World's Great Philosophers:
The Early Greeks
Socrates And Plato
Epicurus, Zeno, Pyrrho
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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
As the fragments of a clod struck by the foot scatter in various and sometimes in nearly opposite directions, so the schools of philosophy that sprang from the teaching of Socrates diverged widely from one another. Socrates had many pupils, and the seed he sowed did not produce the same species of growth in various soils a most significant fact. The pupils of Plato were Platonic, the pupils of Aristotle, Aristotelian. But it is hard to find two growths from the same germ so widely variant as the Academician and the Cynic.
Diogenes of Sinope is usually credited with being the original Cynic, but this is chiefly owing to the abundance of anecdotes about his life that have come down to us; perhaps likewise to the fact that Diogenes carried to severer and more extravagant extremes the fashions one can hardly say philosophy of his master. The founder of the Cynics was Antisthenes, who was a pupil of Socrates. The Cynics and the Academicans sprang up together and Diogenes, learning from Antisthenes, was contemporary with Plato.
Antisthenes was born in Athens and early in his career distinguished himself in the army, but on his return to Athens was attracted by the Sophists and gave some of his leisure to the study of philosophy. He listened for a long time to Gorgias and then began to teach on his own account. It was not until he was past middle age that he heard Socrates, and that he was fascinated by the ease with which the latter demolished the logic of the schools there is no doubt.
It has been said that Antisthenes did not make good use of the lessons he learned from his master. Plato has been ever held up as a brilliant example of the Socratic influence; but it is less difficult to under-stand how Cynicism was born of the Socratic teaching than was the involved and pseudo-mystic system of Plato. Socrates expressly deprecated just such philosophy as was taught by Plato. Antisthenes only pushed the Socratic doctrines a step farther. Socrates sought men out to upbraid them with their sophistry, ignorance, and vice. Antisthenes hurled himself at their heads. The master affected simplicity of attire and directness of speech; the pupil negligence of attire and brutality of speech. But Socrates was not flattered by the enthusiasm of his pupil or the extremes to which his own example was carried. Even this slavish admirer was not exempt from Socratic ridicule for Socrates once told him that vanity peered through the holes in his coat.
After the death of his master, Antisthenes became an object of curiosity and even awe in Athens. His only garment was a ragged cloak, which he flaunted in the faces of the neatly or richly clothed. He carried a staff and a pouch. Never was a fair word heard to pass his lips. He was not even cleanly. His rough beard, his uncombed hair, and his forbidding appearance, although striking enough, were not to be compared with his bitter taunts to the men he met in his daily walks through the streets of Athens. He despised all those things that are ordinarily valued by civilized men. His fare was simple even ascetic. He declared that he would rather be a madman than indulge in the gratifications of sense. Antisthenes preached his doctrines in the vicinity of the gymnasium Cynosarges and it was this that gave the name to his school. This derivation is perhaps not so appropriate as that from the Greek equivalent for the word "Dog," a derivation afterward adopted by the school. Antisthenes was an old man when he founded his school, and his temper did not improve with age. He is said to have been deserted even by his pupils, and in this fact he found the supreme vindication of his philosophy. Diogenes, alone, was with him when he died. This latter most illustrious Cynic had not yet Cynicized himself free from all human sympathy. But his association with Antisthenes had not been without its fruit. Diogenes, moved by his master's groans, asked him if he felt the want of a friend.
"Will a friend relieve me of this pain?" snarled Antisthenes.
"This will," replied Diogenes, handing him a dagger. Antisthenes contemptuously replied : "I wish to be freed from pain, not from life."
The founders of the Cynical school set the Cynical fashion of declaring one's self in epigram. These epigrams were intended to be daggers to the souls of the listeners. A flatterer once told Antisthenes that he was the object of great praise. He replied with a question : "What have I done wrong that I am praised?"
