No Philosophy, No Progress, No Civilization

Progress is necessary: all ecologies, and thus technologies, get exhausted, or exhausting. Civilization rides a bicycle, and cannot long stop anywhere.

Progress does not happen out of the blue. It is instigated by the love of wisdom (philosophy). The progress of humanity is propelled by exerting a mind, one mind, at the highest level, first, and find a new idea, or emotion. And then to make that new wisdom blossom, and propagate throughout society. How exactly this happened can help figure out how it may happen again.

The explosion of philosophy in Ancient Greece was not sparked by Socrates (contrarily to legend). The reason for the veneration of the trio constituted by Socrates, his student Plato, and  Aristotle, student of the latter, is rather sinister. Socrates launched a weasel denunciation of Direct Democracy. demolishing it because of technicalities. That turned into the Politically Correct justification of more than 20 centuries of fascism (“monarchies”) from Eire to India.

Thus Socrates was a sort of famous counter-revolutionary. He helped demolish what he profited from, Athenian civilization (Aristotle did much worse, he demolished democratic civilization itself, promoting instead a fascist plutocracy led by his most intimate friends). The ascent of wisdom and progress was fully evident by the age of Pericles, decades before. Pericles’ top advisers, including his wife, were top philosophers. They promoted the concept of Open Society (lauded in Pericles’ Funeral Oration). Arguably, the concept of Open Society, and the progress of mind it brought, was important than the entire work of Socrates.

But to understand the rise of wisdom in Greece, one has to go much earlier than Pericles’ generation. The great legislator Solon, a bit more than a century before Pericles, replaced the draconian Draco style of legislation with the opposite orientation. 

On The Left, Representation Of Solon In The US House Of Representatives. On the right, a statue of Solon.

On The Left, Representation Of Solon In The US House Of Representatives. On the right, a statue of Solon.

Solon was born around 638 BCE. He was also a poet and war leader (he secured to Athens the possession of the island of Salamis through battle and Sparta’s arbitrage). Solon replaced systematic execution for any crime, by subtle and appropriate laws. More controversially, he erased debts (the ones in the know, his friends, profited from it).

Solon launched Athens into that Open Society managed around ideas and progress. Solon was a great traveller, and left Athens for more than a decade. Even earlier, Homer played an important role, with his tales of how the deepest emotions mess up with the world, or lift it beyond heavens. 

So why was Greece so wise? Because that’s how it rose to prominence. 

Similarly, the renewed rise of wisdom in the European Middle Ages did not happen just in the famed “renaissance” around 1450 CE. It had started much earlier. A full millennium earlier, when the Franks founded their civilization on tolerance. By 650 CE, the Merovingian Franks, by then the great power of Europe, thanks to their control of Gallia and Germania, outlawed slavery (under Bathilde, the slave who became queen). That was followed by nationalization of the Catholic church, fighting off three massive Islamist invasions, mandatory education, total religious tolerance, and a “renovation of the Roman empire”. By then all religious establishment had to teach everybody secularly, founding the university system. 

The Economist wrote a critique of “The Dream of Enlightenment” (by Anthony Gottlieb) “on some of the great Enlightenment thinkers, including Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire…

They were freelance philosophers working independently of the universities, criticising mainstream views and liberating thought from its academic straitjacket and neo-Aristotelian dogmatism. They were dangerous thinkers all, one publication away from exile, imprisonment or worse for their radical views on religion, politics and morality. Spinoza was the subject of a cherem, the equivalent of excommunication from the Amsterdam Sephardic synagogue; Locke disguised his authorship… spent a number of years in self-imposed exile; Hume chose to publish his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” posthumously; and Rousseau fled to England when persecuted in mainland Europe”. 

One cannot underestimate the terror generating new thinking brings. Most of the top thinkers where on the run, or in terrible trouble, fleeing here and there, from Giordano Bruno to Kepler, Galileo,  to Descartes, Hobbes, etc. In “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant used the motto Sapere aude (“Dare to know”) 

This all started five centuries earlier. By 1100 CE, the great philosopher, lover and songwriter Abelard was called “our Aristotle” by Peter the Venerable, head of Cluny (the largest religious establishment). Abelard fought Saint Bernard. Cathars and later Vaudois appeared in short order. Abelard got excommunicated, then readmitted to the Church (?), etc. 

