What Good Is Ancient Philosophy?
What of value can we philosophers of the contemporary world possibly learn from studying ancient philosophy? Of course, we often lecture about ancient writings in our classes. The Greeks blazed many trails through an uncharted philosophical wilderness, and their first steps still guide the first steps of today’s tenderfoot thinkers. What better guide than Socrates to conduct our students through the brambles of definition? What better companion than Aristotle to help those considering virtues and vices for the first time? What better introduction to the existential condition than Epictetus? But the question I raise is not what of value we can impart to our students, but what of value can ancient philosophers impart to us? To paraphrase Tertullian, “What indeed has Athens to do with New York?”
In offering my answer to this question, I hope to show that the best answer might not be a laundry list of knowledge and skills. It is unlikely that ancient philosophers will advance our knowledge. Lucretius will not reveal secrets missed by Fermi. Aristotle will not show us logical theorems overlooked by Quine. Zeno will not refute the calculus. Any [End Page 535] knowledge the ancients first achieved has long been confirmed, explored, restated, and trivialized.
The same goes for skills. Sextus Empiricus, though perhaps virtuosic for his time, now seems crude, repetitive, and riddled with outrageous assumptions. A Socratic exchange, upon being clarified, disambiguated, fleshed out, and otherwise made fit for modern tastes, may or may not be found to hold water—but whatever the case, the literal results seldom seem worth the effort. I doubt that one of the long-lost dialogues of Aristotle, miraculously unearthed today and submitted pseudonymously to a second-tier journal, would pass a blind review.
I think it obvious, however, that we must be getting something from them. The publication rate over the last fifty years of new titles dealing with Greek philosophy testifies to an unflagging interest.
We may treat the ancients either as our equals or not. I note, as a historical aside, that most Roman and medieval writers did not treat the Greeks as equals. Many Romans thought of the Greeks as philosophically or morally superior to their own degenerate age. Thus, they tended to quote the Greeks liberally and uncritically. Irreconcilable points of disagreement were simply ignored.
Medieval authors (with a few exceptions) felt superior to the Greeks, because religious thinkers tended to discount all speculation unenlightened by revelation. Even to the most sympathetic defenders of philosophy (Jewish, Christian, or Muslim), the Greeks were examples of the best that well-intentioned humans could hope to achieve without a sacred text to correct them. And to unsympathetic religious writers, the Greeks stood as object lessons on the error of prideful speculation. Any allegiance given to the ancients by religious thinkers was highly contingent.
In contrast, we now seem to favor treating the Greeks as somehow our equals. Sometimes we treat them as colleagues, with whom we engage philosophically, and at other times we treat them as equal but utterly alien.
When we see them as colleagues, we let the principle of charity guide us as we subject ancient prose passages to a cleansing process that yields a disambiguated, quantified, valid, but usually unsound argument. The analytic philosophers, who favor this approach, tend to conflate history and think of each issue as hanging suspended in a timeless philosophical [End Page 536] moment. They see the separation of two philosophers by twenty-five centuries as an inconsequential accident. Philosophical superiority of one work over another signifies proximity to a solution, not relative nearness in time.1
On the other hand, when we treat them as equal but alien, we devote much of our energy to simply comprehending the questions they addressed, the tools they used, and the results they achieved. Contextualists like Pierre Hadot and a host of others have turned to the understanding of earlier thinkers on their own terms.2 The Cambridge series Ideas in Context, for example, while not about ancient philosophy, stands as a testament to this trend. This historical approach presumes (correctly, in my opinion) that ideas don’t transplant directly from one context to another.
As much as these modern attitudes have to recommend them, they have their disadvantages. On the one hand, the ancient Greek philosopher, spruced up by modern analysis, often comes across not as a philosopher in his own right but as a convenient excuse or occasion for the modern writer to do something altogether different. In many ways, moderns resemble those medieval commentators who disguised their own philosophy as Aristotle’s. The analytics, in short, abuse and discard the ancients without opening up to them.
The other extreme is almost as bad. When the ancients become too closely linked to their context, they become curiosities, or specimens, whose antics one follows with interest, pity, or affection, but who never achieve vital presence for us. And so, oddly enough, the egalitarian treatment of ancient philosophers has reduced their thoughts to mere points of comparison with ours. Mentioning them has become just a coy way of talking about ourselves. Were we to learn from them, we would have to listen—to ponder their antiquated ideas—and it is not obvious where the profit lies in that.