On the death of his master Diogenes straightway set about infusing new life into the cynical philosophy. Born at Sinope, the son of a wealthy man who was convicted of swindling the public, Diogenes as a youth fled to Athens in disgrace. His sudden change from affluence to povetry no doubt determined his future. Wandering about the streets of the capital he heard the buzzing of the philosophers everywhere. Little of what he saw and heard interested him. On all sides he was surrounded with evidences of the ease and wealth that were once his, but his no longer. His family disgraced, his father a forger, himself an outcast, he was in no mood to look upon normal enjoyment and dignified self-respect as worth the cultivation. Perhaps had he not come into contact with Antisthenes he had died unknown. But Antisthenes and his sneers were balm in the wounds of the disgraced and ostracized refugee. An outcast of men he would cast men from him. Poor, he would glory in his poverty. Deprived of luxuries and comforts, he would rail at good taste in dress. Branded with the obloquy of unjust dealing with his fellow men, he would scoff at honesty. Expelled from the banquet table, he would reject all food but crusts.
Diogenes approached Antisthenes and offered himself as a pupil. The old man savagely repulsed him. This was precisely what Diogenes desired. The harshness of the master delighted the would be pupil. From every fresh repulse Diogenes returned a more persistent petitioner. At last the Cynic raised his staff.
"Strike," exclaimed the applicant, "you will find no bludgeon hard enough to drive me away."
Antisthenes surrendered and Diogenes followed him to the end.
The life of Diogenes is hard to reconcile with man-hood. He preached virtue, abstinence, and self-denial; but he did not practice self-denial in any manner to interfere with the gratification of his intolerable pride. On one occasion he encountered Plato, and was rebuked so nobly that had he the dignity of manhood he had profited by the lesson. Plato had invited a number of his most distinguished friends to a symposium. To this gathering the cynic came unasked. Strange contrast his filthy person made with the rich suroundings of the palace. Rudely interrupting the conversation of the superb host and his guests, Diogenes ground the brilliant carpets under his feet, snarling as he did so, "Thus do I trample on the pride of Plato !"
And Plato replied : "With greater pride, Diogenes."
Diogenes did not find many pupils. His was a hard doctrine, a harder life. He had unquestionable courage and no one was safe from his embittered tongue. As he despised all flattery, hated all who bore the form of men, denounced virtue as hypocrisy and decency as mockery, he was difficult of approach. He disdained nutritious food, and, finding the experiment of sustaining his body on raw vegetables, even as the herbivorous animals, a failure, he devoured flesh raw. He stood upon street corners snarling and snapping at citizens who passed him by. He had no fixed place of abode, ate in the streets, or in other public places, and slept under porches or in the open air with no covering save his greasy cloak. He went further. He was not even decent in his actions in the highways of the city, holding that those who showed respect for public opinion in this regard were unnatural. Whatever was natural should be no occasion for shame.
Such a man as Diogenes would not be tolerated today, it is almost needless to say. He would be retired as a public nuisance or condemned as a madman. Athenians were easy-going people, who rather relished an oddity like Diogenes. He was held in awe by some for his absolute disregard of personages in power, of kings, and of rich men. His very audacity carried him through. He was taken seriously. Many of the numerous anecdotes told of him would move us to laughter were it not that the depths to which this man permitted himself to sink are matter for sorrow rather than merriment. For example, he once called out : "Approach all men!
Those within hearing, thinking "the Dog" was about to say something pungent or worth remembering, drew near. They were not disappointed. Diogenes beat them back with his staff.
"I called for Men," he said; "ye are excrements!"
The story of Diogenes and his famous tub is a nursery tale. That he passed much of his time in this traditional resting place there is small doubt. It was not an over-comfortable dwelling, but it served his purpose. It drew the crowd and provided him with an opportunity to curse his fellows. To give him all that is his due, it must be confessed that he was at least consistent. Having punished himself as severely as self-infliction could, he had small care for fate. Therefore we may not be surprised to find him the same imperturable cynic when in his old age he was taken captive by pirates and exposed for sale in the slave market. He was asked what craft he was expert "Governing men; sell me to one who wants a master," he replied. That reply won him his liberty. Overheard by a rich citizen of Corinth, he was purchased and released when master and slave arrived in that city. Diogenes resumed his tub and his cynicism.
It was at Corinth Diogenes met Alexander of Macedon. The general, struck by the strange looking man in the tub, approached.
"I am Alexander the Great," he said.
"I am Diogenes, the Cynic," was the reply.
