Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

Thursday, April 14, 2016 -- 5:00 PM
John Perry

Sunday we consider whether ancient wisdom -- namely that of the Greeks -- can be applied to modern problems. Most Greeks thought the earth was flat, that slavery was OK, and that women were second-class people. Plato thought democracy sucked, that poetry and drama were bad things, and that freedom of speech is a sort of joke. He even thought that Philosophers, of all people, should be Kings. So, one might ask, where’s the wisdom in all that?

But there’s also a lot the Greeks got right. We moderns would do well to appreciate and adopt some of their wisdom -- especially their profound understanding of the nature of human virtue and human vice. 

Modern philosophy sort of lost track of that understanding somewhere along the way, under the influence of Kant, Bentham, and Mill. They were more focused on the right than the good.

When the Greeks thought about ethics, they focused on the nature of a good or well-lived human life. Their basic ethical question: What does it take for a human being to live well and thrive? For modern philosophers, the basic ethical question has been: What are the ethical rules that govern our interactions with each other? The Greeks were far less concerned than the moderns with ethical rules. They were much more concerned about the cultivation of virtues like courage, honor, moderation, and the like.

Perhaps, with our focus on rules, we’ve lost something that the Greeks understood. Hypothesis: A lot of our problems are due to an excess of vice and a shortage virtue. So claims, Melissa Lane, Professor of Politics, Princeton University, our guest for Sunday's program.  She's the author of Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living.  

Consumerism and greed — what the Greeks think of as appetites run wild — have led us into a series of financial debacles, and have propelled us into a huge ecological crisis. Only willful ignorance about the future, what vice the greeks called hubris, can make us feel good about modern society.

We'll examine this hypothesis with Professor Lane on Sunday. 

 

Comments (13)


MJA's picture

MJA

Friday, July 5, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

A modern philosophy:

A modern philosophy:
If philosophy is truth and the truth is equal, and equal is Nature, and Nature is One, then One has no rules as equality is freedom and the good of One is the true beauty or light of All.
Be One,
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, July 6, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Plato's epistemology is truly

Plato's epistemology is truly impressive for its time, and stunning. When, more than 60 years ago, I first read the allegory of the cave and the explication de text that follows it, it left me dazzled and high as though on a drug (for a time). Like all drugs, it faded, though it remains a good memory. But his was not the last word.
His literary style, however, and wit, which received wisdom assigns not to him but to Socrates, has never faded in my experience, and pieces like Protagoras and Euthyphro and Phaedo grow only more entertaining, moving, and powerful wtih each reading.
But his political philosophy, I believe, is absolutely pernicious and not deserving of respect. If implemented, his Republic would look like Afghanistan under the Taliban. I cannot off hand give you the reference, but Aristotle called the Republic unfit for human beings.
Now, having given full disclosure, I want to come to the wisdom of Plato. Your guest, and you guys, too, failed even to mention the extravagant and ridiculous invention Plato had to make in order to ground, as it were, his "bizarre"(as one of you called it) theory of knowledge: the soul, an immaterial something that has neither location nor dimension. Plato seems to me to me to have expropriated Euclid's geometric point, and assigned one of them to each of us. With the possible exception of the neutrino, there is nothing like it in the real world that we inhabit, and even the neutrino falls far short, for it interacts, barely, with the real world as far as any of us, including Plato, understands it, yet he blithely ignores the contradiction: we are not geometric abstactions nor do we carry them within us. Non-interaction with the material world seem to me as good a definition of non existence as we're going to get. Somehow Plato got away with that slight of hand, rather like Citizen Kane's famous last word, "Rosebud," which no one could have heard because the old fellow died alone, yet the search for the meaning of "Rosebud", as Kane understood it, informs the entire film that follwed, only to produce only a cliche unworthy of even a cocktail party: we really love what we most loved in childhood (along with some good stuff along the way, even so.)
Plato's misappropriation of geometry not only led him to deny poetry (except the poetry he liked, such as Pindar's bought-and-paid for homiletics dinking songs for jocks, who, it must be admitted, probably needed them), and music, also led him to permit the Philosopher King to lie. I have even read some Staussites who have borrowed that bit of ancient wisdom to excuse G. W. Bush's public excresecences. But give the Straussites their due: they know a Philosopher King when they see one.
Worst of all, however, Plato's notion, at once tempting and ridiculous, that we cannot both know what is right/just/good and at the same time do what is dumb/evil/bad, really puts him out in lala land. Yet he must have been aware of Phaedra's great struggle with just that issue and her awful and pathetic failure in the first episode (lines 176-524) of Euripides' Hippolytus, and her speech midway through the episode to the women of Troizen (lines 373 - 430). The episode as a whole is best understood if you read the choral odes that immediately precede and follow it. Read it and you'll see what I mean, and in terms that were native both to the relevant ancients and to the mass theater audiences of the time.
There is a story from late antiquity that Euripides submitted his plays to Socrates for a critical analysis before letting them go into production. This passage lends some credibility to the tale, though the Hippolytus may be a bit too early (428-27 BCE) to have been pre-auditioned by the Socrates whom we know from Xenophon and Plato. In any case it was widely known and discussed and probably known to both Socrates and Plato, and Aristotle quotes from it; it is the earliest surviving expression of the so-called Socratic paradox, though it claims a bit less and is far more forgiving than Plato's later formulation through the persona of Socrates.
On the larger question your show today discussed, whether the questions posed by some Greeks -- there were many Greeks and they believed many different things -- it seems to me they failed to develop methods that could give good answers, or even answers that were better than those, already given by the received wisdom of the time, though they undermined some of the bad ones. Something of the sort may also be said of the Hippocratic writers who were contemporary with the Socrates and Plato and their epigons. Hippocrates removed the gods from medicine but did not really bring about any great advances of the kind that have characterized our last two centuries: sterilization, anesthetics, antibiotics,public health, etc., etc., and so forth, which have depended, in part, on much better experimental methods, and a strong taste for so-called reductionism -- knowing when and how to intervene in the progress of a disease -- and, of course, even more dramatic advances in technologies.
I agree that we have much to learn from the Greek experience in many areas of life, from both their successes and even more from their failures, but most of all from coming to understand how unlike us they were and yet how dependent our own is existence is on their .surviving legacy. They challenged the gods. We, as we slowly acquire god-like powers, quake and tremble. As Sir John Beazley put it, "They were young. We are old. In our decrepitude, they mock us." They challenged the gods. We, as we slowly acquire god-like powers of destruction and creation, quake and tremble.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, July 8, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

