The Origin of Philosophy in Greek Literature

By Carlos Montemayor
The cultural and intellectual life of mankind changed dramatically because of ancient Greek literature. Maybe we will never see again such a drastic and marvelous change as the burst of creativity that produced such perennial works of art as Sophocles’ Antigone, and Plato’s Republic. Today, more than two thousand years from such intellectual revolution, we must celebrate what happened then, because it shaped forever the way we talk and think to each other and to oneself. This is why we are all in some sense ancient Greeks.

At the center of such intellectual revolution is a very important Greek question, that since then, became the human quest for the sense of life. It is the question for the totality of being, which is implicit in Greek literature and art. This question fosters a variety of artistic and philosophical concerns. Before the Greek philosophers, it was the task of the poets to address the issue on the totality of being, the search for truth and justice and the meaning of life.


Although many literary styles and artistic expressions were developed in that poetic atmosphere (comedy, tragedy, fables, theater, etc.) the search for truth was always a religious affair. It was in the decisions and actions of divine creatures where writers found the meaning of life. Life has a religious meaning in the works of the poets and their act of creativity aims at capturing the secret deeds of gods and goddesses through metaphors and literary perfection.


It was very fortunate that the search for truth became a stylistic affair. The amount of beauty contained in the Iliad is incommensurable. However, according to the poet, all that beauty was a reproduction of divine deeds, captured in Greek and written with human hands. Thus, Homer begins the Iliad with the solicitation: Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Literature reached a level of perfection in Greek literature, but the collective affair of education was determined by religious conceptions.


It was in the midst of this literary activity that a new style of literature emerged. The most important concern of such literature was education (Paideia) as a discipline for the search of truth. Thus, Thales formulates the question for the totality of being and answers not with a quote from the poets or by invoking a God. Rather, he answers by noticing that water is everywhere in nature and that it is possible that everything is composed of water. This is the origin of a new style of thinking and writing. It is the origin of Philosophy.
Presocratic philosophers start writing in this new and refreshing style. Their ideas were deep and original. Two of them in particular, Parmenides and Democritus, presented ideas about nature that have never been considered before. Parmenides said that the world we live in is a world of appearance, and that there is a single substance which is a whole unit, where nothing changes. His student, Zenon, denied the existence of movement and change, formulating paradoxes that had enormous repercussions. Democritus, on the other hand, said that everything is composed by indivisible units. Atom, the Greek word for “without parts” appear in the intellectual and scientific landscape, and since then, it became a crucial term in scientific theories.


However, it was not until Plato that the issue of education became the as important as the search for truth. For Plato, both are actually the same problem. To find the truth we need intellectual discipline. We can only see the truth, as Plato says, with the eyes of the soul. And only a good soul can see the truth. Therefore, using Plato’s allegory of the cave, the soul must be well trained and mature in order to leave the cave of appearances and see the ideas that shape everything. Education is crucial to find the truth, and the truth in not only good in itself, but also the goal that liberates us from our slavish condition.


Plato starts his revolution, a scientific and philosophical revolution, by attacking the poets. He compares them with puppeteers that manipulate the chained souls of the prisoners of the cave. The souls of those prisoners have never been used, they do not know the truth and they do not even know they are enslaved. The puppeteers promise them gifts, offer them the paradise and threat them with chimeras and horrible monsters. Imitation and reproduction are the chains that keep all the prisoners inside the cave.


Plato liberated humanity by comparing it to an enslaved crowd. His attack shook the very foundations of Greek culture and opened new routes of inquiry. In his dialogues, Socrates asked apparently simple questions that everyone quickly answered. When Socrates’ interlocutors realized they did not know the answer to such questions they were ready to start training their soul, because they knew that their knowledge was a product of reproduction, their ideas were the ideas of the poets and their science was religion.
Socrates gave birth to souls. This is the function of the teacher and the philosopher. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, gave birth also to a discipline that starts by asking the right questions, impeding quick answers and inquiring into the genealogy of ideas. The importance of this analysis is that it is through it that we reach our freedom, because our soul can see the ideas that shape everything. However, in thinking about the problem of imitation, Plato faced an enormous difficulty.


There is only one idea of chair, but there are infinitely many actual and possible chairs. They all participate in the idea of chair but by reproduction we can fabricate as much as we want. However there is only one Socrates and we can never reproduce or imitate him. Where does this difference in being come from? Why instruments have a different existential condition than Socrates or Alcibiades?


It is in this context that the issue of instrumentality, nature and life became crucial to the mightiest student of Plato, Aristotle. This is very relevant to understand why his book on nature (the Physics) is essentially concerned with instrumentality, a theme that connects all of Aristotle’s work. This is why it is important to acknowledge the cultural background Aristotle’s work presupposes by referring as much as possible to the original Greek meaning of the words he used.


In the writings of Greek philosophers we find not only a new way of writing and thinking, but also an expression of the wonders of language. Language is like a tool because we use it to do things, but it is also like a living creature because, for example, we can talk to Plato and Aristotle through it, bringing them to life. The language in which these new ideas that revolutionized human history were expressed, Greek, will be forever part of our common heritage.


**** This is the presentation of the writer Carlos Montemayor at an event of Cefalos Association in Astoria, February 1, 2004

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