sunnuntai 2. elokuuta 2015

Philosophy translated

All the philosophers thus far have spoken and written in Greek, even if they lived far away from Greek mainland. Philosophy, as we have faced it – this strange mix of a search for meaningful life and an investigation of truth – has been a unique part of Greek culture. This changed, when philosophical schools started to translate their theories to Rome.

At first, philosophy did not fair well in these new surroundings. There is a well known story of a group of philosophical ambassadors arriving in Rome. Carneades the Academic was one member of this group, and upon the day of their arrival, he made a touching speech about the usefulness of military prowess – a topic close to the heart of Romans. True to his habit of not asserting anything, Carneades made another speech the following day and this time insulted military prowess as the ultimate evil. Needless to say, Roman authorities were not pleased and banned the arrival of philosophers to Rome.

It is not certain how fabulous the story is, but it probably reflects a real tendency in Roman society. Greeks in general were considered effeminate and thus suspicious in the eyes of the masculine culture of Romans. Philosophy was considered nothing more than a further evidence of the perversity of Greeks – who on earth would spend considerable time in thinking such frivolities?

Of course, as time went by, Romans started to warm up to Greek learning. Thus, in few generations we find representatives of major philosophical schools using Latin in their writings. Even such highly infamous school as Epicureanism had its Roman follower, Lucretius. Basic opinions of Lucretius remained same as those of Epicurus, but some interesting differences of emphasis had occurred. While Epicurus himself was against too flowery teaching, Lucretius used his poetic skills for teaching philosophy. Indeed, he concentrated on the most epic theme in Epicurean philosophy, that is, physics or the study of the world and its birth, instead of the usual emphasis on ethical matters.

Lucretius spins a dramatic tale starting from the idea of atoms of different shapes flying around, all in straight line in infinite space. Suddenly, an atom changes its course, due to no reason at all, and bounces on other atoms, thus creating aggregates of atoms, like the elements or earth, water, air and fire. At first the elements are completely mixed, but the heavy earth finally takes up the middle point and the lighter elements are left to the outer remnants. Thus was finally born the world we know, and one day it will be destroyed, when the fight of the elements is finally canceled.

Spirit animating animals and humans is also in Epicurean theory an element consisting of atoms, and furthermore, such that can live only within a body – no afterlife in Epicurean philosophy, but then again, there's also nothing to worry about, no eternal pain after death. True, people do get visions of tormented souls, but these are just freak combinations of atoms striking our mind. In the beginning of the world, the earth itself had enough power to create combinations of spirit and other matter or living beings, but in time its power diminished and only those animals that could have offspring remained. For humans, this meant the beginning of a long progress towards civilization, through inventions like agriculture, metallurgy and social life. But far more important Lucretius considers the discoveries of Epicurus, who showed that many events apparently caused by gods were actually natural occurrences and hence no reason to fear divine wrath.

But it is not Lucretius one should take as the most important link between Greek and Latin philosophy. Instead, this epithet should be bestowed on Marcus Tullius Cicero, who actually began his career as an orator and a statesman in Roman republic and took to philosophy only later in his life, when he was effectively prevented from taking part in state life by machinations of Julius Caesar and his followers. His first literary works concerned rhetoric, a topic he had plenty of personal experience with, and therefore it is no wonder that he took a considerably more positive view of it than many earlier philosophers – rhetoric was a good instrument, if the user just was an upright citizen. Indeed, Cicero was of the opinion that originally rhetoric or oratory formed a complete whole with philosophy, as a general capacity to know how to live and to present one's wisdom to fellow citizens. Later philosophers had isolated some topics for pure research and ignored the need for defending them, and some (Epicureans) had even tried to escape the duty to serve others of their communities in their search for personal peace and contentment. True, philosophers like Stoics might have better arguments, but they lacked the means of making the crowd convinced – a criteria that was essential for evaluating the success of one's speech.

In comparison with philosophers, Cicero thought that orators had nothing to be shamed of. He even suggested that an ideal speaker, like the famous Greek orator, Demosthenes, should know of all sorts of things and be highly civilized. He should be well versed with logic and ethics (for instance, he should know that there are basically two sources of a decent human life: cultivation of one's intellectual capacities and harmonisation of desires under the guidance of intellect). Cicero still admitted that real speakers were often far from this ideal, but maintained that even they had to have some inkling of certain tricks of trade, like some basic human psychology and capacity of finding convincing arguments, even if rhetoric is more dependent on one having the capacities of a potential speaker. Furthermore, Cicero was convinced that oratory as a whole had developed in the sense that best speakers of earlier ages were mere babblers in comparison with best speakers of Cicero's day.

