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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

J. Burnet 
Development of Greek Philosophy

From, J. Burnet, Philosophy,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.













Page 2

By philosophy the Greeks meant a serious endeavour to understand the world and man, having for its chief aim the discovery of the right way of life and the conversion of people to it. It would not, however, be true to say that the word had always borne this special sense. At any rate the corresponding verb (φιλοσοφειν {philosophein}) had at first a far wider range. For instance, Herodotus (i. 30) makes Croesus say that Solon had travelled far and wide 'as a philosopher' (φιλοσοφεων {philosopheôn}), and it is clear from the context that this refers to that love of travel for the sake of the 'wonders' to be seen in strange lands which was so characteristic of the Ionian Greeks in the fifth century B. C. That is made quite plain by the phrase 'for the sake of sightseeing' (θεωριης ἑινεκεν {theôriês heineken}) with which the word is coupled. Again, when Thucydides (ii. 40) makes Pericles say of his fellow citizens 'we follow philosophy without loss of manliness' (φιλοσοφουμεν ανευ μαλακιας {philosophoumen aneu malakias}), it is certainly not of philosophy in the special sense he is thinking. He is only contrasting the culture of Athens with the somewhat effeminate civilization of the Ionians in Asia Minor. Even in the next century, Isocrates tried to revert to this wider sense of the word, and he regularly uses it of the art of political journalism which he imparted to his pupils.

Tradition ascribes the first use of the term 'philosophy' in the more restricted sense indicated above to Pythagoras of Samos, an Ionian who founded a society for its cultivation in southern Italy in the latter half of the sixth century B. C. It is notoriously difficult to make any positive statements about Pythagoras, seeing that he wrote nothing; but it is safer on general grounds to ascribe the leading ideas of the system to the master rather than to his followers. Moreover, this particular tradition is confirmed by the fact, for which there is sufficient evidence, that the name 'philosophers' originally designated the Pythagoreans in a special way. For instance, we know that Zeno of Elea (_c._ 450 B. C.) wrote a book 'Against the Philosophers', and in his mouth that can only mean 'Against the Pythagoreans'. Now the Pythagorean use of the term depends on a certain way of regarding man, which there is good reason for ascribing to Pythagoras himself. It has become more or less of a commonplace now, but we must try to seize it in its original freshness if we wish to understand the associations the word 'philosophy' came to have for the Greeks. To state it briefly, it is the view that man is something intermediate between God and 'the other animals' (ταλλα ζωα {talla zôa}). As compared with God, he is 'mere man', liable to error and death (both of which are spoken of as specially human, ανθρωπινα {anthrôpina}); as compared with 'the other animals', he is kindly and capable of civilization. The Latin word humanus took over this double meaning, which is somewhat arbitrarily marked in English by the spellings human and humane. Now it is clear that, for a being subject to error and death, wisdom (σοφια {sophia}) in the full sense is impossible; that is for God alone. On the other hand, man cannot be content, like 'the other animals' to remain in ignorance. If he cannot be wise, he can at least be 'a lover of wisdom', and it follows that his chief end will be 'assimilation to God so far as possible' (ὁμοιωσις τω θεω κατα το δυνατον {homoiôsis tô theô kata to dynaton}), as Plato put it in the Theaetetus. The mathematical studies of the Pythagoreans soon brought them face to face with the idea of a constant approximation which never reaches its goal. There is, then, sufficient ground for accepting the tradition which makes Pythagoras the author of this special sense of the word 'philosophy' and for connecting it with the division of living creatures into God, men and 'the other animals'. If the later Pythagoreans went a step further and classified rational animals into gods, men and 'such as Pythagoras', that was due to the enthusiasm of discipleship, and is really a further indication of the genuinely Pythagorean character of this whole range of ideas. We may take it, then, that the word 'philosophy' had acquired its special sense in southern Italy before the beginning of the fifth century B. C.

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