Are the Greek Philosophers responsible for our thought processes?

This was inspired, in part, from reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. In the book, Pirsig suggests (as Phædrus) that the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, created a mode or method of thought that, while very definitive, doesn’t allow us to see things as they are.

Sorry for this long and disjointed quote. I think it sums it up pretty well though:

So, what do you think? Do our processes of thought, which we have learned, prohibit us from seeing a higher truth?

This goes hand in hand with something else I have been pondering: Words, ideas and thoughts that don’t translate across cultures. A good example of this would be the word Mu. It is used frequently in Zen Buddhist literature to mean “no thing”, an answer to a question that cannot be answered; this is usually in relation to questions asked about the Buddha nature. i.e. “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”, the reply, “Mu.” Why is there no definition for this in our language?

Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel,
a beautiful red steam shovel.
Her name was Mary Anne.

First of all thanks for posting an interesting question. I thought all these threads were becoming things like “God Exists!” “No he doesn’t!” “Yes he does and your and asshole!!” so on ad nauseum.

I haven’t read z and the art of mm, so I may misunderstand your quote, but here are some tentative responses.

By Quality you seem to mean some real essence of the world that we may obscure because of our culturally biased ideas, which you(or Pirsig) term mythos. Is that right?

If so, it seems to me that culturally biased ideas are only one of the means by which are views of reality are distorted. I urge you to consult Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum in which he listed “the four idols” which prevent us from truly percieving Nature. I couldn’t find my Bacon just now, but I will search later and try to summarize them in a future post on this thread, if you are interested. If I recall, these “idols” included the preconcieved notions of our culture, which I believe Bacon calls the “Idols of the tribe”, but other things including prejudices from our own experience, and even the fundamental limitations of our sensory apparatus. Thus you can see that there is more than Pirsig’s mythos which would prevent us from seeing “Quality”

Furthermore it is doubtful to me if you could ever truly experience quality, if I understand the term correctly. Our knowledge is fundamentally derived from our experience, and it seems impossible to truly break out of our experience into some higher plane, despite what some mystics say. It seems all you can really do is become aware of your limitations, as Dirty Harry always said, and constantly question your assumptions.

Also it seems wrong to blame the Greek philosophers for any cultural cage we may be trapped in. First of all they were aware of the problem, and tried to deal with it. Plato suggested that his dialectical method would enable us to break free of this illusory world of appearance and percieve some sort of ultimate reality, the world of ideas, which I believe may correspond to your quality.

Furthermore, the Greeks did not leave us with one confining monolithic body of thought, but a lively argument containg diverse views on everything that was then known. One example is the contrast between the atomistic view of your namesake, Democritus, with the continoum based view of Aristotle.

Finally I would like to get a little snippy and point out that Pirsig is just a little to flip on the subject of insanity, a possible delusion he inherited from the mythos of the sixties. I have had experience with insanity in my family, and there is nothing profound and beautiful about it. When you’ve seen your Mom take an emergency flight home to deal with her Sister, because her sister was instructed by God to attempt suicide infront of her young children, it leaves you with a dim view of people who romanticize schizophrenia, like Pirsig and R.D. Laing.

There are people who can think outside the Box without being crazy. Two notable examples are James Joyce and Albert Einstein.
I am reminded of a story. When Joyce was discussing his Schizophrenic daughters problems with her doctor he supposedly said “In a way she and I do the same things with language.” The sympathetic Doctor replied “You’re swimming. She is drowning.” I cannot think of a better metaphor for the difference between madness and genius.

Again thank you for a thought provoking OP.

Having an open mind means you put out a welcome mat and answer the door politely. It does not mean leaving the door open with a sign saying nobody’s home

We have a definition of “no thing.”

It is the empty set. Maybe it’s mathematical notation, but it’s still our language.

There’s always another beer.

Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is: a system of philosophy, an autobiography, a travelogue, and so much more. It is virtually impossible to summarize. But I recommend it to anyone interested in philosophy, or just a good read.

I first read this book when I was 16 or 17. To this day the strongest idea that I retain is that philosophy should be understandable. There is no excuse for obfuscation and unintellibility.

I think any philosophy, at best, can help us develop our “map”, our mental image of the world. It can give us tools for analysis and description. Pirsig shows how the tools of Aristotle can and do fail us, and gives us yet another.

This is actually incorrect, which is certainly excusable, given you haven’t read the book. The author himself had suffered from schitzophrenia and/or severe depression, and had received electroshock treatment. He chronicles his experience in the book.

