In understanding why the West thinks the way it does, it's best to start at the beginnings.

 


In the days of the dawn of man, the world was a confusing place. In those days, philosophers had a lot of explaining to do. It wasn't that long ago, either. People are generally unaware of how savage man really is. The Greeks, for example, were a great race, yes, and they were the originators of philosophy as we know of it in the West. But the Greeks never even learnt how to start a fire! Someone had to keep the embers of a previous fire alight, else there'd be no fire at all until some lightning storm set a tree on fire again.

The Greeks did learn, however, that olive oil floats on water, and that olive oil can burn. So the Greeks took to throwing burning vats of oil at their naval enemies. Other nations were terrified by warrior ships that could even set the sea on fire. The Greeks became a great nation, deriving most of its power from its awesome naval capabilities. All Greek ships had a small urn containing hot ashes, from which fire could be made, and one person would be in charge of the urn of hot ashes. This "keeper of the flame" became a very important person, acquiring supernatural powers in less intelligent minds.

The fire keepers, realizing they were onto a good thing, told everyone they could talk to the God of olives, the matron God of Greece, Athene. That is why the home of this Greek civilization, Athens, became a major city in Greece (then called Hellas) and, incidentally, that is why olive trees are the national emblem of Greece. Perhaps more importantly, these people had made themselves priests, advocating a phony religion for their own empowerment. Thus religious persecution was born.

Socrates' Exile

Philosophers in those days were more intelligent people who realized there to be no proof for the existence of Gods. Alas, even in Greek times, these dangerous individuals, dangerous because they were intelligent, were often subject to persecution.

A wonderful fable, mostly recorded by one who would rather call himself a historian (for safety reasons) tells of the philosopher Socrates. This unfortunate man was condemned to exile because he did not believe in the Gods. Socrates dramatically chooses to take his own life rather than profess a belief in the Gods or accept exile. This exemplary example of religious persecution, set in Athens in about 400 BC., is mostly recounted by Plato.

Exile in those days was not a pleasant prospect, one must remember, as at that time there were extremely barbarous practices commonly applied to dangerous strangers. Burning illegal immigrants to the death, sometimes over several days, was quite popular, for example. One should also remember that the Count Marquis de Sade reports death by fire to be the second most painful form of death (he only rates peeling some one's skin off and rubbing salt into exposed glands as being more painful).

Plato maintains a careful neutrality in reporting on Socrates' life, slipping in his own political and moral thoughts along the way.

In all likelihood, there probably was a philosopher called Socrates. Philosophers in those days were more like traveling salesman than anything else. They wandered from home to home, offering intellectual illumination in exchange for food and lodgings. These people were not called tramps, though, they were called "Sophists," which in the language of the time meant "wise men."

The sophists would take young men of rich families under their wing and teach them important but rare skills, including how to read and write, add and subtract, and so on. Thus sophists were teachers. But there was no teachers union in those days! Oh no, the sophists had to sell their intellect in the same was as a traveling salesman sells his wears.

In particular, sophists would condemn other sophists as being stupid. If sophists were successful in outwitting their competition, they could boost their salaries, after all. The life of Socrates, as compile in the works of Plato, is more likely a collection of famous arguments by the better sophists of the time.

Socrates Barefoot

Socrates himself as a strange individual. In line with Nietzsche's observation that most philosophy is really autobiographical, it's worth looking at Plato's unusual character. Socrates didn't wear shoes, or rather sandals, as they didn't have shoes in those days. He really didn't think very much of other philosophers at all, saying they used pretty arguments with no real foundation in thought. He called their arguments "sophistry."

 

Thanks to Plato, the word "sophistry" still conveys a highly negative connotation.

 

He was driven out of home and town many times, sometimes because of his predilection to young boys (Bisexuality was common amongst older Greek men: they liked women too, but found young boys stimulating also). He was married but he didn't like his wife very much. While walking from town to town, he would sometimes stop in mid pace and remain motionless for a long time. If anyone tried to speak to him, he would appear too lost in thought to reply.

 

Once, apparently he stopped while walking through snow, barefoot, and remained motionless for three days. Townsmen from a nearby settlement became concerned that he might become fatally ill, and physically carted him into town to a place of warmth, lest otherwise he die.

 

Other Sophists

Socrates is often regarded as being the Father of Western philosophy. There were in fact many earlier sophists in the Hellenic culture, now generically looked down about as "presocratic." Some of these individuals were very powerful thinkers. One, for example, reasoned the existence of atoms, an impressive feat when you don't know how to start a fire. Others were more peculiar, but looked at another way, they marketed themselves very well. There was one, for example, who would wander around waving his hands and opening and shutting his mouth. His students would then explain that he believed it pointless to say anything, as no words can really change any one's mind. This was quite effective at maintaining a good living for this speechless sophist.

 

Platonic Idea of Form

Many of the Socrateian arguments were also fallacious. There is, for example, the Platonic idea of form. This postulates that there is some real place in the imagination, somewhere, where there are prototypes of all the objects that we naturally can perceive. For example, in the realm of imagination, there is an ideal table, an ideal chair, and so on.

 

This much is easy enough to conceive; Plato's arguments go on to say that we recognize objects by their innate ideal nature. In other words, in the physical world, all tables and chairs are manifestations of the ideal table and ideal chair in our imagination.

 

Obviously, though, I can sit on a rock, and therefore call it a chair: in fact I could sit on any rock and call it a chair. That would mean that all rocks are innately chairs. Similarly, I could sit on the roof of a house and call the house a chair, sit on my hands and call my hands a chair, and so on, until everything is a chair. Similarly, everything could be a table. Then, if I look at a rock, how is it that I see a rock and not a table or a chair?

 

One could perhaps extend the Platonic concept of ideal form such that objects have primary and secondary manifestations, and so on, but that's another line of arguments that Plato never voices.

 

Dialectic Technique

Plato is perhaps more significant in providing the first recorded example of a dialectic. In presenting his fellow Socrates, Plato often sets forth the arguments by reporting on the dialogue between Socrates and his opponents.

 

Often, this dialogue took the form of a play. This interaction between argument and counter argument is now referred to as the dialectic technique. The dialectic technique is indeed powerful thinking method.

 

The sophist to whom is given the name of Socrates is reported to be very adept at using the dialectic technique. Socrates usually starts by obtaining a commitment from his opponent that some fact or another is obviously true. Then he slowly asks many questions until his opponent agrees that some other fact is also obviously true. Socrates then demonstrates that the two truths cannot coexist, and therefore his opponent is wrong.

 

This technique or arguing is called the Socratic technique, and it is the ultimate form of skeptical argument, as the aggressor in the debate never needs to profess in any particular belief at all, instead undermining the opponent through the opponent's own words.

 

In the end, all of Socrates’ opponents admit they are wrong, and Socrates then expounds what he believes. At that point, it's too late at night and all of Socrates' opponents are too exhausted to do anything but agree with him. Until the so-called "age of enlightenment," when ideals which had kept the downtrodden out of total despair were cast aside in facor of war and state totaliarnism, religious suppresion stopped further development of anti-Socratic thought. For that reason, the Platonic concept of ideal form became another one of those long-lasting philosophical illusions.

 

Platonic Love

 

Was Platonic Love another one of those illusions? ....(more to follow)