The Dissimulation of Man: Will to Power, Hubris, and Downfall

“But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only at what is possible, for we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where the pressure of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must. (Thucydides 5.89)

“For of the Gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature wherever they can rule they will. This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath it to all time, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do.” (Thucydides 5.105)

What is the source of ancient Greece’s lasting legacy? What contributed to her dominating force and efflorescing beauty in the ancient world? I’d like to examine Athenian culture (paideia) within the context of the ancient Greek world and identify will to power as the prevailing causal mechanism for her greatness . However, I argue that, despite being a source of initial strength, this inclination for power is eventually the source of Athens downfall as hubris leads to self-deception and miscalculation.

The fortitude or hellikon that arose in ancient Greece was a result of their common preoccupation with the ideal man. In ancient Greece the ideal man manifested as a continual striving towards arete (Gk. ἀρετή, Lt. virtus), or excellence, which served as the source of their competitive spirit. This competitive spirit was vigorously active among the Greeks, with the city states constantly challenging and competing with each other, even when foreign enemies, such as the Persians, were no longer a threat. The spirit of competition was most exemplified through the agon characterizing Greek Olympic games and Religious festivals. They praised the noble character containing virtues which extolled the nature of man as a continual overcoming. This ideal was first embodied in Homeric works as a type of humanism in which struggle (agon) and glory (kleos) were the grandest features of the human experience. The propensity for overcoming was none other than a will to power, or the will to survive, which the Greeks insisted was preserved through their freedom; specifically, their freedom from oppression and, likewise, their freedom to oppress. Indeed, as a slave owning society, oppression was a common feature yielded among the Greeks and the resistance of these slave owners to be ruled seems only natural.

Beginning in the 5th century BC there is a marked change in morality in the Athenians that can be witnessed throughout their culture. What occurred was a shift in the cultural value system that deviated from the internally ideal man towards an externally ideal representation of man. In the arts and drama this was marked by a transition away from mysticism and religion toward realism and secularism. This schism may be symbolically represented between the relationship of Socrates and Plato at the turn of the 4th century BC, with Socrates representing an emphasis on the internal man and Plato emphasizing the external man.

It was Socrates who refused to record his philosophy because he understood that wisdom and right living cannot be contained in words, but in present action and mutual dialog alone. In Plato’s dialog Phaedrus, Socrates discusses his aversion for writing, saying that writing would not allow ideas to flow freely and change in real time as they do in the mind during oral exchange, so that over time written language cannot change and the meaning is lost. Socrates was the gadfly who emphasized the exercise of inner reason and reflection over immediate appearances and traditional convention. However, Socrates was an empiricist at heart, as illustrated in the Phaedrus when he said “to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous”, and always questioned stories and ideas until they were demonstrated or experienced for himself.

In contradistinction, Plato came on the scene at the pinnacle of this transition, just as Athens was feeling a backlash from the Greek world due to her propensity for power and control. Fittingly, it was Plato who first to attempted the distillation of the noble essence contained in man in his formulation of the good and forms into an objective, logically coherent system. The very act of transcribing and writing down a systematic formulation of man epitomized the Greek sentiments of an idealism that could be functionally preserved outside of man.

As the Athenian conception of the ideal man developed and took external form, so too did their emphasis on materialism and power. Seated at the head of the Delian league, Athens collected taxes from her Greek allies for their protection and engaged in a subtle form of expansionism. Boundaries beyond Athenian walls were extended and both wealthy and middle class Athenians enjoyed a period of economic expansion. The revenues collected from the Delian league were arguably used to free up city building projects as well as reimburse citizens for civic service, such jury duty and the like. The economic expansionism was greatly increased due to Athens role as a naval power which facilitated the corn trade among other commodities throughout the mediterranean world.

While it is impossible to determine whether emphasis on the external representation of man lead to material and economic accumulation or vice versa, what can be said is that the will to power was the driving force behind its inertia. By emphasizing the external, the Greeks began institutionalizing their culture in a way not seen since the Homeric epics, but rather than the anthropomorphized qualities and virtues of man manifesting as Greek gods, man himself became a god devoid of the inner variegation captured by the Pantheon. For the Athenians, the culmination of this change in values meant that man no longer sought to overcome himself, but sought to overcome others. That is, Athen’s enemy was no longer the vices, ignorance, and folly characteristic of man as it was so long before, but rather it was the external world that was to be overcome. The exploitation of other Greek cities created inequalities that injured the resilient Greek spirit or hellenikon they shared. When it came time for war, the Athenians argued that “might makes right” as their justification for battle, rather than any sensible or restrained words of wisdom. This over estimation of their ability lead to gross miscalculations and, consequently, their eventual downfall.

The Dissimulation of Man, which serves as the title of this post, refers to the self-deception that occurs when external “material” values trump internal “spiritual” values of the kind extolled in arete and virtues personified by the Greek Gods and exercised through reason. Existing as a natural tendency of man and, in the context of this paper, Athens, the will to power is the driving mechanism that allows for continual overcoming. So long as we are overcoming ourselves, and seeking to change and modify internal man, rather than the external world and others contained in it, humanity will flourish.