Indeed he describes the process of his “former self” descending into insanity as he focuses his single-minded intensity on the question of Quality. The description is both fascinating and chilling.

Against stupidity the very gods / Themselves contend in vain.

Beeruser, that comes nowhere close to Mu. Mu answers a question about soul and love and other intangible things. The empty set is an easily “grasp-able” concept. A mathematical certainty or lack therof. If you are refering to the comparison in “The Tao of Physics”, I think it is dreadfully inaccurate. It is like comparing Jesus’ “Golden Rule” to Euclid’s Axioms.

*SingleDad, thank you for clarifying the point of Pirsig’s take on insanity. I, too, read the book first when I was 16 and it has changed the way I view the world ever since.

Larry, thank you so much for your inspired post. (and for recognizing my username ;)) I have much more to respond to you, but it is late now. You have a great take on Pirsig’s Quality from just reading that one quote.

Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel,
a beautiful red steam shovel.
Her name was Mary Anne.

Quality, in this sense, is actually more of an event than a thing. It is the cusp at which we absorb and begin to define and filter information we are exposed to.

It’s not the idea so much as the process of coming to ideas that I’m concerned with. A mental block from the very birth of any idea which keeps us from seeing the true nature of the forms before us.

I think I should too. He seems to dislike Aristotle’s tedium in the same way that I do. :wink:
Regarding Bacon:

Sounds like I just made a new friend!

This is what I’m really getting at. This is the core problem I’m worried about. What if we are missing out on some higher understanding of the world because we are not looking correctly? I don’t think it’s something that we can’t experience. Perhaps that is why you rarely see any (valid)western “mystics”.

Also it seems wrong to blame the Greek philosophers for any cultural cage we may be trapped in.

I agree. I don’t mean to attack them for what they created. Without their contribution we may not have achieved anything near where we are today. I am upset, though, that we seemed to be locked into patterns of thought that are a thousand years old and seem to be losing their thunder as we turn into a more cerebral society.

There are people who can think outside the Box without being crazy.


This is true, but the thing in question is the definition of crazy. Your examples are poignant, but don’t really prove much about insanity. I have tried to reconcile and separate the “mildly insane” from others, but it sems to me that it is all just varrying degrees of different modes of comprehension and thinking. Granted, when these thought patterns become violent, it’s hard to be objective about it anymore though.
Sorry if this is rambling, I usually try not to post to GD from work, where there are a thousand other things going on…

Mike Mulligan had a steam shovel,
a beautiful red steam shovel.
Her name was Mary Anne.

First let me say I stand corrected on Pirsig’s view of mental illness. I am probably guilty here of jumping to conclusions based on an out of context quote. I apologize but the fact is I do get overly excited when I think people are romanticizing mental illness, for reasons that should be clear from the first column.

Second I found my copy of Francis Bacon’s New Organon In which he attempted to replace Aristotle’s purely deductive reasoning with a more empirical quote. I mis-remembered which “idol” was which in my first post, but here is a brief summary of the four idols which Bacon feels color and bias our experience.

 1. The idols of the tribe. These are the inherent limitations of our biology. We are limited creatures dependant on a specific sensory apparatus whose impressions may not be the whole truth, and also and mental processes which may bias us towards certain answers.

 2. The Idols of the Cave. These are an individual's private prejudices and biases, separate and in addition to the general human biological limitations we all share.

 3. The idols of the Tribe. We share our expeiences and knowledge with others through language, and may be misled by mistaking words for the things themselves.

 4. Idols of the Theatre. These are the recived philosophical systems which we have become so accostumed to that we take them as absolute truth, rather than has tentative human inventions. Bacon here was specifically reffering to the Aristotelian-Scholastic dogmas that ossified thought in his time.

This is a brief, clumsy and probably wrong summary of Aphorisms 38 thru 44 in the New Organon. Well worth reading and easily readable, controlling for Elizabethan prose.

Third, I realized I have not responded to any of the specific points you made in your last post, Democritus. I have to think about them for a little while and will post again.

Having an open mind means you put out a welcome mat and answer the door politely. It does not mean leaving the door open with a sign saying nobody’s home


If I may indulge in idle speculation, you haven’t, perchance, read Illuminatus!, have you? Just checking.
As has been mentioned, Bacon sounds like my kinda guy. And here I am starting The Black Rose. Synchronicity, I tell you.
From the OP:

Maybe, if there is indeed anything that may be called a higher truth to be seen. I would submit that our inherited thought processes prevent us from seeking a higher truth. That is, we think we know what reality is, whether it be scientific rationalism or fundamental religiosity or some view that accomodates both (or neither - let’s not be hidebound).

