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Philosophy for Winners

In the winter of 46 BC, Cato of Utica knew that the Roman Republic was finished. Julius Caesar had won the civil war and was on his way to capture him. Cato, a prominent Stoic, resolved on suicide—in Stoic parlance, a “reasonable exit.” Others would live on as best they could (and he worked tirelessly to help them escape or accommodate to the new order), but he was personally so identified with the Republic that no role was left for him. By way of preparation for death he read, and reread, Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates, the great hero of the Stoic philosophy, prepares to die in prison by a self-administered dose of hemlock.

The moral of this story, as told in Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, is that Cato’s suicide vindicates a notorious Stoic paradox, that only the good man is free and everyone else is a slave. Cato, not Caesar, was the victor. My interest is in what the story may tell us about how a philosophical work of the past may be meaningful to a present which rejects all or most of its views. In the Phaedo Socrates expounds the Platonic Theory of Ideas and argues that the soul is incorporeal and immortal. The Stoics dismissed Plato’s Ideas as mere “nothings” and held that the soul is a thoroughly corporeal mixture of air and fire which survives death for a limited period. In the Phaedo Socrates maintains that, even though a philosopher should wish to die as soon as possible, suicide is impious and wrong: one must await some god-sent necessity, in his case the death penalty imposed on him by the Athenian court for impiety and corrupting the young. The Stoics had a well-worked-out theory about when it is reasonable and right to make one’s exit voluntarily. Yet the Phaedo was the work that Cato, three centuries later, read all the way through, twice, when preparing to stab himself to death. This was surely not because he agreed with every word it said.

Anthony Gottlieb includes a version of this story in his splendidly written book, the first of a two-volume history of philosophy from its Greek beginnings to the present day. He does not wonder why Cato turned to Plato, rather than to a more recent work of his own school, but his book is an invitation to extend my question to the entire corpus of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophy. What meaning can these writings of the distant past convey to a modern reader who is likely to reject all or most of what they have to say? Gottlieb tackles a problem that any history of philosophy must confront.

He is a journalist, not a professional philosopher, although he studied philosophy at Cambridge and University College London. For a long time a highly successful science correspondent and editor at The Economist, he is now executive editor of that magazine. He writes with the ease and clarity of someone well practiced in the art of explaining difficult subjects to a lay audience. Any member of the general public, whatever their educational background, will find his history accessible and thoroughly enjoyable. Reviewers have rightly compared it with Bertrand Russell’s classic History of Western Philosophy and Its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1946). The comparison is worth pursuing in detail.

Like Russell, Gottlieb sketches the social and political setting of the ideas he discusses, but more briefly and with some odd throwaway judgments, as when he writes, on no evidence whatsoever, that in matters of religion the citizens of Miletus “seem to have been an almost agnostic lot.” A more nuanced version of the same judgment may be found on page 47 of Russell’s History. Both authors are explaining the birth of philosophy in sixth-century BC Miletus, where Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes were the first thinkers to offer what are often described as naturalistic, nonreligious accounts of the world. Gottlieb’s narrative, like Russell’s, is peppered with witticisms hostile to religion. They are fun to read, but alert us to limits in these authors’ capacity to enjoy and profit from ancient and medieval philosophy. Neither history mentions Thales’ provocative dictum, “All things are full of gods.”

Like Russell, Gottlieb has studied primary sources and consulted contemporary scholarship in the field. In the fifty-odd years since Russell wrote, new discoveries, new perspectives, and reevaluations of the evidence have changed scholars’ understanding of the period in crucial ways.

Particularly significant is the case of Pythagoras. Russell writes,

Pythagoras…was intellectually one of the most important men that ever lived, both when he was wise and when he was unwise. Mathematics, in the sense of demonstrative deductive argument begins with him, and in him is intimately connected with a peculiar form of mysticism. The influence of mathematics on philosophy, partly owing to him, has, ever since his time, been both profound and unfortunate.

When Gottlieb comes to Pythagoras and his followers, he quotes from this passage of Russell and writes a chapter which is largely a reassessment, in the light of recent scholarship, of Russell’s chapter on Pythagoras, which was based on the then-influential scholarship of John Burnet and F.M. Cornford. The reassessment needed is considerable, thanks to a very great work of scholarship published in 1962, Walter Burkert’s Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaus und Platon (translated into English as Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, 1972). The effect of Burkert’s book was to destroy forever the alluring picture of Pythagoras as a mystical mathematician, a picture which has been endlessly recycled from antiquity to the Renaissance and beyond. Mystic, yes—or at least the leader of a religious brotherhood that believed in transmigration of the soul and was disciplined enough to take political power in several cities of southern Italy. But mathematician, no.

