Greek Philosophy In The 21st Century: Sanity Amidst The Madness?

Platonist, Aristotelian, Epicurean, Stoic, Skeptic, Cynic or Sophist?

None of the above are satisfactory, as ready-made off-the-shelf pre-packaged philosophies, at least. They should be studied; not ingested whole, nor regurgitated whole.

Plato was best in terms of the ancient Greeks, with regards to metaphysics, on ontology and epistemology, or the nature of being and consciousness, as was beautifully and powerfully conveyed in his famous parable of the cave. Everyone should read that short allegory. It still applies. We live in shadows. And as Thoreau said, “There is more day yet to dawn.” But in terms of political philosophy, Plato was rabidly elitist, anti-democratic and totalitarian. Plato gets an A for epistemology, ontology and metaphysics; F for political philosophy. Aristotle was the opposite.

   Aristotle was democratic, as well as cogent about stability and peace in a democracy requiring a sustained high degree of equality and justice, and hence, a periodic or on-going redistribution of wealth, to moderate extremes and eliminate poverty. But, he tended to be a materialist reductionist, leaving him superior to Plato by far in political philosophy, but a grimly smug cave dweller, happily obsessed with mere shadows, in terms of epistemology, ontology, and the nature of being and mind. 

   The Epicureans may sound bucolic and pleasantly appealing, and the advice to both metaphorically as well as literally to tend your garden, is good, sensible, sound advice; but in terms of exploring our greatest human potentials, either in terms of the polis, the community or society, or individually – either outwardly, or more importantly, in terms of consciousness and the exploration of the true nature of being and mind – as with the Aristotelians, they leave us short, and it is a very weak and limited, paltry philosophy – as with the Stoics, Skeptics, Cynics, Sophists, Materialists, and all ancient Greek philosophy, other than that of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus.

   The Stoics may sound impressive on the surface, but a philosophy of studied self-repression, unresponsiveness to life, suppressed or deadened feeling and emotion, a deliberate stifling of our capacity for pleasure or joy, as well as pain, cannot be called healthy or even sane, much less wise. 

   Moreover, strength and resilience do not derive from such mistaken means. Nor does virtue. Worse, to invoke inner and outer passive obedience and conformity to whatever position or place you happen to find yourself, is akin to Confucianism, feudalism, and the doctrine of, “know your place and shut up”.

No wonder the Roman emperors and slave-owning aristocrats that it was a lovely philosophy. Yes, it is a lovely philosophy – if you are among the elite – to implore people to accept their lot in life… and if you also have no conscience and no soul. But for the slaves, the conquered and the poor, that is, the vast majority, the 99%, it was a philosophy of being told to shut up and be happy with their lot. Hardly an enlightened political philosophy. In fact, like Confucianism and feudal conservatism, it leads only to institutionalized tyranny and slavery, masking as justice, virtue, even freedom, in a most Orwellian kind of self-deceit.

But oh, the vogue of fashionable idiocy to be a 21st century Stoic!

   The Skeptics gave a giant intellectual shrug of the shoulders: an attitude of intellectual laziness, and intellectual and moral cowardice. The Cynics took such madness to even greater levels of nihilistic dogmatism.

Socrates implored us to seek the truth tirelessly and without dogmatism – or cowardice. He makes a far better guide than any of the other ancient Greeks, and is still, and eternally, relevant and important today.

   Worst are the Sophists, who fell decidedly into nihilism, corrupted themselves in the process, and spread corruption in turn, as a result of their nihilism. And with post-modernism, the rotting corpse of the Sophists has been brought back to life, and has taken over academia and the minds of most “intellectuals” for the past fifty years. Shudder at the thought.

   Despite the new fashion for Sophism and Stoicism, which are, respectively, the philosophies of the rulers and the ruled, the best we can say of ancient Greek philosophy is that despite towering figures, such as Socrates and Plotinus, above all; there is no one philosophy that is complete in itself, or even adequate in itself, that can be picked off the shelf and embraced as a pre-packaged ideology. We need to be considerably more thoughtful than that.

What is worth reading? The list is long, but I would say, with Thoreau, “Read the best books first, otherwise you may never read them at all.” Reflect, then read, then reflect. Repeat.

Read, reflect, discuss, analyze, criticize, glean, synthesize and distill. In general, ready-made philosophies, at least in the West, have not worked out well, and still fail us today.

Neoliberalism, neoconservatism – and fascist corporatism are what they both are in truth – are prime examples, though they rule the world. Question everything.

“The greater part of what my neighbours call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behaviour. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” – Henry David Thoreau

Remember: There is more day yet to dawn.


September 14, 2020

One Response to “Greek Philosophy In The 21st Century: Sanity Amidst The Madness?”

  1. Skip the psychobabble. Read Socrates, Spinoza and Plotinus, among other serious thinkers and sages, East and West.


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