The democratic history of

The democratic history of Greece began when the retired judge, Draco, set out to make the Athenians virtuous. He succeeded in recording and codifying the law but his punishments were so absurdly harsh that such laws are still referred to as "Draconian" or "Draconaic."
The Athenians next turned to a merchant, Solon, who wrote poems to virtue but softened the law. Even so, Solon's greatest achievement was to established a centrally-planned and centrally-controlled economy which allowing a great deal of personal and economic freedom. His insight and pragmatism was to bring prosperity to Athens as it evolved democracy until the time of Plato. Then came the deluge.
Plato stands as a catastrophic figure on the road to progress (according to the philosopher, Max Otto, and the writer, Arthur Koestler, anyway). The classical scholar, C. M. Bowra writes," [Plato] is prepared to sacrifice almost everything to permanence and security, and in the end it is clear that what moves him is fear. It is this which makes him so distrustful of human nature and its ambitions and desires, of any kind of liberty personal or political, of variety and change, of the whole richness of life ...."
The ancient Greeks were ingenious, energetic and insightful but limited by their time and knowledge. As long as we remember this, not only philosophers, but we all can still benefit much from studying their struggle to understand and master the workings of the world.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, July 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I found Arvo's comments lucid

I found Arvo's comments lucid and insightful. His(?) last sentence was most instructive. How old do we wish to go? The Chinese appear to pre-date almost everyone else, and a recent finding seems to show they wrote things down---long before the first Greek was ever born. Ancient wisdom? Indeed. The bigger question might be:
Just how ancient is ancient? Hmmmm.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, July 14, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

So---please tell me, if you

So---please tell me, if you can, how ancient wisdom is beneficial. I have been around for over half a century, and I'm not getting it yet. Modernity appears to have its ways of cancelling out or re-defining ancient wisdom. Seems that "situations" dictate behaviors and how those are perceived. There are none of the absolutes that formed my world, as a child growing up in the '50s and '60s. I do see some resurgence among a few of the young parents I know. Ancient wisdom begins at home.

