PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY
IT IS OBVIOUS from the foregoing skeleton history of philosophy that philosophy could very easily come to be divorced from human life. It becomes so abstract in certain Western universities as to bring its practitioners under the suspicion of being taxidermists of concepts. And yet the early history of philosophy shows it to have had living roots in human life and human society.
Philosophy had its origins in theological speculation. The earliest theological speculations were a conglomeration of thoughts milling around the great ideas of God, Soul, Destiny and Law. At every point, these thoughts enjoyed a practical inspiration. For, in those far-off days, the religious life was one of the cardinal concerns of human existence. That was a time when it was sincerely believed that man’s cultivation of the gods at the same time as his crops was one of his major purposes on earth. Religion and worship were preoccupations of day-to-day life, they were the ways in which man conducted himself in his privacy, before others and in the presence of his gods.
Even much later than ancient times, even as recently as the middle ages of Europe, other concerns of life were tyrannically subjected to the religious concern at the insistence of the clergy. Economic concerns, without which the clergy themselves could not have survived, were required by them to be confined within the limits of human sustenance. To transgress these limits was in their eyes to indulge greed, and so to hazard their disfavour in this life and the divine disfavour in the after life.
Suitably, therefore, the chief concern of philosophy continued to be an elucidation of the nature of God, of the human soul, of human freedom and of kindred concepts.
According to this notion of philosophy, when the primary concerns of human life are differently conceived, philosophy reveals a different bias. And as society becomes differently organized, philosophy is differently conceived. During the European Renaissance, when man became the centre of the universe, the human mind and the ways in which it might fix the limits of what is real became the chief topics of philosophy. There was a growing attempt to identify what could be with what could be known, and this tendency later attained its subtlest and most definitive statement in the critical philosophy of Kant. The rise of rationalism was indeed one whole stream of thought which kept reality firmly within the light of human reason, until in the writings of Leibniz processes came to be mere analogues in nature of logical relations. In this way the limits of the human understanding came to be identified with the limits of nature. This idea survives today in the notion that logically there are no mysteries, that to every question there is an answer, that there is nothing on earth, beneath the waters or in the heavens above, which is in principle unknowable.
Empiricism too was, despite its antagonism to rationalism, a reflection of man’s conception of his own position in the scheme of things. It, too, sought to make the limits of what is real coincide with the limits of the human understanding. For it tended to regard what is real exclusively in terms of impressions upon our senses.
During the European Renaissance, when man gained an increased appreciation of his personal and individual dignity and freedom, philosophy responded with disquisitions on the nature of natural rights and connected ideas. Philosophy attempted to provide principles which should inform any political theory, if it is to conform to the Renaissance conception of man. Nor had philosophy in this departed from its early character. At every stage between Thales and modem times, philosophy was firmly geared on to what were, for the time being, conceived as primary concerns of life.
The history of Greek democracy, for example, must really be traced to Thales. Thales spearheaded two revolutions. The first revolution matured in his attempt to explain nature in terms of nature. The second revolution consisted in his belief that the unity of nature consisted not in its being, but in its materiality.
The social milieu in which Thales lived encouraged him to insist on explaining nature in terms of nature. In Ionia, where he lived, political power was becoming entrenched in the hands of a mercantile class which had a vested interest in the development of nautical techniques and techniques of production, for it was on such techniques that their prosperity hinged – more so when their society later became more firmly based on slave labour. The Greeks, as Xenophon confirms in his Economics, came to regard mechanical arts with contempt. But in Thales’ time, individuals, including philosophers, depended more on their own productivity for sustenance. Indeed, during one particularly good olive harvest, Thales astutely cornered the available olive presses in Miletus and subsequently hired them out at exorbitant rates. Owing to the change in the structure of society whereby social-political hegemony passed into the hands of the mercantile oligarchy, prosperity no longer depended in a crucial way on a propitiation of the gods in connection with agriculture. it depended on commerce with its ancillaries whereby the Ionian products were marketed along and across the Mediterranean.
There was consequently no need to continue to explain the world by reference to the gods. Thales’ intellectual predecessors had invoked supernature in order to explain nature. But if the gods were to be explanatory devices for accounting for phenomena, then there was nothing to prevent the most vicious inequalities from arising in society. Where gods are used to account for nature a certain degree of sacerdotal power is inevitable; and where priests have wielded political power, it is not only explanations of natural phenomena which have been bemused with theology; theological explanations for social phenomena have also been encouraged. With the priests securely installed as the only authorized popularizers of the divine will, the only persons fitted by calling and by grace to expound mystic purposes, social inequalities arise to fortify their exclusive role. And since their power is thought of asbeing rooted in the divine will it becomes hard to contest. It therefore assumes the form of an authoritarianism which, if unhindered, can come to revel in the most extreme oppression. The history of societies in which priests have wielded political power abundantly illustrates this tendency.
In the particular case of Greek societies, however, certain qualifications need to be made. The early Greeks without doubt had a religion. This religion was distinguished by its lack of an established creed. Nevertheless, the Greek priests enjoyed social-political power, by which they could among other things institute action at court on charges of irreligion. This alone was a power which could be translated into political terms even as late as during the trial of Socrates.