It was even worse under Islam. A bit after the war between Abelard and Saint Bernard, the famous Ibn Rushd (“Averroes” in Western historiography), an Islamist judge, philosopher and doctor to Caliph (of Spain) was banned, and his books destroyed for writing “The Incoherence of the Incoherence” against a religious fanatic who had attacked philosophy in The Incoherence of the Philosophers  (Ibn Rushd got rehabilitated, shortly before his death, after a great victory of Caliph Al Mansour). 

In the next five centuries, many thinkers would be legally executed. Executed for offenses such as printing books; the Sultan Francois Premier of France (soon imitated by the Sultan of Turkey) outlawed printing for a while, under the penalty of death, some of Rabelais’s friends and printers were burned alive; Rabelais himself, a well-connected top doctor, was not touched, but implicitly threatened. This courage is what the Enlightenment was built on.

Bringing people together on yesterday’s consensus is easy. Politicians love to do that. Philosophers, the real ones, do the opposite: they bring people asunder, down to the bottom of their souls, to establish tomorrow’s consensus, with superior, yet unborn ideas. The greatest leaders were definitively either advised by philosophers (for example, Charlemagne, and the US Founding Fathers) or philosophers themselves (Cicero, Caesar, Clovis, Solon, Pericles, Queen Bathilde, etc.)

We are the thinking species. Yet thinking means creation, anew. And creation means destruction, at least neurologically speaking. Loving is giving, yet the gift of really truly new thinking, is a gift of destruction. This is definitively a paradox, common people have a hard time embracing the concept and the mood behind it, as they rather embrace the mood that being a sheep in the flock is much safer.

No wonder humanity is ambivalent about real philosophers, except when they are safely dead already. 

Patrice Ayme’

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22 Responses to “No Philosophy, No Progress, No Civilization”

  1. Paul Handover Says:

    I’m hearing in your words the notion that the widespread terror we are experiencing at present is the consequence of thinking in these times. Am I hearing that correctly? If so, will you articulate what that new thinking is? (Then I will share my ideas.)

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      We need to improve the thinking, and that will improve the politics. Direct Democracy got killed by the trio Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. We need to bring it back. Interestingly, California with a GDP a bit larger than Britain or France, is the large state practicing direct democracy to the greatest extent (Switzerland, only 8 million practices it even more and is even richer). Is that what you are thinking of? That’s what I think about, and tried to explain.

      • Paul Handover Says:

        No, that wasn’t in my mind. But you put your finger on something that I have previously realized. That if millions of us can securely and privately access our bank accounts online then we can most certainly practice direct democratic wishes.

        For the present representative process in many parts of the world is clearly not working.

        But do you see a link between this and terror?

        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Dear Paul: Are you asking whether I see a link between the failure of representative democracy and Islamist terror?
          Yes.
          I have tried to explain this in many essays. In 1930, France and Britain had a lock down on Africa and the Middle East. However, US businessmen, and oilmen, made an alliance with Wahhabists. In 1945, said alliance with the fanatics became official US policy:
          https://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/great-bitter-lake/
          (where you figure prominently!)

          Ever since US plutocrats instrumentalized Wahhabism/Salafism. That worked splendidly until 9/11. And even after, as the invasion of Iraq, an apparent failure, truly was a success, making US fracking profitable.
          All these conspiracies withing conspiracies would not be approved by the US people. And such conspiracies can only work if relatively few are involved. In particular few enough to control the media (I am censored on many MSM, including new York Times and Guardian, just because… I have notice many MSM obviously filter comments: the Daily Mail has no climate warming comments, etc.)

          Reciprocally, plutocratic oppression create genuine malcontents (example: in Al Qaeda and IS)

          More generally plutocratic oppressors a la 1984 (whom we have pretty much now) have interest to generate conflicts (be it only by not fighting those who create them). Does this answer what you are thinking about?
          Direct Democracy would have first to interfere with the present system, as happens in Switzerland. That would make change more certain, deeper, yet more cautious and conservative, as in Switzerland.

        • Kevin Berger Says:

          “That if millions of us can securely and privately access our bank accounts online then we can most certainly practice direct democratic wishes.
          For the present representative process in many parts of the world is clearly not working.”

          Somewhat OT, but you might want to listen to a couple very amusing 2004-ish radio shows. Dave Emory interviews Daniel Hopsicker on some of his researches at the time, branching off from his awesome, if ultimately and sadly futile, investigative journalism on the 9/11 hijackers Florida time (itself very much linked to his previous work on Reagan era’s cocaine bonanza), into some familiar territories.
          http://spitfirelist.com/audio/audio-400-499/ , shows 487, 493-494, about 30 minutes each. The subject has been mentioned again in some later interviews, but despite all the sleaze lying pretty much in the open, available even to open-sources, old school journalism, nothing ever mattered much, if any.
          Very entertaining, if nothing else (the shows themselves are rather pleasant)!
          FWIW.

