Philosophy During the Tragic Age of the Greeks

Translated by Maximillian A. Mügge
Revised by Charles S. Taylor
(Probably 1874)

IF we know the aims of humans who are strangers to us, it is sufficient for us to approve of or condemn them as wholes. Those who stand nearer to us we judge according to the means by which they further their aims; we often disapprove of their aims, but love them for the sake of their means and the style of their volition. Now philosophical systems are absolutely true only to their founders, to all later philosophers they are usually one big mistake, and to feebler minds a sum of mistakes and truths; at any rate if regarded as highest aim they are an error, and in so far reprehensible. Therefore many disapprove of all philosophers, because their aims are not ours; they are those whom I called " strangers to us." Whoever on the contrary finds any pleasure at all in great humans finds pleasure also in such systems, be they ever so erroneous, for they all have in them one point which is irrefutable, a personal touch, and color; one can use them in order to form a picture of the philosopher, just as from a plant growing in a certain place one can form conclusions as to the soil. That mode of life, of viewing human affairs at any rate, has existed once and is therefore possible; the "system" is the growth in this soil or at least a part of this system....I narrate the history of those philosophers simplified: I shall bring into relief only that point in every system which is a little bit of personality, and belongs to that which is irrefutable, and indiscussable, which history has to preserve: it is a first attempt to regain and recreate those natures by comparison, and to let the polyphony of Greek nature at least resound once again: the task is, to bring to light that which we must always love and revere and of which no later knowledge can rob us: the great human.
(Towards the end of 1879)
THIS attempt to relate the history of the earlier Greek philosophers distinguishes itself from similar attempts by its brevity. This has been accomplished by mentioning but a small number of the doctrines of every philosopher, ie., by incompleteness. Those doctrines, however, have been selected in which the personal element of the philosopher re­echoes most strongly; whereas a complete enumeration of all possible propositions handed down to us -- as is the custom in text­books-merely brings about one thing, the absolute silencing of the personal element. It is through this that those records become so tedious; for in systems which have been refuted it is only this personal element that can still interest us, for this alone is eternally irrefutable. It is possible to shape the picture of a person out of three anecdotes. I endeavor to bring into relief three anecdotes out of every system and abandon the remainder.
There are opponents of philosophy, and one does well to listen to them; especially if they dissuade the distempered heads of Germans from metaphysics and on the other hand preach to them purification through Physis, as Goethe did,or healing through Music, as Wagner. The physicians of the people condemn philosophy; one, therefore, who wants to justify it, must show to what purpose healthy nations use and have used philosophy. If one can show that, perhaps even the sick people will benefit by learning why philosophy is harmful just to them. There are indeed good instances of a health which can exist without any philosophy or with quite a moderate, almost a toying use of it; thus the Romans at their best period lived without philosophy. But where is to be found the instance of a nation becoming diseased whom philosophy had restored to health ? Whenever philosophy showed itself helping, saving, prophylactic, it was with healthy people; it made sick people still more ill. If ever a nation was disintegrated and but loosely connected with the individuals, never has philosophy bound these individuals closer to the whole. If ever an individual was willing to stand aside and plant around oneself the hedge of self­sufficiency, philosophy was always ready to isolate one still more and to destroy one through isolation. She is dangerous where she is not in her full right, and it is only the health of a nation but not that of every nation which gives her this right.
Let us now look around for the highest authority as to what constitutes the health of a nation. The Greeks, as the truly healthy nation, have justified philosophy once for all by having philosophised; and that indeed more than all other nations. They could not even stop at the right time, for still in their withered age they comported themselves as heated votaries of philosophy, although they understood by it only the pious sophistries and the sacrosanct hairsplittings of Christian dogmatics. They themselves have much lessened their merit for barbarian posterity by not being able to stop at the right time, because that posterity in its uninstructed and impetuous youth necessarily became entangled in those artfully woven nets and ropes.