The Greek religion was congregational. This fact helped to consolidate priestly power, for when rites are performed communally and not individually (in order that a small farming community should be insured by the gods against drought and famine), the priest is encouraged to come down heavily on individuals who by their irreligion endanger the community or the state. And this was true with the Greeks. It was as their religion became less congregational and more individual that the power of the priest, already implicitly queried by the new philosophies, diminished significantly. The rise of the mercantile class, with its dependence on mechanical arts rather than religious ritual, tended to reduce the social relevance of the priest and encouraged the individualization of Greek religion. It was this growing irrelevance of the priest which Thales emphasized by dispensing with the gods altogether as sources of explanation of natural or social phenomena.
Thales was able peacefully to spearhead this intellectual revolution, which was itself a reflection of a social revolution, because the Greek priesthood did not in the strictest sense form a class. The Greeks, mindful of the massive constricting power which the priesthood could exert if it formed a class, shunned the oriental example, discouraged life-priests, and often fixed the length of time for which one was a priest or priestess. Moreover, the high priesthood was often invested ex officio in the political leader.
The above contrast of Greek society with oriental society should not suggest that Greek society was without theocratic manifestations, as is often thought. Greek society had theocratic manifestations which were intensified under Persian rule.
The pre-Thales hereditary aristocracy comprising the land-owning class converted the ancient clan cults into hereditary priesthoods. To these priesthoods was assigned the power of passing and executing sentence at their discretion, especially on those who were accused of homicide. As private property grew, so did the incentive to homicide on the part of those who wished to ensure that they inherited property. The power of the aristocratic priesthood was based on the belief that those who committed certain crimes infringed the sacred moral order of society, and that they needed to expiate their crimes and be absolved if the whole community was not to be thrown into jeopardy. The idea that the whole community was endangered before the gods as a result of certain malpractices of individuals was not abandoned even by Solon, a contemporary of Anaximander.
Thales’ first revolution therefore knocked the bottom out of the theocratic and crypto-theocratic manifestations of Greek society. In destroying the gods as explanatory devices, he neutralized them and undermined the social effectiveness of the aristocratic priesthood.
The second revolution consisted in his contention that the unity of nature consisted not in its being but in its materiality. His choice of one substance for his monism had its root in mercantilism, in the belief that all goods were exchangeable in terms of a common denominator. Water, the common denominator which Thales chose, fittingly reflected the Ionian dependence on its navy for its mercantilism, the growth of the navy being crucial for Ionia’s Mediterranean trade.
But the interaction between the alteration of social circumstances and the content of consciousness is not one-sided, for circumstances can be changed by revolution and revolutions are brought about by men, by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought. It is true that revolutionaries are produced by historical circumstances – at the same time, they are not chaff before the wind of change, but have a solid ideological basis.
Revolution has two aspects. Revolution is a revolution against an old order; and it is also a contest for a new order. The Marxist emphasis on the determining force of the material circumstances of life is correct. But I would like also to give great emphasis to the determining power of ideology. A revolutionary ideology is not merely negative. It is not a mere conceptual reputation of a dying social order, but a positive creative theory, the guiding light of the emerging social order. This is confirmed by the letter from Engels quoted on the motto page of this book.
Not only is it significant that Thales should have chosen water as the fundamental substance, but the fact that he maintained at all that everything was derived from one and the same substance was of great importance. For, by maintaining this, he was implying the fundamental identity of man as well, man according to him being not half natural, half supernatural, but wholly natural. That is to say, on the social plane, his metaphysical principle amounted to an assertion of the fundamental equality and brotherhood of men. Nevertheless his philosophy only supported a revolution which was in a sense bourgeois. The assertion of the fundamental equality and brotherhood of man does not automatically issue in socialism, for it does not amount to the assertion of social equality. Indeed, Thales’ specification of a form of matter as basic naturally places a premium on water, and in the social plane, remains compatible with a class structure. His philosophy therefore only supported a sort of bourgeois democratic revolution, and not a socialist one.
On the only recorded opportunity which Thales had of translating his metaphysics into politics, he firmly urged unity on the balkanized Ionian states. This was hardly surprising as he had asserted the unity of nature. The Ionians paid scant heed to him and they were duly undone.
The point which I am anxious to make is not merely that the earliest philosophies carried implications of a political and social nature, and so were warmly connected with the actualities of life; I am suggesting that these philosophies were reflections of social currents, that they arose from social exigencies. Thus, Thales’ philosophy needed, if it was to destroy the allegedly heaven sanctioned aristocratic society, to assert the irrelevance of a pantheon, and this he did in his attempt to bring all explanation of nature within the ambit of nature itself. A revolutionary, as opposed to a reformist, attenuation of clerical influence called not for an amelioration here and there of social inequalities, the smoothing of this sharp corner and the trimming of that eminence, but for a total rejection of the idea of social inequality. That, in metaphysics, which implies this rejection of social inequality is precisely that which is common to all monists, those who assert the unity of nature and of different kinds of things as only different manifestations of the same thing.
It was this idea of the unity of nature as well as that of basic equality and justice which required that Thales should generalize those rules of thumb picked up in the marshes of the Nile delta. Rules of thumb allow for a certain measure of arbitrariness and partiality in application. The rules which the Egyptian arpedonapts used in marking out farms were bound to lead to injustices, for they were measured with knotted pieces of cord. Thales’ egalitarian perceptions necessary for a mercantile economy, led him to seek general forms of rules. When rules become general, they guarantee an objective impartiality, and impartiality is the outward mark of egalitarianism.
Thales’ successor, Anaximander, reasoned however that the unity of nature could not by itself guarantee equality and impartiality. Indeed, Thales himself was bourgeois in his actual political life. In Anaximander’s thought, a need was felt for an active social principle which would illuminate and sanction social structure. This he called the principle of justice, a groundwork principle which in Anaximander’s system regulated both social organization and the metaphysical generation of things.
