Socrates and the Abuse of Reason
by Gwydion M. Williams
- Being Post-Socratic
- An Unreasonable Hybrid
- Honesty Not the Best Policy?
- Socratic Errors
- Rambles With Straw Dogs
- Feed-The-Rich Christianity
- Appendix: Did Plato See Venus At Midnight?
It is easy to forget how much we depend on chains of transmission to tell us about ancient thinkers. We do not have the original works: we have copies of copies of copies. And much has been lost.
If we had the lost material, our view of ancient times might be very different. Maybe there were clever philosophers before the Greeks we know about. There was certainly Indian philosophy that may have interacted – an instance that uses the analogy of a charioteer with runaway horses rather as Plato did. And there were well-developed systems in China: but these show no connection with Western ideas until Buddhism arrived during the Han dynasty, long after the origin of China’s major philosophies in the Warring States era.
For astronomy, we use a modernised version of the Greek system, but with Roman names replacing some of those used by the Greeks. And a lot of Arabic names as well, since they added plenty. But we also know that the Greeks borrowed massively from the Sumerian and Babylonian systems, of which we have only fragments. These in turn are perhaps built on Neolithic knowledge, some of it expressed in stone monuments thousands of years older than the Sumerian system. (This is detailed in the Appendix.)
For Mesopotamia, we know of works like the Epic of Gilgamesh because various copies of copies survived underground as baked-clay tablets. These survived after the chain of transmission had been lost. When dug up in modern times, people noticed unexpected similarities to portions of the Bible, most notably Noah and the flood. Perhaps also an influence on Homer: the heroic theme is certainly there in ancient Sumerian and Semitic cultures long before Greece.
‘Gilgamesh’ was an historic Sumerian king who became a hero to a Semitic people called the Akkadians, who took over and expanded Sumerian civilisation. The Epic was Akkadian, but looks like an expansion of five Sumerian poems where he is already an epic hero:
“Some of the names of the main characters in these poems differ slightly from later Akkadian names; for example, ‘Bilgamesh’ is written instead of ‘Gilgamesh’, and there are some differences in the underlying stories such as the fact that Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s servant in the Sumerian version”.
We know more about Sumerian and later Mesopotamian culture than most lost civilisations, because a lot of their literature survived as baked-clay tablets. We also know that what we know is incomplete – we have only fragments of their system of astronomy, which was the main source for the Greek astronomy that we know in much more detail. There might well have been vast realms of philosophy and science which does not survive at all.
For Ancient Egypt, we have fragmentary knowledge of Atenism, the first known attempt to replace gods and goddesses with a single all-powerful God: in this case an expanded Sun-God. We have some surviving inscriptions, because the restored orthodox authorities accepted he had been a real pharaoh, though misbehaving. And Atenism apparently died with its founder Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV), though details are unclear.
We happen to have some excellent details of a son or cousin of Akhenaten who was originally named Tutankhaten. Who ruled as Tutankhamun but died as a teenager, perhaps murdered. His tomb got neglected, which meant it survived the grave-robbers who looted almost every other tomb.
Atenism probably had an extensive literature, but we have only fragments. There was probably a link with later Hebrew religion, but of course Genesis and Exodus and other Hebrew scriptures say nothing about Akhenaten.
You could read the struggle between Moses and the official priests as an echo of the struggle for the soul of Egypt. It does seem strange that the Egyptians are first determined to be rid of the Hebrews and then equally determined to stop them leaving. Odd that it is almost as if Moses and the Egyptian priests seem to be competing for who has access to the more powerful God, which does not seem relevant. And it did occur to me that the brothers Moses and Aaron might have been a rewrite for a single individual called something like ‘Aaronmoses’, which would sound suspiciously Egyptian. But that is just speculation.
The name ‘Ramses’ does occur in Exodus, though as a city rather than a ruler. This has led to many people believing that the Pharaoh of the Exodus must have been Ramses the Second, which I find ridiculous. That Pharaoh had power in the lands of Canaan that the Hebrews supposedly conquered, without mention of Egyptian interference. And were recorded as conquering cities that archaeology indicate were in ruins at the time, after a general decline in Canaanite urban culture.
We know from various records that Ramses pushed well into West Asia, colliding with and accepting a stand-off with the Hittites after the Battle of Kadesh. Presented as a glorious victory for Ramses, but many historians think this was a fix-up for a battle that he came close to losing by bad generalship. But he certainly had vast power in the lands that the Bible has Joshua conquering.
For Classical Greek thinking, we depend heavily on what Christians and Muslims thought worth preserving. Worth copying by hand on scarce parchment or papyrus, which was time-consuming and expensive. It took many centuries for paper and woodblock-printing to spread from China across Asia and eventually to Europe.
The selection of literature before the vast improvements made possible woodblock-printing may be misleading. It may falsely make the pupils of Socrates seem central to Greek thought. And likewise Homer for the Tale of Troy: what we have are a poem about the wrath of Achilles that stops short of his death, and then another about the wanderings of Odysseus. These fit into a broader history that we hazily know from a mix of sources, with reference to other accounts that are lost.
It is not just the incompleteness of the picture. I’ve long felt that Plato and Aristotle were treated much too reverently. There are many indications that Plato was seriously dishonest. Often mistaken when he might have known better. He was also an enemy of the limited but hopeful democracy of Athens. While the pupils of Aristotle became a pack of squabbling despots after the death of Alexander the Great.
I’d not deny that there is also a lot of useful stuff to be found there. But I’d not accept the standard view of Plato and Aristotle as a glorious treasure-house. Rather, they are among the larger portions of a junk-heap that does also include some undoubted treasures.
They should always be viewed with great skepticism.
