Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Ethics of Ancient Greece

Alice C. Linsley


Thales             624 BC - 546 BC
Heraclitus        535 BC - 475 BC
Gorgias           483 BC - 375 BC
Protagoras      480 BC - 411 BC
Socrates         469 BC - 399 BC
Democritus     460 BC - 370 BC
Plato               428 BC - 347 BC
Aristotle          384 BC - 322 BC
Zeno               333 BC - 264 BC

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Aristotle regarded Thales of Miletus as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition.  Bertrand Russell believed that "Western philosophy begins with Thales." Thales attempted to explain natural phenomena without reference to mythology, an approach that was not typical of his time. His interest in astronomy was such that he reportedly fell into a ditch or well while contemplating the stars. Plato wrote of how he was mocked for this by a servant. "Just like Thales … while star gazing and looking up he fell in a well, and some gracefully witty Thracian servant girl is said to have made a jest at his expense—that in his eagerness to know the things in heaven he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy.” (Plato,Theaetetus 174a, Seth Benardete translation)

The philosophers before Socrates were largely concerned with discovering universal principles which would explain the whole of nature. Thales believed that all things derive from a single first cause or source which he called arche or archai. Anaximander (c. 611-546 BC) held that the basic substance of the universe is an eternal and imperishable apeiron from which all things are born and to which all things return. Heraclitus, who believed that all things are in a state of change, used the word logos. We might regard these views as metaphysical attempts at a “unified field theory.”

The Greek City State

The Greeks were organized politically by principal cities which had oversight of the surrounded region. Each city state (polis) was autonomous and self-governing. This corresponded to a similar system of organization along the Nile called "nomes." There were no nations as we know them today. There were dominions or empires under the control of great kingdom builders such as Darius the Great. Often the conqueror permitted the ruler of the city state to remain in power after swearing an oath of loyalty and agreeing to pay tribute.

The Greeks were proud of their culture and were suspicious of outsiders (xenophobia). Although they shared a common language and culture, each city state had its own customs, deities, money and army. A citizen’s first loyalty was to his city state and to the deity to whom the local temple was dedicated. Many of the festivals of the city states were religious in nature. The populace enjoyed processions through the streets much as Americans enjoy Fourth of July parades. Temples were the centers of much daily activity, with priests offering sacrifices and libations, and people coming and going to fulfill their sacred duties. Life was generally good since everyone knew his or her place in the hierarchical social order, and the communities were small enough to sustain economic prosperity in spite of Greece's rocky farm land.

The primary foods sources were lamb, fish, bread, cheeses, yogurt, grapes, figs, dates, olives, olive oil, and wine.

The Influence of Nilotic Thought

Much of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was received from the priests of the Nile Valley. The four most famous temple universities were Onn (Heliopolis), Inbu Hedj (Memphis), Ipet Isut (Karnak) and Waset (Thebes). The Greeks recognized the wisdom of these places to be very ancient and venerable.

Cultural contact between the Greeks and the Egyptians on the island of Crete has been verified from at least 2600 BC. There was artistic and iconographic exchange between Minoans and Egyptians around 1700 BC.

Thales visited Egypt and calculated the height of the pyramids from the length of their shadows. Hippocrates, called the father of medicine, studied the healing arts in Egypt. Democritus visited Egypt and wrote on ancient Nubia or Kemet. He praised the Egyptian mathematicians.

According to Iamblichus, Thales insisted that Pythagorus study in Egyptbecause the priests there were esteemed for their knowledge and wisdom. Plato studied in Egypt for thirteen years under the priest Sechnuphis. It is likely that Plato’s conception of the eternal Forms was based on Horite Hebrew binary metaphysics.

Priests and Oracles

Temple priests and oracles were part of the Greco-Roman ethical heritage and continued to exercise influence even after the emergence of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum. Those devoted to the local temple supported the priests through their offerings of food, money, oil and wine. Priests responded by seeking the deity’s favor upon their supporters. Priestly practice in the ancient world was more cultic than pastoral. Priests sacrificed animals, offered libations of wine or oil to the deity, and performed rites of purification. While it is likely that they also provided advice to individuals, it was not their primary responsibility to provide guidance about specific situations.  For this, people turned to the sibyls or oracles. Sibyls were seers who consulted animal entrails, fire pits, and pools of water for answers to questions. The sibyl at Delphi was called “Pythia” and she was consulted by rulers and priests.

While priests and oracles provided guidance and influenced ethical decision making, they did not fully satisfy human curiosity about the nature of the world. Nor did they offer a satisfying response to those who thought that the gods seemed too human and fallible, as did Democritus and Socrates.

The Pre-Socratic Worldview

To grasp the significance of Socrates’ contribution to ethics it is necessary to understand how the ancient Greeks viewed their world. We gain insight into their worldview by reading Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. This bloody account of the battles between the Trojans and the Greeks seems a strange tale to modern readers because it weaves together history, religion and mythology. Yet this was an aspect of the Greek worldview in Homer’s time.  People believed in a world in which the gods regularly intervened in human affairs, sometimes whisking away heroic warriors in their chariots and often joining in the battle themselves.  Some heroes were regarded as semi-divine beings.  Priests sacrificed animals and made other offerings in the temples to gain the favor of the gods, and oracles were consulted for the most auspicious days on which to wage war or make peace. People did not choose who they would marry. They married within their social class or caste.  Nor did people select their line of work. They inherited the work they did from their fathers.  If one’s father was a metal smith, his sons would be smiths also. This was especially the case with firstborn sons.

Before Socrates, people were losing confidence in the old order of gods and in their leaders. The social order was changing from one in which each person’s social status and line of work were fixed according to a rigid caste system to one in which nobility of character or special gifts sometimes opened opportunities that were not available to earlier generations of Greeks.  In the old order, a good citizen was someone who fulfilled his role in the caste system. A street sweeper was a good sweeper if he rose early and efficiently cleaned the streets assigned to him. A nobleman was a good ruler if he ordered his household well, spoke persuasively in public, and participated in the forums. As the old social order began to break down, it became necessary to re-think what it meant to be a good citizen and what constituted a good life. Social change and political disruption stimulated ethical conversations and began to lay the foundation for philosophy and ethics in Western Civilization.

Transition to the Classical Period

Before the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Greek citizens were defined by their place in the hierarchical caste system that was typical of the ancient Mediterranean world. Because one did not marry outside one’s caste and continued in the same work as one’s father, the pre-classical social order was stable and Greek citizens shared common ideas of good and evil, and right and wrong.

With the emergence of the Greek city-states, Athens being an example, the social order began to change. Each city-state developed a social and political order independent of outside political authority. Each established foreign trade that brought an influx of non-Greeks into the cities, introducing different customs, ways of life and moral attitudes.What was acceptable in one city might be offensive in the next. Law codes differed from city to city, and traditional Greek values and beliefs were found to be incompatible with those of other cultures. In this new order the Greek citizen was presented with many conflicting truth claims. It was a social landscape ripe for the proliferation of many ethical philosophies.

The Sophists

The period of the Sophists was one in which people had doubts about whether the social order of their fathers should to be regarded as the best order and divinely appointed. People believed that attempts to rise above one’s caste would bring the wrath of the gods upon them, since the social order was regarded as having been established by the gods. This is one reason that the lower classes didn’t rebel against their rulers. If the hierarchical castes of the ancient Mediterranean world were not divinely appointed, then how was one to live as a good citizen in this new world? The Sophists attempted to provide practical answers to this question.

The Sophists came to prominence in the 5th century, B.C. Unlike Socrates and Plato, they were not philosophers, but teachers of “rhetoric” which is the art of public speaking and persuasion. Sophistry was a school of thought that emphasized how to be successful in the new order. The Sophists did not claim to be philosophers, but teachers of socially useful skills such as how to order one’s household, how to keep good accounts, how to speak persuasively and how to dress for success.

