15. ON GREEK PHILOSOPHY
How do you view Greek philosophy? It is obvious from one of your books that you give a positive rating to Plotinus, but it is still not clear exactly how you assess other aspects of this heritage. Do you think that the subject is still relevant to us today?
Greek philosophy is anachronistic in many ways, but by no means completely. In my own case, I believe that study of this subject merited the effort expended. Some of my early CUL notebooks are full of Plato, Aristotle, Stoics, Neoplatonists, and Islamic falasifa (philosophers). Even Hume, Kant, and Hegel are outdated. So for that matter is Bertrand Russell. Plato is still substantially unplumbed if we are to credit some emphases of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), who did undertake the mastery of Greek. The different interpretations which have been applied to Plato are cause for reflection.
There is the question of exactly which dialogues of Plato are authentic. Thirty-five dialogues have traditionally been ascribed to him. Recent scholarship has doubted the authenticity of a number of these. However, there are over twenty dialogues that emerge unscathed, including the basic ones like Timaeus, the Republic, and the Apology (of Socrates). There is plenty of reliable ground for commentary, even though the accuracy of interpretations has often been at issue. Nietzsche detested Plato’s moralism and political thought, while Karl Popper attacked the Republic on the grounds that this work signifies a totalitarian system antithetical to the “open society.”
The PreSocratics, so often taken for granted, have gained added significance in recent years. However, constant warnings have to be sounded about Pythagoras, who has been a subject for popular imaginations along with the Neoplatonists. There is no evidence for various fantasies and assumptions. For instance, an erroneous book was published some thirty-five years ago which depicted the antique sage as a cannabis user. This theme reflected predilections of the author. Scholars are often puzzled at how slipshod versions of ancient texts and fragments become accepted fare amongst the credulous. The obscurity of the Pythagoreans is attended by hagiological elements, which are always a problem for the unwary. Hagiology is an impediment even in relation to Plotinus, who existed in a much later era, and for whom textual and semantic subtleties abound in serious research. One should resort to the scholarship of classicists, not to those "alternative" versions that are comparatively unfamiliar with the subject matter.
Yes, I have awarded Plotinus a strong degree of respect, both for his personal example and some aspects of his teaching (Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals, 2004, pp.160-190). That teaching is complex, and includes elements difficult to extricate from the time in which they were formulated. Indeed, this matter of “time-bound” doctrine is a factor visible more generally in the history of philosophy, and also religion.
Although I am willing to extend latitude to Plotinus (and to his disciple Porphyry), I am not amenable to the superstitions entertained by certain other Neoplatonists of the pre-Islamic era. The bizarre post-Plotinian sense of eclecticism has no attraction for me in relation to the subject of theurgy. Porphyry is very different to Proclus in that respect. Both of these Neoplatonists were learned men; much of their work is unfortunately lost. The theurgists are remote from Aristotle, and even the more mystical Plato is effectively a stranger to their extravagances. The treatise of Iamblichus known as De Mysteriis demonstrates the tendency to assimilate, or condone, popular religious practices and theurgic concepts. One explanation is that wealthy pagans patronised a renewal of their religion in the competition with Christianity.
The figure of Hypatia (d.415) is not always seen in due perspective. This female Neoplatonist of Alexandria met a violent end at the hands of a Christian mob. The sequence of events needs careful probing. Generalisations and contractions have been in evidence, while cinema coverage has caused further confusions.
A few remarks on Aristotle appeared in The Resurrection of Philosophy, 1989, pp. 98ff., a preliminary work but sufficient to attest some of my interests in the early 1980s (that book was written in 1984-5):
We cannot be certain that we have the exact words of Aristotle in the extant corpus, since the treatises are mainly compilations of earlier notes and treatises, edited by followers of the Aristotelian tradition. Some scholars think that the Metaphysics was edited by Eudemus, as implied by classical authors. Be that as it may, the statements in these books reflect the attitude of the early Aristotelian school, however much is missing from the compilations.... The text (of the Metaphysics) goes on to say that lack of training in logic causes some to discuss more ultimate matters prematurely, and that understanding is necessary to further such investigation.... appearances can be misleading for the tyro. This is because ‘dialecticians and sophists’ adopt the same appearance as the philosopher.... The same Aristotelian text of the Metaphysics refers with criticism to the theory of Protagoras, who appears to have defended a version of relativism in which all opinions are equally true.... Protagorean relativism is still championed today. (The Resurrection of Philosophy, pp. 98-9)
The reference to contemporary Protagorean relativism applied to Paul Feyerabend. I have strong reservations about the class theory of Aristotle and certain other features of his legacy, including vivisection. "Aristotle and other elite Greeks perpetuated strong class bias against the masses, who were considered unfit for philosophy and science." The same basic attitude still exists today in some academic ranks. The difference between sophists and philosophers can be diversely argued, without necessarily employing a relativist context.
See also Kevin Shepherd Bibliography.