The Laboratory of the Mind
3 July 2011
I was reading Aristotle’s Politics just now and I was struck by the great many examples and illustrations that he could adduce for all his arguments about different kinds of governments, how they change, and how they are overthrown. There was a lot less written history available to Aristotle than there is to us, but he still seemed to have plenty of material to drawn upon.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me how the warring Greek city-states constituted something of a laboratory of political experimentation. The warring Greek city-states had their origins in the varied and difficult topography of Greece, a connection between life and landscape that has been of enduring interest to me. In his classic study, The Life of Greece, Will Durant wrote about the geography of Greece in a way that has stayed with me (I originally read this before I was eighteen):
“Within this circle of nations little Greece expanded until its progeny peopled nearly every Mediterranean shore. For the gaunt hand that stretched its skeletal fingers southward into the sea was but a small part of the Greece whose history concerns us. In the course of their development the irrepressible Hellenes spread into every isle of the Aegean…”
Will Durant, The Life of Greece, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939, p. 70
It was the image of a “gaunt hand” that stayed with me. After I read this passage I looked at a map of Greece and I saw that it did in fact look like a skeletal hand stretching out between the Aegean and Ionian seas. Perhaps my interest in geopolitics has its origins in that moment. It was the first time that I had the explicit thought that life (and thought) is integral with the environment in which it is lived.
The same political fragmentation, born of geographical fragmentation, that meant that there was no Greek kingdom, no Greek empire (at least, not until Alexander), and certain no Greek nation-state, meant that there was enormous political plurality, diversity, and evolution throughout Greece.
The diversity of the Greek political landscape made ancient Greece a concrete thought experiment: any idea that could be hit upon by a small community isolated on an island or by some tyrant with a similarly small community under his thrall could be put into practice and tested under actual concrete circumstances. And, until the Persians came, the Greeks were pretty much free to do this without any outside interference.
This reflection in turn made me think of the quotation I made from Marko Papic of Stratfor (from his The Divided States of Europe) that I posted a few days ago in Can collective economic security work? To whit:
“Europe has the largest concentration of independent nation-states per square foot than any other continent. While Africa is larger and has more countries, no continent has as many rich and relatively powerful countries as Europe does. This is because, geographically, the Continent is riddled with features that prevent the formation of a single political entity. Mountain ranges, peninsulas and islands limit the ability of large powers to dominate or conquer the smaller ones. No single river forms a unifying river valley that can dominate the rest of the Continent. The Danube comes close, but it drains into the practically landlocked Black Sea, the only exit from which is another practically landlocked sea, the Mediterranean. This limits Europe’s ability to produce an independent entity capable of global power projection.”
The fragmentation of western Europe was the fragmentation of ancient Greece writ large. Similar considerations applied: there was a great deal of political plurality and diversity in Europe, and it turned Europe into a laboratory of the mind. This made Europe especially productive in philosophical thought, and indeed the Greek tradition of philosophical thought that was passed along to Europe grew into something unprecedented and unknown in any other part of the world. Recall that the Arabs, too, were the inheritors of Greek philosophy, but after an medieval efflorescence (under, I might point out, a more-or-less unified and contiguous empire), little more was done by the Arabs in philosophy in the following modern period.
This reflection in turn made me think again about my recent posts about anti-philosophy in contemporary science — Fashionable Anti-Philosophy and Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy — and I have to admit that it makes me a bit sad to to see that which been distinctive and definitive in the western tradition now marginalized to the point that it is pretty much a throw-away line to say something mean-spirited about philosophy. You are much more likely to get a sympathetic ear if you talk about the “ancient wisdom” of the East, or its philosophical and mystical traditions, than if you attempt to get to the core of the Western tradition, which is, at bottom, a philosophical tradition.
On my other blog, in The West and the Rest, I wrote that, “When the rest of the world was busy creating theologies during the Axial Age, the Greeks created philosophy.” Perhaps this, too, was ultimately an outgrowth of the geographical diversity and the islands dotting the eastern Mediterranean, for the diverse political culture that emerged from this milieu meant that equally diverse ideas arose from these diverse milieux. Every ancient school of philosophy is named for the city or the island that it hailed from (remember the Eleatic Stranger who confronts Socrates) or for a particular philosopher, and the particular philosopher is usually named for his city (such as, for example, Anaxarchus of Abdera).
It was the Greek laboratory of the mind that gave rise to political pluralism, and this same laboratory of the mind gave rise to philosophy. The Greek political and philosophical traditions grew up twins. And we Westerners are all — always have been, always will be — Greeks.
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