Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: How Competition Created Greek Philosophy

The discovery of philosophy in ancient Greece was spurred on by a “marketplace of ideas” where rational justification trumped doctrinal authority.Every culture has a philosophy, if all one means by “philosophy” is an overall worldview defining the natureof reality, of human beings, and of the proper standards of individual and social conduct. 

But if we take “philosophy” in the strict sense of anintellectual discipline that attempts to formulate such a worldview throughreasoned arguments, without appeal to tradition or authority, then philosophy appears to have independently arisen only three times in human history: in India, China, and Greece, all around the 7th-6thcenturies BCE.1While economic, political, social, andcultural preconditions for the emergence of philosophy are doubtless many, one important factor seems to be that ofintellectual competition. 

Where the proponents of a given worldview are able to maintain a monopoly, they donot need to defend their doctrines via argument; critics can be silenced, or do not think to become critics in the first place.  But in caseswhere it is impractical to impose a single viewpoint by authoritative fiat, those who want their opinions accepted must offerreasons; hence there may arise a motivation for argumentation and debate. 

Likewise, those who seek the truth can no longer simply go to the tribal elders for answers, because there is no single set of tribal elders to appeal to; faced with competing claims to wisdom, the inquirer must look forevidencefavoring one set of claims over another. 

Thus philosophy can be seen as an offspring of Hesiod’s good Strife.Intellectual competition appears to have played a role in the emergence of philosophy in all three traditions, but in different ways.  In India, a practice of discussion and debate seems to have taken shape in the competition for spiritual authority between thebrahminandkshatriyaclasses – in effect, between church and state.  In China, rivalry among the “Hundred Schools” arose through displaced bureaucrats and political functionaries vying for the post of political advisor to the local princes and military chiefs who werecarving newly independent kingdoms out of the fading remnantsof the Zhou Dynasty.In the case of Greece, the competition appears to have had a multicultural component.  In an age when travel by sea was easier and safer than travel by land, the easternMediterranean, with its thousands ofislands (many landmarks for navigators) and calm waters (by comparison with the open ocean, at least) was ideal for trading voyages. Such commerce – both among Greek communities, and with foreignnations in Egypt, Italy, and the Persian Empire – promoted exchange of ideas as well as of goods. 

Philosopher of science Karl Popper describes the “rise of Greek poetry, art, philosophy, and science,” and thus the “origin of Western rationalism,” as “largely due to culture clash.”  As Popper points, philosophy arose on the periphery ofthe wider Greek world rather than in mainland Greece itself:Let us look for a moment at the origin of Greek philosophy and Greekscience.  It all began in the Greek colonies in Asia Minor, in Southern Italy, and in Sicily.  These are places where the Greek colonists were confronted with the great civilizations of the East, and clashed with them, or where, in the West, theymet Sicilians, Carthaginians, and Italians ….2

It’s harder to be confident that the moon is a goddess, for example, when your Egyptian trading partners are just as confident that the moon is a male god.  Hence confrontation with alien cultures sparks the need tofigure outthe truth rather than simply taking for granted the traditions of one’s culture.  The influx of wealth generated by trade also tended to undermine the authority of the traditional aristocracy, as economic power in many cities shifted to the middle class. Competition within Greece probably played a role as well. The Greek world, like its counterparts in India and China, was politically decentralized.  Moreover, Greek religion had no sacred scripture, andas a religion focused more on practice than on doctrine it likewise had no official list of unchallengeable dogmas.3 

To be sure, there were limits to the toleration of religious eclecticism; Anaxagoras, for example, got into legal trouble for claiming that the sun was a burning rock rather than agod.  But there was no pagan Greek equivalent of the medieval Christian insistence on conformity to detailed doctrinal minutiæ over the precise nature of the Trinity or the Incarnation; thus the range of permissible dissent and diversity was significantly greater.The claim that Greek philosophy arose in part through multicultural contact should not be confused with the claim that the Greeksfoundthe discipline of philosophy already extant in some other culture and simply appropriated (or “stole”) it forthemselves.4 

Those who point in particular to Egypt as the “true source” of Greek philosophy have plausibly identified some similaritiesindoctrinethat suggest likely influence; but the Greek texts differ from the Egyptian ones in ordinarily containingargumentsfor their doctrines, whereas the equivalent doctrines in the Egyptian texts are merely asserted, not defended.  Doctrines without arguments, though they may serve as the raw material for philosophical reflection, arenot themselves philosophy.The classical Greeks were fascinated by cultural differences. 

The historian Herodotus recounts one famous example, in ethics: Dareios in the course of his reign summoned those of the Hellenes who were present in his land, and asked them for what price they would consent to eat up their fatherswhen they died; and they answered that for no price would they do so. After this Dareios summoned those Indians who are called Callatians, who eat their parents, and asked them in presence of the Hellenes, who understood what they said by help of an interpreter, for what payment they would consent to consume with fire the bodies of theirfathers when they died; and they cried out aloud and bade him keep silence from such words. …

For if one should propose to all men a choice, bidding them select the best customs from all the customs that there are, each race of men, after examining them all, would select those of his own people; thus all think that their own customs are by far the best….

And the philosopher Xenophanes describes another example, in theology:Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black;Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired. …But if horses or oxen or lions had handsor could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men,horses would draw the figures of thegods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen,and they would make the bodiesof the sort which each of them had.

But contrary to both Herodotus’s prediction and his own, in choosing among theological opinions Xenophanes does not “select those of his own people,” nor does he assign to the gods “bodies of the sort” possessed by Greeks or even humans.  Instead, Xenophanes rejects the anthropomorphic polytheism of Greek mythology in favor of a single, incorporeal, changeless, spherical, all-knowing, morally perfect deity, on the groundsthat such a conception is worthier ofgodhood than are the traditional stories.  In short, Xenophanes responds to the phenomenon of religious diversity by looking for the mostrationally defensibleconception of deity, even if it departssharply from what all known authorities teach. Thephilosophoiwere “lovers of wisdom” in the sense of beingseekersafter wisdom, or more precisely, seekers afterstandardswhereby to distinguish genuine fromfake wisdom.  In its refusal to bow unquestioningly to authority, Greek philosophy was decidedly libertariannot only in its origin but in its method – if not always in its content.
by Roderick T. Long
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