The First Philosophers:
Studies in Ancient Greek Society

by George Thomson


1. Philosophy and Science

WITH Parmenides we leave behind the realm of primitive thought and enter a new phase in Greek philosophy, which, apart from some general considerations, lies beyond the scope of the present volume. Philosophy, as he left it, contained certain crudities—fragments of the chrysalis out of which it had emerged; but these were quickly brushed away, and in the work of his successors it took flight into the realm of 'pure reason', where it has sustained itself down to our own day. During its history it has assimilated knowledge from science and made contributions to science, but the union has never been stable, and to‑day the gulf is so wide that, as we remarked in the first chapter, most bourgeois philosophers, while claiming to be specialists in the study of thought, continue their disputations without regard to what scientists have learnt about the actual mechanism of the human brain.

In primitive society there was no such gulf, for the simple reason that philosophy and science did not exist. Primitive consciousness was practical and concrete, not theoretical and abstract. The development of theoretical and abstract reasoning was dependent on the division between mental and manual labour, and that in turn on the division of society into classes; and even after these conditions had been created, it was retarded for a long time by the survival in distorted forms of primitive modes of thought, which served to disguise the realities of class exploitation. This is not to say, of course, that technical discoveries were not made, which from a purely practical point of view might be described as scientific achievements; on the contrary, the technical achievements of the early Sumerians and Egyptians were immense. In this respect they have far more to their credit than the Greeks, who may be said to have built on the foundations which their predecessors had laid. Indeed, that is precisely the relation between them. With the important exception of the coinage, the technical basis of ancient society was created, for the most part, in Mesopotamia and Egypt; what the Greeks did was to reorganise, on the basis of a monetary economy, the political and ideological superstructure. It is in Greece, therefore, that we find the beginnings of philosophy and science, united in the form of natural philosophy. And yet they had scarcely appeared when they began to part company. The scientific achievements of the Greeks belong mainly to the Hellenistic age. The most notable development of the preceding period was in medicine, in which important advances were made as early as the sixth century B.C. This calls for a brief discussion here, because it illustrates the nature of the conflict between science and philosophy.

Herodotus says that the Greeks differed from other peoples in being 'cleverer and freer from silly nonsense'. [1] This sweeping statement cannot be accepted without reserve, but it is true of medicine. In Mesopotamia and Egypt the art of healing the sick never emancipated itself from magic. In Mesopotamia especially the patient was commonly believed to be possessed by an evil spirit, and therefore the treatment applied to him was magical rather than medical. In Greece, too, certain diseases, especially 'the sacred disease', that is, epilepsy, were popularly attributed to possession and treated accordingly; but in the Hippocratic treatise on the subject, which dates probably from the latter years of the fifth century, this superstitious attitude is held up to ridicule:

This is a treatise on the sacred disease. It seems to me to be no more sacred or divine than any other. It has a natural cause, and people only regard it as divine because of its peculiar character, which arouses wonder. . . . But, if it is to be regarded as divine just because it is wonderful, there must be many sacred diseases, because, as I shall show, there are others no less wonderful which nobody regards as sacred. . . . My own belief is that a sacred character was first attributed to this disease by men who made pretensions to exceptional piety and superior knowledge, like the magicians, purifiers, charlatans and quacks of our own day. [2]

In Greece, as elsewhere, medicine had developed out of magico‑religious practices and beliefs, particularly athletics and divination. Public festivals, derived from the clan feast, were a universal feature of social life in the Greek city‑states; and in them an important function fell to the athlete, whose training included a controlled diet, and to the sacrificial priest, who inspected the entrails of the victim with a view to predicting the future. Nowhere else in the ancient world do we find so much attention to questions of diet, the recording of symptoms, and the compilation of case‑histories. On this basis the Greek physicians established, in general terms, some fundamental truths. Thus it was known to Alkmaion of Kroton (p. 249) that the seat of consciousness is the brain, and that man differs from the animals in that his consciousness is not only sensory but conceptual. This he expressed by saying that 'man differs from the other animals in that he alone understands, whereas the others feel but do not understand'. [3] Taken in conjunction with the idea, already a commonplace in his time, that man is distinguished from the animals by the faculty of reason or speech (lógos), this may be regarded as a genuine contribution to scientific knowledge.

