Ancient wisdom, modern foolishness

We learn more about the decline of philosophy in our time than about its rise in antiquity


This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

This interesting, sometimes fascinating book is “about the first stirrings of philosophical thinking amongst the Iron Age Greeks”. Perhaps it’s less about those first stirrings than the last gasps of philosophical thinking in our age, though. It reminded me of Stephen Hawking’s announcement that philosophy was dead because it couldn’t keep up with physics. The headline of a Telegraph article in 2011 provided the epitaph: “Stephen Hawking tells Google ‘philosophy is dead’.” The physical universe may or may have not begun with the Big Bang; philosophy doesn’t end with a bang but a mention of Google.

Adam Nicolson is attempting to revive a pre-Socratic view of the world, probably as a response to the recent rise of practical Stoicism as a popular phenomenon. This is a noble task, but pre-Socratic philosophy, like Hawking’s universe, consists mostly of empty spaces. Nicolson’s book fills those spaces with brilliant storytelling.

How to Be: Lessons from the Early Greeks, Adam Nicolson (William Collins, £25)

There are two competing books in this volume. The first is about the Greek world of the 7th century BC to the 5th; all this is written with erudition and gusto. Nicolson conjures before our eyes the bustling Greek harbours, symposia filled with wine, poetry and love, and the horrors of slavery, war and exile.

We are pleasurably immersed in the world where Greek philosophy emerged. However, the other book in this volume, the one about the origins of philosophy, is disappointing. It tells us much more about the decline of philosophy in our time than about the rise of it during antiquity.

Nicolson has fallen prey to philosophical urban legends born during the Enlightenment. The philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon (570– 478 BC) depicted a God who is all-seeing, all-thinking, all-hearing. Nicolson calls him “an abstract God” (that’s certainly not my idea of abstract). Heraclitus (fl. 500 BC) thundered that people prefer to dream rather than look at one reality; Nicolson reduces his wisdom to an “embrace of cosmic doubt”.

For Pythagoras (570–495 BC), who discovered that his self cannot be destroyed by death, the soul is “something of a luxury product”: he can’t accept that “these marvellous selves will not last forever”. The metaphysics of Parmenides (early 5th century BC) is allegedly born out of emotional trauma (he was the son of refugees from Phocaea in western Turkey), which forced him to “deny the mutability of the world”.

Nicolson seeks the beginning of the miracle of Greek philosophy in what he calls “the harbour mind”. A philosopher is depicted as a sailor who casts off and “sets his own course” in a life “where there is none to oversee or judge you; a kind of divinity has a chance of shaping your life”. It is all about “fluidity” and “negotiable identities”. This is not Heraclitus or Empedocles, but Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017), the sage of our neoliberal, postmodern Dark Ages.

This isn’t a remedy; it’s a lethal injection

The ghost of Plato looms over the book as it majestically approaches harbour. It is a distorted, straw-manned Plato, though, “for whom the insubstantial, pure and conceptual world was more real than the material world around us”. The juxtaposition of “the conceptual” and “the material” is in fact modern, not ancient or mediaeval. Nicolson finds a remedy in the pre-Socratics’ “dolphin mind” or “reliance on fluidity”. This isn’t a remedy; it’s a lethal injection.

I admire Nicolson’s recognition of the goodness and beauty of the world, present on almost every page; it is there in the pre-Socratics, as later in Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus. It is not to be found primarily in “an incomparable spaghetti allo scoglio … in the Ristorante Delfino” on the island of Ischia, though.

When a large portion of the book is an understandable protest against the horrors of ancient slavery (with repeated suggestions that it somehow might have contributed to the birth of philosophy), the author’s references to charming restaurants in the Mediterranean lose their flavour. Unlike Albert Camus’ painfully beautiful Pagan hymns to the North African earth and sea, which were born of the sufferings that he shared with the poor, these gourmet anecdotes might uncharitably be read as the impressions of a rich tourist.

They may cause us to forget the real wisdom of Greek philosophy — namely, that Heraclitus’ burning logos or Parmenides’ “well-rounded truth” is to be found shining through our daily tasks: changing nappies, buying groceries, and quietly bearing the guilt of those who are better off in this beautiful and terrifying world.

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