In the centuries before it became the State Religion of the Roman Empire, some of the many factions within Christianity hybridised with the Socratic school of philosophy. Mainly with the work of Aristotle and Plato, who became Authorities despite not having been Christian. It was this that allowed Constantine to integrate those versions of Christianity into the existing Imperial way of life.
This also ensured we have much of what they wrote, whereas major thinkers like Heraclitus and Democritus are little more than famous names.
Heraclitus of Ephesus was once rated highly, but is now known mostly for supposedly claiming we can’t bathe twice in the same river. His works are lost: we can’t be sure if this was just a sound-bite. His actual view might have been much more subtle than the standard version, which I see as superficial. The whole point about a river is that it is a movement of water, unlike a lake or pond. But also remaining in much the same place from day to day and year to year, unlike a flood. But for all we know, Heraclitus also saw it so and was just making a provocative remark to get people thinking about the world’s changeability.
Democritus also is known just from quotes, though Aristotle may have borrowed a lot from him. He and Leucippus are credited with inventing the idea of atoms, though we also know that Democritus, from a wealthy family, studied the learning of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
As a philosopher in his own right, Democritus was known and highly rated in Classical Greece and Imperial Rome. But he was thereafter neglected and his works lost. This might have pleased Plato, who supposedly wished all of his books burned. And Christian theology decided that the notion of atoms was heretical: thankfully their influence was negligible when modern European chemists decided that this and a number of previously obscure chemical elements were the best explanations for what their chemical experiments showed them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Antoine Lavoisier is justly famous for his correct recognition of many of the elements. Working out that what Joseph Priestley had called ‘dephlogisticated air’ was in fact a distinct element. Sadly, he chose to call it Oxygen, Maker of Acids, reserving the name Hydrogen or Maker of Water for water’s other component. Many acids have different strength depending on how many atoms of oxygen are in the molecule: but some such as hydrochloric acid contain no oxygen. Lavoisier guessed that chlorine was actually a molecule combining oxygen with something unknown, and sadly he guessed wrong. That’s one of the problems of pure thinking without experimental check on the reality of your notions.
Incidentally, it is also an error to suppose that mediaeval alchemists seeking to make gold were seeking ‘transmutation of the elements’. For them, the elements were Earth, Fire, Air and Water – a notion inherited from ancient times, for no particular reason. China, which developed fairly independently of the various West Asian and European cultures inspired by Mesopotamia, chose to have Fire, Water, Stone, Wood and Metal as elements. Air they chose to ignore, but they did correctly notice some basic difference between solids: metallic, non-metallic and organic.
Metaphysics easily ensnares some very clever minds. But it is basically an error. Ideas depend on the real world, rather than the other way round. Mental categories must always be checked against reality, and revised if necessary.
What we have of Classical Greece is dominated by Plato and Aristotle, because Constantine raised up a version of Christianity that had already included them. Liked their metaphysics, and included it in an elaborate theology defined first at the First Council of Nicaea. And it was Christians who did the later copying of ancient philosopies. There may not have been much intentional suppression of thinkers like Heraclitus and Democritus: just a lack of interest.
Christianity became the Roman Empire’s creed, dominating Roman Europe and also North Africa and West Asia until the rise of Islam. Islam regarded itself as the true continuation of the teaching of ‘the Prophet Jesus’, and so inherited much of the same structure of thought. Accepted Plato and Aristotle as Authorities.
Constantine might have chosen some other creed. Even Buddhism, if it had made its way west. It made its way east and got included in Imperial China and isolationist Japan. But though Buddhism was known about in the Roman world, and had hybridised with Greek culture in Bactria in Central Asia, it never counted for much.
There were also other creeds that had substantial followings in the Roman world. Mithraism, the worship of Isis, and the creed of the Unconquered Sun. But Constantine opted for Christianity, with a few pagan overtones. His specific choice was to use the ‘Chi Rho’ symbol, which was used by Christians but much older and acceptable also to pagans. Yet by stages, it became a complete take-over of the Roman Empire of versions of Christianity merged with Socratic philosophy.
It was the worst possible choice.
It may also have been what Catholic theologians called a Felix culpa, a ‘happy fault’. Or it was if one holds that all of the popular religions were based on primitive errors and misunderstandings about physics and the wider universe. The extreme Christian claim to Know Truth cleared the way for minds to shake themselves free of it. Whereas Confucianism was a trap for Chinese culture until Mao freed them from its worse aspects. Both Islam and Hinduism are gaining ground at the expense of those wanting to keep them as cultural flourishes on a Westernised pattern of thinking.
It might also have been otherwise in the Roman world. The early Christian Tertullian asked:
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?”
He was right, but was viewed with suspicion by the hybridisers. Unlike other early theologians, he has never been accepted as a saint.
Christianity spread within the Roman Empire. But assuming you don’t believe in a God who constantly meddles in the mundane world, it could only hope to win by taking over much of the existing outlook of the rich and educated.
I’ve read very little about Tertullian, and by no means all of Plato or Aristotle. Their alien politics and major errors on matters of science – detailed later – meant I could not see them as sources of wisdom.
Science has given a definite picture of the world beyond humans. It shows all pre-scientific thinkers to be massively wrong on matters where they are easily testable. And Plato repeatedly claimed to have proved things that he had not proved at all. How much more does one need to know about such ‘Authorities’?
Plato’s sloppy philosophy is more about looking good that getting as close as you can to truths that are often uncomfortable. Truths like the fact that humans live on a fast-moving planet. And that objects continue in motion without any need for fresh inputs, if there is nothing acting to slow them.
This last was a key assumption by Newton. Objects on Earth slow down, because of friction from the ground and even the air. In the vacuum of space, they carry on regardless.
It also occurred to me that the basics could have been demonstrated to Greeks, had anyone thought of it. Long ago, I read an account by physicist Richard Feynman, who as a child had a little wagon with a rod to pull it. He noticed that a ball in the wagon would hit the front of the wagon when he stopped. His father explained that this was Inertia – objects do not change their speed unless a force acts on them.
