maanantai 22. kesäkuuta 2009

A prophet, a critic and a hermit

The first group of philosophers we met were precursors of scientific thinking and almost formed a school of some sorts. The three thinkers we are about to be introduced are a more diverse group with no obvious line of master-pupil –relations, although later Greek historians were keen on establishing such relations. Yet, the three philosophers share at least a common subject matter: they were interested of the religious issues. Although the reader would be an atheist or otherwise dismissed all mystical talk, she shouldn’t stop reading just because of her dislike: an interest in something beyond what can be through experience or scientifically explained has been an important part of human life for millennia, and one should at least be interested where this need for religion has arisen.

The first philosopher introduced now is a fellow called Pythagoras, who lived approximately at the same time as Thales and his disciples. In fact, one legend tells that Pythagoras himself was a disciple of Thales, while others say that he was educated by some other individual in the group of Seven Wise Men: it was apparently important for Greek historians to find a basis for philosophy in the common sense wisdom. Although the first legend would be true, Pythagoras didn’t live in the Ionia, but in the so-called “Greater Greece”, that is, in the Greek colonies of the southern Italy.

We might say that Pythagoras did no philosophy at all. Instead, he organised a new religion. Whereas Western people unsatisfied with Christianity sometimes dream of the colourful nature of pagan religions, Greek pagans were often equally unsatisfied with their own religion which gave no hope of a happy afterlife, but spoke only of a dreary eternity in the valley of shadows, unless one had the luck of being a demigod or at least kin of gods. Besides this “official” Greek religion there was a mystical undercurrent of the so-called Orphic movement, which promised something extra for its followers. Orphic movement held that a person continued his or her existence after death, but in a different body. Furthermore, by following the rites of the religion a person could in some manner control which form he or she would be getting in the next life: the best possible option was a place with gods.

Pythagoras’ “philosophy” was then a form of Orphism: it is not certain whether Pythagoras was influenced by Orphism or the other way around, but the connection is clear. Pythagoras created a monastic society that followed strict rules of conduct, which mostly described what one must not do in order to remain clean: such taboos as the prohibition of eating beans seem quite strange nowadays. Like any proper founder of a new religion, Pythagoras was thought to be capable of great miracles – a proper Jesus or Buddha.

One might wonder why such a “wonder boy” has deserved a name in the history of philosophy. This has mostly to do with his supposed followers. Something similar happened as with Thales and Anaximenes: philosophical theories of the latter were transferred to the first. In the case of Pythagoras this transference was authorised by the unknown true inventors of the new idea. Aristotle named them so-called Pythagoreans: they used the name of Pythagoras to defend their own views, although the master himself might have not liked those opinions – such a creative us of the history of philosophy is still an ongoing pursuit.

Why use the name of Pythagoras to introduce one’s own opinions? One good reason apparently was that Pythagoras was known as a wise person knowing many deep secrets. Second reason might have been the fact that Pythagoras was apparently fond of mathematics: he was rumoured to have made a great sacrifice for the gods after learning the famous theorem named after him. For the future Pythagoreans this was a delight, because they themselves were convinced that mathematics and especially numbers were the key to unlocking all the secrets of the universe.

The idea of numbers as the basis of universe might sound convincing at first: after all, we do know now that mathematics is helpful in e.g. determining the movements of planets. Yet, the idea of Pythagoreans was more primitive. Mere numbers play actually a very minor role even in mathematics. A quantity of a planet’s mass isn’t very helpful by itself, but only in relation to other quantities, like the current velocity of the same planet. Even the mass of the planet or any other object (say 5 kg) is not a simple number, but actually a relation of the mass of this object to an object that weighs one kilogram. Mere numbers occur only when we count some groups of objects – like three rabbits on the field – and even there this number by itself seems hardly informative.

One place where mere numbers are essential at least partially is in geometry. Triangle is determined by its having three sides, quadrangles are determined by having four sides and so on. The Pythagoreans were obviously fond of geometry and they apparently thought that what is essential in geometry is essential in all universe. Thus, Pythagoreans were eager to assume that important concepts in other fields of life could be reduced to numbers: the connections Pythagoreans assumed to exist between numbers and other concepts were most of the time a bit farfetched. For instance, ideas of unity and sameness naturally brings to mind the number one, while number two should then correspond to multiplicity and difference; goodness could then be described also by number one, while evil differing from goodness was then naturally described by two; and because men were thought to be better than women, masculinity was identified with one and femininity with two.

As should be obvious by now, this mixing of numbers with other ideas quickly degenerated into a mystical numerology, where some numbers were felt to be more perfect than others: for instance, three as the combination of unity and multiplicity (1+2) was supposedly more complete than its predecessors – this idea lived on e.g. in the viewpoint that good plays should have three acts, because then we would have perfectly a beginning, a middle and an end. Indeed, we might say that Pythagoreans were forerunners of the numerological books which promise to reveal your inner essence by calculating the number of your name. In addition to such mysticism, Pythagoreans also tried to make physical applications of their theory of numbers. They assumed that world, which was supposed perfect, would exhibit the most perfect numbers. Hence, the Pythagoreans thought that there should be a total of ten planets, because ten as a sum of first four numbers (1+2+3+4=10) was assumed to be a perfect number (one wonders why fifteen wouldn’t then be even more perfect number: perhaps the Pythagoreans just counted their fingers and thought they should be adorned with what is most perfect).

