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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.

Leaves of Grass

Last week I finished up my study of the Hebrew Bible. I am currently working my way through the works of Aeschylus, so by next week I should be ready to blog about Greek Tragedy. right now, however, I would like to introduce the concept of a glove box book. A glove box book is one that you keep in the car in case you get stuck somewhere and need to kill time. To work, it needs to be something you can read over and over and which you can start reading at any spot and still enjoy, even if you haven’t looked at it for a few months.

My own glove box book is Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. Technically, I don’t have a glove box, since I gave up driving a few years ago. I have thought of it by that name, though, since an old family friend introduced me to the concept. His own glove box contains Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, another good choice. He tells me he has worn out at least two previous copies. My copies of Leaves of Grass live in the bag I carry when I walk into town and next to the chair where I smoke my briar pipe in the evenings.

Those of you who watched the television series Breaking Bad (and if you didn’t, you should) probably remember the rather pivotal role that Walter White’s copy of Leaves of Grass, kept on the back of his toilet, played in the plot of the show. Apparently Mr. White, and the writers of the show, have the same high opinion of the book that I do.

Walter White reads Leaves of Grass [Copyright by AMC/Sony Pictures]

Walter White reads Leaves of Grass [Copyright by AMC/Sony Pictures]

Walt Whitman was a genius, the human bridge between the transcendental and realistic movements. Leaves of Grass is a distillation of years of careful observation of every facet of American life into free verse. The book was Whitman’s life’s work; he kept returning to it and creating new editions to make it even better. Although most would classify the work as lyric poetry, Whitman thought of the work as an “American epic”, rooted in the classical tradition, yet distinctly tied to the country he loved,

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and AEneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus,
Repeat at Jerusalem, place the notice high on jaffa’s gate and on Mount Moriah,
The same on the walls of your German, French and Spanish castles, and Italian collections,
For know a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain awaits, demands you.

And yet, it is clear that he chose to deliberately depart from the epic model in more than just structure. Classic epics glorify violence and elevate heroes, but such themes held little appeal for Whitman, who had seen far too much of them as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War,

Away with themes of war! away with war itself!
Hence from my shuddering sight to never more return that show of blacken’d, mutilated corpses!
That hell unpent and raid of blood, fit for wild tigers or for lop-tongued wolves, not reasoning men,
And in its stead speed industry’s campaigns, With thy undaunted armies, engineering,
Thy pennants labor, loosen’d to the breeze, Thy bugles sounding loud and clear.
Away with old romance!

Instead, he chose to focus on and glorify the common working people whom he saw building America,

…I raise a voice for far superber themes for poets and for art, To exalt the present and the real,
To teach the average man the glory of his daily walk and trade,
To sing in songs how exercise and chemical life are never to be baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
To plant and tend the tree, the berry, vegetables, flowers,
For every man to see to it that he really do something, for every woman too;

But while his themes were different Whitman resembles Homer in his gift for painting a series of beautiful, vivid word pictures which brings to life in 19th century America just as effectively as Homer’s did for ancient Greece.

Walt Whitman [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Walt Whitman [Public Domain via Wikimedia]

Besides being a masterpiece of poetry, Leaves of Grass is ideal as a glove box book because it is a collection of smaller poems; I can easily pick a section which is the right length for whichever line I need to wait in, and there are enough of them that I can choose one I haven’t read in a while.

If you don’t have a glove box book of your own, I suggest you find one that works for you. Hopefully, you will chose one of the Great Books. I suspect, though, that most of the criteria for a good glove box book are the same as those for a Great Book, so the odds are good that you will.

The Bardic Memory

I would like to conclude my study of Homer with some reflections on one more subject which I find fascinating.  Both the Iliad and the Odyssey were originally oral works, composed completely in Homer’s mind and and transmitted, possibly for generations, without benefit of writing.  Let’s pause for a moment and consider how monumental this accomplishment was.  When we print each poem today it runs to about 500 pages of text.  How many of us could commit something that size to memory?  Yet even hundreds of years after the poems had been written down we read of aristocratic Greek boys memorizing them the full text of one or both poems.  A fully trained bard like Homer might well have known a repertoire of dozens of epics.  During the classical period poets often recited the Iliad and Odyssey, competing to give the most word-perfect rendition.  Gladstone, in Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, points out that this tradition is probably why the versions of Homer that came down to us are so free of variation, since additions and improvisations would have been penalized.  How did all of these people memorize such long poems?

