I’ve always been struck by the historical uniqueness of ancient Greece. The most amazing and radical transitions were experienced by the culture(s) present around the Aegean sea during only a few centuries. The most striking thing about the transformation was the rise of a thinking that started to take itself as its own object. We could call this thinking qua thinking, or thinking squared, exemplified overtly in Aristotle’s exploration of the stages of the self-reflection of thinking as the literal way to approach the divine.
It is astounding to me the diversity and amount of exploration of the realm of thought that occurred during ancient and particularly classical Greece; it was exemplified everywhere, from the organization of the polis to the architecture, sculpture, plays, games, economics, and of course within the philosophies that spanned enough of the potential field of human thinking that Alfred North Whitehead proclaimed the whole of European philosophy to consist of footnotes—not to the ancient Greeks as a whole—but even just to the single most outstanding Greek of them all: Plato.
Some complex confluence of events led to the possibility for human beings to take up a new, experimental and exploratory stance towards the human endeavor. The environment developed along with the changes in consciousness, which further changed the environment, until it became possible to support a veritable explosion of the intellect. Number, ratio, measure, clarity, precision… but above all the principle of form became paramount. The form of not only outer things like buildings and statues, but of inner things like the conduct of one’s life, morality, aesthetic sensibility, and the brotherly relations between citizens, were held up in the newly dawning type of consciousness that allowed these activities to be overtly reflected upon by the power of the intellect. Before, ideals had lived within people as a kind of semi-conscious drive, but in ancient Greece these ideals became the object of a newly freed capacity for thinking, which could then “hold” an ideal as an idea.
Unfortunately this kind of thinking had a certain kind of intrinsic… shall we say, gesture. It was not inclusive, but divisatory in nature. It excelled at distinction, dissection, difference, but was frankly pretty terrible at putting together, integrating, or seeing the whole. Indeed, one of the principle ‘measures’ of Greek life was the struggle, “agon”, from which we get our words “agony” and “antagonistic”. Excellence came about through the struggle, the contest, the pitting of one against another. The founding of the Olympics provided a typically outer form in which the demonstration of excellence could be had through direct competition. Elsewhere in Greek society, the repeated failures of Greek democracy were a testament to the problematic nature of this kind of thinking. The use of slaves and the subservient role of women (who were generally kept to a special upper room in the house) also demonstrate the consequences of the separatory gesture of thinking. Zeno’s brilliant but failed analysis of motion and time exemplify both this kind of thinking’s promise and simultaneous downfall.
The aftermath of the introduction of the Greek intellect is still being experienced today. The reduction of choice to binary options (yes/no, either/or) is a kind of habitual but false way of thinking that first showed its strength in ancient Greece, and which plagues humankind today. Multi-modal logics and the creation of quantum computers which utilize non-binary “qubits” demonstrate conclusively that binary logic is only one possible way of structuring thought. Cybernetics and the complexity sciences add an even more important layer of possibility by stressing the recursive nature of any complex system and the necessary inclusion of the observer in the observed. Let us hope that the lessons from these sometimes obscure realms are not lost on us!