Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Principles of Ancient Greek Philosophy

Heraclitus by Hendrick ter Brugghen
Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus in Heraclitus by Hendrick ter Brugghen
Dear Reader,

Just as good writing requires the author to understand and write to his audience, so good reading requires the reader to understand and read from the author. Though the first requirement is rarely followed, the second is rarely even acknowledged. To comprehend the Greek philosophical authors of twenty-five hundred years ago, who stretched their language and culture dramatically in the quest for unprecedented insights, such discipline on the part of readers is crucial.

Understanding Heraclitus or any other ancient Greek philosopher is a challenge. Neither just like us nor primitive versions of us, the ancient Greeks conceived of the world very differently than we do. Where the range of our ideas is preformed by millennia of thinkers and writers formatting the world for us before we even begin to think for ourselves, the ancient Greek philosophers were fresher, more original, having to invent new ways of seeing the world from scratch. The Greeks were diverse and experimental, so writers from different places and times in the Greek world brought surprisingly different perspectives and assumptions to bear on their philosophizing. It is difficult to conceive of a philosopher as different from Heraclitus of Ephesus as is Parmenides, his contemporary from Elea. Nevertheless, the ancient Greeks interpreted the world not just from the viewpoint of their local customs and cultures but also through the unifying field of a common culture evidently created quite deliberately by the Greek tribes to help unite them into one people.

The unifying cultural principles underlying ancient Greek philosophy are the necessary context for interpreting those ancient writers, not only in the case of philosophers like Heraclitus of whom we have lost all but fragments but also of writers like Plato and Aristotle for whom we are lucky enough to have extensive collections of their books. When we do not understanding these principles, our cultural blinders drive us to misinterpret almost anything these philosophers wrote, to understand their words as we might have meant them had we written them rather than as their authors did, but once we begin to comprehend the principles, we find them everywhere referred to in various ways and begin to smell their implicit presence even where they are not referred to explicitly. These principles permeate their thought and writing.

Over the next seven blog posts, I will introduce and explore each of the seven principles.

Yours truly,

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