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Friday, February 06, 2009

Plato & Aristotle: Is Charles Darwin a Plagiarist?

The title for this entry is inflammatory on purpose, but I'll get to that later. "The Story of Philosophy" by Will Durant is a magnificent little outline of philosophy written primarily with the "lay person" in mind. It serves as a introduction to the major philosophers of the Western canon with both biographical sketches and studies and critiques of their major works and ideas. It is a satisfying re-read, really, considering the first time I tackled this book I was in the middle of my undergraduate years, and a lot of it went right over my head.

I am most impressed by Durant's treatment of Plato. It is easy to see--with the benefit of distance and time--how many of the laudatory praise Durant gives Plato could be misinterpreted here (the book was published originally in 1926). Certainly, philosophy has changed in recent years to a more inclusive account of Eastern philosophies (despite their metaphysical content), and other handful of more obscure cultural phenomena. Durant's account of Plato is succinct and informative. Problems arise, of course, with Plato's ideological utopia. The idea of the philosopher-king is introduced and sparks begin to fly (as it always does even in the most diplomatic of classrooms). Plato ignores or assumes that most people would understand the communistic elements of sacrifice and asceticism in opposition to riches and extravagance. To the question of why aren't there more Utopias, Plato answers that "... greed and luxury" poisons the pristine element needed for such a form of government to work. "Men are not content" Plato continues "with a simple life: they acquisitive, ambitious, competitive, and jealous; they are soon tire of what they have, and pine for what they have not; and they seldom desire anything unless it belongs to others." I am fascinated as to how all of these things seem to still apply to society today, and, specifically, to our present economic crisis. One of the main calls President Obama has made to the nation is restrain and sacrifice... will anyone listen? Other things Plato elaborates on here are also applicable. Regardless of political affiliation, consider of any of this makes sense: "[I]n politics, we presume that every one who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill we call for a trained physician, whose degree is a guarantee of specific preparation and technical competence--we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one; well then, when the whole state is ill should we not look for the service and guidance of the wisest and the best?" Again, I am not citing this to promote any criticism against any of the political parties or their candidates, but one can see how reflective this is of what has become of the American democracy. The problem with Plato--again--is the fact that he calls for a philosopher-king to rule; that only those with the training in the specific rules of philosophy are equipped with the knowledge of how to rule: Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and wisdom and political leadership meet in the same man, cities will never cease from ill, nor the human race."

Plato's major contribution to philosophy is in the formation of an educational system that incorporates both the physical and the artistic intuitions (I am a product of such a system). From ages 1 through 10, healthy children will be trained in the gymnastics and other physical activities. From 10 years old on, the individual will be trained for intellectual matters, beginning, most surprisingly with music: "We do not want a nation of prize-fighters and weight-lifters. Perhaps music will solve our problem: through music the soul learns harmony and rhythm, and even a disposition to justice; for can he who is harmoniously constituted ever be unjust?.... Music moulds character, and therefore shares in determining social and political issues." Isn't it terrible that the arts are usually the first things to go when a school levy is not passed by our voters? But Plato recognized his issues early on and was ready to accept the problems his utopia was unable to overcome: "He admits that he has described an ideal difficult of attainment; he answers that there is nevertheless a value in painting these pictures of our desire; man's significance is that he can imagine a better world, and will some part of it at least into reality; man is an animal that makes Utopias." One can almost hear Lennon's lyrics from "Imagine" here.

With Aristotle Durant is a bit firmer, but willing to overlook some other issues that caught my eye and gave rise to the inflammatory title of this entry. In the section "The Organization of Science, i. Greek Science Before Aristotle," Durant list Aristotle's accomplishments, as well as a number of other innovators from whom Aristotle borrowed or was inspired from. A venerable list of "who's who" follows: Thales (640-550 B.C), Anaximander (610-540 B.C.), Anaximenes (fl. 450 B.C.), Anaxagoras (500-428 B.C.), and most importantly one Empedocles (fl. 445 B.C. in Sicily) who "developed to a further stage the idea of evolution. Organs arise not by design but by natural selection. Nature makes many trials and experiments with organisms, combining organs variously; where the combination meets environmental needs the organism survives and perpetuates its like; where the combination fails, the organism is weeded out..." The problem is that I have not read "The Origins of the Species" by Charles Darwin, so I am quite unaware as to whether or not Mr. Darwin gave some credit to the ancient Greeks (in particular our good Empedocles). Does anyone know? Could you drop us a line?

Presently, I am reading the section on Spinoza. The section on Francis Bacon was very good, but I think a little overdone in terms of Bacon's achievements; these were mainly interpreted by Durant, and a little slanting or bias might be present. I will be writing on Bacon and Spinoza next.

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