Pythagoras dates, as do the philosophers in Miletus, from the sixth century BC. The only Pythagorean known to have made a significant contribution to mathematics is Plato’s contemporary Archytas in the fourth century BC, who first solved the problem of how to double a cube. A geometrical theorem is named after Pythagoras, and he may well have been as keen on number symbolism as his followers who said “Marriage is five” and the like. But deductive mathematics began much later, independently of Pythagoras and his school. Likewise, Pre-Socratic cosmology had been going for nearly two centuries before the first known Py-thagorean contribution, by Philolaus late in the fifth century BC.* The traditional picture of Pythagoras as at once a mystic, a mathematician, and a scientist is nothing but a late construct projected back onto the revered master.

Gottlieb knows all this; Burkert is one of the scholars thanked for their help in his list of acknowledgments. But by focusing his chapter on Russell’s chapter he allows the traditional picture to dominate. The reader is duly told that Pythagoras did not discover Pythagoras’ theorem, and warned that Gottlieb will make little attempt to separate earlier from later forms of Pythagoreanism, let alone the views of the man himself from those of his followers. But, as so often, the suffix “-ism” covers over an incoherent unhistorical amalgam. The title of Gottlieb’s chapter, “The Harmony of the World: The Pythagoreans,” evokes Kepler’s treatise The Harmony of the World (1619), which announced the third of his three laws of planetary motion; Kepler was indeed a mathematical scientist of mystical bent, following (as he believed) in the footsteps of Pythagoras. The overall impression is much the same as you get from Russell.

I regard this account as a dereliction of public duty. The general reader has a right to know that the millennia-old picture of Pythagoras is a myth. An engaging myth no doubt, and one of enormous influence both for good and ill. But a myth nonetheless. Gottlieb writes so well, so clearly, that he would have had no difficulty outlining the essential points of Burkert’s demolition.

It is not difficult to understand why Gottlieb might balk at that negative approach. Had he taken it, his account of Pythagoras would be confined to the doctrine of transmigration and a communal way of life based on a vegetarian diet and precepts like “Abstain from beans!” “Don’t stir the fire with a knife!” “Spit upon the trimmings of your hair and fingernails!”—plus some seedy politicking. (There are sects still today whose leaders gain power over their followers by enforcing idiosyncratic rules in daily life.) Such a Pythagoras would not grace the history of philosophy as Gottlieb wants to write it.

This brings me to Gottlieb’s conception of philosophy itself. The first sentence of his book is deliberately paradoxical: “The last thing I expected to find when I began work on this book, more than ten years ago, is that there is no such thing as philosophy.” As you read on you discover what he means. Quoting Russell and William James, he describes philosophy as “the attempt to push rational inquiry obstinately to its limits.” When the attempt fails, “the dream of reason which motivates philosophical thinking seems merely a mirage.” When it succeeds, it becomes science—and ceases to be called philosophy. Philosophy, in Gott-lieb’s account, began when the Milesians created what would eventually become Western science. Much later, psychology, sociology, and economics all sprang from the work of people who at the time were called philosophers. And the traffic runs in both directions. Today’s welfare economics and cognitive science prompt new questions for the philosophically curious. True enough, so far as it goes. But where in such a conception of philosophy do we fit Cato’s reading of the Phaedo?

Greeks told of two gates through which dreams are sent to mortals: an ivory gate for dreams that deceive, a gate of horn for those that come true. Gottlieb’s introduction to The Dream of Reason tells of just two prospects for the rational dreams of philosophers: mirage or science. Of course, the body of the book has to describe the ethics of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, of the Epicureans and of Stoics like Cato. But in those parts the author’s tone is amused and often supercilious, like a traveler reporting on the curious practices of the natives. The reader would never guess that the moral philosophy of the ancients, much more than their science, was a living presence throughout the history of modern philosophy, and still is. Gottlieb’s heart lies in the domain of science. His hero there is Aristotle. He writes warmly on Aristotle’s omnivorous empirical curiosity. His account of why Aristotle’s appeal to function and final causes in biology is a step toward Darwin is a model of lucidity, a perfect way to differentiate the real Aristotle from the ossified, unempirical “Aristotelianism” against which the seventeenth century rebelled. But the dichotomy between science and mirage is a hindrance, not a help, in sorting through the manifold topics that philosophy has taken under its wing in different times and places, or the exuberance of styles it has adopted for them.

  1. *

    Philolaus was also the first Pythagorean to write a book. For an excellent edition of its remains, see Carl A. Huffman, Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic: A Commentary on the Fragments and Testimonia with Interpretive Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1993); a sequel on Archytas is in preparation. For a lucid brief account of how the history looks after the Burkert revolution, see Huffman’s “The Pythagorean Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy, edited by A.A. Long (Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 66–87.

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