THE ANCIENT GREEKS, CONSTRUCTIVISM, AND EXISTENTIALISM

Brief excerpts from "Psychology in Greek Philosophy," Victor Daniels, presented at the Western Psychological Association Conference, Seattle, April 26, 1997

PROTAGORAS: THE FIRST POSTMODERNIST?

Protagoras (480-411 B.C.), the best known of the Sophists, could be called the "Father of Relativism." Born in the Thracian town of Abcera, Protagoras spent most of his adult life in Athens. We can find no absolute truth, he held, but only truths that hold for given men under given conditions. Different truths can hold for different people at different times. Truth, goodness, and beauty are subjective and relative. In his well-known statement, "Man is the measure of all things: Of that which is that it is, and that which is not that it is not," he was saying, writes Robert McCleod, that "Everything that we know is in part a function of the knowing agent. The data of direct experience may be accepted as such; what is not given in direct experience must always be questioned..... Knowledge may extend beyond experience, but...the interests and limitations of the thinker will determine the nature of the product (p. 49)." Protagoras is implying that, "First, truth depends on the perceiver rather than on physical reality. Second, because perceptions vary with the previous experiences of the perceiver, they will vary from person to person. Third, what is considered to be true will be, in part, culturally determined because one's culture influences one's experiences. Fourth, to understand why a person believes as he or she does, one must understand the person"(Hergenhahn, p. 36). Protagoras was saying that each of the Athenian philosophers was presenting his subjective understanding rather than an "objective" truth about physical reality. Referring to Heraclitus' famous statement, Protagoras said, "The river is different for each individual to begin with.

SOCRATES: A DECONSTRUCTIONIST EXISTENTIALIST?

Because his central concerns were problems related to human existence, Socrates has sometimes been called the first existential philosopher. In the mid-Twentieth Century, Jean-Paul Sartre held that each of us is fully responsible for our own life, that we paint our portrait through our actions and that portrait is all there is. We are "thrown into" life-circumstances, but what we make of them is our own doing; under conditions of uncertainty, we choose, not knowing what the outcomes of our choices will be. Socrates lived by all these principles. He saw that his life was what he made it. He voiced no regrets. He bequeathed this outlook to Antisthenes, who passed it on to the Cynics and Stoics who came after him.

The Oracle at Delphi declared that no one was wiser than Socrates, because he claimed that he himself knew nothing, while others who knew far less walked about parading their knowledge, Socrates set out to see if he could disprove the oracle by finding a wiser man. Naturally, his exposure of others' ignorance made him unpopular with those who were shown to be less wise then they thought themselves to be. Part of Socrates' message was that admission of one's errors and the limits to one's understanding is a necessary prerequisite for learning.

ARISTOTLE THE SCIENTIST: THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERNISM. In sharp contrast to Plato, Aristotle emphasized careful observation and did not trust purely rational methods. While Plato believed that forms existed independent of nature, Aristotle held that essences existed but could only be discovered by studying nature. Like Socrates, he believed that if we study enough examples of a principle or phenomenon, we will finally be able to puzzle out the essence that underlies them. In this he turned Plato's approach upside down. For Plato a real thing or event could illustrate a principle that reason could grasp directly, while Aristotle countered that we discover the principle through observation of particulars. His method was to observe, classify, deduce the implications, and then use the deductions as the basis for a new round of observation. As we will see below, the term "empirical" was not coined until two centurieslater, but it describes a central part of Aristotle's point of view. The revival of this method in the 16th Century was animportant part of the rise of science after a millennium-and-a-half of ecclesiastical orthodoxy. "The scientist," writes McCleod, "studies particular structures and processes to learn how they reflect a being's inner nature, and what general purposes they serve, and how they do that.

LATER DECONSTRUCTIONISTS: THE SKEPTICS AND THE CYNICS

Around 360 B.C., Phyrro of Elis (c. 360-270 B.C.) was born. He studied in India and then returned to Elis, his birthplace, to teach philosophy. Phyrro was the first of the Skeptics, after the Greek term skeptikos, which meant "inquirers." The Skeptics were the most direct successors to Socrates' stance of questioning every presumed certainty. Skepticism promoted a suspension of all belief. A philosophical skeptic examines alleged achievements in various fields to see if those who claim to know something really know what they claim to know. Some skeptics claimed that no knowledge beyond immediateexperience is possible, while others doubted that even immediate experience is a fully reliable guide to truth.