In his philosophy, he conceived a stock of neutral material in which nothing was differentiated, a boundless, featureless, eternal expanse whose restlessness separated out the things of this world. These things abide in the world for a time, measured out according to principles of justice. At the end of their time, they give way to other things and flow back whence they came, back into the boundless neutral stock. So whereas at first blush Anaximander seems to have diverged widely from Thales, his master and friend, he in fact only tried to secure similar social objectives by means of conceptual instruments not too different from those of Thales. The early Greek philosophers had a social-moral preoccupation which they expressed in terms of metaphysics. It was this social-moral preoccupation which made them continual sufferers of political persecution.
The point I wish to underline in this respect is that the priest had grounded their power and all manner of social hierarchy in their supernatural account of the world. To destroy sacerdotal power and its associated arbitrary social structure, it was necessary to remove their grounding; it was necessary to give a natural account of the world. In this way, philosophy served as an instrument of social justice.
However revolutionary were the monists, that is to say those who claimed that everything was at bottom the same thing, they were still bogged down once they had claimed the fundamental equality of all. It is possible, admittedly, to regard Anaximander as having had an awareness of this stagnation, for he envisaged not a static and immobile social equality, but a social equality pursued at all times by the active principle of justice. Anaximander was not a lotus-eater. He could not allow society to remain dormant, complacent with the social structure which was current in his time. His principle of justice was one which called for social change, could not see an egalitarian society as one in which everything was permanently as it was, in which inequalities remained undisturbed. It fell to Heraclitus to introduce the notion of growth into the conception of society.
The preceding early Greek philosophers were so bent on destroying the foundations of priestly aristocratic power that they paid little attention to social growth. They were so rapt in their purposes that the also jibbed at the immortality of the soul, Socrates being the first Greek philosopher to make immortality of the soul a tenet of philosophy as distinct from a belief of religion. According to Heraclitus, too, all things are one. But fire, the fundamental thing, suffers transformations into other things. There is a permanent potential of instability in everything, and it is this instability which makes transformations possible. Objects are only deceptively serene, they are all delicate balances of opposing forces. This opposition of forces is conceived by Heraclitus to be so fundamental that without it everything would pass away. An object is an attunement of opposite tensions and without the tensions there could be no object.
Social laws, too, are conceived by Heraclitus after the same manner. He conceives them as an attunement of tensions, the resultant of opposing tendencies. Without the opposing tendencies, there could be no laws. It can be seen that Heraclitus conceived society as a dynamism, in which out of the strife of opposites there emerges an attunement. Heraclitus makes this strife of opposites indispensable to growth and creation both in nature and in society. And growth or creation is nothing but that attunement or balance which emerges from a strife of opposites. In social terms, this means that society is permanently in revolution, and that revolution is indispensable to social growth and progress. Evolution by revolution is the Heraclitean touchstone of progress.
The idea of the cosmic strife of opposites came to be impressed on Heraclitus by the eruptions which shook Greek society. After the aristocrats had overthrown the monarchies, Greek colonies came to be established on the lip of the Mediterranean basin. With this and the introduction of coinage, the value of landed property as an instrument of economic transactions declined. Trade became more widespread, and the development of a merchant navy to assist the spread of trade further depressed the economic significance of the landed aristocracy. The new merchant force began to seek political prizes from the decadent aristocracy. This fundamental social change initiated by economic drives, coupled with the opposition of local forces to Persian rule in the Asia Minor States, created among the Greeks a society which was comparatively redeemed. Even the thirty tyrants marked a redemption of Greek society. Redemption could not however mean a society languishing in drugged serenity. Internal dissensions persisted on all sides, society was twisted by swift change, but always out of a melee there emerged in course of time a discernible pattern.
Strife, and an emergent pattern, a seeming attunement, which served as a resting point until contending forces should once again become pronouncedly factious, this see-saw, this sweltering social environment gave birth in the mind of Heraclitus to the idea that the universe itself is an attunement of forces perpetually in strife. From that moment the idea of a finite history was killed and that of the dialectic of history born.
In the examples chosen I have tried to illustrate the way in which early materialist philosophy of a monist kind is suggested by social phenomena, and in turn inspires social phenomena and policy. I can perhaps illustrate the way in which idealist philosophy serves the same function by citing the philosophy of Anaxagoras. In this philosophy the diverse things of the universe were said to arise from seeds. These seeds of the things that are were conceived after such a fashion that they represented minute universes, each seed in fact containing the whole range of diversity in the macrocosmic universe. Each specific object was nothing but an accretion of seeds. The whole agglomeration of seeds constituting the universe was said by Anaxagoras to have an external principle of motion. Naturally a principle of motion was required to regulate the quantities of seed involved in each object if this was to be the source of the differences between things; and this principle of motion was for Anaxagoras an intellectualist one. He called it nous, reason, mind.
Anaxagoras, too, can be exhibited as supporting an egalitarianism. Indeed, his theory of the unity of nature is in certain respects a more rigorous and close one than that of the monists. He did not affirm a mere identity of basic make-up. He put forward a theory of the participation of any one kind of object in every other kind of object. In his philosophy, nature was more firmly united than in any other philosophy. The distinction between his view and that of the monists, if given social expression, becomes the distinction between socialism and democracy. Whereas in democracy it is sufficient to affirm a mere egalitarianism, in socialism it is necessary to affirm a convertible involvement of each in all. In other words, whereas the monists in social terms sought to transform an oligarchic society into a democratic one, Anaxagoras sought to transform a democratic one into a socialist society.
