Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Essential Thinkers #7 Cicero, A Mixture of Scepticism and Stoicism

For much of his life Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC) was known as a Roman politician, lawyer and orator, who despite his humble origins, rose to pre-eminence among the conservative Roman aristocracy. As a youth he had travelled and studied in Greece and maintained a firm interest in philosophy throughout his public life. He maintained friendships with philosophers from all the leading schools but it was not until his retirement, finding himself in the political wilderness, that he devoted his final years to translating large parts of the Greek corpus into Latin. Much of our knowledge of Greek thought is due to Cicero’s translations and he remains a primary source for students of Hellenistic philosophy.

Of Cicero’s many works the most important include his Acedemica, on the impossibility of certain knowledge, the De Finibus and De Officiis, in which he discusses the ends of human action and the rules of right conduct, the Tusculan Disputations, concerning the problems of happiness, pain, the human emotions and death, and On the Nature of Gods and On Divination, both concerned with theological matters.

Mostly produced in the last two years of his life, Cicero’s philosophy comprises a mixture of scepticism in the theory of knowledge and stoicism in ethics. He was largely critical of all things Epicurean. Although he maintained a claim to some originality in his thought, Cicero’s dialogues are principally a ‘pick and mix’ of the three leading Greek philosophical schools. This was neither by accident, nor disguised. Cicero felt that the more modern Latin language could resolve and clarify the problems of Greek philosophy, as well as make it more appealing to a modern audience.

In this aim Cicero is largely judged to have been successful. The philosophical vocabulary invented by him is responsible for Latin becoming the primary philosophical language over Greek: despite the invention of modern languages, Latin remained the primary language of philosophy right up until the Renaissance. Even Descartes’ hugely influential Meditations of First Philosophy, published in 1641, was written first in Latin and only later translated into French. Its most famous conclusion ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (popularly translated as “I think, therefore I am”) is still today referred to in philosophical schools by its Latin name, “the Cogito.”

Although philosophy no longer uses Latin as its first language, many of Cicero’s philosophical terms are still in common employment today. Latin phrases such as a priori (meaning “prior to experience”), a fortiori (even more so), reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity), ceteris paribus (a caveat meaning “other things being equal”), are not just in common philosophical usage but also, in some cases, set the agenda for the philosophical debate. For example, the great debate between empiricists and rationalists is primarily a debate over whether there can be such a thing as a priori knowledge – as the rationalists maintain – or whether all knowledge is a posteriori, in other words, derived from experience. In both logic and philosophical logic, Latin terms remain in current and widespread use.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012.
Also listen to Forgotten Thinkers: Cicero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rswj2AvC1Xk ]

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Essential Thinkers #6 Aristotle the Philosopher also Scientist, Astronomer and Political Theorist

Aristotle’s achievements in the history and development of western thought are both stunning and unrivaled. More than just a philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a scientist, astronomer, political theorist and the inventor of what is now called symbolic or formal logic. He wrote extensively on biology, psychology, ethics, physics, metaphysics and politics and set the terms of debate in all these areas right up to modern times. Indeed, his writings on justice are still required reading for undergraduates reading Law.

After his death his works were lost for some 200 years or so but fortunately rediscovered in Crete. Later translated into Latin by Boethius around 500 AD, Aristotle’s influence spread throughout Syria and Islam whilst Christian Europe ignored him in favour of Plato. Not until Thomas Aquinas reconciled Aristotle’s work with Christian doctrine in the 13th century did he become influential in Western Europe. Aristotle received his education from age seventeen in Plato’s ‘Academy’, where he stayed for some 20 years until Plato’s death. Later he founded his own institution, ‘The Lyceum’, where he would expound a philosophy altogether different both in method and content from that of his former teacher.

More than any other philosopher before him, Aristotle made much of observation and strict classification of data in his studies. For this reason he is often considered as the father of empirical science and scientific method. Unlike his predecessor Plato, Aristotle always undertook his investigations by considering the regarded opinions of both experts and lay people, before detailing his own arguments, assuming that some grain of truth is likely to be found in commonly held ideas. Aristotle’s method was nothing if not rigorous and lacked the proselytising tone of many of his predecessors.

In contradistinction to both Plato and the Pre-Socratic, Aristotle rejected the idea that the many diverse branches of human inquiry could, in principle, be subsumed under one discipline based on some universal philosophic principle. Different sciences require different axioms and admit of varying degrees of precision according to their subject. Thus Aristotle denied there could be exact law of human nature, whilst maintaining that certain metaphysical categories – such as quantity, quality, substance and relation – were applicable to the description of all phenomena.

