The Birth of Philosophy

“Socrates’ trial and death sparked an enlightenment that unleashed a movement of thought that is still studied with vigor and fervor. Whether it’s through psychology, philosophy or political science we still study the voice of Socrates given to us through Plato. But the questions still begs, why Greece, why this time?”

The table grew silent. However, John and I discussed this before.

“Their religion,” said Daniel. “Their relation to their gods were unique, for the gods were just better versions of themselves. The gods didn’t care too much about humans, and they were chiefly at odds against each other. Furthermore, their temple priests had no epistemological authority over the intellectual domain. Their place was for sacrificial events and reverence towards the gods. They didn’t even have a religious text. The closest thing they had to a text were the works of Homer, the blind poet. Oracles, such as the Delphic oracle didn’t answer questions like what the universe was made of.”

John looked at me with a victorious smile and said, “There is one cause. There are two more causes. Second, is the environment in which they were placed. They had to trade, socialize, and do business with many other cultures. These foreigners had armies which were frighteningly larger than their own. These foreigners had different ways of life and different sets of gods. These differences must have created in the Greeks a stern, earnest outlook that took life seriously, for if they let their guard down their weaknesses would show. Third, their art evolved over time. In the beginning, there was the dance, then poetry, then the chorus, and finally the dialogue. The great tragedians of the time depicted life’s struggle of when passions trump reason, and to see what most deeply moves us. The Athenians didn’t go to these productions merely for entertainment purposes. They went to these because they lifted the veil of who they were, what moves them, and what will happen to them if they go down the wrong path. The tragedies had gotten them very far. However, the baton was finally handed to philosophy in hope to get them ever farther. It was out of the swelter and welter of these causes that gave birth to philosophy. Through skepticism and criticism, they were the first people to have the tools to examine themselves, their government, and their relationship within cosmos.”

“Thank you for that wonderful background history, John,” Frank said. “Speaking of the ancient Greeks, what was the difference between their myths and their philosophies? Aren’t both trying to get to fundamental truths?”

“Yes they do,” Percy replied. “Myth is a way to hand down wisdom in a memorable way. However, unlike philosophy, it doesn’t hold up to self-criticism. Does anyone know the story of Theseus in the bowels of the labyrinth?”

“I have,” said Daniel. “However, I’ve only read what little there was in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Great Greek and Roman People.”

“That’s a very brief introduction of the troubled life of Theseus,” Percy said. “What’s poignant of Theseus’ story within philosophy, is his battle with the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Because of the death of one of King Minos’ sons, Minos would take Athenian youths to Crete as revenge and put them in the labyrinth. The Minotaur, which was a half-bull half-man like creature, would devour the young Athenians. Within the third set of tributes, Theseus disguised himself as one of the tributes and sailed away to Crete. Once there, he met the beautiful princess Ariadne, who fell in love with him and gave him a golden thread to unravel as he goes down into the darkened labyrinth. Once in the dangerous labyrinth, he begins to unravels his golden cord until he finally finds the Minotaur sleeping. Sneaking towards it, the Minotaur awakens and they battle head to head. Theseus, with his great strength, is able to overpower it and behead the beast! Following the golden cord, that Ariadne gave him, he is able to, step by step, escapes the labyrinth and sail away with princess Ariadne toward Athens. This story is rich with metaphors.”

“First,” John said, “the dark, murky labyrinth can represent a dilemma we’re in. It’s finding oneself in a bind and having trouble finding oneself out of it.”  

“Does the golden cord,” asked Daniel, “represent a method to get oneself out of a troubling labyrinth?”

“Yes,” said John. “The golden cord represents reason or history, and with the help of these we can find ourselves out of a the mind’s binds. However, lose that cord and your intellectual life is no longer your own. Furthermore, I believe it is history that ought to be the guide to philosophy. Where and when these ideas came about is to understand these ideas more fully. To follow the history of ideas is to see the evolution of thought and reason. Where we went wrong can be answered only by looking backward. Taking in that knowledge, we can look forward, with prudence now, and try to steer clear from disaster.”

“What does Ariadne stand for?” Daniel asked.

Percy replied, “She’s the one that gave him the means to escape the labyrinth.”

“Yes, but does she symbolize something higher?” Spencer asked

“Maybe her part symbolizes that love conquers all,” Percy said. “I find it so interesting that from Penelope, Odysseus’ wife; Beatrice, in Dante’s Divine Comedy; Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust; and the Virgin Mary, we find that women are always the beacons of light that guide men out of the darkness.”

Frank then asked again, “So how is this different from philosophy?”

“The goal is the same,” Percy said. “The philosopher and myth maker both try to get to fundamental truths. Anyhow, myths help us flesh out formal arguments. They help us see a story unravel to its tragic ending, further helping us enter empathetically to the character and circumstances which they are under. All of this done so in a memorable way. Its main focus is to instruct conduct and reveal truths about human nature. Nevertheless, can it reach the level of systematic criticism, which philosophy strives toward? Certainly, Plato’s Dialogues had that mixture, centrally Socrates as the tragic Homeric hero. I’m inclined to believe we need both or else we run the risk of our heads being too far from our hearts.”

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