A Sophist about whom we know a good deal through Plato’s writings is Protagoras (480-411 BC). He said that, “Man is the measure of all things.” By this he intended that everyone should “measure” or decide matters according to his own nature and needs. When applied to ethics and morality, this idea leads to “moral relativism.”  Relativism doubts the possibility of discovering absolute truth. If there is no absolute truth for all people, at all times, and in all places, why waste time trying to teach truth?  Instead Sophists trained students for worldly success. You might say that Protagoras was the head of the school of “how to make a good impression.” Students who studied Sophistry gained social, political and economic power in Athens, because they were trained to win oral arguments and to conduct their personal affairs so as to achieve status. Many Sophists claimed they could teach anything and its opposite (thesis and antithesis) and could win debates by making the weaker argument the stronger.

Another Sophist was Gorgias (483-375 BC), a great cynic. He said, “Nothing exists, and if it did, no one could know it, and if they knew it, they could not communicate it.” Gorgias’ view is called “nihilism,” from the Greek word “nihil” which means nothing. Nihilism denies that there is any truth and therefore rejects all truth claims. When a person claims to have discovered something that is true, they also claim that truth as an authority for themselves. However, if no truth exists, there is no ground for authority. When applied to ethics and morality, nihilism leads to a philosophical dead end. If, in the end, there is really nothing, there is nothing to discuss. When applied to politics, nihilism leads to anarchy. If, in the end, there is no authority, there is no basis for trust in government.

Socrates questions morality of the art of persuasion

The Sophists believed that moral goodness consists of public recognition and success. They were not especially interested in questions of Good and Evil. Instead, they sought to prepare young men to become successful in Athenian society by knowing how to conduct their affairs, dress as a ruler, and speak eloquently.  They sought to perfect the art of rhetoric. By becoming a persuasive public speaker, an individual could impress audiences and sway opinion in the public forums held in the Greek city-states.  Many aristocratic young men were attracted to Sophistry, hoping to gain recognition and status.

Socrates viewed Sophistry with suspicion. He believed that it wasn’t enough to teach a man how to dress for success and how to persuade people to your side. In fact, Socrates thought this was quite dangerous. What if the most successful and persuasive man were to lead the people unwisely, being ignorant of how to life a good life?

Although Socrates lived before Zeno, he anticipated the danger of apathy among the citizens of Athens. His method was to ask well-formed questions that placed a burden on people to think about their actions and attitudes. Socrates left no writings, so we cannot consult primary sources to discover exactly what he taught.  What we do know comes from three sources: the historian Xenophan, his student Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle.

Xenophan portrays Socrates as an ordinary man interested in developing good citizens.  In his writings Memorabilia and Symposium, he characterizes Socrates as a popular ethical teacher who had little interest in logic or metaphysics. Plato portrays Socrates as more complex. He presents him as a teacher who denies having disciples, as a lover of beauty who disdains sensual pleasures, and as a man of reason who listens to the divine.

For ethics, Socrates’ greatest legacy is his consistent and steadfast belief in the importance of good citizenship. This is exemplified in the events surrounding his last days.  He had made enemies in Athens by pointing out the hypocrisy of various prominent figures. Eventually he was falsely accused of morally corrupting the youth. He was brought to trial and found guilty. What is known of these final events comes from Plato’s Dialogues, and from his Apology, a record of the speeches that Socrates delivered at his trial. According to Plato, Socrates admitted that he could have avoided trial by abandoning philosophy and minding his own business. After his conviction, he could have avoided death by escaping with the help of friends, but to Socrates this would have been a denial of everything he had tried to teach. He cooperated with the State because this is what a good citizen does. The people of Athens believed that Socrates was unjustly condemned and this created a problem for Socrates. If he allowed the State to take his life unjustly, it would undermine the people’s confidence in government, so rather than permit the State to execute him, he chose to take his own life. Plato describes as a first hand witness how Socrates drank a cup of deadly hemlock and laid down and died.

Plato (428 BC - 347 BC)

When Socrates died in 399, Plato gave up all political ambitions and left Athens, traveling to Italy and Sicily. Soon after his return to Athens, he established his Academy outside the city. It is often stated that the western university system is based on Plato’s Academy, but that is to overlook Plato's experience in Egypt. The Nile shrine-cities were recognized by the Greeks as great center of learning.

Plato was a prolific writer who kept Socrates ideas alive in over 24 writings called “dialogues.” The dialogues range from 20 to 300 pages and their titles are usually the names of the interlocutor who Socrates questions.  Plato focused Socrates’ moral arguments in the early dialogues and built on his ideas in the later dialogues.

It is evident from Plato’s writings that he shared Socrates’ preoccupation with clear and precise definition of ethical concepts, and with knowing how one should live. Plato’s main disagreement with Socrates has to do with the definition of virtue as knowledge. Socrates insisted that before we can say anything about justice we must first answer the question “What is justice?”  Plato recognized that asking what justice is only leads to considering examples of justice and examples of the opposite of justice. Socrates’ approach never seems to bring us to a substantial definition of justice. Plato wondered how we are able to recognize justice when we are unable to define it.  He came to the conclusion that an unambiguous example of justice must exist in the metaphysical (non-material) sense, and that we must once have known justice as an eternal and unchanging “Form” or we would not be able to recognize examples of it.

Plato’s Theory of Forms is based upon his belief that we are born into this material world from an ideal world where our soul was acquainted with the Forms of Justice, Goodness, Beauty and Love.  We are able to recognize justice, goodness, beauty and love because our souls have innate knowledge of these non-material entities.  Plato goes on to explain that the examples we see are only reflections of the Forms, not the Forms themselves. In other words, justice and goodness are eternal Ideas that exist whether or not humans recognize them.

What does this mean for ethics?  It means that philosophy’s main objective is to seek knowledge of the true Forms. Plato said that not everyone would do this. He used the allegory of the cave to explain that some would always be locked in darkness where they are able to see only shadows. Others will escape to the world of sunlight where they will see the true form of things. 

According to Plato, societal evil is the absence of Good and can be averted only by enlightened rulers or “Guardians.” The ideal society requires censorship by the Guardians to protect the weak minded cave dwellers who are unable to discern the difference between shadow and Form. Plato maintained that a man cannot do Good unless he recognizes the Good through his soul. The ethical person judges justice by the measurement of justice known in the eternal soul.

Plato taught that the soul, like the ideal society, has three parts or levels. The good person is one who ascends from the lowest level of the soul governed by appetites (what we want and feel) to the rational level governed by the intellect. The middle level is the “spirited” level which undertakes whatever the intellect determines to be best. These levels of the soul correspond to the levels of Plato’s ideal social order. The workers provide all the material needs, the soldiers ensure that the rulers’ dictates are carried out, and the rulers discern wisdom and justice through philosophical conversation and inward contemplation.

In the empirical age, Plato’s metaphysics are largely rejected and with this comes the rejection of the possibility of a soul as a reservoir of innate knowledge.  Through the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the West has been more influenced by the thought of Plato’s student, Aristotle.

Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)

Aristotle produced a large number of writings and from these we are able to recognize his important contribution to Ethics. His contributions are evident in his understanding of the human as a political creature, and in his understanding that the chief good is “eudaimonia” (“you-DYE-mon-ee-ah”). The Greek word Eudaimonia (Eudaemonism) refers to a state of having a good indwelling spirit or daemon. This Greek word has been translated as happiness, pleasure, and prosperity, but is better understood as the flourishing of the individual in every area of life. Aristotle regarded individual happiness as the highest good, and eudaimonism continues throughout the history of ethics, with some philosophers building on Aristotle’s idea and some arguing against it.

