On “Greek” Philosophy

Category: Guides

1 What is Greek Philosophy (not)?

Philosophy is famously difficult to define, although it is perhaps better to say that there are several different definitions, each fairly clear and useful in itself, and what creates difficulty is that these definitions are in some ways contrary to each other.

In one sense, philosophy is simply someone’s way of thinking or their outlook. But that outlook may, in another sense, be unphilosophical, meaning unreflective, irrational, immoral. That is if we define philosophy as thinking at its best: logical when logic is called for, reflective and self-critical, striving for high moral and intellectual values.

It is part of the narrative of “Western Civilization” – which, as Rebecca Futo Kennedy shows, is fundamentally a racist narrative (off-site link) – that philosophy in this latter sense, i.e., rational, self-aware thought, was invented by “the Greeks”, admittedly taking inspiration from the “Ancient Near East” but quickly outgrowing that model. From “the Greeks”, philosophy passed to “the Romans”, and thence to “us” (who are assumed to be white, European or of European descent, and usually Christian or secular). Depending on who tells the story, philosophy may also have taken a sojourn in the Islamicate world during the so-called Dark Ages, but only to “return” to “the West” and bring about the Enlightenment.

As my heavy use of quotation marks implies, this story relies on a lot of fixed ethnic entities where, in reality, there were extremely diverse, shifting populations. It also imagines history as passing from one ethnic group to another like a baton. What did the peoples of the so-called Near East do after they were done inspiring the Greeks? What was the intellectual history of the Greeks after Rome became an empire, or of Muslims after philosophy “came back” to Europe? These are questions that the promoters of “Western Civilization” do not seriously concern themselves with. They care only about the so-called “stage of history”, and believe that Greece, Rome and Baghdad starred on it only to lead to the present. Once these peoples exeunt the stage, they may as well not exist anymore.

The real story not only has the advantage of being true, it is also much more interesting. Philosophy – φιλοσοφία philosophía in Greek – first developed as a specific field of learning among Greeks and Greek-speakers in the 6th–5th centuries BCE. Although deeply influenced by Egyptian and other “barbarian” (non-Greek) traditions, it was in many ways innovative and different from what had come before. So far, so familiar.

However, because there is no such thing as a stage of history, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and other peoples lumped in under the (anachronistic and eurocentric) term “Ancient Near East” carried on their own intellectual production, undeterred by the novelty of philosophía. Despite the prejudices of modern racists, neither they nor their Greek contemporaries believed that their traditions had suddenly become obsolete, and so they continued to speak and write about complex ideas in their indigenous languages. In the wake of the conquests of Alexander of Macedon (better known as Alexander “the Great”), some of them also adopted Greek as a new medium of expression, and with the Greek language, philosophía – alongside indigenous traditions, not in their place.

This “Hellenization” (if that is really an appropriate label for the process) only intensified under the rule of Rome, as the new empire propagated a bilingual elite culture, in which philosophy, for instance, continued to be taught in Greek as it had been for centuries. Meanwhile, the fields of grammar and rhetoric developed new, Latin branches in addition to the Greek ones, and some vocations, especially Roman law, were practiced more or less entirely in Latin.

It is no surprise, in view of these developments, that by the period of late antiquity (usually reckoned from the 3rd century CE onward), the majority of “Greek” philosophy was being produced by people who were not of Greek ancestry, and that even when philosophy was written in Latin (or other languages), it was essentially the same in character as that written in Greek. In other words, all philosophy was Greek, but not Greek in a purely ethnic sense that would have excluded Romans, Egyptians, Babylonians or Arabs.

This is not to say that every strand of rational thought had been integrated into the orbit of philosophía. On the contrary, there were many traditions of what we may call philosophical thought elsewhere – in Greek grammar, in Roman law, in Egyptian temple inscriptions, in oral and written traditions among Jewish rabbis and Zoroastrian magi, among the different sects of Christians and Manichaeans, and so on, all with varying degrees of contact or conflict with the field of philosophy. Yet it is one thing to study the ancient history of philosophy-in-the-modern-sense – intellectual history might be a better, more neutral term here –, and another thing to study ancient philosophía. On SARTRIX, it is generally the latter that I mean by “philosophy”.

2 What is Philosophy in the Ancient Mediterranean?

The philosophía of the Ancient Mediterranean cannot really be given an essential definition, since its nature was already contested among ancient philosophers. We would be better served by a historical definition, along the following lines.

Philosophy was the intellectual pursuit of certain experts or specialists who defined themselves as philosophers (philósophoi), and were acknowledged as such by others. It was sometimes divided into several parts (such as logic, ethics and physics, or practical and theoretical/speculative philosophy), and in an expanded sense could also include other fields of inquiry (e.g., astronomy). Across these divisions, they created a shared vocabulary and a philosophical register of language, as well as their own set of literary subgenres, and often worked on conventional topics, addressing old questions in new ways, critiquing previous solutions or defending a certain position against such criticism.

Crucially, these efforts were not done on an individual or collective scale, but rather, philosophers usually attached themselves to one of a limited number of schools or sects, which recognized each other as valid ways of pursuing philosophy, but also each strove to demonstrate its own superiority over the others.

Not all followers of a given school would be philosophers in the sense of experts (teachers, advisers, lecturers or writers), instead simply following the teaching of its philosophers. However, most laypersons did not follow a specific school at all. Even if they had the leisure to attend to philosophy, they usually did so in a more superficial or general way, prioritizing practicality or breadth of learning over theoretical sophistication and depth of understanding.

3 On studying Greek philosophy

Serious study of philosophy, in the Ancient Mediterranean, required a good command of Greek, familiarity with certain subjects that were regarded as preliminary to philosophy, and attending the lecture courses of a philosopher, which would usually involve reading and interpreting the classics in the given philosophical school. It was also not uncommon to hear multiple philosophers, from different schools, in order to broaden one’s perspective or make an informed choice between them.

Most people, of course, did not pursue such “serious study”, either because they never had the opportunity, or because they had different interests – poetry, rhetoric, medicine, law, etc. – that were equally demanding. Not everyone knew Greek, not all who spoke it could read and write it, and even fewer were proficient in the requisite technical jargon. For such audiences, philosophers gave less demanding public lectures – not unlike the display speeches of orators and sophists –, and wrote non-technical essays, which were often also non-sectarian in orientation, or pieces which captured the audience through literary flourish as much by rational argument.

In short, there are and always have been many ways to study Greek philosophy, and I intend for SARTRIX to be a gateway to as many of them as possible. No one should be made to feel that their approach is less-than or inauthentic because they do not measure up to some ideal of seriousness. It is only those who claim the authority of teaching philosophy who should be held to certain higher standards, and they should be the readiest to make clear the limitations of their knowledge.

(In that spirit, let me also say at this point that I strongly encourage corrections, comments and criticism regarding any page on this site. In addition to all the other human weaknesses, I often write hurriedly and neglect to review and revise.)

4 Paths to philosophía

-different schools (Anon. Proleg.?)
-key readings
-Pseudo-Plutarch, Sallustius
-practical ethics instead of theory
-literary appeal: Plato, etc.