When the conqueror of the world asked the Cynic what favor he would have, Diogenes replied by requesting Alexander to stand aside from between his tub and the sun. The anecdote would not be complete were Alexander's comment omitted : "Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."
The story of Diogenes peering about the streets of Athens at midday with a lighted lantern, seeking "an honest man," is as threadbare as it is inaccurate. He did not say he sought an "honest" man. He said simply : "I seek a man." Despite his rigor of life, or say rather because of it, the greatest of the Cynics lived to the age of 90, strong and active to the last. He was found dead under a portico, strangled with having attempted to devour a neat's foot raw. As he lived, he died.
Cynicism cannot be called a philosophy. It presents a phase of mind more interesting to the pathologist than to the historian. There is no cynicism to-day. Such states of mind as are designated by that name are charitably referred to an abnormal action of the vital functions. The nearest approach to the philosophy of Diogenes that is found in modern society is found in those individuals who are unfortunately the victims of disordered digestions, or of pathological hepatic conditions. Diogenes was not of that kind. His life in the open air assured him of physical health. The most rational explanation of his extraordinary life is that he was simply playing a part. The situations in which we see him figure are scarcely ever spontaneous. They are almost always prearranged and are all theatrical. Were the character of Diogenes placed upon the stage and these situations literally reproduced, there could be but one result laughter. We must smile at his reply to Alexander, but Alexander himself was made thoughtful by it, while the king's attendants were awed by the audacity of the philosopher. None the less impressed were certain Eleatic philosophers who were discussing the impossibility of motion in the presence of the Cynic. In the middle of their disputation Diogenes arose and walked away ! This was perhaps his most philosophical performance. What is now called cynicism is but a pale reflection of cynicism according to Diogenes. Antisthenes and Diogenes and their school made a great show of virtue and at least pretended to be pure. They denounced all men because, as they held, all men were vicious. The cynicism of to-day sneers not at vice or at hypocrisy, but at virtue itself.
As the Cynics are said to have been the germ of the Stoics, so are the Cyrenaics said to have been the germ of the Epicureans. The founder of the Cyrenaic school was Aristippus, and there are few more picturesque figures among the Greek philosophers. He was a native of Cyrene and it was from the birth-place of its founder the school derived its name. The youth of Aristippus was given up to unbridled pleasure and the wealth of his family gave him every opportunity to indulge himself. The African colony in which he lived was distinguished for its gaiety and love of luxury and the future philosopher was not the most backward in the pursuit of such pleasures and pastimes, as too often touched upon what, called by its right name, was debauchery. Not without the mental culture that every well-bred young Greek was supposed to have, Aristippus delighted in physical accomplishments and was a capital athlete. His hardy constitution and his freedom from the necessity of labor made dissipation for him a not too severely reactive matter.
Even while a gay young man in Libya he heard of the fame of Socrates and the witchery of his tongue, and he decided that he would visit Athens and judge for himself. A favorable opportunity presenting itself in the journey of a number of wealthy Libyans to Greece to see the Olympian sports, Aristippus joined the company. Such philosophy as he had learned from the teachings of the earlier Greeks melted, as he listened to the logic of the incomparable iconoclast. While admiring to the utmost the fluency and glibness of the Socratic speech, the Cyrenean was in no wise disposed to follow the advice of his new master either in the way of morality or in ordinary self-denial. Why not, urged the gay young libertine, unite the wisdom of the philosopher with the pleasures of the man of the world? Pleasure, no matter of what kind, is, after all, the supreme end of man. He, therefore, who loses no opportunity of extracting the honey from all the flowers of life, is the most wise. Why not use the pleasures of the intellect and the pleasures of sense as buffers, one against the other, lest too much custom dull the edge of either? This was the kernel of the Cyrenaic view of things, and in it we have an explanation of the entire remarkable life of the founder. Hedonism such as this can hardly be accounted a philosophy, especially if we take the happy-go-lucky way of life, practised by Aristippus, as its highest exemplar.