The Human as Political Creature

Aristotle regarded Man is the only creature capable of abstract reasoning. Man can be said to resemble the Unmoved Mover and higher reasoning should be a first priority for humankind. The exercise of intellectual and moral capacities is essential in order for mankind to flourish as a species. However, capacities such as just action cannot be exercised outside the context of the state. The state provides everything necessary for the good life and it exists in nature exactly for this purpose. Aristotle teaches that the state accords with human nature. He writes that “that the state belongs to the class of objects which exist by nature” (Politics I. 2). For Aristotle, humans will always live in relationship to the state because human beings are essentially political creatures.

This leads Aristotle to speak of the state as something supremely superior to the individual, as an entity with individual parts that are in themselves of little worth. He even says that the citizen belongs to the state (Politics VIII.1.) This has led to charges that Aristotle advocates totalitarianism, but that would be to miss the larger picture. Aristotle is not speaking of the restriction of citizen’s rights, but of the ontological relationship of citizen and state.  We know this is the case because, unlike Plato, he opposes censorship. Aristotle's view of the state cannot be isolated from his understanding of the human as a political creature.

Personal Happiness as the Highest Good

In Nicomachean Ethics, his chief work on ethics, Aristotle defines happiness as “an activity of the soul in accord with perfect Virtue.” For Aristotle, happiness is not a Form, but a process involving decisions about many goods.  He argues that we are motivated to pursue the good life in order to find personal happiness. Happiness is not something we arrive at, but something which accompanies certain activities and choices. Since happiness means something different for every person, there can’t be a single true Form of happiness. Aristotle’s primary argument with his teacher Plato is over this question of Forms. Aristotle doubts their existence.

For Aristotle a flourishing life consists in pleasure, honor, and virtue.  Aristotle argues that it is virtue that corrects our superficial attraction to pleasure.  He also argues that when we want honor what we really want is to deserve honor. He regards personal happiness or flourishing as worth pursuing for its own sake. Anything else that we might regard as “good” will ultimately bring us back to the goal of happiness. Aristotle believes that it is meaningless to speak of having a good life when one is unhappy or not flourishing. He is not suggesting that we behave selfishly.  In fact, achieving happiness in our lives may involve personal sacrifice at times, but if we must constantly sacrifice, we are not going to be happy.  This is what Aristotle intends by his famous statement: “No man can be happy on the rack.”

Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”

If everyone is capable of living the good life, why do we fail to do so?  Aristotle tells us that the good life requires balance, and balance is different of each person.  For example, if eating brings me happiness, I must discover through experience how eating makes me happy.  If I eat too much and become sick or uncomfortable, I have actually caused myself unhappiness. This is why Aristotle says, “People ought to behave so as to achieve happiness.”  No one can tell me exactly how to achieve personal happiness.  A 125 pound office worker and a 200 pound farmer will not find happiness by eating the same amount of food each day, because their physical needs are different.  To us this seems like common sense.  That is why Aristotle is regarded as the first great philosopher with a common sense approach to ethics.

Aristotle’s “Golden Mean” is not only about avoiding extremes, it involves discovering what is morally neutral.  We might agree that moderate drinking of alcohol and only when one intends not to drive is morally neutral.  None would agree that drinking alcohol to excess and driving drunk is morally neutral. For alcohol consumption to contribute to personal happiness a person must discover exactly how much and under what circumstances he or she can consume it. Consuming too much alcohol could leave one feeling sick, which is not a state of happiness or pleasure. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is about taking personal responsibility for one’s life and actions.

Implications of Aristotle’s Mean

In The Republic, Plato proposes that all citizens’ fundamental needs can be met by having people specialize in the kind of work for which they are naturally gifted, rather than requiring them to continue in the profession of their fathers.  He believes that the grouping of citizens into specialized functions and the prudent leadership of philosopher kings will produce a just society.  This view of justice requires that I bring my personal happiness into harmony with the best interests of others.  This involves some sacrifice.  It is difficult to achieve the golden mean for my life when I must subordinate my happiness to the general welfare of the state.  Further, since the options of a worker would be much more limited than the options of a ruler, workers would have less freedom to discover what brings them happiness.  In other words, in Plato’s ideal society it would be difficult to discover one’s golden mean because some activities would not be lawful.

Here is where we encounter one of the most significant implications of Aristotle’s golden mean for social ethics.  Plato requires that the ideal society impose censorship to protect the weak minded, and Aristotle believes that censorship hinders moral decisions by limiting people’s lawful choices.  This is consistent with Aristotle’s view that well-being consists in virtuous actions that stem from a virtuous character. A virtuous character can only be developed by making wise choices.

Plato and Aristotle hold irreconcilable views on censorship, and the question of censorship continues to be a point of disagreement even today. As we will learn in a later lesson, John Stuart Mill’s view of liberty will be closer to Aristotle’s and Thomas Hobbes’ view will be closer to Plato’s.


Before concluding this lesson, we must consider the influence of Zeno (333 BC - 264 BC), a student of the great Cynic Crates, and founder of Stoic philosophy. He was persuaded to the philosophical life by reading Xenophan’s description of Socrates in Memorabilia.

Zeno proposed an answer to doubts about the gods and concerns about the growing instability.  He did not accept the Cynics view that the world is fundamentally evil and that the only virtue is to find peace within oneself by rejecting worldly things. Instead he taught that everything is determined by God’s good order in the universe and that we have no power to change what happens.  Therefore whatever happens to the individual, whether good or bad, should be accepted without desire or strong emotions.  Zeno said that “man conquers the world by conquering himself.”

In the most often quoted explanation of his stoic viewpoint, Zeno wrote: “God is not separate from the world; He is the soul of the world, and each of us contains a part of the Divine Fire. All things are parts of one single system, which is called Nature; the individual life is good when it is in harmony with Nature. In one sense, every life is in harmony with Nature, since it is such as Nature’s laws have caused it to be; but in another sense a human life is only in harmony with Nature when the individual will is directed to ends which are among those of Nature. Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature. The wicked, though perforce they obey God’s law, do so involuntarily; in the simile of Cleanthes, they are like a dog tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes. In the life of an individual man, virtue is the sole good; such things as health, happiness, possessions, are of no account. Since virtue resides in the will, everything really good or bad in a man’s life depends only upon himself. He may be poor, but what of it? He can still be virtuous. He may be sentenced to death, but he can die nobly, like Socrates. Other men have power only over externals; virtue, which alone is truly good, rests entirely with the individual. Therefore every man has perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires.”

This is the basis of Stoicism, a philosophical viewpoint that had profound influence even to the first century of Christianity.

The problem with Stoicism is that it encourages indifferent acceptance of injustice by making the one true Virtue detachment from the fortunes of the world.  While it is wise to control strong emotions and to intellectually detach so as to evaluate more objectively, Stoicism does not stir one to act against injustice and to attempt to right social wrongs.


As philosophers debate the differences between Plato and Aristotle through the centuries, those differences come into focus.  Today we see Plato as the “father” of Platonism and Idealism, and Aristotle as the “father” of Empiricism, which defines reality on the basis of what can be verified through the senses, observation or experience. Here we can see the contrast between the viewpoints of Plato and Aristotle:

Plato regards evil as the lack of knowledge of the Good.
Aristotle regards evil as something people do in violation of their happiness.

Plato regards morality as intellectual discovery, similar to mathematics.
Aristotle regards morality as a dynamic exploration of what brings happiness.

Plato maintains that there is but one Good for all people at all times (Absolutism).
Aristotle says that the good life will have different expressions, since what brings happiness is different for all people (Relativism).