THE CYNICS: ANTISTHENES AND DIOGENES

While Plato was Socrates' most famous student, two others were also influential, Antisthenes (c. 444-371 B.C.); and Aristippus (c. 435-356 B.C.), whom we will meet later. Antisthenes, the son of an Athenian citizen and a Thracian slave, founded the school which came to be known as the Cynics. He gave up all property and dressed in a cloak so ragged that Socrates joked, "I can see your vanity, Antisthenes, through the holes of your cloak." After Socrates died, Antisthenes chose to speak at the Cynosarges (Dogfish) gymnasium lecture center, because it was used by people of the lower classes and foreigners. From it comes the name "Cynic." Antisthenes was a true proletarian in his disposition. He accepted no pay,dressed like a workingman, preferred the poor for pupils, and made poverty and hardship part of his course of study. "All refined philosophy he held to be worthless; what could be known, could be known by the plain man. He believed in the 'return to nature'.... There was to be no government, no private property, no marriage, no established religion. His followers, if not he himself, condemned slavery.... He despised luxury and all pursuit of artificial pleasures of the senses."(Russell, 230-31) The Cynics were cynical toward all the material gettings, doings, and trivial pursuits of society. "The essence of the Cynic philosophy," writes Durant, [is] to reduce the things of the flesh to bare necessities so that the soul may be as free as possible (506)."

Antisthenes' reputation was eclipsed by that of his student Diogenes (c. 412-323 B.C.). Almost all of us have seen the picture of an old man in a cloak, holding a lantern and a staff, which appears on many versions of the Tarot Card, "The Hermit." Some say that the lantern was meant to help Diogenes in his search for truth; others hold that it was to help him find an honest man. Perhaps both assertions were true. A bankrupt banker from Sinope, Diogenes lived the Cynic doctrine totally. The St. Francis of ancient Greece, he chose the robe, wallet and staff of a beggar. He sought to render worthless the conventional labels and "social currencies" of the world such as "king, general, and honor." He imitated the simple life ofanimals, sleeping on the ground, eating whatever he could find or beg, and (witnesses attest) "performing the duties of nature and the rites of love in the sight of all. Seeing a child drink from its hands, he threw away his cup."(Durant, 507) He was an advocate of free love and a community of wives (but, so far as we know, not of husbands. There may be some sexism here). He refused to obey any law that made no sense to him, but injured no one. In short, he lived much like any of thousands of wandering yellow-robed mendicant sadhus in India today, but his intelligence and wisdom made him, after Alexander, the most famous man in Greece. He called Freedom of Speech the greatest of social goods, had a wonderful sense of humor, and allegedly never lost an argument.

THE STOICS, FROM ZENO OF CITIUM TO MARCUS AURELIUS: GREEK AND ROMAN CONSTRUCTIVISTS

The Stoic school existed as such for five hundred years. It held that the basic task of humankind is to follow the law of nature, and devoted itself to determining what that is.

The Stoic lineage can easily be traced back to the cosmopolitan Cynics, with their view of nature as superior to local customs or politics, their Spartan lifestyle, and their belief in the autarkeia, or autonomy, of the virtuous person. Indeed, Stoic teachings are foreshadowed in Heraclitus of Ephesus, with his subordination of the person to the law of nature, to logos or reason, and his belief in eternal change. The Stoics also revered Socrates for his enduring example of rational self-control and the simplicity of his material life.

The school itself is said to have begun in 300 B.C. when its founder Zeno of Citium (also sometimes called Zeno of Cyprus, c. 336-262 B.C.), who was born in Citium, Cyprus began lecturing on the Painted Porch (Stoa Poikile) of a temple in Athens named for the paintings of Polygnotus which adorned it. . . . Stoicism, the most broadly representative of the Hellenistic philosophies," writes Tarnas, possessed a loftiness of vision and moral temper that would long leave its mark on the Western spirit" (76).

The good life according to the Stoics includes cultivating intelligence, bravery, justice, and self control. Study and imitation of the wise person was said to be one path to wisdom. We can learn to become indifferent to the vicissitudes of fate, yet must hold ourselves and others ethically responsible for every action. We likewise have a responsibility to play the part in civic life that we are suited by our nature to play, but must not attach our happiness to place, power, or possessions.

This is no self-indulgent philosophy. All the chief virtues are related, the Stoics maintained, so that we cannot succeed in developing some while neglecting the others. This conception is related to the ideal of a balance among the different sides of a person's being and life which played a major role in many strains of Hellenic and Hellenistic thought. Epictetus held that we must find happiness within ourselves, stressing the importance of cultivating complete independence from external circumstances. He cited the example of Diogenes, who wore sackcloth and slept on the bare ground, and quoted Diogenes' remark that Fame is but the empty noise of madmen. When a feast is set before us, he said, we accept what is given, rather than asking for something more. In this way we learn to endure all the twists and turns of fate. "Have you not received the inner powers with which to endure all that comes to pass?" he asked. "Do you not have greatness of heart, courage, fortitude?" Even a slave as he himself was, he pointed out, can be inwardly and spiritually free. Events are what they are, but what we make of them is up to us."

Epictetus foreshadowed contemporary communication theorists' "reframing" and cognitive behaviorists' "cognitive restructuring" in his observation, "Everything has two handles, one by which it may be borne, the other by which it may not. If your brother sin against you lay not hold of it by the handle of his injustice, for by that it may not be borne; but rather by the fact that he is your brother, the comrade of your youth, and by this handle it may be borne."

For the complete text from which this is drawn, see "Psychology in Greek Philosophy" at this website.