Pythagoreans were, to put it nicely, quite original followers of their adopted teacher, as they added the numerical mysticism to the purely religious teachings of the Pythagoras. The tradition held that teachings of Pythagoras spawned yet another school of thought: the philosopher Xenophon, who was rumoured to be the founder of the Eleatic school that we shall meet later, was according to some accounts a pupil of Pythagorean school, although according to other accounts he criticised Pythagoras. Indeed, Pythagoras and Xenophanes were both reformers of the traditional Greek religion. But whereas Pythagoras tried to fix the lack of emotional attachment and of a sense of holiness in a Greek religion, Xenophanes was more interested of the meagre dogma of Greek religion.

If you didn’t know it already, paganism was full of gods and other spiritual beings of many sorts: beside the gods proper who dwelled in the Mount Olympus, there were all kinds of demigods, nymphs, fauns etc. The Greek gods were shaped like humans, and furthermore, they had very human characters: Zeus was cheating his wife, Hera, who was supposedly quite jealous of her husband. Gods fought against one another, seduced mortals and in general lived a life one would expect a god to be incapable of.

Xenophon thought the religion of Greeks filled gods with humanly characteristics: in effect, Greeks believed that gods were just humans with a bit more authority and power – indeed, they even had a human shape. Xenophon made the biting remark that apes and other beasts would undoubtedly make gods in their own image: e.g. the gods of the wolves would quite likely have sharp teeth and like eating sheep. Xenophon thus called for a new understanding of gods which would give more dignity to those supposed most perfect beings there are: furthermore he argued that there could actually be only one God, because many gods wouldn’t be as perfect as one god.

It is quite hard to say what kind of God Xenophon would have preferred over the unruly gods of his fellow citizens. The only remark that has been preserved on this matter tells that Xenophon believed God to be shaped like a round ball. It is quite probable that he was thinking that the Earth itself was some sort of God: another possibility is that he identified the whole cosmos with God. In any case, the God of Xenophon was still a material being, although supposedly perfect.

The final philosopher we shall meet this time, Heraclitus, was rumoured to be a pupil of Xenophon. Like a good pupil, Heraclitus was also told to have said that Xenophon and even Pythagoras just pretended to be wise, although they did not know true wisdom. This statement shows Heraclitus’ professional jealousy: Heraclitus was also in a sense religious thinker, because he was interested to discern the place of human in the makings of the cosmos, and he thus wanted to disparage other religious thinkers in order to promote his own ideas. Then again, Heraclitus was eager to note his enthusiasm for Thales who was more of a researcher of nature, because no rivalry existed between Heraclitus and Thales.

At first sight Heraclitus’ philosophy might have more in common with Thales and other Ionians than Pythagoras and Xenophanes. Indeed, he supposedly said that fire was the basis of everything, just like Thales’ student Anaximenes had said that air was the basic substance behind everything. But Heraclitus’ statement was more of a metaphor. Fire signified for Heraclitus the processual nature of the world. Everything was in a flux, and it was almost impossible to refer to anything twice, because the things we experienced changed at once into something else: living things were constantly decaying, while seemingly lifeless world was full of possible life.

This idea of eternal change of everything was commonly seen as the only novelty of Heraclitus’ thought: clever philosophers pointed at once that the change itself seemed not to be changing at all. This criticism was a bit hasty, because Heraclitus himself admitted that not everything changed, just those things that we could see with our eyes (like leaves that changed their colours from green to red and brown and finally turned into soil). Beyond those sensible and vanishing things there was something stable. Heraclitus was not speaking of any supernatural entities, but of regularities in the processes of the world. Life turns lifeless through death and decay, but lifeless turns back into life through birth of new creatures; fire heats up water, which also quenches fire. Such facts were for Heraclitus instances of laws that apply to a number of phenomena: opposites tend to change into one another, but they also might cancel one another. Heraclitus saw an everlasting tension of opposites governing the world we know and also sustaining the processes in it.

Heraclitus thought it was important that a person would recognise this contradictory nature of the world around her. True, people could live without being aware of the laws governing the world, that is, they could follow their senses and strive for variable and mutable things – indeed, most of the people do live in this way, Heraclitus added. But this sort of life hardly differs from a life of an animal that merely satisfies its desires as they come by. Knowing the immutable laws makes it possible for us to plan ahead and regulate our life. Heraclitus did not mean that a human being should use the laws to further her own agendas: this would be an animal life in another guise. Instead, he believed that a true knowledge of the laws should lead to a life according to those laws, that is, to a life where the person would live in harmony with her environment – this is a more religious, than scientific idea. Because the majority of the humans did not live in this manner, they lived a life of struggle against the necessary process of the world – no wonder Heraclitus decided to live as a hermit. Even the so-called wise men – such colleagues of Heraclitus as Pythagoras and Xenophanes – tried to supplant false wisdom in place of true appreciation of the world.

Although the three thinkers differed in their opinions, they all shared the same worry. Pythagoras, Xenophanes and Heraclitus all wanted to give new meaning and life to the spirit of the Greeks, which had been nourished by meagre stories of heroes and gods with no deeper purpose. Whether it was through a founding of new cult, through new image of God or through a discovery of the place of humans in the world, these philosophers wanted to give Greek world a purpose and a goal.

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