      • Paul Handover Says:

        I am aware that having promised to share my own ideas then breakfast and a book-signing event all day rudely interrupted things.

        My own musings were a lot less focused that yours. But they were also to do with in the Internet. Simply that the incredibly ways in which millions of good, honest ‘folk’ can link together, can learn, can be informed, can challenge, and on and on, must be unprecedented.

        Just take the world of WordPress blogs as an example.

        Just take the ease with which this humble author can undertake academic research in connection with my second book. The quick completion of an online application had me signed up as a member of AAAS and, bingo!, access to all their scientific papers in digital format.

        You wrote: “So the future is not far away.” I hope so and I sincerely hope that I am not too old in the head to witness it. These are amazing times!

  2. Kevin Berger Says:

    Mleh. Way too high-minded and abstract for me. I don’t know a thing, but I still am “sure” that what you mean in your last two paragraphs goes straight head-on against the reality (“mood”) of our time/modernity/civilization/whatever. What you call for just won’t happen, because our civilization is a anti-civilization of lies, a satanic inversion – plutocratic, as you’d put it, but satanic is the best shorthand for me.
    And if reform or change indeed is impossible from within, then change can only come when it ends. By burning itself out or crashing against reality.
    I’m aware that I am as grandiloquent and confuse as ever, and I’d prefer to avoid falling into the despair porn trap as well, but when you write about civilization, you are performing an autopsy IMHO.
    It will revive eventually, as part of some grand cycle, until some eventual final end, way down the line, probably… but the anti-civilization that replaced it (as part of some grand cycle again?) needs to die off first. Why, how, I don’t know, can’t know, and don’t care – as long as I selfishly win the death bet, that is. Good luck to the future, good luck to the philosophers, good luck to the great leaders, the present just can’t be salvaged, much less saved.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      “Satanic” means Plutoic” (a neologism). Satan is Pluto is Hades (& is the Islamist “Shaitan”)

      I beg to differ. Civilization is alive and well. Under assault, yes. But still kicking. Things could change for the worst very quickly, though. One nuke would do it. The US, at least, would probably engage in official fascism. France, Britain also could, and Russia is half there.

      The Frankish “imperium” started as a second foundation of Rome. By Roman generals/lawyers. Interestingly, that was after the army had seized power in Rome (that happened with the Libyan Punic Septimus Severus). What philosophy does is to find the long range ideas and moods, which will carry the future. We are at a time where change is extremely fast. So the future is not far away.

    • Gmax Says:

      If Solon is down to earth for the US House of Representatives, it is not too high minded, I reckon

  3. SDM Says:

    Direct democracy was feared by US founding fathers – they saw it as mob rule, the tyranny of the majority. Hence restricted voting rights, senators appointed by state legislatures, etc. US has notoriously low voter turnout and, even so, voting rights are under constant attack. Plutocracy hates, and fears, democracy.
    Then again, the benefits of self rule assume an informed and literate people making correct choices. People tend to be followers and usually are looking for someone else to lead the way. Easier to follow than to lead. Media control is a cherished weapon!

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      An unmotivated We The People is an ignorant We The People. Conversely, if given the vote, People will be motivated to be wiser and less ignorant.

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Washington, Jefferson and many other prominent Founding Fathers were immensely rich (Ben Franklin is felt to have been poor, relatively… But converted in 2010 dollars, his wealth is 43 million dollars… And he owned slaves). From Wiki:

      “At the time of the convention, 13 men were merchants: Blount, Broom, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, Shields, Gilman, Gorham, Langdon, Robert Morris, Pierce, Sherman, and Wilson.
      Seven were major land speculators: Blount, Dayton, Fitzsimmons, Gorham, Robert Morris, WASHINGTON, and Wilson.
      Eleven speculated in securities on a large scale: Bedford, Blair, Clymer, Dayton, Fitzsimons, FRANKLIN, King, Langdon, Robert Morris, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Sherman.
      Fourteen owned or managed slave-operated plantations or large farms: Bassett, Blair, Blount, Johnson, Butler, Carroll, Jenifer, MADISON, Mason, Charles Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Rutledge, Spaight, and WASHINGTON.
      Many wealthy Northerners owned domestic slaves: Franklin later freed his slaves and was a key founde
      r of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.”