Aristippus was never so happy as when seated at a well and choicely laden table, surrounded by rich and appreciative friends and admirers, and putting the company in a roar with his unapproachable wit and repartee. Modern beaus are all fashioned on the Aristippian model, but Nash and Brummel were never tested as severely as was their prototype. The Libyan was immensely rich when he came to Athens. After hearing Socrates for the first time he offered to pay that master a large sum of money for the privilege of being enrolled as a pupil. "Keep your money," quoth the sage, but he accepted the Libyan. The latter, by the way, would never take a pupil without the payment of a liberal tuition fee.
The superabundant animal spirits of Aristippus were never dashed. He was not only a "philosopher" (in the popular sense of the word), but a philosopher who found something humorous even in his misfortunes. He passed through the sieve of Athenian pleasure, leaving every drachma behind. But he was sunny in poverty.
"Aristippus," said the lofty and temperate Plato to his fellow pupil, "there is not a man alive but yourself who can maintain the same cheerful air in old rags as well as in the richest purple."
His imperturbable good nature under all conditions, together with his quick wit, not less than his really fine education and magnificent polish of manner, completely won over Dionysius, the Tyrant of Syracuse, to whose court Aristippus, Plato, and other Athenian philosophers resorted. His success with kings and rich men generally probably disgusted Diogenes the Cynic. One day Aristippus passed Diogenes while the Cynic was washing his vegetables before devouring them raw. Now, the fastidiousness of the Aristippian palate was well known in Athens.
"Were it possible for you," said Diogenes, "to be con-tent, like me, with simple roots, you would not have to flatter kings for a living."
"And were it possible for you," retorted Aristippus, "to be able to flatter kings, you would not have to be con-tent with roots."
Aristippus was the delight of the Dionysian court and the terror of the ignorant rich men who resorted to it. One day, to try him, the tyrant spat in the philosopher's face. When condoled with the Libyan laughed. "Non-sense," he said, "fishermen to catch a herring will saturate themselves with water, while I. am merely sprinkled in catching a whale."
Dionysius, at dinner, ordered Aristippus to take the lowest seat at the table. The philosopher, glancing inquiringly around the board, remarked : "Why is it that you desire to confer so signal an honor on this particular seat ?" While the Cyrenaic always asked high prices for his tutelary services, he was an avaricious man by no means. He was once accompanied by his slave, who was carrying a quantity of the master's money, and who complained that the weight of the coin was too heavy for the stride set by the philosopher. "Throw away what you can't carry and carry what you can," was the advice of Aristippus. The man who can treat wealth with such disdain as this cannot be accused of penury. On another occasion a rich but close-fisted patron came to him with his son. "My fee is fifty drachmas," said the master. "Fifty !" exclaimed the father. "I can buy a slave with that." "Go then and buy a slave and you'll have two of them."
His uses of philosophy were somewhat more practical than those urged by Antisthenes, who said he liked philosophy because it enabled a man to keep company with himself. Aristippus, when asked the uses of philosophy, replied : "Strip naked a philosopher and a common man and send them among a strange people." Akin to this anecdote is the other, related by him when he was sailing to Corinth. The ship was overtaken by a violent gale. Aristippus, brave enough when safe an land, quaked with fear as the vessel rolled. One of the passengers remarked : "We common persons are not afraid, but the philosophers are acting like cowards." "More than likely," was the ready retort, "but think of the difference in the souls we have at stake."
It was upon this journey that he was accompanied by the famous courtesan, Lais, with whom he lived for a long time thereafter. When some one reproached him with his want of propriety, Aristippus answered : "True, I possess her, but then, I am not possessed by her. To possess pleasure is one thing; to be its slave is another." On his way to Corinth the ship in which he sailed was wrecked on the Island of Rhodes.
On the sands he observed a geometrical figure. "Peace !"
he exclaimed, "I see the footsteps of men," and it was through his splendid oratory that he and his companions found the most hospitable entertainment in the principal city of the Island.
There is scarce an end to the anecdotes that are recorded of Aristippus and as they are jewels of repartee and go far toward an exposition of his views of life, they are worth repeating. He was bold even to the limit of hazard. This is shown in his treatment of Simus, the uncouth but immensely rich treasurer of the Tyrant of Syracuse. Simus invited Aristippus to look over the superb palace of Dionysius. The philosopher walked through the gorgeous apartments, while Simus was at pains to expatiate upon all the fabulously valuable furnishings and decorations. The treasurer was inordinate in his praise of walls, ceilings, and floors, when in the middle of his talk Aristippus hawked and spat fair into the flatterer's face. Simus grew purple with rage. "A thousand pardons," apologized Aristippus, "but, really, I could see no other place in which I could spit without offense to the King."
