1996-02-09: Philosophy of the Ancients

Philosophy of the Ancients (1991)

by Friedo Ricken (1934-), tr by Eric Watkins (~1970-)

This book was found in the local public library. I don’t imagine many patrons are interested in it, or many librarians.

The book is a history of the known philosophers of antiquity, primarily Greek. It refers to the works of those who wrote, and to written references to those who did not. It attempts to summarize the nature of the beliefs of each, although Ricken evidently cannot resist criticizing some. I found it interesting as a source of material for a memetic history of Greek philosophy. Ricken provides information about the influences of various men (they are all men) on others. These influences include the adoption by a student of beliefs of his teachers, and rejection of some beliefs in favor of others.

The book is slow going, and the references are not at all clear to one who isn’t already aware of them.

One interesting facet of Greek philosophy which I had never heard of, was the Pyrrhonian (and other) Skepticism. This seems closely related to Indian ideas, and is credited to Pyrrho of Elis, who had traveled to India with Alexander’s army. According to Ricken: “His attitude is thought to have been one of emphatic indifference and a deep conviction of the frailty, transience, and vanity of human life. He mistrusted all caution, gave way to no dog or wagon, and always had in mind the Iliad’s verse “The family of man is like the leaves.”

The most surprising thing I found was in the section on Aristotle’s ethics. For Aristotle, ethics is about living a happy life. Part of the effort is learning what constitutes happiness, and the rest is learning how to attain the condition. Ricken quotes Aristotle (from the Eudemian Ethics): “For every human being has a contribution to the truth. One must begin with this and somehow show how the matter stands. For from the opinions that are true but unclear, clarity will result in the course of the investigation when one exchanges the usual confused way of speaking with the more insightful way.” I find this a remarkable statement, reflecting a truly democratic ideal. It is, for example, more direct and honest than Jefferson’s statement of 1776 that “all men are created equal” and entitled to “pursuit of happiness”. Jefferson’s statement does not mean what it appears to mean, since the term ‘men’ referred only to white male owners of a certain status, and the word ‘happiness’ did not mean the same thing as it means today. By contrast Aristotle, without political intent, expresses that all human beings (trusting the two translations from Greek) have a sense of their own happiness, and that a true knowledge of the matter must accommodate every one’s opinion. By contrast, Jefferson would harness “all men’s” energies to his political struggle for independence from his tyrant, deferring the “pursuit of happiness”.

Finding this statement of Aristotle renewed my faith that the ancients have something to offer us, that has not already been subsumed in more recent thinking.

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