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Up from Democritus

Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology Association)

by Thomas Cole
Western Reserve University Press (for the American Philological, 225 pp., $6.50

The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity

by Ludwig Edelstein
Johns Hopkins, 211 pp., $8.00

The historian, we are frequently reminded, has to have sympathy with his subject. There is validity in the injunction: it would be difficult for anyone to write a reasonable history of the Assyrians if he shared the hatred expressed in the Old Testament. But there is also danger. Sympathy easily slides into identification, so that a past culture or society begins to look and sound like the historian’s image of his own. Sympathy in that disguise requires the people who are the subject of the inquiry to have thought and felt in the right, advanced ways, not only in high culture but equally in social attitudes or economic doctrines. Histories of Greece and Rome still appear, in various western languages, in which slavery is scarcely mentioned (or is whitewashed); in which the brutality of the gladiatorial games is ignored or romanticized; in which all politicians are statesmen unless they are “tyrants” or have plebeian habits and impulses; in which such slogans as libertas and humanitas are taken at face value and their advocates are assumed to be contending with present-day problems and opponents.

In the history of ideas, narrowly defined, sympathetic identification requires not merely a blind eye but also a fond maternal one. That trait was what moved Joseph Schumpeter, for example, to protest against the habit of attributing theoretical understanding to mere “commonsense knowledge” in economics: “The layman’s knowledge…that division of labor increases the efficiency of the productive process is obviously prescientific and it is absurd to point to such statements in old writings as if they embodied discoveries.” It may be a heavy cross to bear, but it happens to be true that no surviving Greek or Roman writer developed any economic analysis from the starting point of division of labor, as Adam Smith did in The Wealth of Nations. The “failure” was not of the intellect, but of life. Adam Smith’s pin factory, producing an average of 4800 pins per worker per day, was an existing institution, which he observed, whereas in antiquity there was nothing of the kind, and no prospect of one.

OF COURSE ancient thinkers knew that their society was more complex and advanced than earlier ones. A few speculated on how the advance had come about, and some of their speculations were elaborate, sophisticated, and notably de-mythologizing. The best, Professor Thomas Cole points out, were “uncompromisingly naturalistic,” stressing the decisive role of past technological progress, with a “basically utilitarian” motivation behind it. The scheme to which Professor Cole has devoted his book starts with the assumption that the earliest men were nomadic food-gatherers, ignorant of fire, clothing, shelter, and the art of storing food, with starvation frequent. The first step forward came when men learned to take shelter and store food; the next stage encompassed the invention of houses, clothing, fire, and the method of processing wild grains. That was the big step, for connected with it was the formation of the first societies and the first languages, and, in consequence, the growth of useful arts through competition and emulation. Among these the paramount discovery was then mining and metallurgy and thereupon the production of tools for weaving, agriculture, and the advancement of warfare. Finally came the “nonessential arts,” astronomy, music, and writing.

Cole believes that the scheme, in its basic outlines, was the creation of the fifth-century BC philosopher Democritus of Abdera. The suggestion is not a new one, but no one before has argued it with such care, learning, and conviction (and with no concession whatever to the Greekless non-specialist reader). The fact that so much effort at reconstruction is required, with more than a touch of inference and even avowed guesswork, is itself significant. Democritus was a genius and a polymath, famous and extremely productive. Yet all that now survives of his writings, which covered nearly every field of knowledge, from mathematics, logic, and astronomy to ethics, music, and poetics, is a miserable collection of fewer than 300 “fragments” preserved by later authors, quotations or paraphrases, most of them no more than a phrase or a sentence, only one reaching twentyfour lines in length. His scheme of prehistory (I accept that it is his) has therefore to be pieced together, inferentially, from the De rerum natura of the Roman poet Lucretius and the fragments of the Stoic Posidonius, both of whom died about 50 BC or shortly before, from the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily, writing in the next generation, from the De architectura of Vitruvius in the following generation, and from the twelfth-century AD Byzantine scholar-anthologist Johannes Tzetzes.

IT WILL BE NOTICED that in this list of testimonies there is little from the mainstream of ancient philosophy. Professor Cole suggests that Democritus’ theory of prehistory “disappeared from philosophy at once.” The triumph of Socrates, of “Socrates’ ‘discovery’ of the self,” was a crushing one: “Henceforth man the individual became the center of philosophic attention;…The social aspects of existence became obscured by an overriding preoccupation with the individual and the universal.” What Socrates himself thought of Democritus’ theory is not on record: the latter is never mentioned in Plato’s extensive writings. However, one may assume that Socrates shared the common view that the prehistoric inventions were a necessary condition for the life of virtue. But only a necessary, not a sufficient, condition. There could be no moral beings among the Cyclopes—Homer had already made the point: “they neither plant anything nor till,” they have no assemblies and no themis (social order)—but it does not follow that the introduction of these culture traits is a guarantee of morality. Some social arrangements are better than others as a framework for the individual’s search for virtue, but that is the most that can be said for them. And some philosophers, such as Diogenes and his early Cynics, denied them even that. Material progress, in Cole’s words, was only a “prelude to an obviously higher stage of development,… [to] man’s true vocation.” The prelude was now complete. Technology had no future; it was time for it to be “downgraded,” along with its practitioners. “One may say,” J.-p. Vernant has written in a recent book, “that for Plato labor remains foreign to all human value, that under certain aspects it even appears to him as the antithesis of what is essential in man.”1

