lauantai 26. syyskuuta 2009

Turn to ethics

Turn to ethics

Until now we have met thinkers interested predominantly of the nature of the world around us and possibly also of man's position in the world. What remained almost completely uninvestigated was the human action: how should we live our lives in this world? This question appeared in full force around the time of so-called sophists.

Sophists were like school and university teachers, but they didn't have an official position in any centre of learning. Instead, they travelled from town to town and taught people – mostly rhetorics, but a sophist could be acquainted with other fields also. What was scandalous in eyes of Greeks was that sophists asked payment for their services: this was against the etiquette of a Greek gentlemen.

Sophists thus differed from earlier philosophers, who had philosophised more as a hobby and not in order to pursue teaching as a living. Still, many sophists were associated with some philosophic school that supposedly had taught sophists. For instance, Protagoras was known as a pupil of Ionians. Sophists thus inseminated philosophical teachings or at least made them more public. Some of these teachings went straight against traditional beliefs, especially those concerning gods. Even philosophers who were no sophists had to endure this fate in some case, like Anaxagoras who got expelled from Athens because he suggested sun to be a mere rock and no god. Indeed, the pupils of Ionian tradition of ”scientific” studies were prone to attract accusations of heresy: when one is trying to explain world in a completely natural way, one tends to forget gods. Thus, when Protagoras stated that he was not aware of any gods, a great commotion rose against him.

Protagoras was unsure of other things beyond the existence of gods. Like all good sophists, he was aware of the various differences of opinions in thoughts of people in general and philosophers in particular, Furthermore, his Ionian schooling must have prepared him to accept that how the world appears cannot be final truth. Thus, he endorsed the idea that there perhaps there is no final truth good for all eternity, but only truths for a particular person: ”man is the measure of things” Protagoras said, meaning that every person has his or her own perspective and so his or her own truth.

Such dislike for endorsing anything as a final truth was apparently common for all sophists: when one has heard so many opinions, one is finally not convinced by any of them. The most radical teacher in this sense was Gorgias, who even denied of being a sophist: he taught merely rhetorics, because he was sure he couldn't teach any true knowledge, that he couldn't know anything and that there even wasn't anything to know.

Gorgias was supposedly taught by Eleatics, but he hardly picked any of their philosophical teachings. What he did learn was the Eleatics' manner of philosophical argumentation. Thus, Gorgias noted that one couldn't speak of what supposedly existed with mere negative words, because, as Parmenides had taught, mere negative descriptions didn't determine what the world was like. Then again, Gorgias noted that all positive descriptions of the world had their faults: for instance, describing world infinite seemed as wrong as describing it finite. The only remaining answer appeared to be that world or ”what is” should be described by sentences both negative and affirmative, saying things like, ”what is, if infinite in some sense, but is not infinite in another sense”. The problem with this solution was, according to Gorgias, that it failed to account for the apparent difference between denying and affirming: it would not explain e.g. how being infinite differed from being not infinite. Gorgias concluded that the easiest solution would be to deny that there is anything at all to describe.

Gorgias didn't take even this result seriously, but at once suggested that perhaps there is something, but that we couldn't know it. Indeed, he went so far as to deny that we could know anything: we are aware of only our own experiences, which clearly differ from things, that is, we don't have any direct connection to other things. Finally, even if someone had direct contact with the way world is, she couldn't directly transplant those thoughts to our heads through some sort of telepathy, but she would have to use words that awakened possibly quite different thoughts in us.

Gorgias' global disbelief of everything was perhaps too much even for sophists. Yet, in matters of correct behaviour such an attitude was common among sophists. Indeed, sophists were travelling men and thus acquainted with a variety of different customs and habits. Such an experience naturally suggested that no customs were necessary, and hence, that no common criteria of correct behaviour could be given. The idea of changing customs and rules of behaviour seemed then inevitable. Some sophists, like Protagoras, suggested that customs and habits should be based on what was good for the society. Other went even further and upheld that no customs were better than others. Indeed, they held that customs were something a stronger force had made all others obey, and if any customs should be preferred, they would be customs stipulated by the strong. In effect, these sophists advocated tyrannical governments as most natural.

It was especially the attack of sophists against customs of the Greek society that raised the public opinion against them. In the eyes of the posteriority, it was particularly one man's opinion that made the sophists appear in negative light – Socrates. In Socrates we for the first time step on ground known also to others beyond the few philosophy enthusiasts: if one has heard of no other philosopher, one has heard at least of Socrates. And yet, Socrates had hardly anything to teach: he was more of a researcher than preacher.

Like sophists, Socrates made a break from the philosophical tradition by not studying the world or nature. In sophists, this break was due to their disbelief that human reason could know any final truth of the world or that there even was any final truth to know. In Socrates, this break was, firstly, an evidence of his discontentment of the previous philosophies of nature, and secondly, it showed his conviction that humanity was more important object of investigation. Socrates still had some training of the philosophy of nature – he was explicitly said to have studied in the school of Anaxagoras, who had pleased Socrates with his teaching that the world was governed by reason. Socrates was then disappointed when Anaxagorian teaching contained very little reasons: Anaxagoras explained how certain things happened, but didn't indicate any goal for these events: Socrates would have e.g. wanted to know why it was good that Earth was shaped like a ball, that is, why the powers who had fashioned the Earth had thought it worthwhile to make it round. In effect, Socrates was against the scientific tendency of the previous philosophers of nature, who usually had left such questions uninvestigated.