Inertia remains rather mysterious. Relativity might suggest that all motion is relative, but we also know that objects respond to being slowed down or speeded up (both processes viewed as ‘acceleration’ by physicists). And inertia acts as if it were sensitive to the pooled background of the entire universe, for no very clear reason.
If you know modern physics, you should be aware that there is an outstanding problem creating a unified theory that allows for both General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Both have been tested in detail and confirmed in extremely sensitive tests; yet they are built on incompatible assumptions. But in my view, such a theory might well include a proper explanation for inertia, undoubtedly real yet still mysterious.
But to get back to the Greeks, they could have made a wagon such as Feynman had, and noticed that it contradicted their ideas of how the world works. Or one could have linked it to Greek myths – have it as Ajax in his chariot, fixed to a cross-bar like the footballers in table-football. When the chariot stopped, Ajax would shoot forward and bump his head on the front. Someone involved in arts-and-crafts might like to make such a thing as an educational toy. My own experiences in the question-and-answer forum Quora indicated many adults still do not understand it.
It could be that someone did a demonstration of inertia much as I described, and that the followers of Plato and Aristotle brushed it aside as vulgar ‘appearances’. They would have seen it as much inferior to their cherished metaphysics.
A film called Agora  shows Hypatia, a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in late 4th-century Roman Egypt, performing a variant. She drops a weight from the mast of a ship, expecting it not to keep the ship’s motion. And then supposedly comes close to modern science when she notices that it acts contrary to her expectation. And then is murdered by ignorant Christian fanatics, with her work lost. But the film is largely fiction: Hypatia and her murder are real enough, but there is no solid evidence she managed any genuinely new thinking.
We do know that Archimedes, a fascinating inventor in the days when Roman power was talking over from the Greeks, was apologetic about his clever inventions. That he preferred to be known for his equally valid excursions into pure thought.
The Socratic school did not cause this contempt for manual work, which may have been connected with manual tasks being done mostly by slaves. And it is worth noting that in China, the gentry had an equal distancing of themselves from manual work in a very different society. But they certainly shared the common error. (And a positive in Christianity is that it did encourage its thinkers to also work with their hands.)
What’s worse than a hyping of pure thought is the abuse of reason to claim proof of things that were not proven. Things that often turned out to be wrong.
There is a lot of intellectual trickery in The Republic, as I plan to detail in a future article. And in Xenophon’s alternative version of Socratic teaching, there is a straightforward justification of lying as a way for Superior Persons to guide the ignorant masses.
Xenophon also tells us that Socrates when put on trial decided it would be a convenient time to die, and intentionally did not put up a sensible defence against charges for which the death penalty had been demanded. It was normal for the defendant to offer to accept some lesser penalty, much like modern plea-bargaining. But Socrates chose to be defiant, and also chose not to flee when left unhampered if he would prefer exile to death.
Death appears to have been Socrates’ own choice. And after some controversies, it seems now established that taking hemlock of the variety probably used was about as convenient and pleasant a way to die as you could have found at the time.
None of this is put straightforwardly in Plato, where Socrates expresses regret that he had not had longer to talk and thinks he might have been acquitted. But it does give a logic to what Plato reports Socrates as doing. In particular his refusal to escape, which it seems everyone was hoping he would do. And he had earlier insulted his jury by suggesting that he ought to be rewarded rather than punished, ignoring the damage done to Athens by men he had taught.
Greek Paganism was generally as hostile to suicide as Christianity was – not a cultural inevitability, since both Roman and Chinese culture accepted it and it was later glorified in Japan. The pagan hell included a dismal Wood of Suicides.
But being killed by enemies was another matter.
I would also suppose – though neither Plato nor Xenophon say it and perhaps neither realised it – that Socrates saw he could gain dignity by being seen to die for his beliefs. Greeks already understood the heroism of dying well despite having been defeated – in Homer it is the Trojans who are the best individuals. Socrates seems to have been the inventor of martyrdom for ideas, which must have helped his school of thinkers to hybridise with Christianity.
Xenophon was probably naïve rather than honest when he presents Socrates as intending to die. He was certainly not honest in many of his other writings.
One big trouble with lying is that it’s not true – so actions that would be valid if the lies had been true will end in disaster. That applied to the Liberal Interventionism in Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world, which some of us warned about at the time.
The other big trouble is that once some of the lies get exposed, there will be a general mistrust of everything you do. And when some liars visibly succeed, many others may think that perhaps morality is just a trap for small minds. This was the position with the Hellenic kingdoms formed by the generals of Alexander the Great. Generals who between them murdered Alexander’s children and most of his relatives. Who probably found such ruthlessness easier because of the strong suspicion that Alexander himself had organised the murder of his father and then had the killer killed before he could talk. (Much like the fictional version of Macbeth in Shakespeare.)
Most of the Successors who wasted Alexander’s legacy in endless futile wars had been educated by Aristotle!
Xenophon is unsubtle in his trickery. Having read his Persian Expedition (Anabasis), I was convinced he is continuously lying about his own role in the matter. I’m sure something of the sort happened: you could not invent a major venture by 10,000 Greeks within living memory without sounding ridiculous. But not as he told it. I’m surprised that so many people believe his version.
No one at all believes his Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia). We might if we had nothing else about Persian culture – a point to remember when one thinks about other peoples whom we know only from one authoritative-sounding Greek or Roman source. There are many instances when we have several sources, and know some of them to be rubbish. Greeks and Romans had a hazy notion of China as the source of silk and other civilised products, but the legends of Hyperborea is probably a reflection of China put falsely in the far north. (Quite possibly misdirection by nomads controlling a very profitable trade.) There was also a notion of Chinese as large red-headed people – probably a confusion with nomadic middle-men. And as for the Education of Cyrus, it is heavily based on Spartan practice. It is profoundly ignorant of actual Persian custom and belief, or else choose to ignore them.