On the contrary, the Greek knew how to begin at the right time, and this lesson, when one ought to begin philosophising,they teach more distinctly than any other nation. For it should not be begun when trouble comes as perhaps some presume who derive philosophy from moroseness; no, but in good fortune, in mature adulthood, out of the midst of the fervent serenity of a brave and victorious individual's estate. The fact that the Greeks philosophised at that time throws light on the nature of philosophy and her task as well as on the nature of the Greeks themselves. Had they at that time been such common sense and precocious experts and gayards as the learned Philistine of our days perhaps imagines, or had their life been only a state of voluptuous soaring, chiming, breathing and feeling, as the unlearned visionary is pleased to assume, then the spring of philosophy would not have come to light among them. At the best there would have come forth a brook soon trickling away in the sand or evaporating into fogs, but never that broad river flowing forth with the proud beat of its waves, the river which we know as Greek Philosophy.
True, it has been eagerly pointed out how much the Greeks could find and learn abroad,in the Orient, and how many different things they may easily have brought from there. Of course an odd spectacle resulted, when certain scholars brought together the alleged masters from the Orient and the possible disciples from Greece, and exhibited Zarathustra near Heraclitus, the Hindoos near the Eleatics, the Egyptians near Empedocles, or even Anaxagoras among the Jews and Pythagoras among the Chinese. In detail little has been determined; but we should in no way object to the general idea, if people did not burden us with the conclusion that therefore Philosophy had only been imported into Greece and was not indigenous to the soil, yea, that she, as something foreign, had possibly ruined rather than improved the Greek. Nothing is more foolish than to swear by the fact that the Greeks had an autochthonous culture; no, they rather absorbed all the culture flourishing among other nations, and they advanced so far, just because they understood how to hurl the spear further from the very spot where another nation had let it rest. They were admirable in the art of learning productively, and so, like them, we ought to learn from our neighbors, with a view to Life not to pedantic knowledge, using everything learnt as a foothold whence to leap high and still higher than our neighbor. The questions as to the beginning of philosophy are quite negligible, for everywhere in the beginning there is the crude, the unformed, the empty and the ugly; and in all things only the higher stages come into consideration. He who in the place of Greek philosophy prefers to concern himself with that of Egypt and Persia, because the latter are perhaps more "original" and certainly older, proceeds just as ill­advisedly as those who cannot be at ease before they have traced back the Greek mythology, so grand and profound, to such physical trivialities as sun, lightning, weather and fog, as its prime origins, and who fondly imagine they have rediscovered for instance in the restricted worship of the one celestial vault among the other Indo­Germans a purer form of religion than the polytheistic worship of the Greek had been. The road towards the beginning always leads into barbarism, and he who is concerned with the Greeks ought always to keep in mind the fact that the unsubdued thirst for knowledge in itself always barbarises just as much as the hatred of knowledge, and that the Greeks have subdued their inherently insatiable thirst for knowledge by their regard for Life, by an ideal need of Life,-since they wished to live immediately that which they learnt. The Greeks also philosophised as people of culture and with the aims of culture,and therefore saved themselves the trouble of inventing once again the elements of philosophy and knowledge out of some autochthonous conceit, and with a will they at once set themselves to fill out, enhance, raise and purify these elements they had taken over in such a way, that only now in a higher sense and in a purer sphere they became inventors. For they discovered the typical philosopher's genius, and the inventions of all posterity have added nothing essential.
Every nation is put to shame if one points out such a wonderfully idealised company of philosophers as that of the early Greek masters, Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Democritus and Socrates. All those men are integral, entire and self­contained, and hewn out of one stone. Severe necessity exists between their thinking and their character. They are not bound by any convention, because at that time no professional class of philosophers and scholars existed. They all stand before us in magnificent solitude as the only ones who then devoted their life exclusively to knowledge. They all possess the virtuous energy of the Ancients, whereby they excel all the later philosophers in finding their own form and in perfecting it by metamorphosis in its most minute details and general aspect. For they were met by no helpful and facilitating fashion. Thus together they form what Schopenhauer, in opposition to the Republic of Scholars, has called a Republic of Geniuses; one giant calls to another across the arid intervals of ages, and, undisturbed by a wanton noisy race of dwarfs, creeping about beneath them, the sublime intercourse of spirits continues.