Plato believes that only the leisure classes who receive training in intellectual and moral virtues are capable of knowing the Good.
Aristotle believes that all people have a responsibility to discover what constitutes the good for them.

Plato believes that the ideal society requires censorship to protect the weak.
Aristotle believes that censorship hinders the individual’s moral decision making.

Plato’s ideal king is a ruler who philosophically contemplates the Forms.
Aristotle’s ideal king is one who seeks the Golden Mean in both personal and public life.

Plato doubted Socrates definition of virtue as knowledge. Socrates insisted that before we can say anything about justice we must first answer the question “What is justice?”  Plato recognized that asking what justice is only leads to considering examples of justice and examples of injustice, but examples are not the same as the justice itself. Plato wondered how we are able to recognize justice when we are unable to define it.  He concluded that an unambiguous Justice must exist in the metaphysical (non-material idea) sense, and that we must once have known justice as an unchanging “Form” or we would not be able to recognize examples of it.

Plato’s theory of Forms is based upon his belief that we are born into the material world from an ideal immaterial world where our souls were acquainted with Justice, Goodness, Beauty and Love. We are able to recognize justice, goodness, beauty and love because our souls have innate knowledge of these non-material entities. This being so, none is justified in claiming that they do not know or cannot recognize justice, goodness, beauty and love. For Plato the good life requires philosophical reflection on these Forms and taking responsibility for fulfilling one’s proper role in accordance with one's potential and nature.  He supported censorship in society because he believed that the citizen’s preoccupation with the trivial and mundane posed obstacles to philosophical contemplation of the Forms. In other words, Plato believed that there are pursuits and behaviors that can cause us to miss the good life. One such action was gossip or being a busybody. Plato wrote, “To do one’s own business and not to be a busybody is justice.” (Republic 433b.)

Aristotle rejected Plato’s definition of the good life as contemplation of the eternal Forms.  He was not convinced that Forms have a real existence. Instead he argued that what is to be known can be discovered from the study of nature. Our powers of observation and critical reasoning can bring us reliable knowledge upon which to base ethical decisions.

Aristotle did agree with Plato’s definition of virtue as knowledge, but the knowledge that mattered to Aristotle was not the knowledge of Forms, but self-knowledge of what brings one happiness or what causes one to thrive.  This is the basis for eudaimonism, an ethical approach that holds personal happiness as the highest good. This view will find different expressions in the centuries that follow, most especially in the hedonism of Renaissance humanism.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ethics and Archaic Communities

Alice C. Linsley

With this article, students should read The Religious Impulse Among Archaic Communities.


Migration out of Africa          100,000 BC
Mining red ochre                    100,000 BC
Migration out of Africa           70,000 BC
Oldest calendar                      34,000 BC
Migration out of Africa           12,000 BC
Ancient astronomy                10,000 BC                
Law of Tehut                          5,000 BC
Moral codes                            3,000 BC

Defining Ethics

Ethics is that branch of philosophy dealing with values related to human conduct. It assesses the rightness and wrongness of actions and motives, and the moral justification of the consequences of actions.

For our purposes, ethics is the study of observed and perceived boundaries that are generally honored among all peoples. Actions are thus judged against the backdrop of boundaries defined by binary sets: life-death; male-female.  It is not morally right to murder because murder is unjustified violation of the boundary of individual life.  It is not morally right to steal because stealing violates the boundary of individual or communal property.

Ancient Moral Codes

The most ancient moral codes have many features in common. They appeal to the authority of the deity who was recognized by the ruler and they view the ruler as the deity's earthly representative. Another common feature is a concern for purity among the priestly caste as they were regarded as the mediators between the deity and the ruler and his people. Often the rulers themselves were priests, as in the case of Horite ruler-priests. When it came to ritual purity, especially to cleanse from blood guilt, ruler-priests turned to other priests for rituals of absolution. An example of this is found in the account of Abraham returning from battle and receiving the priestly ministrations of Melchizedek.

Most of what we know about ancient moral codes comes from archaeological and anthropological research. These fields, along with linguistics and biblical studies, have contributed enormously to our understanding of ethics among ancient peoples.

Babylonian clay tablets dating to the 3rd century BC reveal business laws and moral codes of considerable sophistication. Moral codes such as the Code of Hammurabi did not spring suddenly into existence. They represent centuries of social development and social control.

The Code of Hammurabi was engraved on a stele more than 7 feet high.  At the top of this stele of dark stone appears an image of King Hammurabi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the god of justice. Shamash (Shams in Arabic) is usually represented by the Sun. On the stele, Shamash is dictating the law to his earthly representative. The Code of Hammurabi closes with this statement: “The righteous laws which Hammurabi, the wise king, has established . . .” Similarly, Leviticus closes with this: “These are the commandments which YHWH commanded Moses for the children of Israel.”

When reading ancient moral codes, one is struck by their religious quality. That is because religion and government were never perceived as separate in the ancient world.  The moral codes of ancient societies were not produced by a chamber of legislators, as in modern America. They were laws drawn from both kings and priests.  Many of the kings’ advisors were high ranking religious leaders.  This is evident today in primitive societies governed by tribal councils.  The chief’s advisors include married, property-owning men, and the principle holy man, either a priest, a prophet or a shaman, depending on the cultural context.

The oldest know moral code is the Law of Tehut. This code is associated with King Menes of Egypt and dates to about 5200 years ago. Menes made Memphis the capital of a united Egypt and administered justice and issued edicts which were designed to improve food production and distribution, guard the rights of ruling families, improve education and enhance knowledge of the natural world through geometry and astronomy.

Priests and Shamans

The offices of priest and shaman are some of the oldest institutions known to humanity. The priest pertains to the Afro-Asiatic peoples of the global south and the shaman to the Altaic and Uralic peoples of the global north. While priests and shamans serve similar functions in their societies, their worldviews are very different.
Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world (animism).  The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits. This may or may not involve animal sacrifice. Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony.  The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers animal sacrifice according to sacred law. 

The priests were a caste within which the younger men were apprenticed to the older priests, just as Samuel was apprenticed to Eli. Priests married the daughters of priests. Endogamy is a trait of castes. Similarly, the office of shaman runs in families and the shaman-in-training assists the shaman as part of his on-the-job training.

Bloodshed: The First Moral Law

Both worldviews share anxiety about the shedding of blood, revealing that archaic societies regarded the shedding of blood to be a moral issue of the first magnitude.  They believed blood to be the source of life, and believed that blood had the power to bring blessings or curses.  Therefore, before the hunting party departed, the priest or shaman offered sacrifice to the spirits of the hunted animals. When someone killed another human by accident, the killer was to provide an animal to be sacrificed in his place and was to pay satisfaction to the victim’s family. If he killed on purpose, he would forfeit his life. All of these decisions were governed by laws that were passed from generation to generation and upheld by the rulers and their advisors.

There was even anxiety about the blood shed by women in their monthly cycle and in childbirth.  For this reason it was common for women to remain in structures outside the village during menstruation and childbirth. Female family members brought them food and other necessary provisions. After ritual purification, the women returned to their regular routines in the village. Women of the noble classes remained in their chambers where female servants provided all their needs. 

Among ancient peoples religious laws governed every aspect of the community’s life.  The laws found in Leviticus and in the ancient Vedic Brahmanas are examples. Here we read instructions for how lepers are to be put outside the community and restored to the community after they are healed.  Many of the laws govern family relations, forbidding incest and adultery.  Others establish rules for the proper treatment of slaves, foreigners, widows and orphans.

