Now then, what’s up with those old Greeks? Some of their transgressive behavior might elicit a “yuk” from some of us. And by the way, isn’t it funny how a “yuk” can be either a laugh or a groan? Julian Savulescu* has some thoughts about the latter sense of the word, the instinctive revulsion we all feel for something or other. Where does that come from? What’s it good for? When can’t we trust it? (Well, that hemlock can’t have been too appetizing.) But first,
In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories…
And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.
Socrates asked a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey. (Just kidding, that was a dated SNL reference my students probably won’t get.) Socrates was in fact from the deme Alopece, near Athens. He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go. He was an impious and relentless corrupter of youth, said the court that convicted him of those charges in 399 B.C. and made him a perpetual role-model to western philosophers like me forever after. Woody Allen is a fan, too.
Plato, they say, could stick it away-they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.
Aristotle‘s in the song as well, but never mind. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided CAPS and abstractions, and inspired the name for our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum.
(Our first Lyceum lecture of the season is coming right up, btw, a week from Friday. Richard Shusterman‘s our distinguished visiting philosopher. He believes “ improved body consciousness can enhance one’s knowledge, performance, and pleasure.” Come if you can, locals & regionals (& Vandy friends) for the talk and food & drink at a colleague’s home afterwards.)
The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands.
*Julian Savulescu, an Oxford bioethicist, is our first Philosophy Bites interviewee. Did Nigel just want to get the topic of revulsion out of the way? No, I think LH begins with this because we usually recoil too quickly from the things that disgust, revolt, repel, and appall us. A good philosopher tries to understand these reactions, examine and sometimes challenge them, rather than rely strictly on the “yuk” feeling to guide all our choices and attitudes. The message is clear: in philosophy it’s not enough to emote, we’ve also got to think.