Parallels and differences between philosophers from Antiquity and the modern era
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco Invictus
It has been said by a few bold souls that western philosophy is nothing but one long footnote in the works of Plato. Of course, this would be a far fetch but it shows how profound the impact of classical philosophy was on later western philosophy. Unsurprisingly, some philosophers have based themselves on classical counterparts. Thomas Aquinas' admiration for Plato and Aristoteles was well known. A lot of pseudo-philosophers (also called paraphilosophers or morosophers) have based themselves on the presocratics, and Pythagoreic cults survived its founder for centuries.
However, this essay will not deal with the most obvious paralells. What use would it to discover what is already known? Therefore, four pairs have been chosen which may at first sight not seem so obvious or which have in any case not been compared so often that it would be useless to devote an essay to them. The purpose of the comparison is not only the reader's own entertainment, but to show just as well that the difference between modern and classical philosophers may not be that great and that many have - across the boundaries of centuries and societies - things in common in their lives and teachings. None of these pairings goes in on either philosopher at great length to keep a general oversight.
I. Pythagoras - Comte
Pythagoras (570-497 BCE) was a presocratic philosopher, politician and mathematician. He and his followers assumed that everything, ranging from the material to the divine and spiritual, was based on numbers and mathematic proportions. He created a geocentric astronomical model. He further assumed that music and rhythm were actually purely mathematical structures (and hence so much appreciated). With regards to morality he preached a sobre life, devoted to study (of mathematics, needless to say!), discipline and participation in society. He lived on Sicily. His impact on mathematics and its development was profound.
Auguste Comte (1798-1857 CE) was one of the founders of the positivist schools in France. The positivists firmly believed in a rational world where every phenomenon was explainable through scientific means. Their ideas were part of (or a consequence of?) the Enlightment, which celebrated the triumph of reason over primitive instincts and emotion. Although the more radical elements of this philosophy have been smoothened away, most of this is still - at least nominally - believed today. Comte however made science the pinnacle of mankind's evolution and acknowledged an almost divine value to it (which was not to uncommon to do in 18th-century France). Putting his absurd ideas into practise, he founded a scientocratic sect.
The immediate paralells are visible. Pythagoras and Comte were both people driven by a need to explain things by means of science: former believed mathematics and its perfection were the basis of the world, latter believed everything was examinable and knowable by the human mind. Of course, neither was able to see the defects of their own theories: Pythagoras, for instance, denied the existence of irrational and neverending numbers (such as π) and Comte failed to realise that some scientific branches such as psychology, linguistics or literary science (let alone philosophy itself…) could deliver absolute knowledge.
Their diviniation of sciences actually became the paradox of their lives: their means to eradicate superstition and illusion became their ultimate illusion. Both of them founded a sect with absurd rituals (comparable, perhaps, to the Freemasons who are nominally atheistic but have a vast range of rituals). In case of Pythagoras, for example (who believed in metempsychosis or reincarnation), flatulating was forbidden because he believed it set free evil spirits. As such, it was forbidden to eat beans. Legend has that Pythagoras died because he had the choice to be killed by a garrison of soldiers or to run away in a field of beans towards his freedom. He was killed on the spot.
It's undeniable that both men must have possessed a certain genius. As noted before their contributions to science are invaluable. Pythagoreic mathematics was used for centuries (the Romans, for example, did not produce any mathematicians of notable value) and the positivist movement contributed to the increasing and justified importance of science. Their linear visions however are in itself comical caricatures and confirm the old cliché that every philosopher is partially a wise man, partially a lunatic.
II. Herakleitos - Nietzsche
Herakleitos (6th century BCE), a presocratic philosopher from Ephese, was in his own era known as ho skoteinos ("the dark one") and was often described as a pessimist, possibly because he was more radical in his doubts about the world than any other presocratic. He believed that the archè or most basic element in the universe was fire, which reflects his further theories about the world: for Herakleitos, everything is constantly changing and moving. He also thought that everything existed in opposition to something else, and that "war was the father of everything". In other words, conflict is what defines our world. He has remained famous for his quotes and short aphorisms.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900 CE), the famous German philosopher of Polish descent, remained famous and infamous for his theory about the Übermensch ("overman"), an image of man, freeing himself from the chains of religion, God, society and dogmatic humanism. Nietzsche's solution for the pessimism that comes lurking round the corner once these so-called illusions have been eliminated, is to say yes to life as a whole ("ja zum Leben"), the pleasures as well as the suffering, the most noble acts as well as the most horrible deeds. Essential in his philosophy are the continual resurgence of everything, and the will to power ("Wille zur Macht") of everything that lives. Nietzsche is probably the most quoted 19th-century philosopher, and deeply impacted the lives and thoughts of many artists.
Nietzsche himself admits that across the distances of time and space, he feels some affinity with the dark mind of Herakleitos. Also, one might say that Nietzsche was directly influenced by antiquity as he was a professional classical linguist and wrote about ancient Greek tragedy. However, this doesn't make the comparison any less interesting. For a start, both have been misunderstood very often, earning Herakleitos the label of a ranting lunatic and earning Nietzsche the label of a nazi-philosopher. Neither would have rejected these misunderstandings; quite possibly, they would have loved them! Nietzsche's love for dissent and disagreement is well known, and misunderstanding Herakleitos would have only confirmed him in his ideas about conflict and opposition. Both of them are very conflict-oriented and even glorify it.