The clay tablet of the code of Ur-Nammu from the reign of King Shulgi is dated to 2095-2047 BC It originally held 57 laws which covered family and inheritance law, rights of slaves and laborers, and agricultural and commercial tariffs. This code prescribes compensation for wrongs, as in this example: "If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half a mina of silver." (Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 28, Sep/Oct 2002, p. 30.) 

Ethics in the Afro-Asiatic Dominion

The Code of Hammurabi dates to about 1750 B.C. Hammurabi was an Amorite (Semite) who became King of Babylon about the time that Abraham left his father’s house in Harran and settled in the land of Canaan. The ancient capital of Babylon was about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad and it was large city of the Fertile Crescent.  Although the city states of the Fertile Crescent shared common ideas and practices, these cities were not unified under a single ruler.  Instead they were governed by independent rulers who were often related by marriage. Marriage was a way to form political alliances, and contribute to the preservation of the people’s cultural heritage.

Havilah, Sheba, Ramah and Joktan were Kushite kinsmen with adjacent territories in southern Arabia.

Rulers of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion governed territories extending from the Atlantic coast of modern Nigeria to the Indus River valley of India.  They spoke languages in the Afro-Asiatic language family and controlled commerce on the waterways. The Afro-Asiatic world was a river civilization that disappeared when earth’s climate changed. Today central Africa, Palestine, Mesopotamia and India are dry, but 10,000 to 12,000 years ago these areas were wet and fed by rivers many miles wide.  The basins of these now extinct or much diminished rivers have been identified by satellite photos. Many of the laws of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion pertain to commerce and water rights. (For more, read Alice C. Linsley, “The Afro-Asiatic Dominion.”)

Rulers controlled the major water systems of the ancient world at a time when Africa and Asia were much wetter.  These rulers were owed tribute for maintaining order on the rivers.  Royal priests maintained shrines on the rivers where the tribute was collected, a portion being offered to the shrine deity. As the climate changed the landscape of the ancient world, some of the laws changed also.  For example, strangers who came to wells or watering holes in now arid lands were no to be harmed or taxed. Wells and public watering holes became, by law, places of immunity.  This was all the more necessary since they were frequented by women and children, whose job it was to draw water.

Ethics of Family, Caste and Territories

Before the emergence of nations, there were independent kingdoms. Adjacent kingdoms were often ruled by chiefs or kings who were brothers or close relatives. The kinsmen served as royal advisors. The earliest forms of government were kinship and caste based. The ethical standards of archaic communities developed out of their kinship and concern for preserving family wealth and caste role. The Kushite rulers married close female relatives, including half-sisters. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah by whom he hoped to have a rightful heir. Their father was Terah, but they had different mothers. Abraham also married Keturah (Gen. 25) who was his patrilineal parallel cousin. That means that Keturah’s father and Abraham’s father had a common male ancestor.  It was easier to govern when everyone shared a common ancestor from whom they received a common ethical and moral outlook.

Later forms of government involved control of larger territories as families became more militaristic. Rulers formed alliances with potential aggressors, often by contracting a marriage between their sons and daughters.  Treaties to support one another in the event of attack from a third power were formalized by marriage, or by the exchange of gifts, and by solemn ceremonies that included animal sacrifices followed by a night of feasting.  While there was no reason to align the moral codes of the allied territories, the cultural exchange that took place because of the peace between them, led to sharing common ethical views. 

Councils and Oracles

Anthropological evidence indicates that the earliest laws were established by tribal councils that consisted of a chief, his advisors or elders, and the holy man. The holy man might be a shaman or a priest, and women were known to serve as advisors (though never as priests). Women were usually consulted outside the all-male council meetings and were not members of the council. 

The council set laws, interpreted laws, rendered decisions in cases of conflict, and decided punishments when laws or boundaries were violated. The council also deliberated about war strategy and how to avoid war.  One of the oldest examples of ethical practices involved the treatment of those sent to deliver messages to potential enemies. This meant crossing a territorial boundary and could mean death for the messenger. Messengers were to be granted safe travel in and out of enemy territory to deliver their messages.

Another common practice among the ancients was consultation of oracles or seers. When a tribal council or an individual was uncertain as to what would be the best action, the oracle was consulted.  The oracle was someone with the ability to discern the will of God or of the deities in particular situations. The ancient Hebrews consulted “prophets” and the ancient Babylonians relied on “astrologists.”  Often the prophet was consulted in hopes that he would provide an answer different from what was already written in the peoples’ law codes.  So the tradition developed in ancient Israel that the test of the true prophet was that he upheld the written law even if it meant defying the ruler, while the false prophet gave advice contrary to the law in hopes of winning the ruler’s favor.

As in the Heavens, so on Earth

The ethical and moral codes of ancient peoples reflect a worldview that is foreign to modern Americans. As the Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade has shown, people of antiquity believed that things on earth are patterned after things in the heavens.  Therefore decisions were made according to astronomical observations. Usually these observations were done by priests or shamans and there was always a risk that their calculations might be wrong. If the priest didn’t perform important celebrations on exactly the right days, he might be blamed for everything that went wrong. If the ruler died, or the crops failed, or there was a natural disaster such a flood, the priest was to blame. The priest may not be executed by an unhappy emperor, as happened to Chinese astronomers who failed to predict the solar eclipse in 2134 BC, but he was still highly motivated to avoid mistakes. This led to the development of sidereal astronomy.

Solar time is the measurement of time according to the earth’s rotation around the sun, but sidereal time is the measurement relative to a distant star. It is used in astronomy to predict when a star will be overhead. In making ethical decisions, especially decisions that pertained to the timing of important events, ancient peoples relied on observations of the stars.

Today many people still place faith in astrology, although the astrology popular today is quite different from the sidereal astronomy practiced by ancient priests and seers. The sidereal day is the time required for the earth’s rotation to be synchronized with fixed stars. It is almost four minutes shorter than the solar day. Sidereal astronomy is based on the actual location of stars and constellations, unlike popular astrology which is based on culturally-relative symbolism associated with stars and constellations. Sidereal astronomy began out of an ethical concern to not violate boundaries that were believed to have been established by the Creator in the beginning.

The Beginnings of Science and Technology

Discoveries in archaeology and anthropology have pushed back the beginnings of science and technology, requiring reconsideration of the relationship between philosophy and science. It is evident from the study of early human communities that their conceptions of non-material entities (metaphysics) influenced their development of science (physics).  It is true also that their discoveries in science and technology influenced their views of reality and existence (ontology).

As mentioned before, archaic humans were avid observers of the heavens. They made the first astronomical charts based on the visible key points in the night sky. They developed a coordinate system that astronomers use even today. They tracked the Sun's position among the stars and observed  are recorded solar eclipses. They observed the lunar phases and eclipses and used their celestial observations to establish the times for festivals, hunting and planting.

Thousands of years ago rulers were building pyramids across the surface of the earth. Many of those pyramids have been identified. These pyramids reflect a fairly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and architecture. Ancient sites such as pyramids, tombs and fortresses often align with the cardinal points and open to the east and/or west. The alignments of many ancient sites appears to reflect knowledge of sidereal astronomy.

Some sites align to the point of origin of the people who built them. Old Arabic is sometimes called "Dedanite" because that is where the largest concentration of old Arabic scripts has been found. The oldest mosques were aligned to a site in Dedan.

Kushite peoples aligned their temples to Heliopolis (Biblical Onn), the geodetic center of Egypt. The corners of most of the 4th - 6th dynasty pyramids are aligned to Heliopolis. The pyramid triads at Giza, Zaqqara and Abusir are examples. Baalbek in Lebanon, also called Heliopolis, aligns to the obelisk in Heliopolis, the City of the Sun.  The earliest human settlement were located at elevated sites near water.  The "high places" were also shrine cities.