Cicero was in fact convinced that even in philosophy caring about the affairs of community is far more appropriate than losing oneself to the study of the wonders of nature. Indeed, he himself was highly interested of the question of the shape of an ideal community. Cicero basically accepted the Aristotelian idea of three paradigmatic forms of community: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Of these, democracy does retain the liberty of every citizen, but often leads to a state of anarchy, when no one has a clear governing position, while monarchy and aristocracy are more efficient, but are in danger of being corrupted into tyrannies and oligarchies, just like happened with Roman monarchy. True solution would be a balanced community, with elements of all forms of government, which Cicero felt was embodied in republican Rome, in which consuls retained some of the monarchic power, while patrician senate and plebeian tribunal expressed aristocratic and democratic elements.

Quite traditionally, Cicero held that a balanced community – and indeed, any community, if it was to be community and not just an enslavement of people – would have to be based on justice, that is, on the principle that everyone was due to what she deserved. While Greek philosophers had to apply this principle in affairs of one city, Cicero as a citizen of an empire had to consider what justice means in international affairs. True to the mores of his time, Cicero could defend aggression of a state over another with the Aristotelian notion that some people just were more natural to rule, while the fate of others was to be ruled. Cicero also had to face the problem of different mores in different cultures, so obvious in an international empire like Rome – if different cultures thought different things good and evil, how could we defend justice as the guiding principle of all communities? Cicero's answer was that deep down all people must agree on some basic values, such as justice, because they were based on the nature of things and not on arbitrary cultural habits.

Just like Greek philosophers before him, Cicero was also certain that the good of a community relied not only on the structure of the society, but also on harmonising the actions of the community members. This harmonising then requires that the members have a state of mind geared towards community life, instead of just caring for themselves. As an incentive towards such a mindset, Cicero uses Plato's trick of suggesting a reward in the afterlife for all those who have lived well – a reason not to be intimidated of death nor of old age. Even if death were a mere annihilation of life and so all sensation, it would be nothing to be afraid of, since it would mean deliverance from all pain and would resemble deep sleep. But, Cicero argues, since human body appears to contain a divine element, as evidenced by the mental powers of human beings, this spark must not be hindered by the death of body. Instead, as it is made of finer elements than the coarse body, it will get to fly away from the insignificant speck that Earth is to the beauty of heavenly spheres. Thus, Cicero is willing to incorporate religious rituals to state life and so gain divine justification to it.

Cicero is also insistent that the harmony of the state is dependent especially on the state of its nobles – on the one hand, it's important that there is a class that has the means to understand the affairs of state better than the common people, on the other hand, this class should also work for the common good instead of their own advancement. Cicero especially emphasises the role of past great men of Rome as examples of good life. These past heroes knew that true worth of human life lies not in riches, but more in one's capacity to control oneself – riches and earthly goods are something that comes and goes and a person controlled by a desire for them is never satisfied, while a self-controlled person can never become unhappy, because of his ability to adjust to all circumstances. He would never be anxious or depressed about anything, because he would understand how small and meaningless all the seeming troubles of life are.

These statements of what good life is sound like they could have come out of the mouth of a Stoic. Indeed, like Stoics, Cicero was critical of the Epicurean philosophy. Epicurean physics Cicero despised completely. Atoms changing the direction of their movement just by accidence and complete worlds coming to be through pure chance were just too unbelievable doctrines in his eyes. And images of things far away floating around, pinging our bodies and causing us imagine things not actually present sounds convincing at first, but then you'd have to accept the existence of all sorts of fables, like centaurs and dragons.

Epicurean idea of gods Cicero thought especially ridiculous. Epicureans thought a god should be human in shape, because that was the only suitable form for reasoning, but this just made human ignorance into a general principle – and in any case, how could a thing in human form be anything but mortal? Furthermore, Epicureans thought that gods would do nothing and care for nothing and still be happy, but Cicero insisted that only an active life would be a happy life. Even worse, idea of such indifferent gods would mean end to all religion, because no one would feel any need to worship such gods. In any case, Cicero thought that it would have been easier if Epicureans had just denied the existence of gods altogether, since they just appeared to accept them because of common opinion.

Cicero had learned from Epicurean teachers and so knew more of their ethics than just the usual caricature – he was aware that Epicureans did not search for mere temporary delights of flesh, but like other major schools of philosophy, recommended a life of moderation, because only such promised stable pleasures. Yet, Cicero thought, Epicurus was trying to play with two sets of cards at the same time: on the one hand, he spoke of pleasure to entice people wanting to spend their life full of a variety of pleasant sensations, on the other hand, he acted as if greatest pleasure was just a life without pain in order to sound more respectable in philosophical circles. Epicurus even says that traditional virtues are good for pleasures (for instance, courage makes us feel less pain in adverse circumstances), but Cicero thinks this view distorts the true purpose of virtues, which are meant to serve the whole community, not just an individual. Indeed, a true Epicurean would be a complete egoist, and because Epicurus himself valued his friends, he must have been inconsistent.