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, July 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Wisdom is realization of

Wisdom is realization of truth.
Be real, be true,
Or just be,
=

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, July 18, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I enjoy reading works by

I enjoy reading works by authors who honor and respect ancient wisdom. There is a Lebanese gentleman whose books I have enjoyed immensely, having read three of them. His work deals with chance---randomness---probability; so, I do not need to drop his name. Inasmuch as I have found no pipeline through which to communicate with him, and inasmuch as I SUSPECT he may monitor both signal and noise (though he denies the latter), I'll state this unimportant fact: There ARE black swans, outside of Australia. They reside in Canada. Along with many, many white ones. You should try to get him on your show. But, if you agree, well, good luck!

columbus.cooper's picture

columbus.cooper

Friday, April 15, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

If you take away the parts

If you take away the parts about wisdom and philosophers should be kings, the positions seem consistent with some of todays politicians. Denial of science, war on women, anti-voting, etc, etc.
Society has been on a path to moral and ethical ruin every since people agree to or were forced to submit to thugs wearing crowns. You can call them kings or the 1 percent but as long as there have been powerful people, there have been people justifying their right to power.  We should expect that sensible discussions on ethics and morality were somewhat limited in ancient times. I am sure that it was healthier for Plato to not go too far with free speech or positions on ethics and morality.
When the world has been divided up between a few powerful groups and/or individuals, everyone born without resources has less opportunity than an animal in a forest. Our current economic and organizational structures are primitive at best and have rationalized the criminality of the past in reality. It is a good thing that water drops out of the sky and no one can prevent the poor from breathing. The owners of the worlds resources would certainly like to take and sale air and water as well.
Many pretend that competition and survival are the correct core values for our economic and legal systems. Are these really the values that most benefit mankind? If these are our values, do we have a meritocracy? Most will say that they want a meritocracy but few would be willing to give up inherited wealth. Few will willingly give me things that they claim as their own that should be shared by all. Competition as a value is virtually meaningless if merit does not determine the outcome.
I would guess that in ancient times ethics and morality were pretty tough topics for philosophers.   Professor Lane's hypothesis seems to be the type of contribution philosophers should be expected to make today. Some ideas need to change and thought leaders are needed. The problems are obvious but the solutions are much more complex.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, April 16, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Mr. Cooper,

Mr. Cooper,
Think you might get a lot out of a book by Paul Feyerabend, The Conquest of Abundance. It explains how history is largely a matter of justifying privilege.
Slandering Plato, however, seems to have become a parlor game, even a team sport. Make what you will of the "conclusions" drawn in the Republic, the methodology is exquisitely democratic. That is, it values the right to have and to express one's views as highly as it does responsibility to respond to reasonable critiques of them. More democratic, in fact, than any text to date, or many of the views expressed on these web-pages.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I have thought more about

I have thought more about ancient wisdom in the three years since first commenting upon your blog topic. Well, many things have transpired in the interim. I have less and less disposable income, and with only one exception, that situation has led me and mine to an evermore frugal lifestyle, much like my grandparents' generation. I am, unofficially, a minimalist now, one, because it is the sustainability of a minimalist credo which makes life bearable, and two, the minimalist stance (if it is nominally correct to call it that) has actually deepened my spirit and enriched my creativity. Several new developments have also grabbed my attention of late: the Japanese car company caught cheating on its mileage claims and the hydrogen fuel cell bus that produces allegedly drinkable water as its combustion product.
These things show us that humans are forever ingenious. They will, in spite of themselves, advance and improve their lot, whether it is through hard work and technical advance, or through the time-honored practice of cheating to make an extra buck. Meanwhile, I can be content to have a lawnmower that will be forty years old next year; grow some of my own food; enjoy(?) my own grandchildren; and watch the rest of the world go by. Me and mine don't do much consumerism and are not particularly greedy. Cheaters get caught, so it is hardly worth the effort. Ancient wisdom may not be as applicable as it once was but much of its original practicality still rewards, quietly and with measured dignity. If you have read any of my recent comments, you may have seen the following couplet:
Complexity compounds chaos:::Simplicity supports serenity. That's one take on the ancient wisdom notion.
It works for me. And that's just all right.
Neuman.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, April 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

The wisdom of....., Kim

The wisdom of....., Kim Williams (Harry, look her up, you'll like her!). Trouble is, voluntary austerity may be wise, involuntary, it is deprivation.

Pedestrian's picture

Pedestrian

Saturday, May 14, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

This study of Greek

This study of Greek philosophy, is the real birth of sociology. This Greek philosophy thus discussed what was the ideal formation of modern, prosperous, peaceful, civil society. Simply put, their philosophies over estimated man's virtue and under estimated man's vice. The resulting codification to address the power of wealth and govt. power, failed to address man's vices.
Thus civil society is often not so civil and power is rarely without vice.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 20, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I love your standpoint. I am

I love your standpoint. I am just college student and it is genuinely of great help for me.

 

Listen:

 
 
 

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