Ironically, Socrates' brief flair with philosophy of nature was long enough to make him permanently associated in the eyes of his fellow Athenians with this sort of philosophy: indeed, Clouds, the playwright Aristophanes' comedy centred round the philosopher, presented Socrates in this light. In truth, it was the question of humanity and the best way of living as human that drew most of Socrates' attention. Socrates was clearly sure that such questions had a final answer and was thus against the relativism of sophists. Yet, he never presented any doctrine of how to live, because he felt that he never was in a position to know the answer. Instead, he used his spare time to ask other people how they thought life should be lived: this was a further point of difference in comparison with sophists who were more used to lecturing. Socrates' method of asking is famous, although rather simple. He asked for definitions of e.g. justice or goodness. When the person then presented some definition, Socrates quickly showed that this definition was still inadequate or didn't fit in with some special case of justice or goodness: for instance, if a person said lying was bad, Socrates might point out that lying to a madman might be good, if it helped to prevent death of someone.

The result of Socrates' questioning was usually that no proper answer was found, because no definition satisfying all possible cases was presented. Hence, although Socrates himself was against the idea of there being no correct way of behaviour, he was often seen as advocating such idea and he was thus associated with sophists. In fact, it is unclear how radical Socrates' true thought of good life were. We know that in some case Socrates' ideas were in contradiction with the public opinion. Socrates was accused of praying to false gods, that is, gods not sanctioned by tradition. Indeed, he was supposedly the only Athenian who had not taken part in traditional cult mysteries. Furthermore, he said he received direct oracular guidance from a spirit being, although the official Greek religion admitted such oracular visions only from certain sources prescribed by tradition. In addition to religion, Socrates went also against traditional familial customs. The public opinion of Athenians thought that the education of youth was primarily the concern of the family. Now, Socrates attracted a lot of young men with his questioning. In some cases Socrates had even suggested that a young man would be better taught by Socrates than by the actual father. Such rebellious attitude led finally to a trial where Socrates was condemned to death. Despite this apparently rebellious attitude,, Socrates thought the obedience to laws – even unjust – to be of an utmost importance, and thus he accepted the judgment of his fellow citizens: disobedience would have meant undermining the authority of society.

Socrates was an important person as an instigator of a new field of philosophical study – human behaviour – and a new method of investigation – questioning and analysing opinions of people. Because he presented no clear-cut doctrine, but tried to guide people more indirectly, his followers soon disagreed over what he had wanted to teach. They all admitted the importance of the question of good life, but had differing views of the correct answer to that question.

One group, known as Megarians because of their place of residence, were particularly attracted by Socrates' capacity of using questioning to uncover faults in people's thoughts. Megarians were apparently also fond of Eleatic teaching, and indeed, Zenonian paradoxes do have something in common with contradictions Socrates had uncovered in common opinions on good life. The actual teaching of Megarians consisted then of engaging people in conversation and luring them into very trivial confusions:for instance, they asked from a person whether he knew his father and after an affirmative answer they presented him with a man hidden by a veil, and asked whether he knew the person behind it – after a negative answer they told him it was his father behind the veil and he thus had admitted both knowing and not knowing his father. The meaning of such dilemmas was apparently to undermine trust on the capacity of language to describe what truly existed – that is, the Parmenidian unity of the world.

Megarians' thoughts on good life were as perplexing. They held the idea quite natural in the Eleatic setting that all events were completely necessary. According to them, we know that e.g. Necessarily it will either rain tomorrow or not: no other possibility exists. Thus, they concluded, either it will necessarily rain tomorrow or then it will necessarily not rain tomorrow: that is, whatever happens tomorrow must already be determined today. Such a viewpoint does not fit very nicely with the human capacity to choose their actions freely: whatever we choose to do would have still happened. Indeed, it seems that Megarians thought that one should try to change more one's attitude towards the world than the world itself, which couldn't be affected; one should try to conform to what happens, because there is nothing more a person can do.

Other philosophers took the Socratian notion of good life in a more substantial manner. Thus, the so-called Cyrenaic school was convinced that all worth life was determined how pleasurable it was. Hence, one should try to always choose the course of action that led to the greatest amount of pleasure: if you had a bottle of water and a bottle of wine in front of you, you should grab for the wine, because getting drunk was more pleasurable than mere quenching of your thirst. One might wonder what this idea had to with Socrates, but Cyrenaics were apparently influenced by Socrates' capacity to drink enormous amounts of wine without getting any hangover. Cyrenaic school soon discovered that especially strong pleasures were often connected with strong pains, like intoxication with hangover. One Cyrenaic evidently came then to the conclusion that no life was worth living – pleasure without any pain would be the ultimate desire, but that cannot be reached – thus, he suggested suicide as the best conclusion to the problematic of good life.

A third reaction to Socrates'challenge of finding a good life was suggested by the so-called Cynics or ”Dogs” as the name of the school literally means. As their names suggests, Cynics or ”Dogs” were against the unnatural life of human civilisation: they wanted to live like wild dogs, their opponents said. Cynics were particularly inspired by Socrates' capability of withstanding great turmoil without any fear or distress. Thus, they rid themselves of all luxuries, living with alms and garbage and so tried to show how little a human being truly needed in order to satisfy her needs. They also spoke against taboos of Greek society and were happy to urinate or masturbate in public: these were natural phenomena and thus in no need of shame, Cynics said.

The first reactions to the question of good life were then quite extreme: good life was thought by different schools to consist of an acceptance of inevitable fate, of drowning oneself in excessive pursuit of pleasures or finally, of discarding all unnatural or civilised customs and accessories. Such a variety was only to be expected, when the question itself was so original: it was Socrates who first suggested that the question was indeed meaningful against the scepticism of sophists. The task of finding more moderate ways to manage one's life was left to later philosophers.

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