“A ‘no’ uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Ancient Greek Metaphysical Damage



I recently completed yet another reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. There is a section near the end of the book where Pirsig, in his attempt to point the root of our current metaphysical crises, reaches the philosopher of ancient Greece. I’ve always experienced both a draw to this section and difficulty getting it. So this time, (once again inspired by Christopher Alexander) I tried to create a generative sequence extract of this section of the book. This really helped me wrap my head around the profound argument Pirsig is making.

Greek Philosophers

One thing that I felt I was missing is a clear timeline among the three philosophers mentioned in Pirsig’s narrative:

  1. Socrates came first and there is a piece of information about him that I only recently came across and wonder if Pirsig knew. It seems common knowledge that Socrates himself did not author any texts. What does not seem to be common knowledge is why. For this I recommend the book “The Spell of the Sensuous” by David Abram. In it I learned that written language did not exist or was just getting started in ancient Greece. Socrates was therefore an orator who lived in a time of transition – where the spoken word was transforming into and being displaced by the written word. In my mind this greatly amplifies Pirsig’s argument.
  2. Plato was a student of Socrates and he was a prolific writer, including a bunch of stuff his teacher said but did not put into writing himself.
  3. Aristotle was a student of Plato.

Christopher Alexander: Feeling

And I want to preempt Pirsig’s work with this conversation with Christopher Alexander about “The Application of Feeling.” I feel that the modern day challenges Alexander speaks about are a consequence of the damages caused by the metaphysical moves made by the ancient Greek philosophers Pirsig talks about.

Generative Summary

The following is an edited excerpt from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

1: The Dark Ages – One must first get over the idea that the time span between the last caveman and the first Greek philosophers was short. The absence of any history for this period sometimes gives this illusion. But before the Greek philosophers arrived on the scene, for a period of at least five times our recorded history since the Greek philosophers, there existed civilizations in an advanced state of development … [they] led a life quite as rich and varied as that in most rural areas of the world today. And like people in those areas today they saw no reason to write it all down …. Thus we know nothing about them.

2: Early Greek Philosophy represented the first conscious search for what was imperishable in the affairs of men. Up to then what was unperishable was within the domain of the Gods, the myths. But now as a result of growing impartiality of the Greeks to the world around them, there was an increasing power of abstraction which permitted them to regard the old Greek mythos not as revealed truths but as imaginative creations of art. This consciousness, which had never existed anywhere before in the world, spelled a whole new level of transcendence for the Greek civilization.

3: But the mythos goes on, and that which destroys the old mythos becomes the new mythos, and the new mythos under the first Ionian philosophers became transmuted into philosophy, which enshrined permanence in a new way. The immortal principle was first called water by Thales. Anaximenes called it air. The Pythagoreans called it number and were the first to see the immortal principle as something nonmaterial. Heraclitus called the immortal principle fire and introduced change as part of the Principle … Anaxagoras was the first to identify the One as nous, meaning “mind.”

4: Parmenides made it clear for the first time that the Immortal Principle, the One, Truth, God, is separate from appearance and from opinion, and the importance of this separation and its effect upon subsequent history cannot be overstated. It’s here that the classic mind, for the first time, took leave of its romantic origins and said “The Good and the True are not necessarily the same,” and goes its separate way. Anaxagoras and Parmenides had a listener named Socrates who carried their ideas into full fruition.

5: Mind & Matter – What is essential to understand at this point is that until now there was no such thing as mind and matter, subject and object, form and substance. Those divisions are just dialectical inventions that came later. The modern mind sometimes tends to balk at the thought of these dichotomies being inventions and says, “Well, the divisions were there for the Greeks to discover,” and you have to say, “Where were they? Point to them!” And the modern mind gets a little confused and wonders what this is all about anyway, and still believes the divisions were there … But they weren’t … They are just ghosts, immortal gods of the modern mythos which appear to us real because we are in that mythos. But in reality they are as much an artistic creation as the anthropomorphic Gods they replaced.