Of this sublime intercourse of spirits I have resolved to relate those items which our modern hardness of hearing might perhaps hear and understand; that means certainly the least of all. It seems to me that those old sages from Thales to Socrates have discussed in that intercourse, although in its most general aspect, everything that constitutes for our contemplation the peculiarly Hellenic. In their intercourse, as already in their personalities, they express distinctly the great features of Greek genius of which the whole of Greek history is a shadowy impression, a hazy copy, which consequently speaks less clearly. If we could rightly interpret the total life of the Greek nation, we should ever find reflected only that picture which in her highest geniuses shines with more resplendent colors. Even the first experience of philosophy on Greek soil, the sanction of the Seven Sages is a distinct and unforgettable line in the picture of the Hellenic. Other nations have their Saints, the Greeks have Sages. Rightly it has been said that a nation is characterised not only by her great citizens but rather by the manner in which she recognises and honors them. In other ages the philosopher is an accidental solitary wanderer in the most hostile environment, either slinking through or pushing through with clenched fists. With the Greek however the philosopher is not accidental; when in the Sixth and Fifth centuries amidst the most frightful dangers and seductions of secularisation the philosopher appears and as it were steps forth from the cave of Trophonios into the very midst of luxuriance, the discoverers' happiness, the wealth and the sensuousness of the Greek colonies, then we divine that they come as noble warners for the same purpose for which in those centuries Tragedy was born and which the Orphic mysteries in their grotesque hieroglyphics give us to understand. The opinion of those philosophers on Life and Existence altogether means so much more than a modern opinion because they had before themselves Life in a luxuriant perfection, and because with them, unlike us, the sense of the thinker was not muddled by the disunion engendered by the wish for freedom, beauty, fullness of life and the love for truth that only asks: What is the good of Life at all ~ The mission which the philosopher has to discharge within a real Culture, fashioned in a homogeneous style, cannot be clearly conjectured out of our circumstances and experiences for the simple reason that we have no such culture. No, it is only a Culture like the Greek which can answer the question as to that task of the philosopher, only such a Culture can, as I said before, justify philosophy at all; because such a Culture alone knows and can demonstrate why and how the philosopher is not an accidental, chance wanderer driven now hither, now thither. There is a steely necessity which fetters the philosopher to a true Culture: but what if this Culture does not exist. Then philosophers are an incalculable and therefore terror­inspiring comets, whereas in the favorable case, they shine as the central star in the solar­system of culture. It is for this reason that the Greeks justify the philosopher, because with them they are no comets.2
After such contemplations it will be accepted without offense if I speak of the pre­Platonic philosophers as of a homogeneous company, and devote this paper to them exclusively. Something quite new begins with Plato; or it might be said with equal justice that in comparison with that Republic of Geniuses from Thales to Socrates, the philosophers since Plato lack something essential.
Whoever wants to express himself unfavorably about those older masters may call them one­sided, and their Epigones, with Plato as head, many­sided. Yet it would be more just and unbiased to conceive of the latter as philosophic hybrid­characters, of the former as the pure types. Plato himself is the first magnificent hybrid­character, and as such finds expression as well in his philosophy as in his personality. In his ideology are united Socratic, Pythagorean, and Heraclitean elements, and for this reason it is no typically pure phenomenon. As person, too, Plato mingles the features of the royally secluded, all-sufficing Heraclitus, of the melancholy­compassionate and legislatory Pythagoras and of the psycho-expert dialectician Socrates. All later philosophers are such hybrid­characters; wherever something one­sided does come into prominence with them as in the case of the Cynics, it is not type but caricature. Much more important however is the fact that they are founders of sects and that the sects founded by them are all institutions in direct opposition to the Hellenic culture and the unity of its style prevailing up to that time. In their way they seek a redemption, but only for the individuals or at the best for groups of friends and disciples closely connected with them. The activity of the older philosophers tends, although they were unconscious of it, towards a cure and purification on a large scale; the mighty course of Greek culture is not to be stopped; awful dangers are to be removed out of the way of its current; the philosopher protects and defends his native country. Now, since Plato, he is in exile and conspires against his fatherland.
