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On the defining factors of classic Greek philosophy from the materialist modern philosophy of today
I’m still writing my next post. In the meantime, I thought I’d include this popular post I wrote a few years ago in 2018. My thoughts have evolved since I wrote this. It might be an interesting future post to expand on how my thoughts have changed since then.
You almost certainly recognize the classical dictum 'Know Thyself'. The phrase adorned the forecourt of the temple at the Oracle of Delphi, and is synonymous with classical philosophy. What you may not recognize is how the classics identified our human nature with the divine. Therefore knowing ourselves was equated to identifying our divine nature.
This view operates by the principle of analogy. Our identity and every event that takes place in our life is understood to be a reflection of a higher principle. Philosophy is therefore the journey whereby one discovers those principles.
Through understanding ourselves, we make sense of the chaos that otherwise defines existence. Philosophy was practical, for by making sense of existence we are enabled to operate more effectively within it.
This definition differs radically from the philosophy of today. Modern philosophy dates back to the Enlightenment, when Kant split the domains of knowledge in two. In the first domain lies sensual knowledge through contact with the physical world. In the second is reason regarding that which lies beyond our senses.
Kant concludes we may reason through representations of the world, but the essence of objects in the world, the 'thing-in-itself' as he puts it is unknowable. Our representations allow us to manipulate the physical world. However the meaning that permeated the ancient world was rendered unknowable, such that our capacity to make analogies between our experience and the world, and thereby arrive at self-knowledge was wiped away.
The key distinction
The crucial distinction between ancient and modern philosophy then, is the capacity to understand our essence through reason alone. This essay will expand on how the ancients believed this was done, and in doing so, I will expand on key principles on which classic understanding of the world operated on:
The theory of eros
The theory of recollection
The theory of Forms
The chariot as an analogy for the soul
The capacity to die while still being alive
Theory of Eros
For Plato, philosophy begins in wonder at the beauty and mystery of our existence. This sense of wonder is named Eros, and is a type of love that is born out of need for that which we do not yet possess. It is a longing for that which we still lack in ourselves, our divine nature. Plato states this inborn need within us is evidence of our mortal need to seek for that which is immortal. This need lies at the root of erotic desire and creation, expressed in a physical sense through begetting children, or through a spiritual desire to imitate the universal principle of creation. Through Eros we are led towards the Ideas of Knowledge, learning to direct our gaze at that which does not come to be or perish.
Theory of Recollection
Plato states our capacity to know our immortal nature is possible for it is already present within us. This nature is our soul, and it is hidden in plain sight, for our soul is equivalent with our 'sense of self' that is revealed by our awareness. Knowledge of it may be acquired by reason through making sense of our experience. This nature is known through our innate preference for good, order and beauty. The object of philosophy then, is to draw out this nature gradually into our awareness. Our understanding is currently incomplete, for we possess confusion about these objects, and so it is by eliminating such confusion that we come to see them with greater clarity, recollecting what we already know to be true. The key point then is not that we lack this knowledge, but rather that we have false beliefs about ourselves that mean we do not see clearly.
Theory of Forms
This knowledge that Plato states we are after is knowledge of the unchanging Forms. These principles are equivalent to the first principles that nature operates in accord with. The Forms are eternal, of which all of existence is merely a reflection. In possessing an eternal soul, we have knowledge of these Forms, and by turning towards our eternal nature, we may acquire true knowledge of our self, and thereby act in accordance with natural law. These Forms are defined as desirable, as they are the source for all that is good in the world.
They represent that which is unconditional, a truth that never goes away, and therefore not defined by the variability we find that defines existence. The world is described as split in two, between that which is characterized by flux as defined by Heraclitus, representing the world of the senses for which there can be no true knowledge. And the world of the Forms as defined by Parmenides, which is One and unchanging, and which represents the only true knowledge that can be attained.
The chariot as an analogy for the soul
Socrates argues it is difficult to arrive at self-knowledge, for there are three drives that guide us. These drives are appetite, spirit and reason, located respectively in the gut, heart and mind. Our appetite is concerned with satisfying our physical needs. In seeing nothing more than the physical, it draws us towards pleasure and self-gratification. Reason is the vehicle of the soul, being inclined towards growth and learning unless interfered with by the appetite. It is therefore the spirit that allows reason to operate effectively within the physical world. It is inclined towards defending the self against disorder from external threats, and internal disorder arising from excess arising from the appetite.
This relationship between the three parts of the soul is shown by the analogy of the chariot. The charioteer is associated with reason. He contends with the twin forces of appetite and spirit leading him on in opposing directions, requiring him to rein in the impulses of the appetite while allowing the emotive force of the spirit to lead him forward.
Dying while still alive
The issue as a 'charioteer' in acquiring self-knowledge, is that our soul forgets itself upon entering the body. It thereby takes on the concerns of the body, and in that process acquires false belief. However it is only our soul that is capable of accessing the Forms, and therefore it is hopeless to assume that being guided by our senses and the body will guide us to the truth we are craving for. It is in this sense that Socrates lionises the analogy of 'dying while still alive' as being the essence of philosophical practice.
Socrates defines a philosopher as a man who has turned away from the passions of the body. He states that when the soul makes use of the body to investigate the world, they are swung about between opposites rather than remaining steady in Truth. The interest in the body does not mean to be completely divorced from the concerns of real life. Instead it means to falsely believe that passion and possessions the physical world can provide can provide the meaning which can only be found in the soul. The philosopher therefore turns away from the senses to be guided solely by reason. Being aloof from the body, it is said the philosopher most approaches the Divine by most closely imitating death, or in other words by separating the soul from the body.
Why is philosophy still relevant today?
Western culture today is restricted to the physical. Our lives therefore lack the richness and meaning that was inherent to the ancient world. Classical philosophy offers an avenue of meaning beyond one's possessions, social status or other cultural markers that define success today.
Engagement with ancient philosophy first requires aligning one's self with the principle of Eros, indulging the sense of wonder that is one's natural state of marveling at the world. By inquiring closely into our experience, we can start to make sense of the innate truths that lie inside of us. These Forms are the first principles of our physical existence. Proper attention to these forms involves discerning between reason and gratification. This process was classically known as emulating death while one is still alive, freeing ourselves of the delusion our appetites lead us into. In such a way, we appreciate more fully the goodness and beauty that defines our inner nature.