If there is one common thread to much of Aristotle’s work it lies in his conception of teleology, or purpose. Perhaps as a result of his preoccupation with biological studies, Aristotle was impressed by the idea that both animate and inanimate behaviour is directed toward some final purpose (‘telos’) or goal. It is common to explain the behaviour of people, institutions and nations in terms of purposes and goals: for example, John is sitting the bar exam to become a barrister; the school is holding a fete to raise funds for the roof; the country is going to war to protect its territory. Similarly, modern evolutionary biology makes use of purposive explanation to account for the behaviour of, for instance, genes and genetic imperatives.

However, Aristotle thought the concept of purpose could be invoked to explain the behaviour of everything in the universe. His reasoning lay in the idea that everything has a natural function and strives towards fulfilling or exhibiting that function, which is its best and more natural state. It is by means of the concept of function that Aristotle then ties his ethics to his physics, claiming that the natural function of man is to reason, and to reason will is to reason in accordance with virtue.

Unlike the opposing ethical theories of Kant and Mill, both of which view actions as the subject of ethical judgements, Aristotle’s ethics focuses on the character of the agent as that which is morally good or morally bad. This is so-called ‘virtue ethics’ was revived with much critical success by Alistair Macintyre in late 20th century.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012]

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Essential Thinkers #5 Plato the Founder of the Academy and 'The Republic'

Wise men talk because they have something to say;
fools, because they have to say something
Philosophy begins in wonder

Plato is the student of Socrates and founder of the Academy, the first reported institution of higher education – no philosopher has had a greater or wider-ranging influence in the history of philosophy than Plato. Alfred North Whitehead once said, with much justification, that “the safest characterisation of Western philosophy is that of a series of footnotes to Plato.” This is no topic of philosophical concern for which one cannot find some view in the corpus of his work.

Accordingly it can be difficult to characterise such a vast and comprehensive canon of thought. However, much of Plato’s work revolves around his conception of a realm of ideal forms. The world of experience is illusory, Plato tells us, since only that which is unchanging and eternal is real, an idea he borrowed from Parmenides. There must, then, be a realm of eternal unchanging forms that are the blueprints of the ephemeral phenomena we encounter through sense experience. According to Plato, though there are many individual horses, cats and dogs, they are all made in the image of the one universal form of “the horse”, “the cat”, “the dog” and so on. Likewise, just as there many men, all men are made in the image of the universal “form of man.” The influence of this idea on Christian thought, in which man is made in the image of God, is only one of many ways in which Plato had a direct influence on Christian theology.

Plato’s Theory of Forms, however, was not restricted to material objects. He also thought there were ideal forms of universal or abstract concepts, such as beauty, justice, truth and mathematical concepts such as number and class. Indeed, it is in mathematics that Plato’s influence is still felt strongly today.

The Theory of Forms also underlies Plato’s most contentious and best known work, The Republic. In a quest to understand the nature and value of justice, Plato offers a vision of a utopian society led by an elite class of guardians who are trained from birth for the task of ruling. The rest of society is divided into soldiers and the common people. In The Republic, the ideal citizen is one who understands how best they can use their talents to the benefit of the whole of society, and bends unerringly to that task. There is little thought of personal freedom or individual rights in Plato’s Republic, for everything is tightly controlled by the guardians for the good of the state as a whole. This has led some, notably Bertrand Russell, to accuse Plato of endorsing an elitist and totalitarian regime under the guise of communist or socialist principles. Whether Russell and others who level this criticism are right or not is itself a subject of great debate.

But it is important to understand Plato’s reasons for organizing society in this way. The Republic is an attempt, in line with his Theory of Forms, to discover the ideal form of society, of which all actual societies are mere imperfect copies, since they do not promote the good of all. Such a society, Plato believes, would be stronger than its neighbours and unconquerable by its enemies, a thought very much in Greek minds given the frequent warring between Athens, Sparta and the other Hellenistic city-states. But more importantly, such a society would be just to all its citizens, giving to and taking from each their due, with each working for the benefit of the whole. Whether Plato’s Republic is an ideal, or even viable society, has had scholars divided ever since.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch The School of Life: Plato https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDiyQub6vpw]

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Essential Thinkers #4 Socrates of Athens, the Founder of Western Philosophy

Socrates lived through times of great political upheaval in his birthplace of Athens, a city which would eventually make him a scapegoat for its troubles and ultimately demand his life. Much of what is known about Socrates comes through the works of his one-time pupil Plato, for Socrates himself was an itinerant philosopher who taught solely by means of public discussion and oratory and never wrote any philosophical works of his own.

Unlike the Greek philosophers before him, Socrates was less concerned with abstract metaphysical ponderings than with practical questions of how we ought to live, and what the good life for man might be. Consequently he is often hailed as the inventor of that branch of philosophy knowns as ethics. It is precisely his concern with ethical matters that often led him into conflict with the city elders, who accused him of corrupting the minds of the sons of the wealthy with revolutionary and unorthodox ideas.