Indeed, once Anaxagoras had emphasized socialistic responsibility of each for all and all for each, the next step was to emphasize the intrinsic worth of the individual. Thus a social progressive movement, which started with the supervention of a people over a class, ended with the separating out, the cult, of individuals. It was left to the Sophists to achieve this. This phase was given its most definitive utterance in the Protagoran statement that man is the measure of all things. The universe had passed from the hands of the gods into the hands of men. This Protagoran view, which was a passionate testimony to the new place of man in the scheme of things, was quickly perverted by lesser minds into a grasping idealistic subjectivism. In this transformed form, it was a claim that reality was a replica of the subjective will. Indeed, it was in this form that Socrates criticized it. It was necessary to destroy this idealistic subjectivism; first, because it was but a short step from it to solipsism, the view that only oneself exists and other things exist as one’s experiences; and, second, because in addition to damaging the possibility of science and the public and objective grounding of truth, it undermined the foundations of society; for it made social reality, too, depend upon the subjective will. The original attempt to redeem society by giving it a united foundation, by asserting the unity and brotherhood of man, now promised to destroy the society which it had set out to save. Egalitarianism desperately needed to be distinguished from anarchism, for anarchism is the political expression of subjective idealism.
Socrates consequently made it his duty to destroy this form of the Protagoran maxim. His social aim in seeking this destruction was to restore the objectivity of society. Socrates, too, was a firm theoretical believer in egalitarianism. He exemplified this inhis whole life by his unwavering contempt for pomp, circumstance and humbug. He has left us an undying testimonyof his egalitarian beliefs in his use of the slave-boy in the Meno: in this Platonic dialogue, Socrates tries to prove the disincarnate existence of the soul and the innateness of certain ideas of mathematics and ethics. In selecting a slave-boy for the purpose of this proof, he showed that he held a belief in the common and equal nature of man. This belief activates Socrates’ whole philosophy. He believed in the equal endowment of all with innate ideas, the equal ability of all to lead a good life. Knowledge, he said, was virtue. And knowledge, he further held, was innate, learning being in fact a way of remembering what was already engraved upon the individual soul.
Though in the Meno, Socrates put forward a fundamental egalitarianism, it would not be pretended that egalitarianism was to be found among the established facts of life. The reason for this discrepancy between truth and social fact was conceived by him in moral terms. If people were not conceited, mistaking their ignorance for knowledge, and if they reflected, they would all be equally moral, both because virtue is knowledge, and because they would fundamentally all have the same knowledge as suggested in the Meno.
It has not been my purpose to argue that all the early precursors of our modern philosophers in trying to modify or support a modification of society conceived this in terms of egalitarianism. But even when they pursued a social line in reaction to the egalitarian line, they were still responding to social urges and social conditions. In a genuine sense, their philosophies were intellectual reflections of contemporary social conditions.
One example of anearly philosopher who became reactionary inrespect of the egalitarian development was Plato. Socrates’ judges and executioners were not half as cruel to him as was his betrayer Plato, also his loving disciple.
Whereas Socrates had affirmed the original equal endowment of men and explained differences between men in terms of education, Plato was no believer in the fundamental equality of man. He held to the original inequality of men which an unrelenting educational system would quickly reveal. He held that some men had a higher reason than others, and though education might up to a point conceal them, these differences were bound to reveal themselves after a certain stage of a thorough-going education. These differences in the level of intelligence, according to Plato, implied a natural division and hierarchy of labour, each man being fitted by nature for functions appropriate to him, the less intelligent being in fact only qualified to undertake menial forms of labour. All political and social power was at the same time to be concentrated in the hands of the intellectuals, in trust. In this way, Plato adumbrated an unconscionable totalitarianism of intellectuals.
Not even this could exhaust Plato’s anti-egalitarianism. He looked for ways in which this lop-headed group of intellectuals might harden into a class. He found his solution in some form of eugenics: women and men were to be mated according to his principles of eugenics and thus there would be created a succession, based on birth, of people who would in perpetuity hold all power in trust.
It must be said that Plato was profoundly upset by the turn which Athenian democracy had taken. In particular he could not forgive a system which made it possible for his master, Socrates, to be executed. In pursuit of his private vendetta, he elaborated the principles of The Republic. In this, however, he seriously betrayed Socrates, for Socrates himself had acknowledged the political system in virtuously refusing to flee from it when accorded the opportunity of doing so. I do not wish, in saying that Plato betrayed Socrates by assailing the Athenian democracy, to suggest that the Athenian democracy was a full democracy. The Greek democracy as a whole, but especially the Athenian, never embraced all resident adults, nor did it aim, even as an ideal, at the redistribution of wealth. Women were not included under the provisions of the democratic constitution. And the aristocrats and merchant class continued to depend for their wealth on slave and other exploited labour. It was indeed due to the availability of slave labour that the free citizenry were not as oppressed as they might have been. The citizenry were expected to remain content with the fact that certain offices of state were filled by lot, and average citizens were able to become judges and executives.
There is one other interesting aspect of Plato’s betrayal. Philosophy has its own sociology, and it is not surprising that Plato failed to make a certain appropriate distinction. Faced with one, for him, unpleasant effect of the Greek democracy, he failed to draw a distinction between the theory of democracy and its practice in Athens. Theory and practice are always connected; but not always in the way which Plato thought. While each social system has a supporting ideology, a revolutionary ideology seeks to introduce a new social system. It is besides common for practice to fall short of the demands of theory. Democracy could not therefore be made to stand or fall with Athenian society. Plato failed grotesquely to separate a condemnation of the Athenian political practice from a condemnation of democratic theory.