6: Cosmologists – The pre-Socratic philosophers … all sought to establish a universal Immortal Principle in the external world they found around them. Their common effort united them into a group that may be called Cosmologists. They all agreed that such a principle existed, but their disagreements as to what it was seemed irresolvable.

7: The Sophists – The resolution came from a new direction entirely, from a group … [who seemed to be] early humanists. They were teachers … Their object was not any single absolute truth, but the improvement of men … they said … “Man is the measure of all things.” These were the famous teachers of “wisdom,” the Sophists of ancient Greece.

8: The Conflict – this backlight from the conflict between the Sophists and the Cosmologists adds an entirely new dimension to the Dialogues of Plato. Socrates is not just expounding noble ideas in a vacuum. He is in the middle of a war between those who think truth is absolute and those who think truth is relative. He is fighting that war with everything he has. The Sophists are the enemy. Now Plato’s hatred of the Sophists make sense. He and Socrates are defending the Immortal Principle of the Cosmologists against what they consider to be the decadence of the Sophists. Truth. Knowledge. That which is independent of what anyone thinks about it. The ideal that Socrates died for. The ideal that Greece alone possesses for the first time in the history of the world. It is still a very fragile thing. It can disappear completely. Plato abhors and damns the Sophists … because they threaten mankind’s first beginning grasp of the idea of truth.

9: The Nucleus – The results of Socrate’s martyrdom and Plato’s unexcelled prose that followed are nothing less than the whole world of Western man as we know it … The ideas of science and technology and other systemically organized efforts of man are dead-centered on it. It is the nucleus of it all.

10: Arete – The one thing that doesn’t fit … about the Sophists is their profession of teaching virtue. All accounts indicate this was absolutely central to their teaching, but how are you going to teach virtue if you teach the relativity of all ethical ideas? Virtue, if it implies anything at all, implies an ethical absolute … “What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism is not a sense of duty as we understand it – duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate ‘virtue’ but is in Greek arete, ‘excellence’ … It runs through Greek life.” … duty towards self” … Can the dharma of the Hindus and the ‘virtue’ of the ancient Greeks be identical?

11: Quality! Virtue! Dharma! That is what the Sophists were teaching! Not ethical relativism. Not pristine “virtue.” But arete. Excellence. Dharma! Before the Church of Reason. Before substance. Before form. Before mind and matter. Before dialectic itself. Quality had been absolute. Those first teachers of the Western world were teaching Quality, and the medium they had chosen was that of rhetoric.

12: Power & Loss … And now he began to see for the first time the unbelievable magnitude of what man, when he had gained power to understand and rule the world in terms of dialectic truths, had lost. He had built empires of scientific capability to manipulate the phenomena of nature into enormous manifestations of his own dreams of power and wealth – but for this he had exchanged an empire of understanding of equal magnitude: an understanding of what it is to be a part of the world, and not an enemy of it.

13: The halo around the heads of Plato and Socrates is now gone … He sees that they consistently are doing exactly that which they accuse the Sophists of doing – using emotionally persuasive language for the ulterior purpose of making the weaker argument, the case for dialectic, appear the stronger. We always condemn in others, he thought, that which we most fear in ourselves.

14: Good Subordinate to Truth But why? … Why destroy arete? And no sooner had he asked the question than the answer came to him. Plato hadn’t tried to destroy arete? He had encapsulated it; made a permanent, fixed idea out of it; had converted it to a rigid, immobile Immortal truth. He made arete the Good, the highest form, the highest Idea of all. It was subordinate only to truth itself, in a synthesis of all that had gone before.

15: An Idea – Plato’s Good was taken from the rhetoricians … the Sophists. The difference was that Plato’s Good was a fixed and eternal and unmoving idea, whereas for the rhetoricians it was not an Idea at all. The Good was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.