Larry mentioned that the Greeks didn’t will us a monolithic intellectual tradition, and of course there’s variety among Greek thinkers, as one would expect in a survey of an entire culture. I believe, though, that all the classical masters thus far discussed shared the basic belief that A=A. A phenomenon is what it is, and we may then seek the greater truths of existence from there.

This, to my way of thinking, presents the danger of confusing the map with the territory. Things are not things, after they are inevitably and necessarily filtered through human perception and interpretation. They are concepts which exist only in the mind, as “imperfect” analogues to the “objective” world. There are words, as Democritus mentioned in the OP, that don’t translate into other languages because those cultures lack a shared cultural experience to inform them.

After all that, what I’m getting at is that yeah, the Greek philosophers are indeed responsible for our ideas about rationality, via the Rennaisance. But that’s just my opinion. Invisible Pink Unicorn knows, I could be wrong.

(to borrow a sig)The Poster Formerly Unknown as Rodimus

“Are you frightened of snakes?”
“Only when they dress like werewolves.”

What I meant, of course, is that those cultures lack a shared experience with the original culture, from whose language we’re attempting to translate the word in the first place. Oh, you know what I mean. I’m going to bed.

“Are you frightened of snakes?”
“Only when they dress like werewolves.”

To Uncle Thomist,

Yes I did read Illuminautus some time ago, and it may be where I am remembering the Joyce story from, though I can’t say for sure.

To Democrtitus,

First I’m not sure how you can categorically state that there have been no valid western mystics. True almost all western mystics are in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic schools, but I don’t really see why this makes them invalid, unless you say that this monotheistic tradition is itself invalid. In this case the problem is with Western religion, not Greek Philosophy.

However, even with this point, I am still not sure what constitutes valid mysticism. Isn’t a mystical experience a purely personal experience? Who is to say which experience is or is not valid?

Furthermore your main question seems to be whether we are missing some higher understanding because we are not looking correctly. This may well be true, but what alternative method do you propose? You seem to be leaning towards Zen, and I do not know enough about it to respond conclusivly, but it doesn’t seem clear to me that Asian cultures live in any higher reality than western cultures.

At the risk of becoming repetitious I must say again that it seems wrong to view western thought, and even greek thought, as leaving us with a single heritage. It’s true that the Greeks largely developed deductive reasoning and probably tried to run with it further than it could go, but they all took it in vastly disparate directions. Furthermore since the Greeks there have been numerous reactions in the west, from Christianity to empirically based science. It is true that the recent trend in Western philosophy, probably inspired by the success of science, has been to reduce reality to phenomenon, but even this profound philosophical revolution is evidence that we are not trapped in a cage of ancient greek reasoning.

Ultimately I think the problem we have apprehending any ultimate reality is in our biological limitations. Until we can step outside ourselves and see things from a “gods-eye view,” I can’t see how we can ever be sure what we percieve is ultimately real.

BTW, It is unfair to blame Aristotle for his works being dull. Most of his original works were destroyed when the library of Alexandria was burned by Christian fanatics. What we have left is compilations but together by students from lecture notes.

I’m bumping this thread because I thought it was interesting dammit! I hope that’s cool.

Perked Ears indicate curiosity - Know Your Cat

Sorry, bad generalization. What I meant by the term “mystic” was someone who believed in experiencing reality from a different plane. I was refering to your earlier statement that:

Bad word to use. I retract the “no valid Western mystic” clause. :wink: My intention was to note that I do believe in this, but that it’s not very widely accepted in the west. This could be set into another thread of it’s own.

I’m not necessarily leaning towards Zen, and perhaps Eastern cultures don’t live in any higher reality than we do but, they do seem to have, at least, an alternative understanding; Many portions of this seem to be a higher, or better, understanding than we have, of some things. Perhaps a fusion of many cultures, or something totally different altogether is needed. I don’t know. I don’t think Zen is “The Way”, though.

As for the Greeks leaving us with a singular heritage, I agree. I do, however, believe that our(Westerners, in general) faith in deductive logic springs from the Greeks and that it is a far stronger force than religion or mysticism. My thought is simply that this faith in what we believe to be the only right way to come about
an understanding of the truth, or reality of nature, human and physical, is keeping us from gaining a higher perception.