After Alkmaion, the centre of medical studies shifted from Kroton to Kos, the birthplace of Hippokrates. The Hippocratic school must have owed a great deal to the Crotonian, because its literature reveals many signs of Pythagorean influence, which must presumably have been transmitted to it through the work of Alkmaion. In fact, it was probably a continuation of the same tradition. The best evidence for this is to he found in the treatise Airs Waters and Places, which is believed to have been written by Hippokrates himself.

This, for all its crudities, may fairly be described as a treatise in social medicine. It begins as follows:

The man who wishes to make a proper study of medicine should proceed thus. First, he should consider the seasons of the year and the effects of each; for they differ greatly both in themselves and in the transitions from one to the next. Secondly, he should consider the hot and cold winds, first those that are universal and then those peculiar to each country. He should also consider the different influences of waters, which differ from one another in weight and taste. Then, on arrival at a city which he has not visited before, he should examine its situation in relation to the prevailing winds and the rising sun. Each aspect—northern, southern, eastern, western—has a different influence. In addition to all this, he must consider how they are off for water, whether they drink soft marshy water or hard water from high or rocky ground, or whether it is brackish and rough; and so with the soil, whether bare and waterless or wooded and watered, low‑lying and stuffy or high and cool; and also the mode of life which the inhabitants find congenial, whether they are lazy, drinking heavily and caring more than one full meal a day, or fond of exercise and athletic, eating well but drinking little. [4]

The conception of the physician's task put forward in this treatise was a product of the age of colonisation. In the course of innumerable seafaring expeditions the Greeks had learnt from experience that to establish a colony overseas with any prospect of success was a formidable undertaking, which involved careful planning, not merely determining the number of settlers, selecting them, and preparing for their departures but also surveying the territory to be settled, fixing the site of the new city, and dividing the arable into the requisite number of lots, with due regard to the lie of the land, the accessibility of water, the climate, and other environmental factors. Operations of this kind were being carried out throughout the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., largely from Ionia, and directed mainly to the coasts of southern Italy and eastern Sicily. It was in these conditions that Greek medicine took on its scientific character; and in such circumstances it is easy to understand why the oldest medical school belonged to one of the main colonial areas.

Thus, Greek medicine was a product of the same social movement as Greek philosophy; yet already in the fifth century B.C. we find them in conflict. The treatise on Ancient Medicine, which probably goes back to the time of Hippokrates, if not to Hippokrates himself, was written to protect medical theory, as established by the observation and experience of organised practitioners, from the unwelcome attentions of the philosophers, who were concerned mainly to demonstrate the truth of their preconceived dogmas and only incidentally to cure the patient:

Those who in setting out to speak or write on medicine proceed from a postulate of their own, such as the hot, cold, wet, dry, or whatever it is they fancy, and thereby reduce the basic cause of disease and death to the same for all cases, making it depend on one or two postulates, are not only obviously mistaken in their account of the facts, but their mistake is particularly culpable because it concerns a craft to which people have recourse on the most serious occasions, holding in special esteem its skilled practitioners.

There are good and bad practitioners, and this would not be the case, if there was no such craft, the subject of observation and discovery. Then everyone would be equally ignorant and inexperienced in it, and the treatment of the sick would be entirely a matter of chance. In fact, however, there is just as much variety of skill in the theory and practice of medicine as there is in any other craft; and consequently it does not stand in need of any empty postulates, as do such obscure and difficult studies as astronomy and geology, in which one must proceed from postulates. Whatever account may be given of such matters, it cannot he proved to be true or false; for there is no test that can be applied to it . . . . [5]

I am at a loss to understand how those who make the craft dependent on postulates, instead of following the traditional method, apply their assumptions to the treatment of the patients. So far as I am aware, they have not discovered an absolute hot or cold or dry or moist, which partakes of no other form. They have, I imagine, at their disposal the same foods and drinks as the rest of us, but at the same time they attribute to them the properties of being hot, cold, dry or moist; because obviously it would be futile to instruct a patient to take 'the hot': he would at once ask 'What?' Hence they are bound to have recourse to one of these known substances, or else talk nonsense . . . . [6]

