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How Philosophy Was Saved Thanks to a Slaughter

Por: | 29 de mayo de 2014


Professor Theodoris Pelegrinis, University of Athens

Ever since philosophy appeared (in the 6th century BCE), its fate has been insolubly linked to the operation of schools — not necessarily in the sense of buildings or shared spaces where philosophers would meet to discuss matters of their concern, but rather in the sense that any opinion on a given subject, no matter whose it might have been, could be challenged by somebody else, even though the challenger could well be — and usually was — a disciple of the former. Provided that the disciple had spotted some kind of structural weakness in his or her teacher’s approach, or in case he or she felt an innovative one was applicable, any opinion could be challenged.

For instance, when Thales, the father of philosophy, argued that the main and fundamental element of our world is water, Anaximander, his senior disciple, challenged his master’s assumption by putting forth his own theory: the main and fundamental element of the world is infinity. Thales and Anaximander were members of the school of Mellitus, the first school of philosophy. Ever since, numerous other schools have appeared such as the ones of Ephesus and of Elea; the Atomics; Plato’s Academy; the minor Socratic schools; the Lyceum; the Cynics; the Cyrenaics; the school of Epicurus; the Stoa; and the schools of Neo-Platonism. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance saw the creation of the school of Chartres; the Academy of Florence; and the schools of nominalism, of choisism, of Thomism, of Padua. Even later, the world of philosophy saw the rise of the school of rationalism and empiricism; the schools of neokantianism, of Hegelianism, of the common sense, of existentialism, of pragmatism, of intuitionism, of Frankfurt, and the one of phenomenology, as well as many others. Philosophy, from its birth until now, has been pacing along its neverending path, which leads its way through schools, where the exchange of ideas — the dialogue — Is systematically cultivated.

Still, philosophy could well have become extinct if the fate of one gifted Greek sage had been different. The person in question is Pythagoras. Born around 570 BCE in Samos, Pythagoras was educated in Egypt and Babylon and went afterwards to Croton in Southern Italy, where he founded a philosophical school. The distinctive trait of Pythagoras’ school — which offered a kind of education that was an amalgam of mysticism, religion and morals, on one hand, and mathematical exercise and scientific research on the other — was the absolute absence of dialogue. To become a member of this school, students first had to undergo a long period of silence, during which they had to learn to “keep their mouths shut.” Next they had to listen to their master’s — Pythagoras’ — voice for five years without being permitted to see him; they were expected to accept aphorisms without demanding proofs. Finally, they were allowed to learn proofs — but not to dispute them, since such an endeavor would constitute a major insult to their master. Nobody was entitled to challenge Pythagoras’ views. The saying that reputedly circulated within the community was “He said so,” he meaning Pythagoras, and thus nobody had any right to comment upon it. Given all these, how could this way of teaching — based solely on blind obedience and the interdiction of different views — be related to other schools, whose methods demanded that disciples exchange views and dispute opinions using arguments, even to the point of total deconstruction of their masters’ theories?

The very beginning of philosophy in Greece saw the confrontation of two diametrically opposed schools of thought: the one steeped in esoteric meditation, which was being cultivated among the Pythagoreans, the other — basically all other schools — engaged in dialectics, argumentation, and constantly refutable reflection. At the end of the day the latter trait prevailed.

But why it prevailed was not necessarily because the philosophers of the time agreed that the dialectic method was superior. The inhabitants of Croton, afraid of the growing power acquired by Pythagoras’ school and its members, descended upon them and slaughtered them, after setting fire to the building in which they had gathered.

However, the method of teaching proposed by Pythagoras eventually prevailed elsewhere, and in a different form. The silent, inarguable, and mystic meditation interlaced throughout Pythagoras’ teachings found fertile ground for evolving within the scope of Buddhism, Taoism, or Zoroastrism, which are the dominant spiritual currents in the East. Actually, Pythagoras is historically closer to Buddha, Lao-Tse and Zoroaster, since they all three lived in approximately the same era.

One could claim — with as much certainty, of course, as such estimations on the evolution of thought in history may permit — that the violent and abrupt ending caused by the inhabitants of Croton decided the fate of the Pythagorean method. Greek thought adopted dialectics as the most appropriate — and, sometimes, the only — way of dealing with philosophical issues. Due to that decision, philosophy — as we know it today — was actually saved.

Professor Theodoris Pelegrinis
University of Athens

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