But Plato was himself too much of a reactionary ever to have been content with simply criticizing, even condemning, the Athenian misrepresentation of democracy.
Plato’s reactionary philosophy received development at the hands of the Christian intellectuals. For when they needed a philosophy to buttress their division between a heavenly order and an earthly order, it was to Plato and, to a lesser extent, Plotinus, that they turned.
It is important to see clearly the nature of the swing that had thus taken place. I started this sketch of Western philosophical thought from a time in the history of its Greek founders when an aristocratic class, assisted by a priestly oligarchy, held the sum total of social-political power. The earliest philosophers, rebelling against the social order which a theological explanation of natural phenomena encouraged, went to the root of the matter by introducing a different kind of explanation for social and natural phenomena. The social implication of their metaphysics was a certain egalitarianism which theoretically implied democracy and socialism.
As the secular metaphysics with its concern for the fundamental identity of man suffered corruption, it tended towards a subjective idealism, a change which was complete by the timeof the Sophists.
And the political image of subjective idealism is anarchism. Socrates and some of his students were largely instrumental in checking the rise of anarchism which the Sophists both by their precept and by their moral neutrality were already fostering. But that very egalitarianism which Socrates was in a limited way endeavouring to save in its objective form, had by his time accommodated elements of the Sophists’ teaching. It had bred a rapacious individualism which could not take correction lightly. The system destroyed Socrates. And Socrates’ soi-disant avenger, Plato, sought in turn to destroy even this limited democracy. In this attempt he only succeeded in adumbrating a philosophy which could be used in supporting a society in which one class sat on the neck of another. It encouraged a new oligarchy. And this new oligarchy of the dark and middle ages, like the one from which we started, sought its sacerdotal ally. So it is that Plato, in trying to avenge the defender of human equality, the man who always said that men did not differ as men, any more than bees differed as bees, helped ironically ininstituting his more complete overthrow.
A few centuries later, Platonism having been seized upon, the priesthood set about acquiring an empire and political power. The world was treated to a re-hash of the old familiar arguments, and re-encumbered with a theological explanation of the cosmos; Heraclitus’ hypothesis that neither god nor man had made the universe was swamped with earnest pietisms. The priests emphasized their role of experts on matters divine; and, since this world was held to be but a dividend of divine enterprise, they claimed expertise on mundane matters as well. Deeply in league with the aristocrats, they plunged Europe into the Dark Ages and the most terrible feudalism which history records, as the Church exercised her divine right of grab.
The Church, however, was not allowed to hold imperial sway long. Whereas the Pope had been an equal and colleague of Charlemagne, with the accession of Otto I he sank to a junior position. Indeed, he was beholden to Otto for quelling the Italian threats to the Papacy. With the emergence in this way of the secular emperor as the protector of the Pope, the whole question of the relation between Church and State was vigorously broached. And secularists argued that as the Pope had not founded an empire, he could not rule one. Now the Pope’s claim to earthly sway had drawn inspiration from St. Augustine’s Civitas Dei, which was itself milked from Plato and Plotinus. While pretending that she was only interested in the higher reality of heaven, the Church was not reluctant to embroil herself in the sordidness of power politics.
With the Pope at bay, the effectiveness of a Platonist philosophy as the ideology of papal sway was seriously compromised, for it could not ensure the continued ascendancy of the Pope. With Plato thus discredited, the Church turned to Aristotle, Plato’s telling critic.
Aristotle was a champion of some form of democracy. He connected democracy with knowledge by saying that the truth on any matter had several sides which no single person could encompass in his individual gaze. Any individual could only grasp a portion, and it was through the collaboration of many that the whole truth was attained. One social-political significance of this is the rejection of anarchism – the political extreme of individualism.
Aristotle did not however believe that each man was able to contribute to the truth. In this he was reflecting in his thinking what was a social fact in Greece. To say that each man was able to contribute to the truth would require at the social level that each man should have political rights. To say that each man was equally able to contribute to the truth would require that each man should have equal political rights. The facts of Greek society were not in accord with this. The democracy of the Greeks was a democracy which was supported in the main by slave labour. Aristotle criticized neither the inequality of the sexes nor the exploitation of slave labour. He even thought that slavery was right provided the slave was naturally inferior to his master. Such men, he said, were by nature not their own. He enjoined his fellow countrymen not to enslave Greeks but only an inferior race with less spirit.
According to Aristotle, the state is not amere aggregate of men, but a union of individuals bent on a common goal through cooperative action. It has for its purpose the pursuit of the highest good. Men, he however said, are not the same, and do not perform the same functions in the pursuit of this common goal. At the same time, no man can by his single exertions bring about the highest good. The state is therefore founded upon an interdependence of men pursuing the same ultimate goal.
Aristotle was prevented from fully appreciating egalitarianism by his superstitious reverence for facts. The interdependence of the members of society implies the illegitimacy of the pursuit of sectional interests above the common good, or the achievement of the latter as a mere by-product of the pursuit of the former. He has however been often misunderstood when he stresses that there are differences among men. Egalitarianism cannot mean the absence of difference. It does not require this. It recognizes and accepts differences among men, but allows them to make a difference only at the functional level. Beyond that the differences are not allowed to make a difference, certainly not at the level of the intrinsic worth of the individual.
