Plato under the clouds of the Peloponnesian War
The fourth century BCE was a time of trouble and Enlightenment. The Peloponnesian War in the last quarter of the fifth century BCE wrecked Greece, blotting the golden age of Athens. The Parthenon remained as a permanent symbol of genius and greatness – if only the Greeks worked together.
Plato, 427 – 347 BCE, grew up during the dark days of the Peloponnesian War. His teacher, the stone mason Socrates, fought during the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades, student of Socrates, undermined Athenian democracy. He joined Athens’ enemy, Sparta. Then he conspired with the Persian enemies of Greece to fund Greeks killing Greeks.
The slaughter and destruction of the Peloponnesian War were unprecedented. Greeks caused that chaos to their country. They behaved like barbarians. The winners would slaughter all enemy men and sell all women and children to slavery.
This reality shaped Plato’s mind. But was there another reality, perhaps an ideal one for modeling human actions? Could the institutions of the polis at least learn from the horrors of the war? His Republic was critical of democracy because democracy in Athens had sometimes degenerated to a mob rule that condemned Socrates to death. Plato sought salvation in communism and aristocracy run by philosopher kings.
Aristotle, 384 – 322 BCE, joined Plato’s Academy in 367 BCE and stayed with him for 20 years. He absorbed the anxieties and political and moral philosophy of Plato, thought he was his own man. Like Plato, he wrote about the Cosmos and society. He made seminal contributions to political theory, ethics, and science. He advocated the golden middle and virtue.
He invented the science of zoology. He studied about 500 animals and said animals are the perfect creation of nature, each of them being beautiful and worthy of admiration and study. He is right. Watching a woodpecker, for instance, confirms the bird’s perfection. The woodpecker embraces trees, using its beak to find insects under the tree bark, as well as dig numerous small holes on tree branches in order to store oak tree acorns for winter. Yet using its beak like a hammer causes no brain injury. Isn’t that perfection? So, Aristotle had no trouble concluding that perfection is the aim and purpose of life, including self-sufficiency in food being the end and perfection (The Politics 1252b27).
Both Plato and Aristotle spoke extensively about science. Science was episteme (ἐπιστήμη), expert knowledge of something like growing wheat and techne (τέχνη) or cunning craftsmanship, technology. Aristotle said that episteme comes with certain knowledge of a thing. When we are certain we know the cause behind a fact, we are doing science (Posterior Analytics 71b8-12).
* Aristotle was certain that science served the public interest. First of all, science was not, strictly speaking, a technical process or enterprise. It was much more than using reason and experiment for understanding society, nature, and the universe. Science was asking questions. It was philosophy – love of wisdom. It included the appreciation and understanding of the beauty and workings of nature and the Cosmos, which, in Greek, means an ordered universe that even the gods dare not interfere with.
Gods and the Cosmos
In fact, according to fifth century BCE historian Herodotos, about 490 – approximately 425 BCE, the Greeks called their divinities gods because they believed those divinities had set all things in order and assigned a place to everything (The Histories 2.52). In other words, the gods opened the path of organized knowledge, order, and reflection. Aristotle said those cultivating reason and doing science were dear to the gods (Nicomachean Ethics 1177b31-1179a33).
The most outstanding example of that divine order was the Cosmos, which, in the vision of the Greeks, was also a world made beautiful, equitable and just as well as having the appearance of an ornament. Greek science was the rigorous search for the truth in society, the natural world, and the Cosmos. No wonder Cosmos found its place in the computer Greeks invented and manufactured in the second century BCE.
The time of that computer, probably known as Meteoroskopeion or tablet, not today’s name of the Antikythera Mechanism, harvested the golden age of Greek science sparked by the triumph of Alexander the Great over Persia. Alexander was a pupil of Aristotle. Alexandria, Egypt, capital of the Greek kingdom of Egypt, was a polis of science and technology. It had a university known as Mouseion or a temple of the Muses, goddesses of learning, and a Library of about 500,000 volumes.
This modern-like cultivation of knowledge and science set the foundations of Greek civilization, which, several centuries later, became Western civilization.
The Roman upheaval
The tragedy was that Alexander died in 323 BCE. He was too young, barely 33 years old. His generals fought each other rather than the Romans. In 146 BCE, Rome annexed Greece. This sent a shiver throughout the Greek world. The Romans eventually extinguished Greek freedom and, along with it, set in a rapid decline in things intellectual, including science.
In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the new order in his vast empire. The overthrow of Greek and Roman culture followed the enthronement of Christianity. That was a violent chronic war against temples, altars, universities, libraries, books and millions of people, Greeks, Romans, and other polytheists all over Europe and Asia. The result of such a colossal upheaval was the thousand year-long dark ages.