I do not mean to suggest that the Democritean conception looked forward to continuing material progress, any more than his atomic theory (first propounded by Leucippus) was conceived as the starting point for what we should regard as systematic scientific investigation and experiment. Greek atomism found its fullest application among the Epicureans—we know it best from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things—in metaphysics, and above all in ethics. But the mainstream, emanating from Socrates, rejected this “naturalistic” introduction to ethics, and, with it, the Democritean “anthropological” speculation.2 Other roads were preferred in the search for moral perfection, a goal which every individual must seek for himself. Only a minority had the potential; ancient philosophy was rooted in a belief in the inequality of man, of which social classes were the outward expression. Plato’s dismissal of the craftsman and the technologist was neither irrational nor a matter of subjective personal taste. It was a response to social reality. Many Greek states of his day excluded the artisans from full citizenship in the community. Athens did not, and Plato was not alone in believing that to be a disastrous folly. His Republic would be organized in a radically different way: only the few capable of true knowledge, and therefore of moral judgment, would make all the decisions, and even they only after a long and arduous period of training and by complete withdrawal from material concerns, including those of family and property.

ONE CANNOT therefore speak of “moral progress” in any meaningful way, let alone of progress in general. That brings us back to the vice of sympathetic identification. In a world which still—despite an Orwellian streak among intellectuals, even despite current genocidal behavior—has faith in progress, some find it unacceptable that the Greeks should not have “hit upon an idea which seems so simple and obvious to us” (J. B. Bury in 1920 in his The Idea of Progress). Now we have a full-scale assault in defense of the Greeks, in a posthumous publication by Professor Ludwig Edelstein (who died in 1965), a book which, we are assured by the publisher, is the “author’s definitive version” so far as it goes, down to the Roman Empire.

Edelstein claimed much. The lengthy Introduction concludes that “the ancients it will appear, formulated most of the thoughts and sentiments that later generations down to the nineteenth century were accustomed to associate with the blessed or cursed word—’progress.”’ And by the end of the volume he had even embraced the nineteenth century. After equating Seneca, the Roman Stoic, with Condorcet, he asserted that in the Hellenistic Age, the centuries after Alexander the Great, “in good and bad fortune men lived for progress, and what this meant for them was not unlike what it was to mean in the nineteenth century.”

The argument throughout rests on a (no doubt subconscious) confidence trick, and it is no exaggeration to repeat Schumpeter’s adjective, absurd. The Seneca-Condorcet confrontation is decisive. Professor Edelstein quoted from Bury several statements to the effect that Condorcet “takes advance in knowledge as the clue to the march of the human race,” but stopped short, leaving a grotesque caricature. For Condorcet, the great liberating event was the French Revolution and its release of the masses from feudal bondage.

The time will come when the sun will shine only upon free men, recognizing no other master than reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical tools will exist only in history and on the stage.

Condorcet may have been a product of the Age of Reason, but he was also a transitional figure pointing ahead. In his lifetime the Industrial Revolution was beginning to introduce another essential dimension, the prospect of unprecedented and unlimited material advance. The ancient world underwent neither kind of revolution, nor can either even be imagined under ancient conditions.

The confidence trick consists simply in confusing progress in certain branches of knowledge (but not all)—geometry, astronomy, physics, music, less certainly philosophy—with what we mean by the idea of progress (and have meant for more than a century). Crane Brinton formulated it this way in the original Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences: in the nineteenth century, he wrote,

the idea of progress, vaguely conceived as a rapid improvement in general prosperity and happiness, became a living force. The chief reason for this was no doubt the rapid change in the outward conditions of life consequent upon the technological revolution.

Not even Professor Edelstein, for all his skill in squeezing out of an isolated text broad notions which no one else is able to read in them, could claim such an idea for antiquity. But then, he always belonged to that school in the history of ideas which takes pride in its indifference to the outward conditions of life. Ideas float freely in the minds of a few professional intellectuals, unanchored, unchecked by and unrelated to social reality, except for passing references to politics drawn from the most reactionary nineteenth-century German idealist tradition. (There is not much more of the real world in Professor Cole’s book, but, given the restricted question he set himself to answer, little harm is done.) Writing about the Sophists, M. Vernant observed:

For Greece in the fifth century BC, to act is not to make objects or to transform nature; it is to get a hold on men, to vanquish and to dominate them. Within the framework of the city-state, the instrument required for action, the instrument which gives one power over another, is speech. The reflections of the Sophists on human techne…found their way into rhetoric; they established dialect and logic.

But the fifth (or any other) century BC did not and could not produce genuine technological thinking, without which the idea of progress, of a steady improvement in general prosperity and happiness, is itself unthinkable.

  1. 1

    Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs (Paris: Maspero, 1965) p. 192. The whole of section 4, “Le travail et la pensée technique” is fundamental.

  2. 2

    A word of explanation may be needed of the term “anthropology” in Professor Cole’s title. His usage is not the familiar English one but is more akin to the German, a philosophical discourse, preferably in the idealist tradition, about the human condition. For example, Bernard Groethuysen’s Philosophische Anthropologie, published in 1928 in the Handbuch der Philosophie, has the following successive section headings under Plato: “The Philosophical Life,” Political Man,” “The Two Anthropological Types.”

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