Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Philosophical Inheritance

Diogenes and Alexander the Great were philosophical cousins. They each inherited some of their ideas from Socrates, their common philosophical ancestor.

Diogenes studied under Antisthenes who studied under Socrates, which makes Diogenes a kind of philosophical grandchild of Socrates. Alexander studied under Aristotle who studied under Plato who studied under Socrates, which makes Alexander a philosophical great grandchild of Socrates.

The difference in their approaches to the parochialism of the polis is due in part to their different resources rather than any serious differences in their philosophical ancestry.

Antisthenes, whose approach to philosophy may have been much closer to that of Socrates than Plato's was, was comparatively down to earth and skeptical. Diogenes himself had few resources - he was just one man, and he gave away almost everything he had - so it only makes sense that he would opt for the minimal approach to transcending his parochialism by changing himself.

Plato, though, was always more poet than philosopher, and his approach to philosophy was considerably less grounded than that of Antisthenes, more abstract and metaphorical. Plato was horrified when Athens condemned Socrates to death, and he retreated still further into his ideal and imaginary worlds. He transferred his loyalties from his polis of Athens to an imaginary philosophical republic of his own devising. Remarkable as Plato was, his ideal Republic may have been the first rigorous description of a totalitarian state. The worst excesses of the Inquisition and the Holocaust owe something to Plato's republic, as those totalitarian movements struggled to purify their own republics according to abstract theories about who should and should not exist in reality, much like Plato had done in theory.

Aristotle, Plato's most preeminant student, learned not just from Plato's strengths but also from his weaknesses. Instead of prescribing, he studied. Like Diogenes he was one of Plato's most severe critics. When Aristotle turned his attentions to the polis, instead of poetically theorizing about perfection, he studied the varieties of governments the polis has had over time and explored the reasons for their successes and failures. He systematically and empirically analyzed the polis to figure out what makes it work and how to make it work best. As far as we know he wrote little or nothing about Socrates's idea of the citizen of the world, perhaps because he had insufficient examples to study - Aristotle preferred the study of reality to speculation about possibilities - but it's pretty clear he talked about the idea because of what his student did with it.

Like Diogenes, Alexander inherited Socrates's ideas about the cosmopolis - the cosmos as the proper focus of our loyalty - but because of his superior resources he didn't stop by changing his own attitude about the Greek polis.

He decided to change everyone else's too. He decided to create a cosmopolitan world.


Brian said...

Can you imagine the people of the time? How would they feel with Alexander on the horizon? Were their terrorist attacks? Did Alexander have to deal with insurgents? It is interesting how time and perspective can make us look differently at the actions of an individual. I know that Alexander was educated and trained, but I also know he resented his father, and I seriously think his personal desire to win, and to prove he was better than his father, or anyone else for that matter made him push onward and onward. I propose this question of a philosophical nature to you. If you were handed a military force or weapon that could not be beaten what would you do? Would you create a new culture or city? Would you hide it and hope no one else ever figured it out? Would set about empire building, or bringing the entire world in line with your priorities? As a certified megalomaniac I have thought about this and studied the empire builders. Napoleon, Hitler, Alexander, Xerxes, Ceasar, Mao, all had different ideas about what the polis should be, except they all agreed on one thing. They should be in charge. Hubris goes hand in hand with power, and then the philosophy comes next. Looking back it is easy to see what they did and assign a level of philosophical inheritance, but I think many of these people were really just essentially playing a bce video game and wanted to win more than the other guys.
Forgive me but I feel that I seem to minimizing your grasp of the cause an effect of these great historical figures, I do not mean to do that. I just think that like most people there is more to the story than just who their teacher was, and why they did what they did. Diogenes had many students, only a few are known, and the others did not strive to conquer the world.

Rick Marshall said...

Your comment is a treasure trove of ideas and questions that I'll return to from time to time to add more responses to.

For now, let's start with hubris vs. philosophy where Alexander is concerned. Today's post will be about that.