Socrates was certainly a maverick, often claiming to the consternation of his interlocutors that the only thing he was sure of was his own ignorance. Indeed much of his teaching consisted in asking his audience to define various common ideas and notions, such as ‘beauty’ or ‘the good’ or ‘piety’ only to show through reasoned argument that all of the proposed definitions and common conceptions lead to paradox or absurdity. Some of his contemporaries thought this technique disingenuous, and that Socrates knew more than he let on. However, Socrates’ method was meant to provide salutary lessons in the dangers of uncritical acceptance of orthodoxy. He often railed against, and made dialectic victims of, those who claimed to have certain knowledge of some particular subject. It is chiefly through the influence of Socrates that philosophy developed into the modern discipline of continuous critical reflection. The greatest danger to both society and the individual, we learn from Socrates, is the suspension of critical thought.

Loved by the city’s aristocratic youth, Socrates inevitably developed many enemies throughout his lifetime. In his seventieth year, or thereabouts, after Athens had gone through several changes of leadership and a period of failing fortunes, Socrates was brought to trial on charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ and ‘not believing in the city gods.’ It would seem that the charges were brought principally to persuade Socrates to renounce his provocative public speaking and convince the citizens of Athens that the new leadership had a tight rein on law and order. With a plea of guilty he might perhaps have walked away from the trail and lived out the rest of his life as a private citizen.

However, in characteristic style, he robustly defended himself, haranguing his accusers and claiming that god himself had sent him on his mission to practise and teach philosophy. When asked, upon being found guilty, what penalty he thought he should receive, Socrates mocked the court by suggesting a trifling fine of only 30 minae. Outraged, a greater majority voted for Socrates to be put to death by the drinking of hemlock than had originally voted him guilty. Unperturbed, Socrates readily agreed to abide by the laws of his city and forbade his family and friends from asking for a stay of execution.

Socrates’ trial, death and final speeches are wonderfully captured by Plato in his dialogues Apology, Crito and Phaedo.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch YouTube: The School of Life: Socrates]

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Essential Thinkers #3 Xenophanes of Colophon, a Poet and Freethinker

It takes a wise man to recognize wise man
Men create the gods in their own image
If horses could draw, they would draw their gods like horses

Like many of the pre-Socratic philosophers whom we know of mainly through mention by later authors, exact dates for Xenophanes are uncertain. What is known is that Heraclitus mentions him as a contemporary and critic of Pythagoras, and we can thus date him as living roughly at around the same time.

Exiled by the Persian wars in Ionia to southern Italy, Xenophanes wandered the polities of Ancient Greece as a poet and freethinker. Following Thales, he criticised the Homerian concept of anthromorphic gods. Homer’s gods, Xenophanes complained, had all the immoral and disgraceful traits of flawed human beings and should hardly be the object of veneration.

In one of the earliest known expressions of cultural relativism, Xenophanes remarked that Homer’s gods were simply a reflection of Homerian culture. As he proclaimed, “the Ethiopians make their Gods black and sub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.” If oxen and horses had hands and could paint, Xenophanes said, oxen would no doubt paint the forms of gods like oxen and horses would paint them like horses. Likewise, he criticized Pythagoras’ doctrine of the transmigration of souls, making fun on the idea that a human soul could inhabit another animal. Xenophanes held a concept of a single deity that was “in no way like men in shape or in thought” but rather “causing all things by the thought of his mind.”

Like Thales before him, Xenophanes speculated about the underlying principles of natural phenomena. Whereas Thales had conceived the first principle to be water, Xenophanes proposed the rather less glamourous possibility of mud. The speculation was not entirely unreasonable at the time, having the virtue of at least being based on observation. For Xenophanes had noticed the fossil remains of sea-creatures embedded in the earth, and guessed that perhaps the world periodically dried up, returning to its original muddy state, trapping and preserving the earth’s creatures as it did so before reversal of the process.

Xenophanes was also the first known thinker to anticipate Socrates’ caution regarding claims of certain knowledge. Philosophical certainties could not be had, according to Xenophenas, for even if we chance to hit upon the truth, there is no way of knowing for certain that things are as we think they are. Nevertheless, this does not make philosophical inquiry useless, for exposing errors in our thinking can at least tell us what is certainly not the case, even if it cannot tell us what certainly is the case. This idea has a modern counterpart in the falsificationist methodology in Karl Popper.

There is little coherent or underlying structure to Xenophanes’ thought, or at least not that we can tell from the fragments that have come down through history. This is perhaps unsurprising for someone who was essentially a refugee of the political turbulence in Asia Minor and who propagated his thoughts and speculations mostly in the form of oral poets and stories. Nonetheless, Xenophanes clearly had enough influence to be remembered and mentioned by those that followed him. Quite probably it is his criticism of the Homeric gods, still revered throughout the Hellenistic world during and long after Xenophanes’ time, that attracted a great deal of attention to him.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Read also short parts of Xenophanes in History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell page 41-42, Routledge]

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