In their accounts of Socrates and his pupils, neither Plato nor Xenophon deal properly with each other, pretending the other was not there. Had not the works of both been popular and preserved till modern times, most people would not suspect this. Had just one survived, that would be our undisputed view of Socrates – though only Plato contains the sophistications to have merged with the growing Christian creed.
We also learn from surviving Greek comic plays that many Greeks who knew Socrates presented him as a fool whose followers were dishonest. A man whose intellectual tricks made it easy to justify dishonesty. This is particularly true of Aristophanes’ play The Clouds.
Satire succeeds by taking real faults and exaggerating them. Athens was the size of a modern small town: people must have an excellent idea of what Socrates was like and what was the result of his teaching.
When Latin-Christian Europe started really thinking about the hybrid creed during the European cultural surge known as the Renaissance, it fell apart. The various versions of Protestantism tried to get back to an original ‘pure’ Christian creed, but found that there was no such thing.
Roman Catholicism in Dark-Age and Mediaeval times had made many innovations. Far more than Orthodox Christianity, although it too stuck with a muddled doctrine of Jesus as both two separate people and a single indivisible person – irrationalities created by power-struggles in the Eastern Roman Empire. And Official Christianity got away with it, because it largely controlled education. Without written records available to most people, the various innovations soon became accepted as solid and ancient traditions.
Protestants soon found that a creed based just on what was really in the Bible would not have felt like Christianity at all. A few tried – one example is the Sandemanians (Glasites), who included noted scientist Michael Faraday. But they were never popular and are now extinct.
Reasoning about Christianity most commonly led to people reasoning themselves out of Christianity. This happened during the 17th and 18th centuries, as science advanced.
Newton and Galileo were serious in their Christianity, with Galileo getting into trouble because he wanted his church to face up to the truth about the solar system. Newton had no such problem, but he also looked logically at the Bible and decided that the doctrine of the Trinity was probably a false addition. It very probably was, but that would have been too radical for most Protestants.
Priests are another anomaly. They were added to the growing Church some time before Constantine made it the Imperial creed. They are part of Greek Orthodoxy and other surviving ancient Christianities. This was done even though it was entirely lacking in Biblical justification. The harder-line versions of Protestantism are quite right on this, though not on much else.
Kautsky in his excellent Foundations of Christianity suggests that the Christian Mass began as a common meal among people who upheld the original rejection of personal property. Also seen as commemorating Jesus, but basically a meal.
No doubt the original Bible-sanctioned officials, Bishops and Deacons, would have handed out bread and wine that might often have been less than people wanted. I don’t think he noted the lack of lamb, which was there at the Last Supper in line with Jewish practice. But meat of any sort was a rare luxury for most people in the ancient world.
In Kautsky’s view, it was only by gradual stages and for the benefit of rich members who had much better meals at home that the ‘common meal’ was gradually become ritualised and involved only tiny quantities. And as the symbolism increased, they spread the notion that some of the Deacons and all of the Bishops were something higher: Christian Priests whose blessing was needed to make the Common Meal a source of blessings and Good Luck.
Jesus and his immediate followers were conventional Jews who recognised the authority of the official temple priests, even though those priests were mostly corrupt. They saw the correct rituals as vital, even if bad people performed them. And they wanted a purified Temple converted to their values. But when the Romans destroyed the Temple and the world carried on much as before, some shifts in thinking became necessary.
We have good evidence that a similar shift happened in the branch of Christianity known as Quakers, who adopted pacifism only after the religious extremism of the Civil War became marginal with the restoration of Charles the Second.
It is also interesting to note that the End of the World in the Book of Revelations has no mention of the Jerusalem Temple being destroyed. And I’d suppose that all references by Jesus to the impending doom of the Temple were added long after the event. It is notable that the Gospels make no mention of Jesus being criticised for this by his accusers. The Temple Priests supposedly ignored statements that would have been far more blasphemous to official Judaism than the accusations recorded as thrown at him. God was supposed to preserve the Temple, being in charge of everything.
One has to assume that surviving branches of Christianity reworked the Sayings of Jesus after the unthinkable actually happened. And meantime most Jews shifted to become good citizens of the Roman Empire, or wherever else they were living.
Interestingly, when Julian the Apostate tried to return a lightly-Christianised Roman Empire to Paganism, one of his ideas was to let the Jews restore their Temple. It would have been awkward for Christian theology. But he died or was murdered in a pointless war against Persia.
Looking back earlier, with the world failing to end when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and converted to Pagan worship, surviving Christians must have made many adjustments. Including applying rules for the Jewish Sabbath to the Pagan-Roman ‘Day of the Unconquered Sun’. This is irrational, but also too basic to popular Christianity to be discarded. Or not except for some 25 million Seventh-day Adventists, plus a few other small sects that have little else to recommend them.
Protestants trying to make Sunday a day of joyless quiet are not being Biblical: they are ignoring chunks of the Bible in favour of what can work as a popular religion.
If there isn’t a good original Christianity to get back to, there is also no good original Platonism or Aristotelianism worth reviving. There are scattered attempts. I would see these as mistakes: made mostly by good people, but with bad results.
To be a Christian or a Platonist or both is to be a prisoner of the accidents of European history. Plato and Aristotle survived because they were useful to the Hellenistic Empires, which were autocratic regimes that favoured the rich. That largely supressed the limited democracy of places like Athens. Were just as useful to the Pagan-Roman Empire, which sidelined the oligarchic electoral system of the Roman Republic. (A Republic that was never even close to being a democracy, even for the minority who were Roman citizens.)