Thus, it was not enough for Aristotle to recognize that there were slaves. He should have criticized the institution of slavery, for reverence for facts does not mean inebriation with them. It does not mean that they cannot be appraised, criticized and undermined. To say that slavery was a fact was not to bless it. Its economic importance to Greek society should not have hoodwinked Aristotle into thinking it necessary or even acceptable, for if society, according to him, is a complementary and co-operative plurality of men, let it be added that co-operation is free. When Aristotle himself came to consider how co-operation might be made spontaneous, he always underscored the necessity of education, never of tyranny or injustice.
Man, says Aristotle, aims at the good. But how can a continuing slave be said to aim at anything? According to Aristotle, the principle of order in a political society is justice, the bond of men in states. But what justice can slaves be said to enjoy? Aristotle, usually tough-minded, becomes all too delicate when he writes about slavery. At the same time, his writings about slavery have been distorted. When he defines a slave as someone who is by nature not his own but another’s, a human being and yet a possession, is he implying that there can be men who by their own nature as men are not their own but others’? A man cannot be discovered to be a slave through an examination of his nature. What Aristotle means is that if someone is a slave, then it follows that he is not his own but another’s, a human being and yet a possession.
Initial egalitarianism does not pre-determine its own future course. Its course depends on facts of production and the social economic relations consequent on such facts. Initial egalitarianism can be perverted into a cruel and grasping social atomism, a barbaric free-for-all in which each man is said to be for himself, and God for us all. This is the kind of course seminal in Aristotle’s egalitarianism.
In order to destroy the Platonic philosophical basis of oligarchy, as I have already mentioned, Aristotle rejected the Platonic hypothesis about the knowledge of truth. To Plato’s mind, the truth can only be perceived and appreciated by the highest reasons subjected to the most exacting discipline. Political and social truth was therefore accessible only to the brainwashed minds of his intellectual oligarchy. Aristotle rejected this and made the truth accessible to all and possible of appreciation by all. Plato, to make sure that the truth was really out of the reach of many, deposited it in a heavenly bank. He called his truths ‘forms’ and he made them the eerie population of a gossamer heaven. just as Marx stood Hegel’s ‘idea’ on its head, so Aristotle recalled the ‘forms’ back to earth and restored them to nature, the nature which is open to us all, and with which we are all familiar. He denied that the ‘forms’ were capable of existence outside natural objects. He held that whoever was capable of observing natural objects was capable of detecting ‘forms’. But in any case he impugned the ‘forms’ on the ground of their utter uselessness as instruments of knowledge or of explanation. No carpenter, he said, first studied a ‘form’ in order to make his furniture.
With the Church’s embracing of neo-Aristotelianism, she saved herself in the nick of time. For she thus adopted a philosophical standpoint which enabled her to make concessions to the Renaissance and man’s regained social importance.
Nevertheless, in his anxiety to restore the egalitarian form of society, Aristotle actually tried to arrest the dialectic of thought. He tried to secure this arrest by laying down his categories. According to him, these categories are the most general concepts under which the world can be thought of. There is no object or process in nature which does not, so far as it can be conceived, fall under one or more of the categories, examples of which are quality, quantity, rest, motion, time, place. A great deal of metaphysics in such a view can therefore only consist of the identifying of these categories and the elucidation of them. But in this way also, an attempt is made to fix in advance the form of any future metaphysics. Indeed, prolegomena to future metaphysics are commonplaces of philosophy. These prolegomena are a kind of preface written by philosophers and addressed to all future philosophers. In these prefaces, the authors lay down the limits, the purposes, and the forms which, they claim, must guide all future philosophies. Kant is another example of a philosopher who identified the basic concepts in terms of which alone nature can appear to us and become intelligible.
The motive lying behind prolegomena is a natural one. In certain circumstances, it is even commendable. It is an attempt to make sure that one’s philosophical insights shall be conserved, an attempt to persuade the world that all the spade-work of philosophy has been done, that all there is left to do is to build upon this final foundation. It is a claim to perfection.
In the political sphere, Aristotle made a similar claim to perfection. Having analyzed the nature of a democratic constitution, he said that it was the natural way of organizing a society. To claim that it is natural is to contrast it with other types of constitution which are presumably unnatural or less natural. By a natural constitution, Aristotle meant one which consorted most with the talents of man and the ethics which best suited him. A natural constitution was therefore for him one which gave politic expression to the nature of man. In saying, therefore, that a democratic constitution is the natural way of organizing a society, he was claiming perfection for it.
Plato was called to Syracuse to educate a future ruler. There he saw a beautiful opportunity of producing a ruler tailor political ideas. He seized the opportunity and failed; so he to Athens a disappointed man. Aristotle, too, had responsibility for the education of Alexander, later called the Great. But the democratic seeds which he sowed withered in Alexander’s barren ground. These two great philosophers of antiquity, so full of ideas for the ‘regeneration’ of society, utterly lacked the power to bring them to social fruition.
One interesting point is that, the difference between them notwithstanding, Plato and Aristotle both conceived society in static terms. Their conception was of a society which permitted of no revision. In Plato’s view, once a society had been set up according to the provisions outlined in The Republic, the perfect society would have been attained. And what is perfect cannot the change for the better. In this way, he introduced the idea of a finite social evolution. And Aristotle, to the extent that he regarded the democratic society as the perfect form of society, also operated idea of a finite social evolution.