It is a real misfortune that so very little of those older philosophic masters has come down to us and that all complete works of theirs are withheld from us. Involuntarily,on account of that loss,we measure them according to wrong standards and allow ourselves to be influenced unfavorably towards them by the mere accidental fact that Plato and Aristotle never lacked appreciators and copyists. Some people presuppose a special providence for books, a fatum libellorum; such a providence however would at any rate be a very malicious one if it deemed it wise to withhold from us the works of Heraclitus, Empedocles' wonderful poem, and the writings of Democritus, whom the ancients put on a par with Plato, whom he even excels as far as ingenuity goes, and as a substitute put into our hand Stoics, Epicureans and Cicero. Probably the most sublime part of Greek thought and its expression in words is lost to us; a fate which will not surprise the man who remembers the misfortunes of Scotus Erigena or of Pascal, and who considers that even in this enlightened century the first edition of Schopenhauer's The World As Will And Representation became waste­paper. If somebody will presuppose a special fatalistic power with respect to such things he may do so and say with Goethe: " Let no one complain about and grumble at things vile and mean, they are the real rulers,-however much this be gainsaid!" In particular they are more powerful than the power of truth, Mankind very rarely produces a good book in which with daring freedom is intonated the battle­song of truth, the song of philosophic heroism; and yet whether it is to live a century longer or to crumble and moulder into dust and ashes, depends on the most miserable accidents, on the sudden mental eclipse of people's heads, on superstitious convulsions and antipathies, finally on fingers not too fond of writing or even on eroding bookworms and rainy weather. But we will not lament but rather take the advice of the reproving and consolatory words which Hamann addresses to scholars who lament over lost works. "Would not the artist who succeeded in throwing a lentil through the eye of a needle have sufficient, with a bushel of lentils, to practice his acquired skill? One would like to put this question to all scholars who do not know how to use the works of the Ancients any better than that man used his lentils." It might be added in our case that not one more word, anecdote, or date needed to be transmitted to us than has been transmitted, indeed that even much less might have been preserved for us and yet we should have been able to establish the general doctrine that the Greeks justify philosophy.
A time which suffers from the so­called " general education" but has no culture and no unity of style in her life hardly knows what to do with philosophy, even if the latter were proclaimed by the very Genius of Truth in the streets and market­places. She rather remains at such a time the learned monologue of the solitary rambler, the accidental booty of the individual, the hidden closet­secret or the innocuous chatter between academic senility and childhood.
Nobody dare venture to fulfill in oneself the law of philosophy, nobody lives philosophically, with that simple human faith which compelled an Ancient, wherever one was, whatever one did, to deport oneself as a Stoic, when one had once pledged one's faith to the Stoa. All modern philosophising is limited politically and regulated by the police to learned semblance. Thanks to governments, churches, academies, customs, fashions, and the cowardice of people, it never gets beyond the sigh: " If only! . . ." or beyond the knowledge: " Once upon a time there was . . ." Philosophy is without rights; therefore modern humans, if they were at all courageous and conscientious, ought to condemn her and perhaps banish her with words similar to those by which Plato banished the tragic poets from his State. Of course there would be left a reply for her, as there remained to those poets against Plato. If one once compelled her to speak out she might say perhaps: "Miserable Nation! Is it my fault if among you I am on the tramp, like a fortune teller through the land, and must hide and disguise myself, as if I were a great sinner and ye my judges 7 Just look at my sister, Art! It is with her as with me; we have been cast adrift among the Barbarians and no longer know how to save ourselves. Here we are lacking, it is true, every good right; but the judges before whom we find justice judge you also and will tell you: First acquire a culture; then you shall experience what Philosophy can and will do."-

Notes :

Physis -- the ancient Greek's word for nature; Physis is contrasted to Nomos -- law, or human custom. Physis is that which comes-forth by-itself; Nomos is that which comes forth through human making.
ungebändigte Wissenstrieb

un = not
gebändigte = (bring under) control; (Naturkräfte)
Wissenstrieb = the drive for knowledge