Greek Philosophy in
Capsule Form (1990)
Alexander "Sasha" Volokh
It all started with Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher of the 5th century B.C., who used
to say, "I only know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." Nowadays, in the 20th
century, we take pride in sneering at this Greek luminary, and wondering how he could
possibly have thought that something was nothing. But it would probably be best for us to
keep quiet -- those ancient Greeks weren't as dumb as we think they were.
In fact, as early as the 4th century B.C., a whole school of Greek philosophers (all Greek
philosophers were peripatetic and traveled in schools), little known today because of its
aloofness from the mainstream philosophy of Plato, had as its credo, "I only know one thing,
and that is that I know one thing," but they found that that only confused the already
perplexed. They tried to add spice to their maxim by changing it to "I only know one thing,
and that is that I know one thing, that one thing being that I know one thing," but here, it
was a classic case of "Out of the frying pan and into the fire." This school of philosophy
died a quick and painless death, easily succumbing to the greater popularity of the comedies
But their memory lived on in Athenian schools such as the Academy; future thinkers tried to
reconcile the Socratic view with common sense and suggested such words to live by as "I
only know one thing -- how to eat," or "One thing is all you need to know -- Love is all
you need," but the immortal words of Socrates survived these fads, because Socrates had all
his thoughts recorded by Plato, who wrote them up in clay tablets, whereas the other
philosophers preferred the new-fangled invention, paper, which easily decomposed and was
better for the environment.
Some frustrated philosophers tried to discredit the name of Socrates altogether, wondering
why people chose to follow a philosopher who only knew a wrong thing. Still another
school was fond of asking why people assumed that Socrates made his mistake in the second
part of his sentence. As we know, they reasoned, Socrates made a great many mistakes, and
some of them may have been at the beginnings of sentences. It is this school that suggested
the ageless adage, "I know two things: one wrong thing, which is that I know nothing, and a
correct thing, which I forgot" -- but the rulers of Athens, fearing a popular revolt against the
revilers of the memory of their beloved teacher, sent the entire school to Asia Minor to fight
the Persians. They were all hanged by the Gordian Knot.
Henceforth, no philosopher seriously attempted to discredit the ideals of Socrates and of his
school; and thus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were widely studied throughout the Middle
Ages. The only Greek philosophers of any consequence, after Aristotle, were almost
exclusively logicians, who attempted to make sense of the laws of syllogisms. A syllogism,
as we well know, is a series of three statements -- two premises and a conclusion drawn
from the premises, such as "All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is
mortal." Syllogisms, however, are not as simple as they appear -- take, for instance, the
perplexing example of "All cats are mortal, Socrates is mortal, therefore Socrates is a cat,"
or "An inexpensive car is rare, all rare things are expensive, therefore an inexpensive car is
expensive." The "syllogism issue," as it was called until well into the 2nd century B.C.,
confounded many a young, promising mind. The movement made no startling discoveries,
but did succeed in explaining the Egyptian belief in the sacredness of cats: "All cats are
mortal, Socrates is mortal, therefore Socrates is a cat; but Socrates is not a cat, as we can
plainly see, and yet Socrates is mortal, since he's dead, therefore cats must be immortal."
So you see, you have to give the Greeks some credit. They were really no dummies.
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