      Maybe we should stop calling the capital Washington? (Just wondering.)

  4. hazxan Says:

    *What* progresses? Human beings? Are we to believe that a species can be other than what it actually is? Is this only possible for human beings or can zebras, ants and giraffes indulge in this progress thing too?

    I believe human beings are the same now as they were at the dawn of recorded history. That’s the lessons we learn from those ancient cultures. And they all ended up in ruins, as will we. Human’s now are as liable to follow a despot leader with simple solutions, to join a big gang and commit atrocities as they ever were. Is their any serious evidence to the contrary?

    Maybe human beings are one of the many evolutionary dead ends. Why would we be exempt? Any belief in a special mission or purpose for humans is at core the same belief same as any of the 100,000 different religions that have existed. An unscientific and irrational burying of the head in the sand to avoid reality.

  5. hazxan Says:

    “One cannot underestimate the terror generating new thinking brings.”

    Personally, I find old thinking just as terrifying. Including those recent variations on old school Christianity, such as humanism and a belief in progress that seems as realistic as the idea that Jesus is going to return, complete with beard and stigmata, and fix everything.

    • picard578 Says:

      Problem is, thinking in general is terrifying. Humans pride themselves on being “homo sapiens” (Sapiens, sapientis – wise, thinking) but contrary to that label, they prefer not to think. Instead they find safety in stupidity of the large groups – as it is much easier to justify eating that extra helping of pizza if everybody else does so, so it is much easier to justify unthinking obedience if everybody else does it as well. Best case scenario, they rely on “leaders” and “experts” to think for them, ad attack anyone who tries thinking independently. Thinking for oneself automatically means seceding from the group, and the group will automatically try to suppress it as a result.

      In the end, stupid idea is worse than a crazy idea, but the worst possible thing is having no idea at all. Yet because thinking is so terrifying, people often prefer not to think, especially if that means alienating and/or insulting other people.

  6. picard578 Says:

    “More controversially, he erased debts (the ones in the know, his friends, profited from it).”

    But so did the small landowners and the poor, which significantly weakened the forces of plutocracy and prevented the Athens from turning into Spartan-style oligarchy. Not that the Athens was ever very democratic to begin with.

    “One cannot underestimate the terror generating new thinking brings. Most of the top thinkers where on the run, or in terrible trouble, fleeing here and there, from Giordano Bruno to Kepler, Galileo, to Descartes, Hobbes, etc. In “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant used the motto Sapere aude (“Dare to know”) ”

    Thinking is dangerous to people in power, and so are thinkers. Why do you think plutocracy – through privatization and destruction of state – always wants to take over control of the educational and informational system? To create slaves, unthinking and unfeeling, too stupid for anything beyond doing their “jobs” and bringing plutocracy the profit. If you control thoughts, no other control is necessary. That is what George Orwell in his “Animal Farm” has described, among many other important lessons which are just as relevant to the modern neoliberal capitalist system as they were to the old Communist dictatorship.

    “We are the thinking species. Yet thinking means creation, anew. And creation means destruction, at least neurologically speaking. Loving is giving, yet the gift of really truly new thinking, is a gift of destruction. This is definitively a paradox, common people have a hard time embracing the concept and the mood behind it, as they rather embrace the mood that being a sheep in the flock is much safer.”

    Much safer… and much easier. You see, John Boyd has correctly seen the pattern of though: observe, orient, decide, act. Observe the surroundings, orient in them based on the previous experiences, decide based on the orientation and act. Out of these four steps, three – observation, orientation and action – are vulnerable to interference from the outside. All four require thinking. But when in immediate danger, thinking is not good, because thinking takes time – and life or death are decided by who thinks more quickly. Because of this, the brain creates patterns of thought through experiences, education included. These patterns make thinking easier, quicker because they remove the need to create a matrix within which to orient anew, but they also create inertia and reality disconnect. Most people prefer not to think for themselves, but to simply go through the premade steps and use preset matrices for orientation because it is easier. This also means falling within large-scale societal matrices and expectation, one of which is to “follow the leader” and bow to any authority – this expectation is both the result and the cause of the process I had just described. War ideologies cause intellectual fascism because intellectual fascism is required for war, on its most basic level (thinking). This is why war ideologies – Islam and Nazism – hardly ever created anything new.

    If you want to read Boyd, here he describes much of what I described above:
    http://www.dnipogo.org/boyd/patterns_ppt.pdf

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