About 70,000 years ago tunnel mines were being worked in the Lebombo Mountains from which they extracted red ocher for use in the burial of rulers. This is verified by the discovery of graves of noble persons around the world which were lined with red ochre powder.

The 4000 year old archives of Ebla reveal a worldview based on binary distinctions, systematically observed and listed. During the Neo-Sumerian period, there was great interest in the stars accessible to observation; most of these being the visible fixed stars. As far as we know, this is the beginning of sidereal astronomy. Calendar-making began much earlier. The Lebombo Bone, the oldest known calendar, reveals that humans were marking time 40,000 years ago.

The interest of archaic peoples to know their time and place relative to the heavens suggests an ethical concern about not violating perceived boundaries.  In a real sense this is exactly what Ethics considers. Where is the boundary between right and wrong, or between good and evil?  What is the limit when asserting my rights over against your rights? Are all boundaries relative to the individual’s context?  Are there fixed boundaries by which we are guided in moral decisions? Is selfishness morally justifiable? These are some of the questions to be considered in the lessons that follow.


The earliest law codes date to the 3rd century BC and reveal a high level of sophistication. These codes do not represent the beginning of the practice of codification, but reflect a period of history when that practice was already fully developed.

These ancient law codes express belief that citizens are morally obligated to obey the laws because these laws are divinely inspired and given through the king who is the Deity’s earthly representative.  This concept of moral obligation to obey the law continued through the 17th century, finding its European expression in the concept of “the divine right of kings”.

Bloodshed was one of the principal ethical concerns of archaic man.  Priests and shamans addressed the guilt and anxiety felt by both individuals and communities when human life was taken. Priests offered prayers and animal sacrifice to cover the offense to the Creator of the one who killed.  Shamans offered prayers and sacrifices to appease the spirits, including the spirits of the dead ancestors, so that these spirits would not bring harm to the individual or the community. 

While priests and shamans served a similar societal function to relieve the consequences of blood shed, it is evident that their worldviews were different. The priest is concerned about offense to the Creator while the shaman is concerned about offending the spirits.

Social and political organization among archaic peoples reflected the hierarchy of kings, tribal rulers, priests, shamans, and prophets or “oracles”.  Rulers married royal brides.  Kinship and caste formed the basis of alliances between rulers of adjoining territories.  The moral obligation to obey the ruler was based on the loyalty owed to family, clan and tribe as much as to the idea that the ruler represented the Deity.

Oracles involved study of the constellations because it was believed that “as in the heavens so on earth.” This was the origin of sidereal astronomy.  By studying the relationship of stars and their heavenly movement, the oracle established the most favorable date to hunt, to harvest, or to go to war.

Archaic peoples wanted to know their time and place relative to the heavens because they were concerned about not violating perceived boundaries. These boundaries are the framework within which ancient Man deliberated ethical concerns.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pragmatism and Education in America

"What the true definition of Pragmatism may be, I find it very hard to say; but in my nature it is a sort of instinctive attraction for living facts."-- Peirce in his Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism, CP 5.64, 1903

"This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever."--G.K. Chesterton, "The Suicide of Thought" from Orthodoxy.

"Upon this first...rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to believe, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry."--Charles Sanders Peirce, 1896

Alice C. Linsley

Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced "purse") is regarded as the pioneer of a uniquely American approach to knowledge called "Pragmatism." He was a scientist who believed that philosophy should be more scientific, that is, for a statement to be true there should be an experiment or observation that confirms its truth. Peirce disliked the abstraction he found in many philosophical conversations. Much of the conversation he thought was nonsense because people failed to make logical distinctions, or failed to test their assumptions. Most arguments, false ideas, and logical fallacies can be avoided by following Peirce's three rules: (1) desire to learn); (2) don't be satisfied with what you already believe; and (3) do not block the way of inquiry.

Peirce is associated with William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and John Dewey. Peirce received his M.A. from Harvard in 1862, and was a professor at Johns Hopkins, and occasional lecturer at Harvard.

Charles Sander Peirce

Peirce defined Pragmatism as a philosophical approach designed to bring clarity through the application of logic. He wrote, "The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflection, and pragmatism is that method of reflection which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends be of the nature and uses of action or of thought. It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauung but is a method of reflection having for its purpose to render ideas clear." (From Peirce's Personal Interleaved Copy of the 'Century Dictionary', CP 5.13 n. 1, c. 1902)

In The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, cultural historian Louis Menand explains how these men influenced each other during their months together in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1872, and how their lives were influenced by the American Civil War and by Darwin's theory of natural selection set forth, among other theories, in his "Origin of Species" in 1859. Darwin's ideas were much discussed among the members of the Metaphysical Club.

The name of the club is ironic since the members had no interest in metaphysics. Metaphysics is the philosophical exploration of entities beyond matter: Goodness, Truth, Eternity, the Soul, God, etc.

William James
Among the Club's members were the philosopher-psychologist William James (1842-1910). James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. The book comprises James' edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902.These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.

Another member was the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.who said, "The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size." He also said, "Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day like a football, and it will be round and full at evening."

Charles Sanders Peirce is the one who gave the club its rather ironic name because pragmatism is not interested in Metaphysics. Peirce wrote, "...pragmatism is, in itself, no doctrine of metaphysics, no attempt to determine any truth of things. It is merely a method of ascertaining the meanings of hard words and of abstract concepts. All pragmatists of whatsoever stripe will cordially assent to that statement."

The pragmatists asked why do we have minds? Have humans survived and evolved because organisms with minds would be naturally selected over organisms without minds? Menand maintains that "Pragmatism is Darwin's theory of natural selection applied to philosophy."

Peirce, William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes held conversations about the Civil War, logic, empiricism, and Darwin's ideas. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, said, "The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”

William James (1842-1910) wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. The book comprises James' edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion. James described religious experience in psychological terms, and believed that religions serve as social value. He even granted the possibility of supernatural experience, though he held that this is beyond the bounds of Pragmatism. Dewey rejected the idea that religious experience reflects a unique supernatural category of knowledge. He agreed that religion might serve a social benefit, but never as a vehicle for verifying facts. He believed that God and religion could be explained entirely in natural or materialist terms.

Pragmatism was not a recognized philosophical movement until 1898 when William James first used the term in a lecture. This was the beginning of a partnership between William James and John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey was a prolific writer with an early commitment to British neo-Hegelianism. His greatest influence was on American education in the 20th century.

John Dewey

Dewey founded the Chicago School of Pragmatism at the University of Chicago (1894-1904). The original group included George H. Mead, James H. Tufts, James R. Angell, Edward Scribner Ames (Ph.D. Chicago 1895), and Addison W. Moore (Ph.D. Chicago 1898). There are half a dozen women in the group photo shown below. Dewey is at the center, just below the light fixture.

Chicago Philosophy Club, 1896

The primary influences on Dewey’s thought were Hegel and Darwin. He was both a materialist and an atheist, as evidenced from his first published article (1882) titled “The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism.” He believed that Man stands alone in his efforts to create the world of his dreams. Humans have finally reached the stage of evolution that makes them able to realize an ideal society.

Dewey’s pragmatism profoundly shaped American public education.  He applied the theory of natural selection to education, insisting that some were more deserving of a higher level of education than others. Likewise, these more evolved thinkers should be the only ones permitted to teach at the higher levels.

Dewey was an atheist who believed that the idea of God is the product of the human imagination and could be used to indoctrinate.  In his view, God "denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions."

As a neo-pragmatist, Dewey regarded religion as a deterrent to progress and science as the only legitimate basis for social engineering. His is writings have led to Scientism, the belief that science alone has authority to verify truth.