Plato and Aristotle gained additional importance when the Roman Empire adopted a compatible version of Christianity. Since we have very little of rival Greek thinkers, we can only speculate about why this happened. Whether it was sheer chance or a lack of compatibility in basic beliefs is something we can only guess at. But we do know that rival schools included things that were much closer to modern science than Plato and Aristotle ever were.
The entire Socratic School managed to be wrong on almost every issue where their views are testable:
- Plato praised the sterile oligarchy of Sparta. He preferred it to the imperfect but hopeful democracy of Athens. While Aristotle trained his Macedonian pupils to be military despots with some enlightened cultural values.
- They hung onto Earth-centred astronomy, when other Greek thinkers correctly saw that the geometry of planetary motions made much more sense with the sun at the centre.
- Plato had a theory of vision that saw it as a kind of radar with the eyes shooting out sounding signals.
- Plato, at least, assumed an unchanging world with periodic ups and downs. This even though Homer and Hesiod had preserved a garbled version of both social changes and the key switch from Bronze to Iron.
- They rejected the notion of biological evolution, even by Divine Will.
Socrates as recorded by both Plato and Xenophon was grossly dishonest, twisting logic to reach conclusions that suited him.
Stuff is claimed by Plato as proven that is not proven at all.
The Socratic school, helped by Aristotle’s followers, sterilised the work of older thinkers who were much closer to a real understanding.
They rejected the idea that the planets Mercury and Venus might revolve round the sun, which would explain why they were always seen fairly close to it.
Rejected the idea that existing animals might have evolved from simpler creatures, which was known to Aristotle.
Rejected the notion that humans might have risen from a more primitive condition, which is there in Homer and also Hesiod.
Plato’s false understanding of history is shown in his Atlantis myth. This is introduced in two of his dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, with all other mentions of the island are based on them. And the story is also treated as something new; not part of the myths that all Greeks were aware of.
Plato may have invented Atlantis: he certainly chose to believe an improbably history. It has humans living much as the Classical Greeks, 9000 years before Plato. We know now that towns became cities about 5000 years ago – 2600 years before Plato – having learned to make bronze a little earlier.
Homer knew that humans had once used bronze for weapons, though he also has iron being used for agricultural tools, which must have been a muddle with his own era. Plato ignores this.
Those who believe that Atlantis might have been a sunken land with technology ahead of the rest of humanity overlook that Plato’s account also has Athens existing in the same era and fighting on equal terms. Athens actually began as a Mycenaean fortress about a thousand years before Plato’s time.
Plato ignored those indications of real history that would have been available to him.
Nature rambles and the moon don’t care – that’s how I see it. That’s the real universe, within which we are a lucky little exception.
Keeping the distance between the human domain and the general universe is the beginning of wisdom.
But if ‘the moon don’t care’, there are excellent reasons why humans should care. Or should care if they are not totally selfish and think the world might as well die when they do.
Even at the crude level of doing violence to rival humans, or being safe from violence by others, it pays to be nice. Or at least nice with your own. A community of humans who care and who are honest with each other will be more formidable than humans with weak or absent morals on non-sexual matters.
(Confusion between sexual and non-sexual morals is a confusion inherited from Christianity. I am pleased to see young people in Europe and the USA moving towards a sensible balance, whereas my own Baby Boomer generation included far too many selfish characters who thought they were liberated from all rules and not just oppressive rules about sex.)
In my view, being successful at doing violence to rival humans is nothing to be proud of. Contemptible, unless you are preserving a culture worth preserving, and have no other reasonable options. Or are in a society that is oppressive and bad enough to justify the suffering and injustice that in the real world always go along with violent liberation.
Western culture tends to be inconsistent about liberation. Almost everyone has now accepted the American War of Independence as valid. Views on the French Revolution are split, mostly seen as a bad thing by Anglos and a good thing by Continental Europeans. Libertarians are mostly split along just these lines, mindlessly reflecting the culture which gave them their basic thinking, which they mistake for Unchanging Human Nature.
‘Unchanging Human Nature’ in the West in the current 1st Quarter of the 21st century is not at all what it was in the 1st Quarter of the 20th century. And it was supporters of Global Leninism, along with some not-very-effective anarchists and independent radicals, who were closest to the values that almost everyone in the West now accepts.
Most current Western thinkers appear to suppose that Europe was peacefully engaged in the mass slaughter of World War One, when along came the vicious Bolsheviks and made everything terrible. It is not put like that, of course, but it is a logical interpretation of what they now say.
I’ve long since ceased to view myself as a Marxist or Leninist. They had valuable ideas, but also made errors. In particular, one might question if it was correct for Lenin to insist on stamping his methods on every other country. But it succeeded brilliantly in China, which would have seemed at the time to be one of the least likely places for Communism to succeed. And elsewhere, it seems very likely that moderate reform only happened because the rich and powerful were scared of Immoderate Revolution if they did not give up some of their wealth and power. They have been quick enough to start snatching back wealth and privilege from the 1980s, when most people in the West stopped seeing the Soviet Union as a good alternative. And when China appeared to have capitulated to Western values – I believed that myself at the time, and it was only in the mid-1990s that I investigated and found that the truth was something else.
Expanding your own culture while digesting others is much more doubtful, and could be seen as profoundly wrong. A complex issue: would it really be good if the world outside Europe had stayed as it was in the 18th century? Would they have changed without being conquered, or without being threatened with conquest as Japan was?
Plato himself wanted the eternal survival of the small Greek city-state. But from Plato and Aristotle’s belief that only Superior Persons really mattered, you have a very convenient basis for Imperialism. But not all that effective – the Hellenic Empires gradually contracted. Shrank from an initial success based on Greeks having better military methods than the Persians. Rival dynasties, most notably the Ptolemies and Seleucids, wore each other out with endless wars.