Another odd resemblance binds them. Both have the "honour” of being quoted in contradictory instances, and have been interpreted in many, many ways. As an Italian writer once remarked: "quoting Herakleitos is never wrong". In fact, that's true. There are so many possible interpretations for their aphorisms and quotes that what at first sight seems a clear-cut, striking phrase hides a myriad different meanings. This was one of the reasons why Plato and his followers didn't much like Herakleitos (Sokrates' take was funnier: "I loved what I could understand [of Herakleitos]; what I couldn't understand I loved too”). And lastly, when one reads them, the sparks of fire that come from their words are obvious. For Herakleitos, it was the basis of everything. And that wild energy is also clearly visible in Nietzsche's exuberant, often bombastic, colourful style.
III. Plato - Marx
Plato (427-347 BCE), also known as Aristokles of Athens, was one of Sokrates' most famous students. In his diverse literary works he expounds his theory of Ideas. Plato believes (using Sokrates as mouthpiece) that our common, everyday reality is actually an imperfect reflection of a higher, transcendent realm. Divine concepts and mathematics, among other concepts, belonged to this realm. This division was, according to Plato, also visible in the dichotomy between body (the earthly, the transient) and soul (the spiritual, the everlasting). In spite of his hatred for politics he tried a few political experiments trying to create his ideal state. Plato is one of the most influential philosophers of all time.
Karl Marx (1818-1883 CE) was, together with his friend Friedrich Engels, known as the founder of marxism and communism. He believed that history was a constant movement of thesis, antithesis and synthesis (much like Hegel) and thought this would eventually lead to a communist society, because all capitalist enterpreneurs would in the long run destroy each other, creating ludicrous inflation and a large number of people that would violently revolt against their surpressor. His ideal was a classless society, lead by all people, where private possession was abolished ("property is theft") and religion (as "opium for the people") would not exist. Marx gave rise to socialism and influenced a lot of politicians and historians in the next generations.
Although both are opposed with regards to the transcendental (Marx was a radical atheist and believed in no such worlds), they do have things in common regarding their political ideas. I'm certainly not the first person to compare Plato's ideas about private possession and schooling (he believed children should be taken care of by schools of the state, and not their parents) to radical communist theories. Marx also believed that in one's life, the role of the state was decisive as caretaker of the individual; as such, both thinkers are actually opposed to individualism. Plato and Marx further show interesting similarities in the consequences of their theories: even though attempts were made, neither theory ever became a working model for a state. Plato tried three times (on Sicily, for Dionysos I and II) and Marx' communism watered down into socialism, leninism, stalinism and maoism, forms that either confirmed the capitalist society by building in checks and balances or forms that confirmed the elite by creating populist, dictatorial regimes.
The 20th-century philosopher Karl Raimund Popper has compared Plato and Marx on basis of the consequences of their ideologies. He thinks of them as totalitarian, because they (and other philosophers such as Augustinus) think the perfect society can be created on basis of ideals. When such a society would be created, all resistance or voices of criticism would be seen as a threat to the system and its perfection. As such, freedom of expression and democracy are inherently opposed to both platonist politics and marxism because they believe in perfection, or a decisive phase in history.
IV. Cicero - Voltaire
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) is probably one of the most remarkable personalities in Roman history: politician, writer, philosopher, orator and ardent republican; for those loyal to the ideals of the Republic he was also a symbol of it, and some have said that the Republic effectively died with him. Certainly he was one of the last and fiercest Republicans bemoaning the loss of the old state, but the Republic had probably died earlier with the ascent of Caesar. Philosophically, Cicero was influenced by both epicureanism and stoicism but shows a preference for the latter (he was one of the first eclectics). What marks him the most, however, throughout his turbulent life and his many activities, is his ardour and pathos even. He embodied every modern cliché of a lawyer and a politician. He self-righteously believed he fought for the right things but eliminated several opponents along the way in cruel and irresponsible manners (e.g. Catilina).
Voltaire (pseudonym for François Arouet, 1694-1778 CE) is one of the best known personalities from the Enlightment. Much like Cicero, he was a multi-faceted man. He wrote letters, contributed to the Encyclopédie-project of his time. He also wrote an epic, several historical works and political pamphlets. He was an intellectual who enjoyed the exception of being well known by the population in his own era. When he returned to Paris after years of (self)-exile in Germany he was enthusiastically cheered home by a large crowd. He never lived to see the result of much of his writings and died a good dozen years before the French Revolution erupted in 1789.
The parallels are, again, rather obvious. Both men were encyclopaedic minds, capable of both politics and literature, of science and philosophy and of natural wit and emotional ardour. They also share some basic political convictions and are both republicans. The greatest difference is that Cicero lived through the death throes of the Republic and was unable to save it from destruction while Voltaire never lived to see the end of the process he had started and lived under a monarchy all his life. The fact that Cicero really was engaged in politics while Voltaire was in a villa in Germany with one of his mistresses somehow makes Cicero's hands more stained, of course. What Voltaire would have done as a (Roman?) consul or president, we can only guess.