Some philosophers and physicians assert that in order to understand medicine it is necessary to know what man is. This is a question for philosophy, for those who, like Empedokles, have written about man, his nature, origin and structure. My own opinion is that what physicians and philosophers have written on this subject has no more to do with medicine than it has with painting; and further I consider that the only source from which a true understanding of these matters can be acquired is medicine, and then only when medicine has been properly understood—without that it is impossible—an exact knowledge, I mean, of what man is and the causes of his evolution and so on. [7]

The writings of these medical practitioners are animated by a spirit at once scientific and humane, which gives them a unique place in ancient literature; and yet, although they put up a determined fight against the philosophers, they not only failed to advance their science but steadily lost ground. It is important to understand why.

This controversy was not a straight fight between science and ideology, between 'open‑minded observation' and 'a priori premisses'. On the contrary, like all branches of science in all epochs of class society, Greek medicine contained within itself an ideological element consisting of social preconceptions identical with those which shaped the course of Greek philosophy.

The growth of scientific medicine was limited first and foremost by the low level of the productive forces. In the absence of all but the crudest instruments, even the keenest observation was inadequate to accumulate a thorough knowledge of anatomy or to do more in tending the sick than assist the course of nature. This deficiency, however, was inherent in the structure of ancient society, which rested on slave labour; and it was this, more than anything else, that hampered the advance of medicine.

One does not need to read far in the Hippocratic writers to realise that the treatment which they prescribe is such as could only have been followed by people who could afford to be ill. In this they are at one with Plato:

'When a carpenter is ill,' said Sokrates, 'he asks the doctor for a quick remedy—an emetic, purge, cautery, or the knife—that is all. If he is told to diet or wrap up his head and keep warm, he replies that he has no time to be ill, that there is no good going on living just to nurse his disease if he can't get on with his work. So he says good‑bye to the doctor and returns to work, and either gets over it and lives and carries on with his livelihood, or else dies and is put out of his misery that way.'

'I understand,' said Glaukon 'and of course that is the proper use of medicine for a man in his walk of life.' [8]

The result was not merely to give free rein to the spread of infectious diseases, which recognise no class distinction—for that one might quote modern parallels—but to degrade the physician himself. He too was a craftsman, and that in a society in which craftsmanship as such was falling into contempt as an occupation which no citizen should undertake. It is true that the medical practitioner seems to have survived this stigma more successfully than other manual workers, no doubt because his work brought him into intimate relations with even the wealthiest of his fellow‑citizens; nevertheless Aristotle informs us that in his time there were three types of physician—the manual worker, the superintendent, and the educated amateur. [9] The outcome has been thus described by W. H. S. Jones:

The transcendent genius of Plato, strong in that very power of persuasion the use of which he so much deprecated, won the day. The philosophic fervour which longed with passionate desire for unchanging reality, that felt a lofty contempt for the material world with its ever‑shifting phenomena, that aspired to rise to a heavenly region where changeless Ideas might be apprehended by pure intelligence purged from every bodily taint, was more than a match for the humble researches of men who wished to relieve human suffering by a patient study of those very phenomena that Plato held of no account. [10]

There was, however, one philosopher who drew on the Hippocratic tradition. Aristotle, founder of the biological sciences, was the son of a physician, a member of the Asklepiadai Vol. I, p. 333).

2. The Atomic Theory

After Parmenides the basic question of philosophy—the issue of materialism versus idealism—was brought to a head. This did not happen all at once. The issue on which his immediate successors concentrated their attention was the problem of motion. If the reality of the perceptual world was to be re‑established, it was necessary to find a cause of motion. Hitherto it had been assumed that motion was a property of matter; but from now on there was a growing tendency to make the contrary assumption, that matter is inert in itself and only moves under the impact of some external force, such as the Love and Strife of Empedokles, the Mind of Anaxagoras, and Aristotle's First Mover. The new assumption reflects the principal contradiction in the new stage of Greek society—the antagonism between freeman and slave. According to Aristotle the principle of subordination is a universal law of nature. As the slave is to his master, so the wife is to her husband, body to soul, matter to mind, the universe to God. His First Mover is an ideological expression of the ownership of the homogeneous slave labour embodied in ancient commodity production.

