“To get God out of Plato’s Form of the Good, you in effect have to do two things — drop an “o,” and add a personality (which was very shortly done).”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 9.
Plato’s World of Forms demands innate ideas, a soul separable from a body, mystic revelation and the disregard for the senses. While I admire Plato a lot, and greatly enjoy reading and thinking about his dialogues, I wonder how much more objective the world would be if he had never existed.
(Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.)
Although Leonard Peikoff (and Objectivism) disagrees entirely with Plato, he admits the genius of the philosopher. Plato was the first to gather all the “suggestions” that had been produced by the pre-Socratics and the sophists, in addition to all the teachings of Socrates in a coherent whole. In doing so, he created philosophy as it is, for better or for worse.
“A dog, for instance, likes a bone; he likes a number of bones. Now the question is: Why doesn’t it occur to him to start a bone store, or to start a science of bones, boneology, and ﬁnd out where do bones come from and how do you get them? And the trouble is the poor dog can’t get the idea of boneness, you see; he gets this bone, and then the next one, he forgot the ﬁrst one, and then the next one, and so on. And so his problem is he’s enmeshed in particulars and he can’t rise to universals.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 8.
(The “Universal Man”, by Gerald Gladstone. Socrates was probably not thinking of that when looking for a proper abstraction of man, but I guess it’s a nice mnemonic for the topic of universals. Original source: SimonP; CC BY-SA 3.0 / Desaturated from original)
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence of Socrates in the history of thought. He taught Plato, who taught Aristotle; only that would show his importance, but, of course, he did much more. Most of what we know about Socrates, however, is through Plato’s dialogues, so the truth is we do not know much about him. Scholars tend to agree that the first dialogues represent mainly the historical Socrates, while the middle and the final dialogues represent Plato himself. Be that as it may, as a fictional character, a true philosopher, or just a man of character, Socrates has been teaching all of mankind for millennia. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This could be considered his motto; today it is mine.
“Gorgias, who was the perfect example of a 20th century skeptic transplanted into ancient Greece […] maintained three basic propositions: one, nothing exists; two, if anything existed, you couldn’t know it; three, if you could know it, you couldn’t communicate it. Now that is what you call skepticism.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 7.
(I don’t like modern art. But if we look hard, there might be something to learn from it. The steel sculpture “Protagoras”, by Charles Ginnever, could well be considered the concretization of a philosophic idea. The sculpture changes shape as viewers move around it, the play of light and shadow on its triangular forms giving life to the massive structure. “The senses deceive” I’d say is the message. But, now, try to imagine someone jumping from this malformed idea (because it’s not the senses that are wrong, but the concepts we generate from them) to the conclusion that nothing exists. Perhaps some of the federal judges working at the Burger building, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where “Protagoras” is installed, would like it to vanish. But to assert it never existed would be a bit farfetched. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias did.)
The sophists have been branded throughout history as greedy and imoral teachers, but that’s polemics for a history course, or one on Plato and his obsession with them. Leonard Peikoff focuses instead on the ideas they put forth — even if their main idea is the negation of all ideas.
“If there’s no such thing as a mind capable of observing evidence and reasoning according to the laws of logic, then every man’s conclusions express nothing but blind mechanistic reactions. Each man is then a machine — he’s a physical puppet guided by the laws of motion. […] He’s a little billiard ball system, in effect, rattling and quivering by mechanistic necessity.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 6.
(Materialism implies determinism, which, in turn, denies the mind. I wonder how a mind could have had the idea of denying itself. Original source of the image: Min Then.)
The Pythagoreans attempted to solve the problem raised by Heraclitus and Parmenides by postulating two worlds: one in constant ﬂux, this world; and one eternal and immutable, the world of number. The Atomists attempted a very different reconciliation. In the process, they made possible the birth of modern science. They also caused the destruction of the mind.
“…the crucial point is the vital importance of mathematics in discovering the laws of the world, in making sense of the universe […] modern science is in part a development of this discovery of the Pythagoreans.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 5.
(The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible. How crazy is that? I bet Drake would not have come up with that idea if it weren’t for the Pythagoreans. Original source: Kevin Gill; CC BY 2.0 / Desaturated from original)
So, Parmenides created a problem. The world was made of one single stuff but it appeared to change, while Logic asserted that was impossible. How to reconcile this in one single world? Well, you don’t. There are two worlds: the “world of appearances” here below, always changing and apprehended by the senses; the “real world” high above, immutable and hidden. And the real one, believe it or not, is made of numbers.
“So [according to Parmenides] the world is simply a motionless, changeless, undifferentiated ball of tightly-packed matter. Now, needless to say, this is not the way that it appears to our senses.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 4.
(There is so much movement in the world, that it is hard to understand how Parmenides came to think there isn’t. However, there was logic behind his reasoning, and it posed a serious problem for philosophy. It took around one hundred years and Aristotle for mankind to come up with a solution.)
Heraclitus said “Change is obvious, therefore, to hell with logic.” Parmenides said, “Logic is obvious, therefore, to hell with change.” Still using Peikoff’s own words, Parmenides’ philosophy can be summarized by the principle “What is, is, and what is not, is not, and what is not can neither be, nor be thought about.” Hard to deny that logic.
“A great many children live in that kind of world thanks to the wanton irrationality of their parents, whose behavior is characterized by constant switching and swimming so that nothing ever holds true from one moment to the next, and by constant contradictions. That is the perfect recipe for the Heraclitean world.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 3.
(Since very early in the history of philosophy, Heraclitus disregarded the senses as invalid and accepted contradiction in reality. Two and a half thousands years later, we still see the effects of such errors.)
Thales gave rise to philosophy by relying on sensory experience and reason. The next philosopher in line — Heraclitus — not only trailed a different path, but ignited a chain-reaction that ran through history toppling like dominos all that man tried to erect with his reason. It all began with the problem of change and multiplicity; it all ended with my thirteen-year-old niece asking petulantly: “Why can’t I simply decide I am a boy?”
“…they are a monument not to life, but to death, and the thing in Egypt was not how good a life you could live, but how good a death you could die.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 2.
(Contrast that pro-death attitude with the Greek’s pro-life one: “I’d rather slave on earth for another man than rule down here over all the breathless dead”, said Achilles’s ghost to Odysseus. The former produced giant tombs for tourists; the latter created philosophy.)
Philosophy is asking the big questions. But if they are already answered by the State or by the nearest priest, why the effort? From the great dynasties of Sumer and Egypt, the explanation of the world had been given by the king-gods. Life was inexorably hard and painful, and man should rather turn his attention to the other world, to the afterlife. This greatest of all evasions of man was not an invention of Christianity – just remember the pyramids, those gigantic tombs. Better to bow, pray and beg than to try to understand and explain the world. It was in 6th century B.C. Greece that it all changed, and that began with Thales.
“…a New York City skyscraper, with everything that it implies, with the thirteenth story labeled ‘fourteen’ because thirteen is an unlucky number.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 1.
(A building without the 13th floor. Man is a mixture of extreme rationality and irrational mysticism. The blame is on philosophy — the solution, too.)
In this introductory lesson of the History of Philosophy course, Peikoff first invites us to look at the world around us today: What do we see?
A partial but brave exposition of the history of philosophy for those who don’t hate Ayn Rand. I enjoyed it very much.
I’d be incoherent with myself if I didn’t begin studying philosophy by its history. The trouble is to select among so many sources. In the end, I made an unlikely choice.