Two revivals of Greek science
The Renaissance among the Arabs during the eighth to the tenth centuries was the first sign of putting a brake to the spreading darkness. It was also evidence of reviving Hellenic wisdom. The Moslem Arabs of Bagdad borrowed Greek philosophical and scientific works for the development of their culture. They almost worshipped Aristotle whom they affectionately called The Philosopher. The second Renaissance took place in the fifteenth century. This rebirth started largely in cities of Italy. Venice, Padua, Florence, and Rome were the first beneficiaries of Greek scholars moving away from their country, which in 1453 fell to the Mongol Turks.
The Greek scholars arrived in Italy bringing with them ancient Greek treasures, books of ancient Greek poets, philosophers, historians, mathematicians, and scientists. Greek scholars translated those books into Latin and taught Greek. This movement made the Renaissance and our world. Europe’s greatest universities (Bologna, Oxford, and Paris) came into being in late eleventh and twelfth centuries primarily to study Aristotle. Without the mathematical physics of Archimedes and the astronomy of Hipparchos and Ptolemy there would have been no Galileo and Newton. Without the Heliocentric Theory of Aristarchos of Samos there would have been no Nicolaus Copernicus.
The Renaissance triggered the scientific and technological revolutions of the seventeenth and subsequent centuries. Unfortunately, the two World Wars of the twentieth century reignited unprecedented global ecocide and nearly permanent warfare.
The fossil fuels-modern age
Fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, and coal) have been woven tightly into the fabric of the international yet precarious political and economic system – and war. Even millennia-old sacred agriculture has been turned on its head and converted to giant factories relying on massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers and carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides, all of which are petrochemicals. The result is continuing disruption and poisoning of the natural world and the harming of the planet and people by climate danger: storms, forest fires, extreme heat, melting of ice, tornadoes, and drought.
Despite these extreme dangers, fossil fuel companies, religion, and militarism prevent political leaders from understanding the planetary climate emergency embracing humanity and the Earth. Poisoning of the land and greedy, nay criminal, looting of the planet continue as business as usual.
For example, a November 1, 2022 report of the Med Sea Alliance, a group of European non-governmental organizations, accused bottom trawlers of entering protected areas of the Mediterranean, destroying ecosystems, and wiping out fish stocks. The report says:
“Today, 75 percent of Mediterranean fish stocks are subject to overfishing… The evidence of potential and confirmed cases of bottom trawling in closed areas suggests IUU [illegal, unreported, and unregulated] fishing is undermining its sustainability, at a time when other stressors like overfishing, climate change and pollution are already taking a toll on fish populations.”
The same dangerous fishing practices are harming fish and ecosystems in the oceans and seas of the planet.
Aristotle’s message now
Clearly, Aristotle’s message that nature does nothing in vain and that perfection is the aim and purpose of life has not trickled down to modern scientists and “philosophers” or up to the rulers and business executives responsible for the industrialization of fishing, agriculture, forestry, electricity generation, militaries and, least of all, to the fossil fuel companies and the running of the machinery of the planet with the burning of fossil fuels.
In the United States, for example, even dead people add pollution to the land and the biosphere. On November 1, 2022, the New York Times reported that cremation in the United States was responsible for half a million tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year. Burying people polluted the land as well. Something like four million tons of embalming fluid (mostly the carcinogenic formaldehyde) contaminate the soil, including 1.6 million tons of concrete for cemetery and tomb construction.
So, time to rethink Aristotle and the purposes of our lives. Are we here on this beautiful Earth merely to pollute and impoverish the oceans, the sky, and the land and kill and starve each other? Rehearsing the Peloponnesian War as we are now doing in the Ukraine? How about taking Aristotle seriously that perfection is within our means – provided we give a chance to virtue. Stop the war in the Ukraine, start nuclear disarmament, while all countries can do all that is necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.
The United States, unfortunately, is in the midst of a secret civil war. This internal division has to stop. President Biden is right denouncing those among the Republicans who plan to disrupt the results of the mid-term elections. Speaking from the train Union Station in Washington, DC, he said: “As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America, for governor, Congress, attorney general, secretary of state, who won’t commit, they will not commit to accepting the results of the elections that they’re running in… This is the path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful. And it’s un-American.”
No doubt, these Republicans are threatening democracy at home and survival at home and abroad. A runaway climate reaction would do us in. This is the reason that President Biden must act: call off the war in Ukraine. Invite China, India, Russia, the European Union to join him in leading the world to end the fossil fuel age.
Aristotle would smile at such a prospect.