To see how listening could help us, let us turn things around and ask what we think takes place within our students when they learn from us? If all they can do is quote back our lectures to us, we wonder if they have learned anything. We spice up our own lectures with humor and factoids to hold their interest, but we feel disappointed if they miss the point. Likewise, if we reduce the ancients to a collection of quotes, we may wonder if we have learned anything from them. Might we not have missed some point to ancient philosophy?
As I suggested above, we may have gone astray by supposing that we can learn only facts or skills from ancient philosophers. To recite facts [End Page 537] is not to learn but to preserve, in much the same way that medieval copyists did for devotional exercises. One preserves only words, phrases, or sentences. Learning may work quite differently.
I think Michel de Montaigne provides an odd insight about how to learn from the ancient Greeks. He read every shred of Greek philosophy he could find, he meditated over their words, he marveled at their wisdom, he conversed with their books, he copied their most intriguing thoughts into notebooks, he committed long passages to memory, and he borrowed freely from them in his own writing. But, as hard as it may be for us to accept, he fiercely insisted that he himself produced the resulting, wholly original thoughts—even when he obviously plagiarized his ideas from others. It is as though he said, “The Greeks thought their thoughts, I think mine, and lo! These thoughts are the same!”
Here is how Montaigne describes his unrepentant thefts: “Among my many borrowings I take delight in being able to conceal the occasional one, masking it and distorting it to serve a new purpose. . . . I give that one some peculiar slant with my own hand, so that they may all be less purely and simply someone else’s. I conceal my larcenies and disguise them. . . . Like those who disguise horses I stain their mane and their tail, and sometimes I poke out an eye: if their first master used them as amblers I make them trot; if used for the saddle, I use them for packs.”3
Perhaps the ritual of tracking down term papers filched from the internet has jaded us. “The fact is,” we may wish to chastise Montaigne, “Plato said it first, and you know it. So if you deliberately repeat his words, you cannot even pretend to be truly thinking for yourself.” But suppose Montaigne is honest when he insists that he quotes the ancients, not for the authority they lend but for the marvelous coincidence of those ancient ideas with his own. Then he has an attitude quite alien to the one ingrained in us. This attitude, I think, may reveal what indeed Athens has to do with New York.
To understand any of the great minds of Greece, we must set aside the accumulated opinions of recent centuries and listen to Greek voices speaking from a distant, exotic experience. So, when we read Aristotle on motion, we explore an archaeological dig beneath the foundations [End Page 538] of all we think we know. If we take him seriously—that is, if we reason actively and critically with him, rather than notice his errors from our smug, post-Newtonian vantage point—he must amaze us with his clarity and the consciousness he brings to naïve perception. All our lives we have known how things “really” move. We may have mistakenly come to believe that we even experience motion that way. We think we perceive gravity or inertia or velocity. But Aristotle forces us to relearn a more wide-eyed experience: that of weight, resistance, and local motion. Only after seeing the world once again as Aristotle permits us to see it do we come to appreciate the hard-won anti-Aristotelian notions that we have taken for granted since childhood.
Aristotle’s finite world is not ours. In his world, continuous substances seek their natural places. The concepts are quite unfamiliar; yet, isn’t ours the truly strange world: an infinite universe wherein wave packets probabilistically exist in relative space? We see neither of these worlds, but, due to an accident of history, we inhabit the latter. Yet when we make the effort to negotiate the conceptual twists and turns of Aristotle’s world, we momentarily live in it. And in that brief visit, we recall what we should have been all along, or at least what we once swore to become: lovers of wisdom.
The ancients have served as paradigms throughout history. More than any help they may have given to their heirs in solving the puzzles of each new age, they have stood as models, or ideals, against whom each new generation measured itself. Each ancient thinker is strikingly unique—each an archetype. Probably every philosopher who has looked backward has found one figure to have been of outstanding interest. Among the Greek archetypal philosophers, we find pure mystics, rationalists, empiricists, and skeptics. We find aesthetes and ascetics, cynics and theoreticians, materialists and idealists, relativists and absolutists. We find not just heroes but villains: quintessential charlatans alongside quintessential martyrs. But in all this diversity, what we find so charming about them all must surely be their sheer ebullience at being just what they are.
