READ PARTS I, II AND III HERE
Around the same time that Pythagoras was reflecting on the impossibility of irrational numbers and the apparently numerical nature of eternity, across the Aegean Sea in the city of Athens other ideas were taking shape. The gods of Ancient Greece had up to now been given human form, but philosophers were starting to seriously wonder whether a god should have a form at all.
The four elements of Thales and Anaximander (see Part II) and the Natural Law they stood for had been quietly germinating into something even more radical: secularism.
The only reason, they said in Athens, we make a god a man is because we see him in our image. But what if we were sheep or cows – would our gods be human then?
God, the Athenians decided, was the force that controlled the cosmos and the elements within it. But what was tolerated in Athens was not tolerated everywhere, and as Athenian philosophers tried to take their point even further, and claim that perhaps there was no god at all, things started to turn nasty.
At this time, also in Athens, a new kind of philosopher was emerging, one that was by nature more pragmatic. Sophist was the name given to those who began to see the merits of using their knowledge for influence, money and power. These were individuals who often acted as tutors and orators. They were good at public speaking, sometimes too good.
Protagoras was one of them. Like a Greek Shakespeare he also turned his talents to writing plays, and he used them to vehicle his ideas. People, he said, are nothing more than animals, and because they are by nature savage, they invented their gods out of desperation, to tame them and punish their wrong doings. Such profoundly atheist speeches got Protagoras into serious hot water. His plays were burned and he was forced to flee the city. But there were other sophists that crawled out of the woodwork to take Protagoras’ place. Pragmatists as they were, these orators became adept at crowd pleasing and pocketed a healthy salary teaching the sons of the wealthy and grooming them in the rhetorical art of persuasion. They were in fact, the first lawyers in the world; the only problem was that Greek society was not quite ready for them. Accused of being impious and profiteering, the sophists became the targets of other people’s anger. Nothing much has changed, you might think, and in a way it hasn’t. The sophists were ready to make a case for anything, regardless of ethics. They called it a search for truth; others called it a search for supremacy. What it really boiled down to may depend on the view you choose to take of it, but before too long Athenian society had started to complain about them.
So, atheism fell out of favour. What would come next? As usual, in the Ancient Greek world, there was always going to be a backlash. At the close of the fifth century BC a new star was born in the world of Greek philosophy, a man who held fast to his beliefs until the bitter end, and died for them. His name was Socrates, and perhaps he was in some ways also a sophist, because he did, at times, take on students in return for payment — a habit that would one day drive the final nail into his coffin when he was accused of corrupting the young men of Athens with his radical ideas. One of these young men was Plato, the giant of Greek philosophy who would eclipse his masters. The relationship between Plato and Socrates has always been a puzzle; Socrates himself was a mysterious character, hard to pin down. But whatever he was or wasn’t, the record of his thoughts show him as something of a cynic.
I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing. True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. Likewise, let him that would move the world first move himself — all of which stinks of a major rebellion against the society of his time. His influence on Plato, who must have worshipped him because he writes so much about him, laid the foundations for the rest of Greek philosophy, and therefore for the rest of Western Philosophy as a whole. After all, where do you go when your muse and model is sentenced to death for thinking ‘outside the box’? The simple answer has to be: you get back into it.
Read Part V next week…
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