Dewey’s advocacy of Hegelian materialism and Darwinian evolution made him more of an ideologue than an objective voice for learning. His lack of objectivity represents a betrayal of Peirce's third rule of pragmatism. In 1896, Pierce wrote, "Upon this first...rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to believe, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry."

According to the this corollary, Dewey's atheistic-Darwinian assumptions need to be questioned. Yet Pragmatism's strangle hold on American education makes it almost impossible to question Dewey's assumptions. This is why there is considerable academic resistance, even hostility, to approaches that are not based on Dewey's assumptions. 

Dewey was determined that American education should be based on his materialist evolutionary worldview. His approach had the effect of enshrining Darwin in the public schools and blocking metaphysical inquiry. Without metaphysics there is no means of integrating the subjects taught in schools. Students learn content in various subjects. However, there is no means of integrating learning so much that is learned is lost.

Public schools will continue to fail because they do not need to change. They receive our tax dollars regardless of their lack of success. They are supported by two powerful unions with big lobbies in Washington, and the underlying philosophy is the pragmatism of John Dewey, a Marxist and an atheist. Further, Dewey's pragmatism continues to be the dominant educational philosophy in the teacher training institutions. The effect is to eliminate all metaphysical conversation and thereby limit what students and teachers may discuss.

The English writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, noted in her 1947 speech “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the dismissal of metaphysics from modern education has resulted in students learning more, but knowing less than students under Scholasticism when metaphysics was still part of education. She showed that teaching less in more subjects prolongs intellectual childhood because students are not given the tools for mature (lifelong) learning. Sayers’ speech has had a great influence on the ever expanding classical education movement in America.

An honest assessment of American public education suggests that grades motive more than the desire to learn. Politics plays a greater role in educational policy than sound educational research. At the university level, peer review has the effect of diminishing the influence of paradigm-shifters. More honorary degrees are given to celebrities and politicians than to scholars who make authentic contributions to human knowledge. Every American university has been influenced by Pragmatism. The list of scholars and institutions appears here, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.

A critic of Dewey’s “instrumental pragmatism” was the English writer G.K. Chesterton who wrote about the “suicide of thought” in modernism. He appreciated logical thought and empirical evidence, but not the idolatry of scientism. He wrote, “This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever.”

Why American schools are failing

A recent article at calls attention to the differences between German and American universities. Germans who have studied in the United States consider American universities to be academically equivalent to German high schools. The writer of the article, Tony Waters (University of California, Chico), wonders if this is due to "dumbing down" the American curriculum. It seems more likely that Pragmatism's betrayal of Peirce's three rules of epistemology is the cause of the failure of American education. As Dorothy Sayers recognized in her 1947 lecture on "The Lost Tools of Learning" the loss of metaphysics makes it nearly impossible for students to integrate learning. They are left with blocks of information in different subjects which seem not to be related. A student may know a good amount of information in a given area but remain uneducated.

Sayers identified very early many of the problems that have arisen in education. While she is correct that none can “turn back the wheel” to the late Middle Ages when metaphysical exploration was still part of education, she nevertheless urges that we consider ways to restore the lost tools of learning. Sayers draws on her extensive knowledge of the medieval period to help us understand which tools are essential if students are to be life-long learners. She identifies the following concerns:

Irresponsible prolongation of intellectual childhood to justify teaching less in more subjects

Confusion of fact and opinion, or the proven and the plausible, in the media.

Sophistry in public debate, rather than logical rhetoric and concern for truth.

Committees addressing mostly irrelevant matters expected to form public policy.

Failure to define terms and intentional abuse of language, making words mean whatever one wants them to mean.

A society of adults who do not know how to discern legitimate expertise from popular pulp and who do not know how to research.

The tendency to become so specialized that people cannot make connections between the disciplines.

Scientists who fail to adhere to the basic principles of Aristotelian logic, thus presenting speculation as facts. Such is the case with Scientism.

Sayers’critique of the society in which she lived (mid-20th century England) is relevant today. These problems are more pronounced in our time.

Related reading: Menand brings pragmatists of the Metaphysical Club to life; Bibliography of Charles Sanders Peirce's Writings; Women and Shrine Wisdom; Response to Sayers' Lost Tools of Learning; Why I'm a Public School Teacher but a Private School Parent

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Scientists Against Scientism

"If ideas are just patterns of nerve impulses, then how can one say that any idea (including the idea of materialism itself) is superior to any other? One pattern of nerve impulses cannot be truer or less true than another pattern, any more than a toothache can be truer or less true than another toothache.”--Stephen M. Barr (From here.)

Stephen Barr is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, and a member of its Bartol Research Institute. He does research in theoretical particle physics and cosmology. He is the author of the article on Grand Unified Theories for the Encyclopedia of Physics.

Since 2000, Dr. Barr has served on the Editorial Advisory Council of the religious intellectual journal First Things. His writing has also appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, Modern Age, The Public Interest, and Commonweal. In 2007, he was awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope Benedict XVI. In 2010, he was elected a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology.

Dr. Barr is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press) and A Student's Guide to Natural Science (ISI Press).

Barr has written, "Anyone interested in the latest pronouncements of Stephen Hawking on God should heed the observations of Martin Rees (now Lord Rees), one of the world’s leading astrophysicists, the Astronomer Royal, and the outgoing head of the Royal Society (one of the world’s oldest scientific societies). It includes this severe but accurate judgment:

"Stephen Hawking is a remarkable person whom I’ve know for 40 years and for that reason any oracular statement he makes gets exaggerated publicity. I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic."

C.S. Lewis warned that twisted science could be used to attack religion, undermine ethics, and limit human freedom. In a recent collection of essays, The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism, scholars explore Lewis's prophetic warnings about the abuse of science.

Related reading: The Folly of Scientism by Austin L. Hughes; The Trouble with Scientism by Philip Kitcher; Science and Scientism in Biology Sy Garte; The Problem with Gould's NOMA: Scientists Behaving Badly; A Pragmatic Approach to Knowledge

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Plato's Debt to Ancient Egypt

Alice C. Linsley

Plato studied in Egypt for thirteen years under the Horite priest Sechnuphis. Many Greek philosophers had studied at Egyptian schools. Iamblichus wrote that Thales of Miletus insisted that Pythagoras had to go to Memphis to study because the Egyptian priests were a veritable source of knowledge and wisdom, especially when it came to the natural sciences, medicine and astronomy.


Judaism and Christianity draw from ancient Nilotic beliefs, religious practice, and cosmology. [1] The ancient Greeks were also influenced by Egyptian-Sudanese ideas, especially their observation of sidereal astronomy.

The Egyptians regarded the Sun as the symbol of the Creator because it was the source of light and life. [2] They observed that whereas the Sun is the source of light, the Moon merely reflects light. This is why the Bible criticizes Mesopotamian moon worship and why Abraham's father was regarded as an idol-worshipper (Joshua 24:2) since he maintained households in Ur and Haran, cities dedicated to the moon god Sin.

Note the binary distinction between the source of light (Sun) and the reflection of light (Moon). This observation is the basis for Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave. Those in the cave are able to see only passing shadows, not the true objects that cast those shadows. Yet they believe that the shadows are the real objects. They continue to do so until they turn toward the cave's opening and walk out of the cave.

Plato believed that the soul is eternal. He believed that the soul existed before it entered the body in the realm of eternal Forms. He believed that we are able to recognize a tree as tree or a mountain as mountain because our souls knew the true Forms of tree and mountain in that place of eternal Forms. What we experience in this world is ony a reflection of the true Forms which are in that realm where body-less souls exist. This seems strange to us today because we think that something exists because we see, taste, touch, hear or smell it. But while our senses suggest that something exists in the temporal realm with us, the senses don't explain how we re-cognize the essence of that object. Plato argued that we are able to re-know (re-cognize) the essence of an object because the soul knew it first as an eternal Form.