Though neither Plato nor Aristotle had the power to bring his ideas to social fruition, Europe threw up men who had the power and the will but not the good fortune to implement ‘perfect society’. Napoleon was such a person. And of the Prussian State, Hegel confessed that it represented the political incarnation of his Absolute idea – the march of God in history. Hitler, too, in our own times, sought to introduce ‘the perfect society’! Since ‘ the perfect society’ is conceived in terms of the terminal of social evolution, its procreators have persistently envisaged millennia of unruffled monotony!
I have suggested that the attempt to fix categories, basic general concepts, in terms of which alone the world must appear to us and become intelligible, is an attempt to halt the dialectic of thought, an attempt to freeze it at a certain stage. In the dialectic of thought, a cardinal idea is introduced, and it is worked out in considerable detail. After a certain point, an idea antithetic to it appears on the scene. And, in an attempt to reconcile them, a new idea is produced. And this new idea initiates a similar process. In laying down basic concepts, which cannot admit of revision, Aristotle was attempting to halt the dialectic of thought.
I also suggest that in the social field Aristotle tried to arrest the dialectic of society, for in his treatment of the democratic society as the perfect form of society he was attempting to lay down a terminal to social evolution, and so to thwart dialectic.
And yet his own position represents a stage in the unfolding of social dialectic. The egalitarianism which early Greek philosophy introduced could be formulated in terms of individualism. And Aristotle’s democratic ideal with its insistence on an equal individualism was after all a particular way of spelling out that egalitarianism which the earlier Greek philosophers pitted against the sacerdotal-aristocratic oligarchy. To the extent that individualism accepts as axiomatic the initial equal value of the individual, egalitarianism can be formulated in terms of it. But, evidently, individualism alone cannot determine the form of social organization. For individualism may lead to capitalism or it may lead to socialism.
If one takes for the sake of an example the economic doctrines of John Stuart Mill, one must confess that he based them on a passionate individualism. Indeed, so passionate was his defence of individualism that he required governments to exercise the minimum of regulation on citizens. He advocated free economic activity. But true as it is that in Mill’s doctrine every citizen had the right to free economic activity, in the context of an already technical society this meant little. In the technical society, this would inevitably breed an economic disproportion, and it would head society straight towards capitalism.
If, however, one considers individualism not as giving to men an equal right to dominate and exploit one another, but as imposing upon us all the duty to support one another and make the happiness of others a condition for the happiness of oneself, then individualism so conceived and practiced heads society towards socialism.
It is precisely because individualism does not determine the form of social organization that both the capitalistic and the socialistic traditions in Europe can trace their origins to the earliest Greek philosophers. Indeed, because the cultural history of Europe is the unfolding of a social dialectic, it is hardly surprising that antithetic strands of thought should simultaneously trace their spring and origin to the same cradle. The dialectic would not be full unless the antitheses were present.
At this point I must go back to the Renaissance, because the Renaissance is often conceived of as the emancipation of thought, as the time when thinking freed itself of all social and other limiting shackles.
The Renaissance did indeed free itself from certain specific shackles. For example, it was in spirit profoundly non-religious. This particular aspect of it, however, remained largely endemic in the sixteenth century except in the works of a few like Rabelais who in his thought rejected Catholicism as well as Protestantism as huge irrelevances to Christianity. In order to negate the emancipation, Christian theology shiftily modified its position here and accepted a compromise there.
The humanism to which the Renaissance gave rise served as the link between the emancipation of thought from religious shackles and the strengthening of capitalism. For it raised from the economic sphere the unfeeling competition and pursuit of supremacy which characterize capitalism, and transposed them to a philosophical conception in which each man, armed with his natural and inalienable rights, is pitted against every other man. This transposition became a tour de force in the political philosophy of John Locke. It is this political philosophy which largely inspired the American Constitution.
Both the Renaissance and the humanism which it fortified were the second renaissance and humanism. The first renaissance and humanism were represented by Aristotle. He, too, as I have tried to show, represented man as the centre of the universe, and made the limits of knowledge coincide with the limits of the human understanding in reclaiming the ‘forms’ and putting them back in nature; and also in his fixing of the categories of thought which were at the same time the categories of being. His humanism was a co-operative one, in which each man, perceiving a different aspect of the truth, contributed it to the common whole.
Aristotle saved thought from the mystic vapours with which Plato surrounded it. The second renaissance emancipated thought from the mysticism of the Middle Ages. But whereas Aristotle stood for a co-operative humanism, the second humanism was an atomistic one. This atomistic humanism was assisted by the travels of merchants and adventurers, who returning with tales of diverse social organizations, diverse moral and religious principles and practices, assisted the growth of the thought that there could be no universally valid single religious creed, morality, or social order. This thought confirmed their challenge of the church hegemony.
But just as John Locke’s political philosophy was a humanist attempt to assert the personal and independent dignity of man, and make man, not God, the reference point of political organization, so in his empiricist philosophy he attempted to make man the centre and source of knowledge. Since knowledge is thus not a matter of divine revelation but one of human mental activity, man’s intellectual independence and dignity was by this token asserted. I have said that in face of the humanism which the Renaissance developed, the Church preserved herself by making a concession here and a compromise there, thus avoiding a head-on collision. The Church became subtle, and, while seeming to endorse the philosophies of humanism, tried to place God at their centre. She ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds.
In the philosophy of Berkeley, empiricism appears to be endorsed, but is in fact strictly speaking denied. For however glibly Berkeley said that material objects were agglomerations of ideas of sense, he told us that it was really God who put the ideas in our mind. Sense was completely otiose in the philosophy of Berkeley.