A sage who ‘regards everything as straw dogs’ is a sophisticated fool. You may know the phrase from a very violent 1971 film, which I have not watched and doubt if I need to see. Hollywood violence is never very realistic. The most blatant offence is the continuous pattern of high-speed car chases in which innocent bystanders never get run over. Silly kids who go ‘joy-riding’ often learn in the hardest ways possible that this has nothing to do with the real world.
I’ve never been a brawler, nor practiced any combat sport. Nor participated in irregular warfare, though in the 1960s I was one of many leftists expecting and even hoping for such a future. But people who have such experience are definite that real fights are much quicker, more decisive and much less photogenic than what Hollywood shows. That no one can actually fight the number of foes that Hollywood heroes regularly defeat. And likewise for absurdities like ‘Rambo’ – the first film dealt honestly with a real incident, but the later films deeply offended those who fought the actual Vietnam War while Sylvester Stallone managed to legally avoid the draft.
As for ‘Straw dogs’, this is based on an authentic ‘wisdom’ of Daoism (Taoism). I found the Chinese original translated as:
“Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the Ten Thousand Things as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people as straw dogs.”
A note explains:
“In Chinese religious practice, dogs would be shaped out of straw for ritual offerings to the spirits. These straw dogs would be treated with deference and exaggerated respect prior to their ceremonial use. However, once they had served their purpose as an offering, the priests would discard them and ritually trample them into the dust.”
To me, the Daoist ‘wisdom’ is doubly wrong. I’d suppose the original ceremony sees the straw dogs as being just like the wrapping of a gift, which most people discard unless it is valuable material in itself. But also humans have no excuse for being ruthless just because nature appears not to take care of them.
Modern Darwinism is often taken to justify such ruthlessness. Which overlooks the fact that humans are much more likely to help each other than most animals, excluding only some breeds of dogs that we have bred to be nice to us. I have dealt with this in detail elsewhere: see Natural Selection as ‘Survival of the Grandkids’.
What’s this got to do with Plato? He and his heirs seem to have prided themselves on suppressing many of the more decent human emotions.
They paved the way for the later emotional coldness of the European Enlightenment. This in turn allowed Capitalism to emerge with minimal social controls. With people reduced to mere numbers and entries in a ledger, if they were poor and powerless.
It is no creed we should be looking to for wisdom.
The original Christianity was a creed for the poor and against the rich. But it was also not a creed for overthrowing the rich and creating a new social order, as the Christian-inspired Taiping became in 19th century China. Nor a creed for a modified version of the existing society that imposes taxation and provides welfare, as Islam became when Muhammed left Mecca and became ruler at Yathrib, renamed Medina as part of the process.
Christianity was an end-of-the-world creed in its origins. A creed that co-opted Plato to cope with its growing power in a world that showed no signs of being destroyed and replaced by Divine Intervention. But also a creed pessimistic about the existing world, which made sense when Roman civilisation was in sharp decline.
Christianity has sometimes been blamed for the decline, but I doubt that. 19th-century Europeans, Marx included, saw the Fall of Rome as a puzzling deviation from the March of Progress. And saw other civilisations as having somehow stuck at an earlier stage. But with wider knowledge of the world, we find that it has been a common pattern of civilisations everywhere and for as long as we have records. The work of Arnold J. Toynbee with his A Study of History was useful in getting us to see things that way. He also was too intent on imposing his own preferred pattern on the facts, and his loss of popularity is understandable.
A pattern of breakdown and unification turns out to be the human norm, once an advanced urban culture has emerged. Western Europe was rather the exception, having had no Empire before the Romans and then never succeeding in re-uniting before the current European Union, whose fate is currently in the balance.
Looking back to the Roman Empire in its 4th century crisis, pragmatic arrangements by Christian bishops found a place for rich Christians who would contribute to the upkeep of the poor, but hang onto most of their wealth. The religion could be used to justify slavery. Used in mediaeval times to justify the modified slavery that 19th century English writers labelled ‘serfdom’ to make their past look better.
Christianity did keep on throwing up minorities intent on social justice. But these lacked clear thinking. And Plato, generally seen as the best possible source of wisdom, did not help.
Socrates was a shyster. Blurring the difference between ‘some uncertainty’ and ‘knowing nothing’. And Plato, at least, used this shuffle-over to claim he had proved things when he had not.
All of Socrates’ known pupils blur the difference between ‘dishonest for some major good end’ and ‘routinely dishonest’. Which is how Aristophanes’ play The Clouds shows them.
Socrates was condemned for the major crimes of Critias and Alcibiades, both of them taught by him. Critias ran a brutal tyranny under Spartan protection. Alcibiades had earlier helped the Spartans weaken Athens during the major war between the two cities. He also shuffled back and forth, sometimes supporting Athenian democracy and sometimes against it. He was reasonably suspected of aiming to establish a Tyranny, a personal rule of the sort that other Greeks managed before and after his time, even in Athens. And that Julius Caesar later established at Rome.
But people manage to work their way round all of the unfavourable evidence:
“For example, Aristophanes, the playwright, writes of a Socrates that is completely unfamiliar to the modern understanding. Though he is the only known source to have written about Socrates as a contemporary, his play The Clouds depicts him as a clownish buffoon.
“Aristophanes’ Socrates was inclined towards the sophists — a condemned intellectual academy that teaches its students how to use rhetoric to justify all acts including dishonest ones. The pejorative ‘sophistry’ (noun; the use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving) used today was derived from these sophists.
“Thankfully, most of Aristophanes’ other work were parodies, thus The Clouds was probably meant to be a satire and not literal depiction. Many of Socrates’ counterparts came to dislike him intensely, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Aristophanes was intentionally trying to defame him.”