Empedokles of Akragas was a leading democrat and at the same time a prophet and miracle‑worker who claimed to be a god incarnate. [11] His religious teaching is hardly distinguishable from Orphism, and he seems also to have had some connection with the Pythagorean Order. [12] He made a special study of medicine; yet, although he must have been acquainted with the work of the Crotonian school, he did not carry it forward but, on the contrary, retreated from the stand taken by Alkmaion.

Whereas Alkmaion had distinguished between thought and sensation, and identified the organ of thought as the brain, Empedokles drew no such distinction and believed that man thinks with his blood. [13] It was his views in particular that the Hippocratic writers had in mind when they protested at the intrusion of philosophical preconceptions into their craft. According to him, the universe is not indivisible and motionless, as Parmenides had maintained, but is composed of four ‘roots'—earth, air, fire, and water—which are constantly moving in and out of one another and so effect changes in its structure. They are kept in motion by the two opposed forces of Love and Strife, being drawn together by Love and driven apart by Strife. As we learn from Aristotle, he failed to explain whether these two forces were substances like the four elements, or, if not, what. [14] In fact, they are figures drawn from the world of mythology. Like many primitive ideas, they contain the germ of a scientific truth, but the form in which they are conceived is still mythical.

Anaxagoras of Klazomenai settled at Athens, where he enjoyed for many years the patronage of Perikles. About 450 B.C. Perikles's opponents charged him with irreligion, on the ground that he believed the sun to be a molten mass of metal. He was forced to leave Athens, and settled at Lampsakos, a colony of Miletos. There he spent the rest of his life, and after his death a memorial dedicated to Mind and Truth was set up in his honour in the market‑place. [15] In his system the number of elements, or 'seeds' as he calls them, is infinite, and each of them contains more or less of all the opposites—the hot and cold, the wet and dry, and so on—so that 'even snow is black' and 'there is a portion of everything in everything'. [16] To this general law there is one exception. One of the seeds, the finest and lightest of them all, is unmixed; and it is this element, called Mind, which by penetrating the others sets them all in motion, mixing them up and sifting them out, and by means of these combinations and separations bringing about what men mistakenly describe as the process of coming into being and passing away." This was the Ionian answer to Parmenides.

Anaxagoras agrees with Herakleitos in believing that all things consist of a unity of opposites and that one of the elements is superior. to the rest; but he differs from him in postulating a cause of motion and from both him and the Milesians in denying an original unity. Like Empedokles, he is a pluralist.

These systems were both designed to maintain the reality of the perceptual world without falling into the pitfalls of Eleatic logic. In the meantime, however, the Eleatics were defending the standpoint of Parmenides. Zenon of Elea contended with a dialectical skill fully equal to his master's that, so far from improving matters, the pluralists had involved themselves in an endless series of logical contradictions. His arguments will be considered presently. The Parmenidean theory was reaffirmed, with certain modifications, by another member of the same school, Melissos of Samos, who argued:

If things were many, they would have to be of the same kind as I say the one is. If there is earth and water, air and iron, gold and fire, if one thing is living and another dead, if things are black and white and all that people say they are: if all this is so, and if we see and hear aright, then each one of these things must be as we have decided; it cannot be changed or altered, but must be just as it is. Now, we declare that we do see and hear and understand aright, and yet we believe that the warm becomes cold and the cold warm, that the hard becomes soft and the soft hard, that the living dies and that things are born from what is without life, and that all these things have changed, and that what they are is altogether different from what they were. . . . Now these beliefs do not agree with one another. We have said that things are many and eternal, with forms and strength of their own, and yet we imagine that they are all subject to change, and that they have altered each time we see them. From this it is clear that we do not see aright after all, and that we are wrong in believing that all these things are many. If they were real, they would not change; each would be just what we believed it to be, for there is nothing stronger than true being. If it has changed, what was has passed away, and what was not has come into being. Therefore, if things were many, they would have to be of the same nature as the one. [18]