16: Usurping the Good – Why had Plato done this? … a result of two synthesis:

The first synthesis tried to resolve differences between the Heraclitans and the followers of Parmenides. Both cosmological schools upheld Immortal Truth. In order to win the battle for Truth in which arete is subordinate, against his enemies who would teach arete in which truth is subordinate, Plato must first resolve the internal conflict among the Truth-believers. To do this he says that Immortal Truth is not just change, as the followers of Heraclitus said. It is not just changeless being, as the followers of Parmenides said. Both these Immortal truths coexist as Ideas which are changeless, and Appearance, which changes. This is why Plato find it necessary to separate, for example, “horseness” from “horse” … Horseness is pure Idea. The horse that one sees is a collection of changing Appearances, a horse that can … even die on the spot without disturbing horseness, which is the Immortal Principle and can go on forever inthe path of the Gods of old.

Plato’s second synthesis is the incorporation of the Sophists’ arete into this dichotomy of Ideas and Appearance. He gives it the position of highest honor, subordinate only to Truth itself and the method by which Truth is arrived at, the dialectic. But in his attempt to unite the Good and the True by making the Good the highest Idea of all, Plato is nevertheless usurping arete’s place with dialectically determined truth. Once the Good has been contained as a dialectical idea it is no trouble for another philosopher to come along and show by dialectical method that arete, The Good, can be more advantageously demoted to a lower position within a “true” order of things, more compatible with the inner workings of dialectic. Such a philosopher was not long in coming. His name was Aristotle.

17: Aristotle & Substance – Aristotle felt that the mortal horse of Appearance which ate grass and took people places and gave birth to little horses deserved far more attention than Plato was giving it. He said that the horse is not mere Appearance. The Appearances cling to something which is independent of them and which, like Ideas, is unchanging. The “something” that Appearances cling to he named “substance.” And at that moment, and not until that moment, our modern scientific understanding of reality was born. Under Aristotle … forms and substances dominate all. The Good is a relatively minor branch of knowledge called ethics; reason, logic, knowledge are his primary concerns. Arete is dead and science, logic and the University as we know it today have been given their founding charter: to find and invent an endless proliferation of forms about the substantive elements of the world and call these forms knowledge, and transmt these forms to future generations. As “the system.”

18: And Rhetoric. Poor rhetoric, once “learning” itself, now becomes reduced to the teaching of mannerisms and forms, Aristotelian forms, for writing, as if these mattered. Five spelling errors … one error of sentence completeness … three misplaced modifiers … on and on. Any of these was sufficient to inform a student that he did not know rhetoric. After all, that’s what rhetoric is, isn’t it? Of course there’s “empty rhetoric,” that is, rhetoric that has emotional appeal without proper subservience to dialectical truth, but we don’t want any of that, do we? That wouldmake us like those liars and cheats and defilers of ancient Greece, the Sophists – remember them? We’ll learn the Truth in our other academic courses, and then learn a little rhetoric so that we can write it nicely and impress our bosses who will advance us to higher positions.

19: Aristotelian Laughter – And today in those few Universities that bother to teach classic ethics anymore, students following the lead of Aristotle and Plato play around with the question that in ancient Greece never needed to be asked: “What is the Good? And how do we define it? Since different people have defined it differently, how can we know there is any good? Some say the good is found in happiness, but how do we know what happiness is? And how can happiness be defined? Happiness and good are not objective terms. We cannot deal wth them scientifically. and since they aren’t objective they just exist in your mind. So if you want to be happy just change your mind. Ha-ha, haha.” Aristotelian ethics, Aristotelian definitions, Aristotelian logic, Aristotelian forms, Aristotelian substances, Aristotelian rhetoric, Aristotelian laughter … ha-ha, ha-ha”

20: A Madman – And the bones of the Sophists long ago turned to dust and what they said turned to dust with them … buried so deep and with such ceremoniousness and such unction and such evil that only a madman centuries later could discover the clues needed to uncover them, and see with horror what had been done …”

The road has become so dark I have to turn on my headlight now to follow it through these mists and rain.

What is seen now so much more clearly is that although names keep changing and the bodies keep changing, the larger pattern that holds us all together goes on and on.

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