If there is one thing for certain that I will concede on, it is that we, as human beings, are forever lost from experiencing the ultimate truth of the universe because of our physical limitations. That just plain sucks. :wink:

If you think I’m gonna let you slip that in and walk away, you’ve got another think coming, young man! :wink:

I know that we lost a lot of Aristotle but there is enough of his work that has come to us via whatever vector to show that he was a pompous bastard. I don’t minimize his work in deductive reasoning one bit, but it has never been necessary to go on and on and on the way he did to confirm a point. What was he proving after the first legion of hierarchies and disections that he spewed forth? This is a point on which I wish (God, you’re gonna hate me for saying this) we still had Pheadrus around. He was one of the few people I have met who was well informed on what Pirsig called “The Knife” of Aristotle. Aristotle just abused the knife for his own glory and it bores the shit out of me.

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you. As you know, GD takes A LOT of energy, that’s why you don’t see me here a whole lot unless it’s a topic I’m willing to devote a lot of time to. Thanks for ressurecting this Larry. It really is something I want to talk about. Unfortunately, the mundane stuff sometimes takes over my life…

I rarely go into great debates threads, but I recently sent the following to Democritus over email and he thinks it may be good for this thread. It was an email that talks about ancient Greek cultural bigotry as well as a little on their linguistic ignorance (it is an opinion piece written by someone on one of my mailing lists):

Basically what the email was saying is, the Greeks held not only cultural contempt for the barbaroi (aka Barbarians, anyone not greek or hellenized enough to meet their standards), but linguistic contempt for barbaroi as well.

The Greeks particularly held contempt for the Persians who were just as powerful as the Greeks (but they were considered decadent and full of excessive pride). Further, the Greeks believed that the cultures that gave rise to the Croesus, and the Lydians fell because they came from these decadent and hubrisitc heritages.

The Greeks also thought some cultures were born to be free and some born to be slaves. The Greeks of course belonged to the former group, while the Persians to the latter (because of their nobility, and lack of hubristic nature, which the gods of course hated). The born slave/free thought served as Aristotles rationalization of slavery as well.

Another thing was, the Greeks believed that those who were born to be free were able to maintain their political autonomy (eleutheria), and those who could not were born to be slaves.

That’s basically what I gathered from the email. Anyone who would like to give their swing on it, please do so.

Dominus ex equo descendit, villamque intravit.

Aiyaa! Dammit…i KNEW i should have tidied up the quote. Sorry y’all!

Sorry, bump. Larry?

Sorry, Democrtitus, but now I’ve been away for awhile, and really, really busy. Will reply in detail when I can think clearly.

Perked Ears indicate curiosity - Know Your Cat


I’ve been thinking about this thread recently and realizing that a really adequate answer to any of these questions would take a book. however here are a few thoughts.

There seem to be two questions here.

  1. Is a mystical experience possible?

  2. Has the influence of Greek philosophy corruppted our ability to have a mystical experience? Also, was Aristotle an asshole?

For the first question I have no answer. By tempermant I am a cynical pragmatic atheist, not inclined towards otherworldly experiences. In my misspent youth I had a few acid trips which I might have interpreted as mystical, but I don’t really trust them. However I am not so arrogant as to assume a mystical experience could never happen. It seems it would be a private experience unsharable to others for once you put it in words you are reentering the trap mysticsm is supposed to free you from.

Ultimately a genuine mystical experience would be a revelation that would free one from the “four idols” described above in an inneffable immediate manner. the mystic would percieve a reality beyond the boundaries of our biological, cultural, linguistic, and intellectual limitations. Again I do not know whether this is possible. I know that many people more profound than me have claimed these experiences. I know little about zen, but I believe its techniques are supposed to provide these experiences, if practiced seriously under an experienced master.

I can see why one might blame the greeks for a lack of concentration on mystical phenomena. The greek philosophers did share a belief in the power of language, and their philosophies seemed to dive into language, rather than to try to escape its traps. Both Plato and Aristotle seemed awed by words, and seemed to ascribe a reality to them deeper than we might.

The greeks were a profoundly verbal society. They were among the first people to discover that language had an internal structure, that it could be used to investigate reality, and that it bore a tricky relationship to reality. i think they left us a valuable heritage, one that eventually grew into science, analytic philosophy, law, democracy, etc. etc. They also taught us not to accept things blindly, but to question everything. however it is true that there philosophy looked into this world, not a higher one.

