One of the most striking features of Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War is how modern that account sounds to our ears. That war—I think of it as akin to our own world war—took place 431-404 BC, and Thucidides wrote his history in the waning years of the fourth century BC. He died in 400 at age of 60. Now unless one’s college studies are still as fresh as a daisy—and assuming that one actually had a course on Greek history detailed enough to look at this period closely, the clash between Athens and Sparta is one thing, and philosophy quite another; the ordinary modern mind does not link the two. We have pictures of Socrates surrounded by disciples suspended in a kind of philosophical fairy land; and there is Aristotle filling thick volumes. The linkage between history and philosophy is a little vague in most minds except those of experts. To make some links, I thought I’d take a look.
The Peloponnesian war had been underway two years when a woman called Perictione gave birth to a little baby boy (427). She and her husband, Ariston, named him Plato—and you can be sure they discussed it and agreed, because this was a decidedly upper class family. Ariston traced his lines of descent back to two kings; and Perictione traced hers back to the famed lawyer and poet Solon. At this time the man who would later become little Plato’s teacher, a man called Socrates, had just turned 40. That war took quite a while to end; it lasted 27 years. Plato was a young man of 25 when it finally wound down. And Thucydides was 56. It was twenty years after this—and another war, the Corinthian, was still raging—when Aristotle first cried out as a baby after being born in 384 BC. Plato was then 45; baby Aristotle had become a man of 37 when Plato died at the ripe old age of 82 in 347 BC. And in that year a major future political and military figure, Alexander, later dubbed The Great, was just a boy of nine. Aristotle would soon be engaged to be his teacher.
Sometimes it is worth consciously pondering that all these famous people were once babies and had to have their nappies changed.
I link these people chronologically here by way of underlining that the philosophical works we place at the core of Western civilization emerged in a political, technological, and militarily advanced stage of Greek civilization, as documented in Thucydides' work. And this age had a tendency, a direction—thus toward the expansive, the materialistic. It was a culturally modern time, the transition between what is called the classical period in Greece and the Hellenistic—the latter an overflow of Greek culture to a much wider region, the consequence of Alexander’s conquests. The classical period followed a deeply religious age from which very few “great names” survive. Why? Because we only value figures who’re like us. If we were drawing parallels to our own stage of culture, we’d be looking at a period extending roughly from the late nineteenth century to the end of World War II, call that classical, and the period of global Americanization that followed and is our own time now; call it Hellenistic. What I’m after is the feel of things, and this, I think, properly captures that feel.
Why did I do this? I tried to answer a question. And it was this: How could it come about that a person brought up in a Catholic tradition and exposed to philosophy by the Jesuits, thus to a philosophy firmly centered on Thomism, would have developed a great distaste for the Aristotelian view of reality? The fault is largely mine, of course. It is true, of course, that Thomas Aquinas was a staunch, loyal, persistent Aristotelian, but he Christianized that philosophy by brilliant innovations. My fault—because what stuck to me was the Aristotelian foundation. Something in me clashed with it—and therefore I never did manage to advance to the brilliant innovations. I had problems with the base.
It has always seemed to me that Aristotle’s natural leanings were materialistic—and I was born into an age where—almost undetectable although it is—the spiritual focus is once more increasing; and it is this new, faint something that attracts me. Thus, in later times, I felt much more drawn to Aristotle’s predecessors, thus the Platonic, and what emerged later from it, the neo-platonic and mystical schools that developed from it across the board as the Graeco-Roman world slowly decayed. And this foray into chronology took place by way of getting a better feel for the times, the tempora. And, I would submit, the times then match the times now. And that explains my drawing back from the Aristotelian, however modified. I’m more poet than thinker; the content is less important to me than the smell.
Notice the interesting “materialization” of philosophy in this chronology. Socrates, a deeply spiritual figure, is the teacher of Plato, a metaphysician who taught by dialogue; he is the teacher of Aristotle, the logician and physicist, who, most significantly, rejects Plato’s eternal forms; and Aristotle is the teacher of a warrior and conqueror whose world was decidedly the here and now.
I try always to promote this great edition of The Peloponnesian War: The Landmark Thucydides.