Even though Cicero did agree with Stoics that Epicureans were a really bad school of philosophy and even used their terminology in a Latinized form, he still was no straightforward Stoic, but appropriated features of many philosophies into his worldview. Indeed, he didn't have a high opinion of Stoic logic or Stoic ideas of the natural world, thinking that Stoics had merely copied the ideas of their predecessors and in some cases had even regressed. At some point, Cicero especially criticized their ethics, which attempted to state paradoxical conclusions, such as the indifference of all except virtuous behaviour, but had to admit, like Platonists and Aristotelians had done earlier, that even Stoics thought it preferable to be healthy and of good means – in effect Cicero accused Stoics of using terminological quibbles to distinguish themselves from more adequate philosophers.

Cicero was especially interested of the New Academy, and like them, accepted that humans can usually achieve only probability, not true knowledge – at least if knowledge is defined in the manner Stoics had. The basis of all knowledge should be perceptions that accurately portray things they appear to present, Stoics say, but there is no way to discern such true perceptions from mere appearances, which might look essentially same as true perceptions. This doesn't mean that one should be completely blind about how to conduct one's live, Cicero says, because probability is enough for a decent life – indeed, even Stoics must admit that most people must do with mere probability, because knowledge is so rare.

Still, even in case of conduct Cicero finds at first that opinions of Plato and Aristotle were far more probable than Stoicism – Plato and Aristotle at least straightforwardly admitted that material things are goods and part of a happy life, they just weren't as good as mental fortitude. Stoics announced that pain was no evil, but such a statement would not help anything when one was actually feeling it. Far better in Cicero's opinion was to teach one to tolerate pain, just like a manly man can do – and if pain turns too strong to bear, there's always the possibility to escape to the netherworld. And while Stoics were satisfied to say that wise men never felt any distress, because they saw how unreasonable it is, this helps in no manner anyone wallowing in grief who does not fulfill the ideal of Stoic sage – instead, they should be led to reflect on the cause of their grief and note themselves its insignificance.

Yet, Cicero wouldn't have been a true Academician, if he couldn't have seen the other side of the debate also. While Aristotle was to be recommended for realizing the importance of sensuous goods and pains, Cicero was highly critical of his idea of best life being a sort of mean between two extremes. If someone was, say, even the slightest bit agitated out of anger, he might well be overwhelmed, if the emotion rose to a higher degree. Far better it would be, Cicero thought, to follow the Stoic ideal, in which all emotions should fall under perfect control of a person. Indeed, if even Epicureans, who laid all happiness in pleasure, said that a true philosopher was always happy and not shaken by anything, shouldn't disciples of Socrates be equally capable?

Similarly ambivalent was Cicero's attitude towards Stoic doctrine of gods. He did find appealing the idea of gods governing the world and taking care of human affairs. Yet, he found some severe inconsistencies in the Stoic teachings, arising mostly from their attempt, on the one hand, to base their notions of gods in clear reasoning, and on the other hand, to accommodate common notions of divinities. Even this dual attempt itself seems rather suspect in Cicero's eyes, since to rely on the ideas of common people e.g. in matters of divine existence appears so unphilosophical. Furthermore, to allow at least some gods of tradition into a philosophical system opens up a can of worms. Where to stop? Why accept only these gods and not all of those lesser demons? And why just Greek and Latin gods and not also gods of other people? In addition, as Greco-Roman religion had no accepted consensus on the different origin stories and genealogies of the gods, one could not form a consistent pantheon around them.

Even if Stoics would disentangle their view of gods from the common conceptions, it would face grave difficulties. Stoics thought that the ultimate god must be the whole world itself, since there can not be anything greater than world – world must, for instance, live and think, because it contains parts that live and think. Yet, Cicero noted, this type of reasoning is just false. A city or a nation is clearly greater than the individuals that constitute it, but still we do not admit that cities or nations would live or think. Cicero also noted that how hard it was to believe that this Stoic world god controlled all its parts perfectly and that it had arranged all the parts of the world and even human affairs as well as it could be. World god had given reason to humans, but these then went on to use it for all sorts of evil deeds – why not make humans good at the same time?