Homer Sings the Odyssey.  Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Homer Sings the Odyssey. Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bards weren’t unique to the Greek dark ages, either.  It seems that the majority of cultures developed a similar role at some point.  Our own Indo-European language group has a diverse tradition of (originally) oral epic poetry including The Bhagavad Gita, the medieval French chansons, the Celtic epics, and the sagas of Scandinavia.  In many cultures the bard is also a priest or shaman.  In ancient Ireland, for example, bards were members of the priesthood who ranked only slightly below druids.  In Homer’s Greece it was considered sacrilegious, or at least very unlucky to kill a bard.  For this reason, the bard is one of the only men whom Odysseus spares when he massacres the suitors.  Perhaps the bard’s incredible memorization abilities were one of the reasons they were considered to be so special.

Writing was known in Homer’s time.  The idea had been imported hundreds of years before from the Phoenicians and/or Egyptians.  But it was thought to be beneath the dignity of warriors and  bards.  As Will Durant says in The Life of Greece,

The Achaeans leave to merchants the and lowly scribes the art of writing, which had presumably been handed down to them from Mycenaean Greece; the prefer blood to ink and flesh to clay.  In all of Homer there is but one reference to writing, and there in a characteristic context; a folded tablet is given to a messenger, directing the recipient to kill the messenger. (p. 52)

Homer had little use for writing, but he admits how hard the task of memory was.   The hardest part of either of his poems to remember and recite would certainly have been the “Catalog of Ships” which takes up the second half of Book II of the Iliad.  This section lists every important person who fought at Troy, where he came from, how many ships he commanded, and, usually, what he was known for and who his parents were.  Getting through this section is such a “mighty labor” that before he begins the bard inserts a special plea for help from the muses,

Say, virgins, seated round the throne divine,
All-knowing goddesses! immortal nine!
Since earth’s wide regions, heaven’s umneasur’d height,
And hell’s abyss, hide nothing from your sight,
(We, wretched mortals! lost in doubts below,
But guess by rumour, and but boast we know,)
O say what heroes, fired by thirst of fame,
Or urged by wrongs, to Troy’s destruction came.
To count them all, demands a thousand tongues,
A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs.
Daughters of Jove, assist! inspired by you
The mighty labour dauntless I pursue;
Or urged by wrongs, to Troy’s destruction came.
To count them all, demands a thousand tongues,
A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs.
Daughters of Jove, assist! inspired by you
The mighty labour dauntless I pursue;
Their names, their numbers, and their chiefs I sing.

Gladstone’s book, from which I borrowed the following maps, explains how Homer organized the information in the catalog to make it possible to memorize it.  Basically, Homer uses a technique similar to a mind palace, an ancient technique in which information is visualized in concrete form inside an imaginary “mansion” or “palace”.  Fans of the television show Sherlock will be familiar with this from the interesting visual sequences showing Sherlock’s thought process.  Homer’s mind palace, however, is the entire Greek world.  He traces a nearly circular arc that encompasses the Greek mainland, Crete, and the islands.  Along each subsection of this arc, he follows a zig-zag path which allows him to mentally recreate a journey through that part of the countryside, visualizing each city and its chieftain.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships.  from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain].  Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships. from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain]. Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships - Greek Mainland.  from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain].  Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Locations Mentioned in the Catalog of Ships – Greek Mainland. from Gladstone (1855) [Public Domain]. Scanned by Project Gutenberg.

Homer most likely never saw a map in his life, so he was probably mentally stepping through his own memories from his wanderings, or imagining the oral descriptions of other travelers.  The technique is surprisingly effective–much more so than the alternative.  Have you ever tried to list all the state capitals without looking them up?  I bet you missed one, and couldn’t figure out which it was.  Perhaps next time you should try mentally driving from each capital to the next.  That’s what Homer would have done.

