particularly since they are forbidden to suicide. That point, however, will have to wait until I write about the Phaedo in a future post.

Lady Justice.  J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

Lady Justice. J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]