A fresh look at Greek Philosophy from The Apes of Eden by Jon P. Gunn

Excerpt from The Classicist

Chapter 6 in the Book of Antiquities, The Apes of Eden by Jon P. Gunn

 

All Metaphysics and Theology

arose in Classical Antiquity.

Despite their later imitators’ claim

it was the Greeks from whom these concepts came–

specifically from Aristotle: the

most famous Founder of Philosophy.

All philosophic systems later wrought

were footnotes, nothing more, to Grecian Thought.”

 

“I think,” the ape remarked, “that kind of lore

might be the very thing we’re looking for.

I used to have a Book I tried to bring

from home, explaining just that sort of thing.

I’d have it still–except some pranksters’ tricks

did damage to it that I couldn’t fix.

If you could summarize a theme or two

from Grecian Thought, I’d be obliged to you.”

 

“I wouldn’t mind a bit,” the centaur said,

“and in your Quest you’ll come out far ahead

if you confine your search for wisdom to

the course of study I define for you.

The philosophic field has come to be

a blend of nonsense with absurdity.

Aspiring students have to pick and choose

with utmost care, lest they their minds confuse

with sterile theorizings which engage

all thinkers since the classic Golden Age.

Originators in Philosophy

gave way to those whose object seemed to be

investigating those who, earlier,

reviewed the works of some philosopher

who had composed a critical review

of someone who had written something new

about the valid  science, deep and vast,

originating in the classic past.

With critics criticizing critics, you

can see no useful  work was left to do.

Post-classical philosophy is all

a trap in which unwary students fall

to waste their lives and intellects–unless

they’re wisely warned, and level heads possess.”

“Our goal is Valid Knowledge,” said the Sage,

“and not in Speculation to engage.

If all  the valid thinking has been done

by Greeks, that’s good enough for anyone.”

He found a seat upon a root of oak,

and listened closely, as the centaur spoke.

“The Greeks were first to place the emphasis

on Observation and Analysis,”

the centaur started in.  “By this they laid

the grounds for all the progress later made.

The Greeks were also first successfully

to search for Generalized Validity.

They learned to reach beyond details of fact

and seek conclusions general and abstract.

They gave us Mathematics, as a base

for all the Sciences the biped race

in later ages managed to devise–

for which the ‘Moderns’ deemed themselves so wise.

They gave us Logical Analysis,

on which we place all present emphasis.

Among their many contributions, they

presented, in a systematic way,

their treatments of some basic questions: those

which in still-older times and cultures rose.

“The first of these they chose to emphasize

was ‘That From Which’ existent things arise:

the branch of science called Ontology–

the Basic Nature of Reality.

“In making lists, the classic custom’s been

with Thales of Miletus to begin.

He made his mark as an astronomer,

geometrician and philosopher.

Without appealing to Tradition, he

proposed that Ultimate Reality

was Water.  This he logically inferred

because this basic element occurred

in ample quantities; and, as we know,

without it, not a blade of grass could grow.

The later answers to this question ranged

from ‘Elements,’ which though themselves unchanged

produced in varied combinations those

materials from which Existence rose–

on up through concepts of ‘the Infinite,’

so called because one cannot say that it

is one thing or another.  It alone

can any substance be, from air to stone,

according to its relative degree

of rarefaction or condensity.

It was Anaximander who devised

the concept that ‘the Infinite’ comprised

the Substance of the Universe.  The mind

rejects the notion that some special kind

of matter typifies them all.  He found

it should be unrestricted, have no bound.

By saying matter has no ‘normal’ state

he managed early to anticipate

the view of ‘modern’ chemists, who agree

that ‘everything consists of Energy,’

which we’re familiar in every form

except   its typifying, standard’ norm.’

“But Anaximenes believed that Air

was typical of Substance. Though quite rare

while in its natural state, it also could

be densified to water, fire or wood;

and if compacted into solid blocks

is just as indigestible as rocks.

“He also managed to anticipate

the ‘modern’ theory that a silicate,

subjected to extremes of heat, will then

split into silicon and oxygen.

And oxygen, as surely you’re aware

is the most vital element of air!

“The most ingenious metaphysic was

the observation, by Pythagoras,

that Number must the Basic Substance be,

since every Thing has size and quantity,

and, whether it is moving or at rest,

abides by laws numerically expressed.

Pythagoras was foremost to insist

the Soul and Body separately exist,

and that one’s Soul, at death, will transmigrate

to start life over, in Some Other State.

“The controversy over Permanence

and Change was also much in evidence.

The Eleatic, Zeno, strove to prove

that even speeding arrows cannot move:

At each successive  instant, arrows were

at rest, therefore no motion could occur,

just as no ‘separation’ we define

between adjacent  points along a line.

An object cannot  change position.  First

one-half the distance has to be transversed.

Before that midpoint, it must first attain

one quarter of the distance–but in vain,

for eighth, sixteenth, and thirty-second parts

must first be reached.  So motion never starts–

it wastes its time at points along a line

which is divided ‘infinitely fine.’