My partner, who was a professional actor and performance artist for many years, gives another perspective on memorization.  She says that she was trained to remember her lines kinaesthetically.  She feels different lines in different parts of her body and uses particular movements to unlock memorized text.  We don’t know how much the Greek bard moved around while they were reciting, but they may well have used some of the same tricks to trigger their memories.  Most likely, they used a combination of several different memory techniques, and learning these techniques was as important a part of their apprenticeship as learning the lines of the poems themselves.

With that, I leave Homer.  I will be back to Greece and her poets before long, but, for now, I have begun reading another body of work which was initially transmitted orally:  The Hebrew Bible.

The Odyssey

I’ve just read the Odyssey, which means that I have finished reading the first author on my Great Books reading list. In some ways the Odyssey is much more accessible to us modern readers than the Iliad. The basic format, in which the hero journeys from one fantastic encounter to another before finally returning home, is quite familiar to us from works like Huckleberry Finn, The Hobbit, and thousands of others. Fans of Joseph Campbell will recognize it as a classic “hero’s journey”. The Iliad, on the other hand, is a type of epic that focuses on battles and the deeds and lineages of heroes. This form would have been just as popular in the ancient world, but seems a bit strange to us moderns. Also, in the Iliad, in the words of W.E. Gladstone (1855), “a more antique tone on colouring prevails, as it is demanded by the loftier strain of the action.” Even so, I found that the Iliad was my favorite of the two. This might be due to the translations I used, however: Alexander Pope worked alone to translate the Iliad, but he subcontracted several chapters of the Odyssey, which may have made it harder to make the text flow smoothly.

Odysseus and the Sirens. Gerard de Lairesse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus and the Sirens. Gerard de Lairesse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Odyssey is still a wonderful story, and very well worth reading. Few authors have ever had Homer’s gift of sketching such vivid characters and locations in only a few lines of poetry. Even after nearly three millennia, these people and places live for the reader. As a writer, I have an almost irresistible urge to borrow from Homer and put my own stories in his universe, and I am hardly alone. Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and a legion of others through the ages read Homer and were inspired to write what our era would call “fan fiction”. Homer is the mother of all expanded universes. Even today a quick scan through Amazon shows hundreds of modern novels, plays, and movies that adapt Homer’s stories. It’s easy to see why. I feel I could take nearly any character from the Odyssey, even bit players who are only mentioned on a few pages, and create a short story, if not a novel, about them.

This is gratifying, since my main motivation to read the Great Books is to improve my writing. I can only hope that the other 146 authors give me so many ideas.

Odysseus Yearns for Ithaca.  Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Odysseus Yearns for Ithaca. Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Structurally, I found a few surprises about the poem. Most adaptations of the Odyssey focus on the journey itself. Of the twenty-four books in the original, however, the first four follow Odysseus’ son Telemachus and his frustrations with the boorish suitors who have come to woo his mother. Unable to force them to leave, he sets off to the mainland to find news of his father. As characters, Telemachus and his mother, Penelope, are at least as developed as Odysseus himself. The last twelve books occur after Odysseus arrives home in Ithaca, so that only the eight books in the middle deal with his epic journey. Furthermore, I noticed that some of the most fantastic elements of the story, such as the encounter with the cyclops and the incident when Circe turns Odysseus’ men into swine, are actually told by Odysseus himself in the form of flashback dialogue. One wonders if the cunning king was embroidering his stories a bit in order to impress his hosts. Overall, the story structure is much more sophisticated than I would have expected from such an ancient work. It is fabulous to me that his poem, composed (probably) in the 7th century BCE and translated in 18th century English, reads so much like a modern novel, but I suppose that is what makes a Great Book.

See also: You may be interested in an essay I wrote several years ago about the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? and its relationship to the Odyssey and Campbellian meta-mythology, or another essay I wrote about Constantine Cavafy’s poem Ithaka.