This was necessarily so because for him our bodies were carried in our mind. The stage could not therefore be set for sensation. So impressive were the insinuations of this Berkeleyan double-speak that the grateful Church rewarded him with a bishopric.
The power of the Church could still be felt, and philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz, inspired by fear of being recognized immediately as undermining the social power of the Church in favour of humanism, prudently suppressed their definitive works which only saw the light of day posthumously. I have already said that humanism branched off into a democratic capitalism and co-operative socialism. The two philosophies of Leibniz and Descartes provide further illustration of the way in which this happened.
Leibniz believed that the universe consisted of an infinite number of units, which he called monads. Each monad was a spirit, but monads enjoyed different levels of consciousness. And matter, in his philosophy, was a collection of spirits which were in a complete state of unconsciousness. He was an idealist. But that was not what constituted his contribution to democratic capitalism. For this, we must turn to his remarks about the nature of monads. According to Leibniz, every monad is completely self-contained and is completely windowless on every other monad. Every monad is, furthermore, invested with a private law of its development, a law which provides sometimes for the dimness of every other monad at a time when a particular monad luxuriates in well-being. And this whole arrangement is sanctified by the principle of Pre-established Harmony. In social terms, this means that every individual has an inalienable right to develop according to his nature, even if his development requires the suffering and subordination of others either in a political or in an economic sense. It is in this way that Leibniz’s philosophy contributes to a democratic capitalism.
On the other hand, in the philosophy of Descartes support is given to co-operative socialism. Descartes begins from the position that reason is the same in all, and that fundamentally we are equally able to perceive and appreciate the same truths. We do not have private truths; we all share public objective truths, and pursue them. And even when, because we have not paid full attention the matter on hand, we have not yet ascertained the truth, we must co-operate with others in supporting the demands of order as conceived by them. Consequently, Descartes says that while he was busy doubting everything in order the better to appreciate what was true, he still conceived it as necessary to co-operate with other in supporting the stability and order of society.
By multiplying examples to show how there is a social contention implicit or explicit, in the thought of the philosophers, the history of philosophy, as I sketched it earlier on, suddenly enjoys a transfusion of blood and springs to life. These philosophies appear in situ not as abstract ethereal systems but as intellectual weapon implying social purpose.
It is evident from the foregoing that Cartesian philosophy represented the most radical break in a social sense from the hegemony of the Church and her aristocratic allies. The spread of Cartesianism in the form of free-thinking therefore ensured that there ensued in France competing philosophies which engendered an acute social and ideological conflict. On the one hand there was the oligarchic philosophy of the Church, on the other, the egalitarian philosophy of Descartes with its removal of the region of truth from mystic revelation to mathematical and public demonstration. The acute social and ideological conflict so generated could only be resolved by revolution.
Intellectual tension had been mounting for a hundred years or more. The libertins, the French free-thinkers, had suffered persecutions and crisis after crisis. In 1624, the Parliament of Paris, obedient to the Church, restrained certain chemists from disseminating anti-Aristotelian theses. Uncanonical doctrines were proscribed and their libertin disseminators were abused as immoralists, tricksters and hypocrites who publicly professed religion but in private undermined it. The Jesuits touched new of heights violence and raillery when they dealt with the libertins, who naturally did not turn the other cheek but delivered their ripostes with the full edge of their wit, accusing the schoolmen of forgery, vanity, emptiness and uselessness.
This dichotomy in French thought cleft the nation seriously,and Huet, Foucher and Pascal contributed to this dichotomy, as against Malebranche and Montaigne. By I789 the divergence had hardened seriously, and only a revolution could re-shuffle French thought and deal it out anew.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the social contention in philosophy became explicit, especially as law, politics, economics and ethics came to be publicly founded on philosophy. The social contention of philosophy was accepted even as late as the Russia revolution of I9I7.
It is therefore not a little amazing that in the twentieth century, Western philosophers should largely disinherit themselves and affect an aristocratic professional unconcern over the social realities of the day. Even the ethical philosophers say that it is not their concern to improve themselves or anybody else. They restrict their calling to disputable elucidations of moral terms which we all know how to use correctly. They say that their professional job begins and ends with the elucidation of the meaning of moral terms and principles, and the source of moral obligation. They never purport to support and maintain any moral principles. In fact some of them sometimes confess their inability to see or admit any difference between the statement of moral principles and brute ejaculation.
On the irrelevance of social irritants and urges to the content of philosophy, Western philosophers are largely agreed. They say that they are not interested in what made a philosopher say the things he says; but only in the reasons which he gives. Philosophy is thus effectively emasculated, and it loses its arresting power. Whereas the great philosophers, the titans, have always been passionately interested in social reality and the welfare of man, many of their twentieth-century descendants in the West serenely settle down to a compilation of a dictionary of sentences as opposed to a dictionary of words; engulfed intheir intellectual hermitage, they excuse themselves from philosophical comment on social progress or social oppression, on peace or war. While they thus pursue ‘the exact sense of the word’, all authority, political or moral, passes ever more firmly into the hands of the politicians.
But however desiccated the new passions of some Western philosophers are, they can admittedly claim to share a continuity with a European cultural history. A non-Western student of philosophy has no excuse, except a paedeutic one, for studying Western philosophy in the same spirit. He lacks even the minimal excuse of belonging to a cultural history in which the philosophies figure. It is my opinion that when we study a philosophy which is not ours, we must see it in the context of the intellectual history to which it belongs, and we must see it in the context of the milieu in which it was born. That way, we can use it in the furtherance of cultural development and in the strengthening of our human society.