Might Plato have borrowed these ideas? It certainly seems possible. The ancient Egyptians were concerned about the afterlife because they believed the soul or "Ba" to be eternal. To avoid being counted among the damned of the afterlife, one had to live by a high moral code and standard of righteousness. In the Egyptian view, the soul or personality, called "Ba", lives after the body dies. Ba is sometimes depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join with the 'Ka' in the afterlife.

The unification of Ba and Ka happened after death by means of the proper offerings, prayers, and mummification. There was a risk of dying the second death if the unified soul and life force were condemned in the afterlife. Dying the second death meant not becoming an "akh." Only as an akh could one enjoy the resurrection life.

Ka is the life that animates the body. Ba is the eternal soul and Ankh is the Spirit of Life. The Ankh for the ancient Egyptians was the hieroglyphic sign of life. It is symbolic of the Sun's daily course from east to west, with the loop representing the Sun.

The horizontal crossbar symbolizes the path of the sun from east to west. To put this in terms more familiar to Christians, life is possible where the Sun, the Creator's emblem, sheds light and warmth. The ancient Egyptians believed that these elements - Ka, Ba and Ankh - became separated at death. By mummification, with prayers and sacrifices, they attempted to keep the KaBa together and prepared to receive Ankh in the afterlife. [3]

Plato’s Application of Egyptian Cosmology

Here is but one example of how Plato's thinking was informed by Egyptian cosmology. Another example involves the development of the Greek alphabet from the Pro-Canaanite alphabet which was based on Egyptian hieroglyphics. To understand how the alphabet expresses ancient Egyptian-Sudanese cosmology, consider the Teth (or Tau) below.

The sphere with the cross represents the precession of the equinoxes (see image below). This would have been observed by primitive peoples who studied the heavens carefully. The cycle takes between 25,000-28,000 years to complete and is called "Earth's Great Year." [4]

Plato regarded a complete cycle as the "perfect year" because it meant the return of the planets and the fixed stars to their original positions. He wrote: "And so people are all but ignorant of the fact that time really is the wanderings of these bodies, bewilderingly numerous as they are and astonishingly variegated. It is none the less possible, however, to discern that the perfect number of time brings to completion the perfect year at that moment when the relative speeds of all eight periods have been completed together and, measured by the circle of the Same that moves uniformly, have achieved their consummation."

According to Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend there are over 200 myths from ancient cultures that refer to a Great Year.

Paul’s Application of Plato

Saint Paul enjoyed a classical Greek education in his hometown of Tarsus, a recognized center of learning, with a famous university that the Greek geographer Strabo considered better than the academies of Athens and Alexandria. The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus lived and taught in Tarsus before Paul was born, and Paul likely was acquainted with his teachings on the conscience. Athenodorus said that, “Everyman's conscience is his god.” The conscience does not occur in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), which instead uses the word “heart”. Paul makes abundant use of the Greek word for conscience in his letters to the early churches, so it is evident that he was influenced by Greek philosophy.

Paul's training in Greek philosophy is evident also in his Platonic allegorical approach to Old Testament figures. Consider 1 Corinthians 15:20 and Romans 5:12 in which Paul speaks o the first man, Adam, as imperfect and the second Man, Jesus Christ, as the perfect and the true Form of humanity. God made humans in God’s image and likeness, but sin marred that image so that the first is imperfect. In Platonism, types are imperfect reflections of the true eternal Forms. Paul is using Platonic language to explain Jesus Christ to Corinthians and Romans who would have been familiar with this language. He wants them to see the pattern of revelation.

Platonism is a binary system of interpretation and evaluation of information. It regards the symbol or “Form” as more real than the its material reflection, so Adam as symbol concerns Paul where he teases out the pattern of revelation not only in reference to Adam, but also in reference to Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and David.

In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul uses a platonic approach to explain the relationship of Grace and Law. Sarah represents imputed righteousness (grace) while the bondservant, Hagar, represents the law. Paul writes, “There is an allegory here: these women stand for the two covenants.” A covenant was accompanied by a sign of blood. In this case, we have familial blood in Sarah as opposed to a contractual relationship in Hagar. The familial bond is always the stronger. So Sarah who was both mother of Isaac and sister to Abraham is the closer blood relative. Hagar, the Egyptian, is more distant. Sarah, as wife and sister, cannot be put away, but Hagar, as bondservant, can be put away and is. St Paul uses this binary method of interpretation to show that grace is better than law.

Using this same method, we are able to discover that Noah, Abraham, Moses and David are all types of Christ. All fail to accomplish righteousness, yet point to the One who does fulfill righteousness. Both Abraham and Moses met their wives at wells. So Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well speaks volumes. She is the symbol of the Church, the Bride of Christ.

The relationship of type as mere reflection of the true Form is found throughout the Bible. Consider these examples:

Abraham and Moses were blessed by noble priests: Abraham by Melchizedek, and Moses by Jethro (his father-in-law). Jesus was blessed by Simeon, a man of great faith who had yearned to see the day of Israel’s deliverance.

Using the Platonic approach, we find that Christ is foreshadowed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. This is what Paul, John, Peter and the early Church Fathers found in the Scriptures. As with Isaac, Jesus’ sacrificial journey required three days. As with Isaac, Jesus carried the wood upon which he would be sacrificed. As with Isaac, the sacrificed one was bound. As with Isaac, the Son was sacrificed on a mountain. Only with Jesus, no ram was substituted (contrary to what the Quran claims) because Jesus is not the type that points to the Form. He is the true Form, if we accept the Church's teaching.


1. Genesis 1-12 is a record of Abraham's ancestors who were African. Abraham's mother was a Horite from Canaan. The Horites were devotees of Horus, who was called "Son of God." Their totem was the falcon so the oldest altars were built in the shape of the falcon. These have been found wherever the Sudra (Sudanese) established themselves.

2. The Sun was often spoken of a the God's chariot. The Sun was also associated with Horus, who was called "son of God". Horus is a very ancient type of Jesus Christ. Notr that the cross is evident in this symbol of Horus:

  The image shows a cross atop the head of the "Son of God". The seeing eye of Horus is shown above in the sun, which was his emblem. Other images associated with Horus show him with the body of a man and the head of a falcon. The falcon was a symbol of divine kingship. Horus or Har is called "lord of the sky". "Har" in Egyptian probably means "the one on high". The name appears on Egyptian hieroglyphs at the beginning of dynastic civilization (c. 3000 BC).

For more on ancient symbols that speak of God's nature go here.

3. Much of the ancient Egyptian view is preserved in Jewish mystical thought, known as "Kabalah", a term derived from "Ka Ba Ankh." Kabalah develops out of the ancient Egyptian concern with the eternal soul awaiting a resurrection body in a place of blessing. That is where one hopes to dwell until the coming of the Day of the Lord which is symbolizes in Kabalah by the number 9.

4.The precession of the equinox is observed as the stars moving across the sky at the rate of about 50 arc seconds per year, relative to the equinox. Conventional theory holds that this phenomenon is due to the gravity of the sun and moon acting upon the oblate spheroid of the earth causing the axis to wobble (the lunisolar theory). The alternative binary model holds that most of the observable is due to solar system motion, causing a reorientation of the earth relative to the fixed stars as the solar system gradually curves through space. (Read about the binary model here and about the lunisolar model here.)

Related reading:  Ancient Wisdom, Science and TechnologyThe Impact of Ancient Egypt on Greek ThoughtPetra Reflects Horite Beliefs