But as I said earlier, you can’t defame someone without raw material to work with. You could not satirise Theresa May by portraying her as drunk or promiscuous, because absolutely no one would believe this. Nor Boris Johnson as coldly calculating. A successful satirist has to go for some real aspect of the person.
To me, the evidence that Socrates was a shyster is overwhelming.
I’ve seen Plato’s bad science defended on the grounds that people then knew so little that his guesswork was acceptable.
They actually knew enough for some of them to guess right.
Plato also contradicted his own supposed principle – that one should see maths and geometry as the Basic Reality behind the observable world.
This went along with the notion of geometry and music as ways to refine minds, which was a silly addition. Or a way to flatter rich young men who could take the time learn things without immediate practical benefit. To give them a feeling of superior to those who had to work for a living.
It is very true that geometry and music can make people feel superior to the things of normal life. But it tends also to encourage what they felt like doing already, good or bad.
In modern times, when we have accurate biography, we find that both music and maths are notable for the concentration of bad morals among the most creative minds. And every undesirable human quality, including self-harm and suicide, is found in above-average amounts among the best creators.
I’m not sure that such a bias is also found among the fans. Someone should do a survey. But among those most in touch with such things, one finds many damaged minds, some admirable at a personal level but many more worse than average.
Plato also had no notion that geometry is only half of maths and that algebra needed to be developed. Nor that they could be combined, which was Descartes’ insight.
I said earlier that modern astronomers use a modernised version of the Greek system, and this in turn borrowed massively from the Sumerian and Babylonian systems, of which we have only fragments. And those are perhaps inherited stone-age knowledge expressed in stone monuments even before the Sumerians.
The oldest known stone monument, Göbekli Tepe, may be related to the first appearance of the bright star Sirius in that part of the world. Because of slow shifts in the orientation of the Earth, Sirius thousands of years ago was not visible from [what is now] Turkey. Wobbles in the Earth’s axis of rotation mean that the Pole Star changes gradually over time, as does the stars seen above the horizon when you are well north of the equator.
“Currently, Earth’s pole stars are Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris), a magnitude 2 star aligned approximately with its northern axis, and a pre-eminent star in celestial navigation, and Polaris Australis (Sigma Octantis), a much dimmer star. A couple thousand years ago, Kochab and Pherkad were twin northern pole stars, though neither was as close to the pole as Polaris is now.”
Since stars counted for much more before we had much artificial light, and stars could also aid travellers if you knew their patterns, one must assume that the arrival on the horizon of a very bright star ought to have attracted interest. That a network of Shamen with links further south might have anticipated it, and gained prestige when the new star appeared. But whether the builders of Göbekli Tepe actually made a connection is uncertain.
Göbekli Tepe was a major cultural centre from the 10th to 8th millennium BC. Another site, Nevalı Cori, is much more definitely aligned to the bright star Deneb. It was built after Göbekli Tepe had been abandoned, perhaps due to one culture or early religion replacing another. But Nevalı Cori was used only from 8400 to 8100 BC.
Other astronomical alignments are known from other ancient sites, compared with which the stones of Stonehenge are almost modern. But we have little idea of what their values or beliefs were. We get some idea from about 3000 BC, when actual civilisations develop in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, and the Sumerians invented the first written language.
We have no idea whether the Sumerians were part of the original Neolithic population of Mesopotamia. Or where they came from if they were new arrivals. Some historians think they moved in on an older city-building culture, but really no one is sure. Their language is an isolate – it is not related to any other known languages, despite many attempts to gain this honour. And since the later Akkadians viewed the Sumerians as founders of their culture, they too were probably not the first. Mesopotamia before the Sumerians may have been a mix of many peoples with distinct languages. Sumerians might have gradually displaced them when they became the first to create efficient city-states.
Humans first developed agriculture and built towns and stone temples some 11,000 years ago. The first civilisation and writing dates to 5000 years. At the same time the much less sophisticated people in Britain build a ditch and bank enclosure at what we call Stonehenge, though the astronomically aligned stones came later and had several rearrangements until a final form was reached 3600 years ago. There was almost certainly a lot of star-knowledge gathered across those millennia.
Socrates (c. 470 – 399 BC) and Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) were about mid-way between the first civilisations and our own era. But Plato’s Atlantis myth goes way outside this, claiming that both the sunken land and an earlier version of Athens existed 9000 years before his time. In real history that was the dawn of the Neolithic. To get from that to cities took a vast span of time
Plato in The Republic describes a simple version of the system that Ptolemy later elaborated as epicycles. The sun and the planets all revolve around a central Earth. That includes the planet we call Venus. It was seen originally as two objects, a Morning Star and an Evening Star:
“What is now known as the planet Venus has long been an object of fascination for cultures worldwide. It is the second brightest object in the night sky, and follows a synodic cycle by which it seems to disappear for several days due to its proximity to the Sun, then re-appear on the opposite side of the Sun and on the other horizon. Depending on the point in its cycle, Venus may appear before sunrise in the morning, or after sunset in the evening, but it never appears to reach the apex of the sky. Therefore, many cultures have recognized it with two names, even if their astronomers realized that it was really one object.
“In old English, the planet was known as morgensteorra (morning star) and æfensteorra (evening star). It was not until the 13th century C.E. that the name “Venus” was adopted for the planet (in classical Latin, though the morning star was considered sacred to the goddess Venus, it was called Lucifer)…
“A cylinder seal … indicates that the ancient Sumerians already knew that the morning and evening stars were the same celestial object. The Sumerians associated the planet with the goddess Inanna, who was known as Ishtar by the later Akkadians and Babylonians. She had a dual role as a goddess of both love and war, thereby representing a deity that presided over birth and death…
“The Ancient Greeks called the morning star … Phosphoros, the “Bringer of Light”… They called the evening star, which was long considered a separate celestial object, Hesperos (… the “star of the evening”). By Hellenistic times, the ancient Greeks had identified these as a single planet, though the traditional use of two names for its appearance in the morning and the evening continued even into the Roman period.”