References
Boardman, John, Jasper Griffen, and Oswyn Murray. The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 126-213.

Plato. “Phaedrus.” Phaedrus. Internet Classics Archive, n.d. Web. 26 Apr 2012..

Woodruff, Paul. On Justice, Power, And Human Nature, The Essence Of Thucydides’ History Of The Peloponnesian War. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub Co Inc, 1993.

Skepticism and Progress

Does Pyrrhonian skepticism provide a viable approach for a progressive life? Skepticism is often reproached for its noncommittal attitude towards life, being charged with apraxia, the lack of asserted action or purpose, as well as a deficiency of imagination due to their continual appeal to the unadorned appearances. So we ask, what good is skepticism? Better yet, why practice skepticism? Surely there are compelling justifications why the skeptic school should be preferred over any other, otherwise there be no incentive to study and practice the discipline over any other. To explore these questions I will use ‘progress’ in the philosophical as well as the historical sense. Stated clearly, I will investigate whether the skeptical approach is capable of solving problems, or providing answers to questions, and whether these solutions provide a means of becoming increasingly better in the various life projects humanity undertakes.

I will begin by delineating the core tenants of skepticism, specifically exploring the aim and ends of quietude, before discussing the dilemmas and consequence of these tenants, such as the charge of apraxia brought against skepticism. I will then argue that the skeptical approach ultimately tames progress by providing a regulatory methodology that corrects for stipulative errors of judgment, but does not directly contribute to progress due to its inherent inability to assert any original facticities of value. To conclude, I will take the position that the skeptical approach (though not explicitly stated by the skeptics themselves) is vital in the development of a critical consciousness, that its methodology and tropes provide an analytical framework and methods of deconstruction and reduction that render dogmatic facts, semantics and values as subjective instruments, rather than true facts. Continue reading “Skepticism and Progress”

Dure

What’s wrong with our country? Our economy, our politics, our propaganda, our values, our media, our individuals: our culture: a fabricated fortress of rhetoric that keeps more in than it keeps out. We are at the pinnacle of our glory. It could be argued that we’ve been improving along the way, but I don’t think we’re any further along than the Romans or Greeks or Egyptians once were. We’re proud and gluttonous and utterly facile. We’ve built a society that takes care of the harder tasks of life and we’ve grown grotesquely dependent on it. We seek to escape the struggle to survive as if we were above it, as if we were gods and not crawling creatures and defacating animals. Every culture seeks to mimic the glorified, be it Christ or Buddha or Caesar or America or celebrities or politicians or businessmen. I’m not convinced we’re free or further along at all. In the struggle for survival it seems humans quite naturally seek to rob themselves of the very skills to survive until they are at the mercy of a machine of influence and power that they claim is a true reflection of their wants and wishes. Somewhere along the line this towering confluence of congenial compromise conquers its makers it a brash and booming way. And I think we’ll all be around to see it happen. I read that scientists believe that the first person that will live to 150 years of age has already been born, and within the next fifty years the first person to live to 1,000 years of age will be born. Man is obsessed with conquering. It’s the heroism that bolsters the ego out of its wormy condition. The ultimate obstruction for man to surmount is death. I do not think we’ll accomplish this feat. I believe we’re terribly blinded to the realities of our physical nature. The economy, the government, the science- it’s all supported by a delicate web of beliefs built purely on faith. And once the pacification is jarred and we’re confronted with our frailty? it will unravel and crash. Until then, the media and government and society- the culture- will continue perpetuating it’s childish myths as fact and not fiction. It serves the utility of contemporaneousness community and comfort.

I feel like history repeats itself. I watched Doctor Zhivago this evening (If you didn’t know already, the novel is amazing, and the 1965 is equally riveting and moving).  While I was watching the movie a particular quote struck me quite profoundly and I kept it in the back of my mind until now:

In bourgeois terms, it was a war between the Allies and Germany. In Bolshevik terms, it was a war between the Allied and German upper classes – and which of them won was of total indifference. My task was to organize defeat, so as to hasten the onset of revolution. I enlisted under the name of Petrov. The party looked to the peasant conscript soldiers – many of whom were wearing their first real pair of boots. When the boots had worn out, they’d be ready to listen. When the time came, I was able to take three whole battalions out of the front lines with me – the best day’s work I ever did. But for now, there was nothing to be done. There were too many volunteers. Most of it was mere hysteria.

This quote made me think of our current situation. Wars all across the globe, on foreign fronts where the massacre and murder can be fed to us second hand at a safe distance. Who makes the decisions for our country? Our government, almost synonymous with the lobby powers of business and political influence, our modern bourgeois. They speak and the masses listen with hysterical enthusiasm to whatever call that strokes their insecurities and passions.

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I made music tonight. It felt good. I went to Vladik’s this evening to celebrate his completion of the DAT examination. We conversed while drinking shots of Silver Tequila and smoking cigarillos. I played guitar and he produced beats and rhythm on the keyboard and computer. We got about a minute of music and lyrics down. It sounds good. I’ll post when we’re finished.