“The difficulties in resolving these

conundrums soon engendered tendencies

toward Gnostic Relativity–the view

that nothing’s ever absolutely true.

The Truth as such  can never be removed

from what some clever Sophist claims he’s proved,

so nothing’s known  except to that extent

that we’re convinced of it, by Argument.

“But Socrates turned up in time to give

the Sophists’ view that ‘Truth is Relative’

a well-deserved critique.  The Sophists feel

that nothing much, if anything, is Real.

One aspect of the Knowledge Problem lay

(as Socrates insisted) in the way

the Sophists use the ambiguities

of words to ‘prove’ whatever ‘truths’ they please.

He thought this pointed up the urgent need

for Rules of Rhetoric that all could heed

–some formalized criteria, by which

contestants in debate could make their pitch

and yet not leave unbiased judges with

the vague impression they had proved a myth.

“A precept often stressed by Socrates

(and hardly anybody disagrees)

is Reason’s Duty to examine things,

exempting nothing from our questionings.

‘The unexamined life,’ he always said,

‘need not be lived; one might as well be dead.’

He also stipulated: ‘Questioning

must be constructive–not the sort of thing

that undermines an honest point of view

without replacing it with something new.’

“Since Reasoning Ability is viewed

as Humankind’s Distinctive Aptitude,

and since it is incumbent on a man

to make himself as human  as he can,

Morality–so Socrates opined–

is using and developing the Mind.

“This train of logic leads us to suspect

that Virtue’s locus is the Intellect.

The essence of one’s Virtue therefore lies

between the ears and just behind the eyes.

To that extent that human being lack

Sound Judgment, are their moral standards slack.

The disadvantages  of evil were

the damage done to one’s own character.

No normal person voluntarily

elects to do himself an injury–

the problem is, we don’t all realize

exactly where our best self-interest lies.

We therefore many evil choices make

despite  self-interest, simply by mistake!

If malefactors only knew  this fact

they’d have the sense to think before they act.

“No axiologist since Socrates

has solved the Values Issue with such ease;

yet ‘moderns’ now refuse to recognize

that evil deeds from Ignorance arise.

Dismissing Socrates as ‘out of date,’

they fudge, and theorize, and obfuscate,

too stubborn to admit the issue’s solved

and Error is the only thing involved.

“In Socrates and in his followers

we meet those eminent philosophers

of long-enduring, well-deserved repute

whose basic contributions constitute

the main traditions in the history

of Western science and philosophy.

In Plato’s The Republic  he relates

the salient features of Ideal States,

where measures will be taken to insure

for every citizen a lineage pure,

and equal opportunity for all

to find a social niche, then rise or fall

according to one’s own abilities–

one’s aptitudes and fallibilities.

Prospective statesmen who perform the best

on Euclid’s books (by some objective test)

advance, because this talent we equate

with that required to run Affairs of State.

By this selective process, judges find

and elevate the Philosophic Mind.

The truly qualified will never stop

advancing till they make it to the Top:

that is, the Council of the Truly Wise

who would the central government comprise.

Those few who understand the True and Good

receive the posts an Archimedes should,

and higher concepts learn of Deity

in place of popular mythology.

“In Plato’s scheme, an indolent buffoon

needs more endowments than a silver spoon.

If necessary, to eliminate

all nepotistic tendencies, the State

will overrule the Family, taking charge

of offspring, who’ll be raised as ‘kids at large,’

eliminating, to a great extent,

the Last Resort of the Incompetent–

a doting father who, besides a Name,

supplies the bribes to pave his way to fame.

Is it not strange to note, since Plato died,

not once  has his ingenious plan been tried!

“Few intellects by later ages hatched

have Aristotle’s Analytics  matched

for thoroughly-objective and exact

analysis of scientific fact.

His books were much consulted, first by peers

and then Scholastics, for two thousand years.

“In brief, as any Sophomore can see,

the Golden Age of Greek Philosophy

had kicked all questions thoroughly around

and every possible Solution found.

No new addition to these crowded shelves

can add to what the Greeks devised themselves.

“And so,” the centaur summarized, “you see

that in the study of Philosophy,

the careful student must avoid the snares

of everything since Aristotle.  There’s

a Labyrinth awaiting, like the Pit,

and nothing gained by getting lost in it,

for those who venture past the Golden Age

of Grecian Thought, by even half a page. . .

 

“And now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe

since Dusk approaches, both of us should leave.

If we delay, we’re apt to meet with more

‘fair game’–like that atrocious minotaur.

My life’s not charmed, and I’m afraid I might

be still less fortunate, unarmed, by night.”

The centaur heaved the Carcass to his back,

and turned to face along the forest track.

With one last word of thanks for all the good

the Sage had done, he set off through the wood.

 

The Sage sat thinking, making mental note

of headings for a book he later wrote,

until he, also, apprehensive grew

at pending dusk, and prudently withdrew.