Cicero was particularly critical of the Stoic acceptance of divination. Firstly, Cicero thought that divination was either impossible or futile. Either there are things that happen by chance and then divination cannot happen, or then all events occur with utmost necessity and then it makes no sense to e.g. know of any future dangers, since one cannot avoid them in any manner. Furthermore, Cicero found all alleged instances of divination rather unconvincing. True, sometimes diviners and fortune tellers did make correct predictions, but at least as often they were completely wrong. One couldn't argue for divination from the acceptance of predictions of doctors, which also might go wrong sometimes, because doctors could rely on their knowledge of natural processes, while diviners could not really explain the mechanism by which the divination was supposed to work. Indeed, one could often hear one diviner interpreting some dream or other sign in a completely opposite way as another diviner – so flimsy is the connection between the supposed sign from gods and its meaning. One might even ask if it is unbecoming to gods to present their messages so unclearly.

In fact, Cicero was rather skeptical of the whole Stoic notion of an unyielding fate controlling everything that happens in the world. Clear problem such a fatalism was, because it appeared to cancel all possibility of humans freely choosing their actions. Cicero then suggested that one might instead accept the possibility of free actions and hence deny outright fatalism.

Cicero did not remain satisfied with mere criticism of famous schools of philosophy, but also developed his own stance on how one should live, in his last published book on duties. The first and foremost question in Cicero's eyes is what makes human life, not just distinct from, but also better than mere animal life. Cicero suggests rather traditionally that it is the human desire to know things that separates us from beasts and that should therefore be cultivated in greatest measure.

Yet, Cicero was no advocate of the ideal of a hermit philosopher, as we have clearly seen in his appraisal of community life. Indeed, as human community is based on such matters like communication, it is something that prominently separates us from beasts. Cicero thinks that nature has given for human beings an instinct to contact their fellows and make bonds with them, and this instinct should be followed – one should communicate with one's relatives, but also with friends and generally everyone in our community. Thus, people who shy away from communal life, because of their own interests, fail to do what they should, and even worse are people, like Caesar, who work actively against common interest, because of their own ambitions.

Respect for the communal life gives then various particular rules for people to follow, such as: we should respect the rights of other people for their own property, but we should also be willing to part of our own property for the benefit of others in our community. Yet, Cicero is not willing to give any definite rules, since in some cases we must break rules in order to avoid greater evil, just as when we must break a promise if obeying it would actually do more harm.

Furthermore, even though we should try to advance the interests of our own community, we should still also not do anything immoral against other communities, such as starting an unprovoked war against them. Indeed, one should show respect even to one's enemies and to one's servants and slaves, if one is to be a truly good person, Cicero continues.

Like many thinkers before him, Cicero considered masculine ideal of brave and unrelenting warrior, who despises all hardships and pains, to be worthy of following, although, again just like many previous thinkers, he would consider it a good thing only in service of the community. Furthermore, Cicero would note that such a courageous and stolid attitude could be shown even at times of peace, especially in political arena.

Search for knowledge, acknowledgment of the importance of social relations and a manly behaviour are for Cicero important ingredients of good human life, but in addition, one must also show a certain finesse in behaviour that is not easy to put in definite rules. One important element in Cicero's ideal is self-control – one should not be carried away by pleasures of senses or mind, whether it be wine or good humour, and especially one should shy away from things considered indecent by the community. Then again, this behavioural finesse requires also a possession of a clear character that one must follow – one must be oneself and act according to one's station in life. Here belong questions like what it is proper for one to wear and what kind of professions one should pursue. In these questions the social relations are also important, since one learns these unspoken rules of conduct by observing the behaviour of one's fellow citizens and especially of those considered to be especially good examples.

In addition to the question of how one should live one's life, Cicero also considers the question what is of benefit to a person. He suggests that while many things do help us, like the inanimate and animate goods of nature, it is especially other human beings who are of use to us, especially as many of the goods of nature must be first cultivated by humans. Of course, humans can also be of the greatest disadvantage to one another, but this just means that we should spend most of our time to get others co-operate with us. Indeed, in this sense the most advantageous way of life is just the one described above, in which one tries to live in service of one's community.

True to this opinion, Cicero did not allow any real conflict exist between the demands of how one should live and demands of what is truly advantageous: he thus finally accepts the Stoic position. One must think of one's friends, before trying to gain more wealth or power to oneself, and one must think of one's community, before helping one's friends. This still does not mean that one's duty would be always straightforward. For instance, we usually must keep our promises, but there appears to be cases where promises must be broken, such as when someone's life depends on it – here, one duty is cancelled by a higher duty. Cicero even notes that commitments to one's community might be overridden, if the community at stake uses perverted means to improve its positions, such as when it wages an unjust war against an innocent opponent. Thus, Cicero overcomes the restricted patriotism of a Roman gentleman and achieves a more cosmopolitan stand toward questions of politics.

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