However there is a mystical strain in greek thought. Plato believed that by continual practice of the dialectic the soul would be freed from the world of appearance and percieve the world of forms. Even Aristotle spoke of the union of the soul with the divine mind in the book De Anima. And lets not forget the popular religion of the greeks with the Orphic mysteries and the Delphic Oracle.

It seems to me that the real villain here is western religious intolerance and dogma. By forcing the people to worship in a hierarchical fashion, subservient to authority, and by denying the possibility of any reality but the official one Judaism, christianity, and Islam blinkered thought in many different ways. Authorities in all three religions were highly suspicious of people claiming individual revelation, as they were a threat to power. Look at the persecutions of heretics by both Catholics and Protestants.

In comparison Eastern religions were much more mutually toleratn, at least until the Islamic invasion of India. Look at the peaceful coexistance of Taoism and Buddhism in China, or compare the relatively easy split of Buddhism from Hinduism with the violent wars of the Protestant reformation. I think this is one area in which the East is far superior to the west.

I still have some points about Aristotle and Herodotus, but I’m going to post those later.

Perked Ears indicate curiosity - Know Your Cat

In an attempt to answer the question in the original post, I think we have to take into consideration Thomas Aquinas. It was his vision (influenced by Aristotle and the Greeks, of course) that largely determined the world view of the Western world. The scientific revolution and our “rational” outlook have their roots and branches in Aquinas. An unfortunate cosequence of this is that we tend to see the Greeks in only rational terms, or rather we tend to focus only on that aspect of their thought. By any definition of mystic, Plato would be high on the list. His basic idea that objects in this world are not ultimately real but only reflections of another, higher reality is very close to what would be labelled “mystical” if we were to read this in an Eastern text. Heraclitus expressed the principles of Toaism as well as any Toaist. Pythagoras, though he is generally thought of as a mathematician, was certainly mystical.
Concerning the question of whether this limits our world view. I think we have to have some type of common outlook, otherwise life and society would be too chaotic. When this world view no longer provides an adequate explanation for us, we will do what has been done throughout history and discard those aspects that no longer work and synthesize what we have left with new ideas and go from there. We now have easier acess to more information than at any other time in history. It is exciting to watch the new world view taking shape.

Aristotle said that the brain was merely an organ for cooling the blood.

But that’s only true of some people.

And Now, part 2.

I suppose alot of philosophy is a matter of personal taste as much as anything else. If you find a philosopher speaks to you, you will value him (or her), if not, not.

Personaly I find that Aristotle’s ethics provide a decent guide to living in this world. They are alot more workable than more rigorous faith based ethics, IMHO. I find his discussions of causality interesting, and even valid in today’s world. I’ve gotta give him props for discovering the laws of logic, although you’re clearly better off reading them in a logic textbook, than trying to plow through the Organon. (Then again, you are also beeter off reading a textbook on Newtonian Mechanics rather than plowing through the Principia.)

Historically, however, Aristotle’s place in the history of thought is unassailable. He started the ball rolling on world based philosophy. In Biology he even took a stab towards empiricsm. It is doubtful if the early scientists like Gallileo or Vesalius would have gotten as far as they did without Aristotle to attack. Whatever you think of logic, I don’t think you would want to do without it. Flawed as he was, Aristotle opened the door to rational science, law, political science, and even literary criticsm.

Sure there are many things wrong, even repugnant, about Aristotle. His gender biases ruined some decent empirical biology.
His justification of slavery is almost painful to read. His overreliance on deductive logic would never have given rise to the scientific method. And, lets face it, he was just plain wrong about a lot of things.

However most of Aristotle’s shortcomings were the result of the society he lived in. Greece was a patriarchal society which devalued women, and a slave holding society to boot. The Greek upper class scorned manual labor, which in turn led to a devaluing of the sensory world, and a sabotaging of any real science. All these biases found there way into Aristotle. However, while Aristotle’s shortcomings were the result of his mileu, his strengths were his own.

A lot of the problems Aristotle caused in the history of thought were more the fault of later mediocre minds taking him as gospel truth, rather than a human philosopher. Just as Christ would have been appalled at the Inquisition, so Aristotle would have been appalled at the Scholastics. This is the point David was making, I think.

Also, to briefly address the points in doobieus’ post, remember that the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, had just won an incredible victory over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis. I think they were justified in feeling a little pride. Futhermore, Herodotus was writing as Greek culture was about to self destruct in a horrible war. Part of his history was an attempt to say “Come on guys, we’re better than this.” Finally I think Herodotus take on the Persians was a bit more subtle than this.

Perked Ears indicate curiosity - Know Your Cat