Petitioning Dionysius for a favor, he threw himself upon his knees. When the tyrant remonstrated with him for his show of unmanliness, Aristippus replied : "Am I to blame that Dionysius has his ears in his feet?"
Socrates ever eyed his spendthrift and luxurious pupil askance, but there is no record that Socrates at any time came out of a joust with him with the honors. Once, seeing Aristippus exhibit an unusually large sum of money which he had just received from a new pupil, Socrates asked: "Where did you get so much?" "Where you got so little," answered Aristippus. Money, as was natural, was a subject upon which Aristippus often expressed opinions. To have pleasure at least Aristippian pleasure one must have money. Jeered at when the royal tyrant sent him a present of coin, while to Plato he sent books, Aristippus said : "What would you have? I need money, Plato needs books." In sore straits, he once begged Dionysius for a sum of lucre. "But," objected the tyrant, "did you not but yesterday tell me that a wise man has no want of money?" "Give," said Aristippus, "and we will settle the question." Dionysius gave. "Now," quoth the philosopher, "I am in no want of money.
Such are the stories told of Aristippus and preserved by Diogenes Laertius. In the Academicians we find one of the fruits of Socratism. In the Cynics we find a second. In Aristippus we find a third. But if Aristippus did naught else he gave the world an Epicurus, and no saner mode of living is to be found anywhere than in Epicurean-ism. The principal Cyrenaic lived luxuriously when he could, denied himself nothing he could get by his talents, which were really fine, or they failing, by petition, cajolery, or flattery of men who were able to pay for the entertainment he had to offer. The value of a delicacy for his table he gauged by the entire sum in his possession, if that sum covered the price, and to those who charged him with extravagance he retorted by charging them with miserliness. He followed Socrates in thrusting aside all questions of physics and metaphysics, but there his imitation of the Athenian master stopped. His doctrine was easy and his burden light, and he was envied by many who, while admiring his carelessness for the future, had not the courage to stake their all on the gratification of a present pleasure. Horace, who was an admirer of Aristippus and who mentions him as being a model of contentedness, was himself an Aristippian, for he tells his friends to
Love well the hour and let it go; Tomorrow has no more to say To Yesterday.
That even Diogenes looked upon Aristippus as a happier man than himself we are justified in thinking from the habit of the Cynic in always referring to the Libyan philosopher as the "Royal Dog." Of the death of the founder of the Cyrenaics there is no record. He was once asked how Socrates died. "As I would die myself," he answered. And in view of his dangerous familiarity with kings, it is not improbable that his death was as violent if not as dramatic as that of his master.
Contemporary with the schools, of which account has just been given, lived Euclid of Megara. He was the founder of the Megaric school and was not identical with the great mathematician of the same name. Like many of the students of the time, he came to Athens to hear words of wisdom from the lips of Socrates. With the latter he is said to have quarreled inasmuch as Socrates, though disputatious enough himself, would not permit his pupils to follow his example. Euclid left Athens and established himself at his old home, where he opened a school in which disputation, but disputation tempered with reason and logic, ruled supreme. He believed that friction between two active minds was more productive of an arrival at certitude than much hard thinking on the part of one. The outcome of the Megaric method of dialectics may be summed up in the Euclidian conclusion that Being was One and immutable, and that the One was the Good.
This is essentially Platonic, for Plato held that the Deity was the author not of all things but only of Good.
We now come to the greatest of the Greek philosophers —one of the greatest philosophers the evolution of thought has produced. And this will be the apology for devoting to him a rather lengthy biographical sketch; while there is also the further excuse that student though he was, the life of Aristotle, from a purely biographical consideration, is more interesting than that of any of his predecessors or successors in all time, save alone that of the great English-man who was the first to overthrow the Aristotelian philosophy and supplant it with the method that now prevails. And that Englishman was Francis Bacon.