We ask here how the ancients can educate us. Others have often asked the same thing of us. Do not administrators demand we prove to them how we have educated our students? In response, don’t we protest that the worth of an undergraduate philosophy class does not [End Page 539] reduce to metrics about knowledge and skills? The worth of our own classes, we feel, lies in the change they have wrought upon our students as persons. Not what the students know or do, but what they ultimately become—therein lies their education. Well, then, may it not also be that way with us? The Greek philosophers have shown in clean, bold strokes not what to conclude, nor what to question, nor even how to reason, but rather what it is like to live a truth-seeking, questioning, and rational life. They remind us what it means to be philosophers—but not the sort of career philosophers we meet at conferences.
Aristotle bickers with Plato over where forms exist, all the while presupposing that only the forms could explain why things are so gosh-darned intelligible. Their disputes over the proper explanation for knowledge must set us to wondering. What would it be like trying to solve that problem? What must it feel like, how refreshing must it be, to ponder how we come to know so marvelously much about the world?
Alas, we moderns (or postmoderns) are far too smart to know anything at all. We fret and worry about whether we know, not how. And when that question bores us we wonder if it is possible for any organism to know, or for a machine, or for the Chinese nation. And before that speculation can even begin, we must settle the question of how we would recognize a good answer if we found one. We professional doubters take well to our pallid profession, all our creative projects sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Yes, century after grinding century of self-doubt has indeed made cowards of us all. How would we feel, for one moment, if we just set aside our fussy qualms and begged the damned epistemological question? And to do it with a clear conscience? Thus we turn to the Greeks for something akin to salvation.
When we spend time with the ancient Greeks, even when we seem to come away from them empty-handed, we renew our vision of our professional selves. Caught in the meshes of academic careers, we often forget our calling. Surely no one endures the dissertation process in philosophy for the money, the fame, or the power it promises to bring. Yet for our subsequent working lives, we chase these very things, spurred on by those modern Erinyes: tenure and promotion committees. From [End Page 540] one call-for-papers to another, we claw our way over heads of envious colleagues to claim our rightful place in the pantheon of “trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.”4 But when we turn from this bleak vista and look to ancient Greece, we see philosophy in its purest state—the product of zealous truth seeking, unconcerned with gainful employ.
Reading the ancients increases our intellectual freedom. We often feel trapped inside the cubicle of our scholarship, able to see beyond our nose, but not by much. The Greeks, by being exactly who they were, have boosted us up for a peek beyond our blinkering academic walls to a wider horizon. While they do not quite show us infinity, they do reveal a liberating range of possibilities which, having once been glimpsed, subversively reshape our possibilities. Each new venture into their thought sweeps aside known, insurmountable barriers and frees us—gives us permission—to think afresh.
This newfound freedom can energize. As we tag alongside the ancients on their sometimes quixotic journeys, their “discoveries” thrill us—even if their discoveries don’t hold up. Their naïve demonstrations embolden us. Their vast, arrogant systems awe us. Their eccentric assumptions intrigue us. Their prescient guesses elate us—so much so that we return to New York from even a short stint in Athens transformed and inspired. We have rediscovered how to speculate.
So I propose this answer. By apprenticing to the ancient Greek philosophers as they go about being philosophers, freshly and with vigor, we may each of us become at heart a speculative philosopher. To speculate means to occupy and reflect on alternate worldviews at will, to propose bold hypotheses, to recklessly seek truth, and to shun the safe haven of trivialities. A good dose of ancient, intellectual heroism is the antidote for the poisons of postmodern ennui and analytic pedantry. We have too long been anesthetized into mediocrity by that cliché: “Every philosophical thesis is either trivial or false.” Well, what of it? The Greeks, at least, weren’t trivial.
If the human race survives much longer, we, too, will some day be someone’s ancients. What kind of exemplars will we be for them? Will [End Page 541] those to come still model themselves after the Greeks? Or will our own apathetic failure to preserve their writings have silenced that distant, thinning voice once and for all? Will those future philosophers then imitate us? If so, will that be a good thing?
1. For a nice account of the marriage between ancient philosophy and analytic philosophy, see Julia Annas, “Ancient Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century,” in The Future for Philosophy, ed. Brian Leiter (London: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 25–43.
2. See Pierre Hadot, Le Voile d’Isis: Essai sur l’histoire de l’idée de nature (Paris: Gallimard, 2004) and Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? (Paris: Gallimard, 1995). As one example of this contextualist approach, see Quentin Skinner, “Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas,” History and Theory 8, no. 1 (1969): 3–53.
3. Michel de Montaigne, “On Physiognomy,” in The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, ed. and trans. M. A. Screech (London: Allen Lane, 1991), pp. 1173–206.
4. Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay,” in The Common Reader: First Series (New York: Harcourt, 1925), pp. 216–27.