Greeks in Plato’s time certainly knew it was one object, and his description includes this. Weirdly, I have seen modern writers call this a Greek discovery. It was probably brought to the Greek world by Pythagoras, but Mesopotamia was there much earlier.
Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can all be seen at midnight, and are at their brightest then, an event known in modern times as Opposition. That’s because their orbits round the sun are outside the Earth’s orbit, and occasionally Earth is between them and the sun. So at Opposition they are at their closest to Earth, and also the hemisphere we see is fully illuminated like the Full Moon.
(It would also occasionally be a ‘Transit of Earth’ from a Martian viewpoint, when the planets line up just right. Technically also for Jupiter and beyond, but much harder to see.)
Venus orbits the sun inside Earth’s orbit, and so we never see it very far from the sun. We would never see it at midnight from Greece, or even from Britain. If you go far enough north, the tilt of the Earth gives you the Midnight Sun in summer and an eternally dark Arctic Night in winter. You might therefore occasionally see Venus at midnight, but still very close to the sun. You would not from anywhere most Greeks would have been. A few bold explorers visited a place they called Thule, which may have been a Scottish or Norwegian island. They noted the extremely short nights in summer.
If Venus had an orbit around the Earth, there is not the least reason why it should not have got far away from the sun, even reaching Opposition. The Greek tradition that Plato either invented or endorsed culminated with Ptolemy, whose system has a set of weird accidents that allow Venus and also Mercury to be independent of the sun and yet always close to it.
A good thinker should have been suspicious. Indeed, there were a scattering of Greek thinkers who said that Venus and Mercury, at least, must go round the sun. It was even claimed by one Greek that the Egyptians believed this. You can find a good account of this in Sun Kwok’s Our Place in the Universe.
There was also the puzzling report of a system proposed by Philolaus, heir of Pythagoras and forty years older than Plato. As with so many other interesting Greeks, we have only brief reports of what other people thought he said;
“While the earth and planets revolved around a central point in Philolaus’s system, his could not be called a Heliocentric ‘solar system’, because the central point the Earth and Planets revolved around was not the Sun, but the so-called Central Fire. This Fire was not visible from the surface of Earth—or at least not from the hemisphere Greece was located in.
“‘Philolaus says that there is fire in the middle at the centre … and again more fire at the highest point and surrounding everything. By nature the middle is first, and around it dance ten divine bodies—the sky, the planets, then the sun, next the moon, next the earth, next the counterearth, and after all of them the fire of the hearth which holds position at the centre.’”
I’ve read quite a lot about Ancient Astronomy, and no one I’ve seen can find any logic to this invisible ‘Central Fire’. But the better writers of general accounts also mention that Copernicus [had to imagine] something similar, although no one I’ve seen has made the link.
When Copernicus set about devising a heliocentric system that would match the very accurate Ptolemaic system for saying where planets would be seen against the backdrop of the stars, he had to have the sun orbiting close to but separate from an unexplained central point. The Pythagoreans were quite capable of having done the same calculation, and hit the same snag. May have inventing the ‘Central Fire’ to occupy this unexplained dominant point.
If you are wondering why Copernicus could not put the sun in the centre, where it actually is, this was because he hung onto circles as the basic form of motion. It needed Kepler to produce a more logical system by accepting that orbits are actually ellipses. He created a system that Newton was then able to explain exactly with Universal Gravitation. And if you want a relatively short and readable account of this, a 1959 book called The Sleepwalkers by ex-Marxist Arthur Koestler remains much the best.
‘Gravity’ was well known to Aristotle and later thinkers, but was assumed to be the cause just of solids and liquids falling to the ground. Since the moon was orbiting rather than falling, it was supposed it did not feel gravity. Solids and liquids were supposed to be dominated by the elements Earth and Water, while the moon etc. were ‘Quintessence’, a fifth element that naturally moved in circles.
Newton was smart enough to realise that a falling apple and an orbiting moon could be two aspects of the same complex reality.
Modern science developed in the 17th century by doing what Plato had much earlier suggested – use Maths to study the realities behind appearances. But this existed before Socrates. It may well be that Socrates ignored it and that it was Plato who grafted earlier Pythagorean notions onto those of Socrates.
There were Greek thinkers who could have pushed on an developed modern science, because they were open to disturbing ideas like the Earth being in motion.
Historically, what won out was the Socratic school – Aristotle also insisted the Earth must be central, and had an elaborate system of metaphysics build around it.
It is easy to use philosophy to spread fog and darkness over any awkward off-message facts. Plato does this all the time, and somehow has the status of the ‘Best of the West’.
The Socratic legacy must be viewed with deep suspicion.
(Note 1 has been replaced.)
 2nd century BC for paper, but rare before the 1st century AD. The tricky techniques of paper-making reached the Muslim world in the 8th century, but took several more centuries to spread to Europe. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_paper
 7th century for woodblock-printing, arriving in Europe in the 13th century, after a great deal of ancient literature had been lost. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodblock_printing#Diffusion_in_Eurasia
 Der Ursprung des Christentums, 1908
 Detailed in The invention of agriculture and cities, https://gwydionwilliams.com/99-problems-magazine/the-invention-of-agriculture-and-cities/#_Toc510086056
 The full Oxford English Dictionary has details of how the new usage gradually emerged.
 For instance Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishments, reviewed at https://gwydionwilliams.com/20-science/human-accomplishment/
 Kwok, Sun. Our Place in the Universe: Understanding Fundamental Astronomy from Ancient Discoveries. Springer 2017.