This argument provided the logical starting‑point for the atomic theory, which had already been foreshadowed by Anaxagoras. Taking Melissos at his word, and borrowing the ‘seeds' from Anaxagoras, Leukippos of Miletos argued, first, that the universe is composed of an infinite number of particles, each of which has the properties of the Parmenidean One, and, secondly, that these particles are constantly combining and separating in the course of their movements in empty space, which he identified with the not‑being of Parmenides. [19] These ideas were developed by Demokritos (460‑360 B.C.), a wealthy citizen of Abdera in Thrace, who in the encyclopaedic range of his philosophical investigations was surpassed only by Aristotle. Postulating an infinite number of atoms, indivisible, indestructible, without weight, falling through the void, colliding and combining to form the world, including ourselves, he elaborated on this basis a deterministic theory of the universe in which every event is the product of necessity (anánke). In his system the idea of Ananke has shaken off its mythical associations and become an abstract idea like the modern scientific concept of natural law. And finally Epicurus of Athens (342‑268 B.C.), who, like Thucydides, belonged to the Philaidai (p. 205), modified this system to the extent of attributing to the atoms the property of weight, so that they contained in themselves the cause of their own motion, and he also postulated that they possessed, in. addition to the vertical, an oblique motion or swerve from the straight line. [20] In this way necessity (anánke) was supplemented by chance (tyche); the atoms became free.

Epicurus lived in the period of the dissolution of the Greek city‑states. He and his disciples renounced their part in a society which had ceased to conform to reason, and preached the self‑sufficiency of the individual. Their atomism was the complement of their individualism. The very word átomon means both 'atom' and 'individual'. They made the elements of the universe impassive and imperturbable, because, in a society torn by discord, that is what they themselves strove to become. Their renunciation of public life, whereby they hoped to achieve freedom from everything that disturbed their spiritual tranquillity, was an act of free will; and that is why they introduced into the determinism of Demokritos the element of chance.

Ancient Greek atomism has been described by Farrington as 'the culmination in antiquity of the movement of rational speculation on the nature of the universe begun by Thales'. [21] This description is correct. It is true above all of what the atomists had to say about the nature of human society. Thus, rejecting Plato's idealist conception of absolute justice, Epicurus wrote:

There never has been an absolute justice, but only a contract established in social intercourse, and differing from place to place and from time to time, for the prevention of mutual wrongdoing. . . . All those elements in what is legally recognised as just possess that character in so far as the necessities of social intercourse prove them to be expedient, whether they are the same for everybody or not; and if a law turns out to be incompatible with the expediencies of social intercourse, it ceases to be just; and, even though the expediency expressed in the law corresponds only for a time with that conception, nevertheless for that time it is just, so long as we do not trouble ourselves with empty phrases but look simply at the facts. [22]

Of human progress he wrote:

We must understand that human nature has been taught much by the sheer force of circumstances, and then, taken over by the reason, these lessons have been elaborated and augmented by fresh discoveries, the rate of progress varying among different peoples and in different periods. [23]

There is nothing like that in Egyptian or Babylonian literature.

The same may be said of atomist cosmology, although here we must make an important reservation. The resemblance of the atomic theory of Demokritos and Epicurus to the atomic theory of modern physics is superficially so striking that we are tempted to regard the work of those philosophers as scientific. This is a mistake. Ancient atomism is not science but ideology. It is, no less than Parmenidean monism and Platonic idealism, an exercise of 'pure reason' reflecting the structure of the society in which it was generated. As I have remarked, it was an ideological expression of the individualism which characterised one section of the ruling class in the period of the dissolution of the city‑state. This was indicated long ago by Marx in his thesis on the subject.

The deviation of the atom from the straight line is not an accidental feature in the physics of Epicurus. On the contrary, it expresses a law which penetrates his whole philosophy, but naturally in such a way as to manifest itself in a particular form determined by the sphere in which it is applied. . . . just as the atom frees itself from its relative existence, the straight line, by setting it aside, by withdrawing from it, so the whole Epicurean philosophy withdraws from the limitative mode of being, wherever the abstract notion of individuality, autonomy, and the negation of relativity in all its forms find expression in it. Thus, the end of action is abstraction, effacement before pain and everything that may agitate us, imperturbability. [24]

If, in the ancient world, atomism in physics was an ideological reflection of individualism in society, how are we to explain its resemblance to the modern scientific theory? The answer is that the modern theory, like all scientific theories in class society, contains an ideological element which in this case reflects an analogous feature of bourgeois society. The first to draw attention to this important truth was Caudwell:

We now understand how it is that the Newtonian world presents such a strange likeness to bourgeois society as the bourgeois envisage it. It is atomistic. It is composed of individuals who merely proceed on their own right lines doing what the immanent force of each makes necessary. Each particle is spontaneously self‑moving. It corresponds to the 'free' bourgeois producer as he imagines himself to be. [26]

At the same time, the modern atomic theory is from the beginning immeasurably superior to the ancient in that, within the framework of these ideological premisses, it embodies a vast store of truth tested in practice; and, as it continues to grow, this body of knowledge is constantly bursting the bonds of bourgeois ideology. That is how science advances. But the ancient atomic theory, restricted as it was by the economic basis and intellectual level of slave society, was not capable of developing in this way. It was a purely ideological construct.

The philosophy of Epicurus is the culmination of ancient philosophical materialism. His sense of dialectics, revealed in his conception of the interdependence of necessity and chance, of the relation between man and nature, and of the uneven development of human progress, invites comparison with the intuitive dialectics of Ionian materialism, which culminated in Herakleitos; and to that extent he may be regarded as bringing to maturity the most positive elements in primitive thought. On the other hand, his materialism, like that of Demokritos, is passive rather than active. The Epicureans did not seek to change the world, but to withdraw from it. Their ethics aimed at the self‑negation of the subject. They formed a closed circle of friends, devoted to one another and to the pursuit of happiness in the present life, but cut off from the rest of the world so far as that was possible. Their renunciation of the city‑state was a bold repudiation of slave‑owning society expressed in the categories of the society which it condemned. It was the negative counterpart of the Stoic affirmation of world brotherhood, which expressed in positive form the tendencies making for the unification of the Mediterranean world.

For these reasons it may be claimed that Aristotle rather than Epicurus stands in the true line of progress; for, although an idealist, he did not turn away from the world, but, on the contrary, examined it in concrete detail with a view to analysing its inner purpose. He denied that matter could move of itself, and ascribed motion to the agency of a First Mover, motionless, immaterial, divine; but this did not prevent him from affirming that matter is in perpetual motion. For him A may be not‑B and yet contain the potentiality of becoming B. His system is teleological. It is a reaffirmation of Ionian evolutionism, materialist in content, idealist only in form.

3. Subjective Dialectics

Dialectics, according to Lenin, is 'the study of the contradictions in the nature of objects themselves: it is not only appearances that are shifting, flowing, passing away, but also the essences of things'. In keeping with this definition, dialectics may be regarded from two aspects. First, there is the conflict of opposites which exists objectively in the external world, independent of our consciousness. This is the dialectics of the object­objective dialectics. Secondly, since the human consciousness is a social image of the external world, the contradictions inherent in that world are necessarily reflected in it. To quote again from Lenin: 'Man's ideas are not immovable but in perpetual motion, passing and flowing into each other; only so do they reflect real life.' [26] This is the dialectics of human thought—subjective dialectics.

Reviewing the history of Greek philosophy with this distinction in mind, we see that the work of Parmenides marks a turning‑point. His predecessors had been concerned to give a true account of the natural order, including man himself as part of it. The question they had set themselves was one which they had inherited from the beginnings of class society: how has the world come to be what it is? With the consolidation of the class structure of society and the growth of commodity production their answer to this question became progressively more theoretical, abstract, rational; and at the same time the question itself began to change its character: what is the world made of? what is the nature of reality? In this way the conditions were created for the formulation of an entirely new question, marking a new stage in the development of abstract thinking: how do we know?

This question was not asked by Parmenides, but arose in consequence of his work. Whereas the Ionian philosophers had assumed that man is part of nature, and therefore subject to her laws, he maintained that nature, as perceived by the senses, is an illusion, because it is contrary to reason. Clearly, this concept of reason does not correspond to anything in the external world of nature. Rather, just as his universe of pure being, stripped of everything qualitative, is a mental reflex of the abstract labour embodied in commodities, so his pure reason, which rejects everything qualitative, is a fetish concept reflecting the money form of value. This theory, far from reflecting the external world, rejects it: it is the negation of the object. And yet it is in practice impossible to reject the world in which we live. Parmenides himself was constrained to recognise this; for, as we have seen, he provided his students with a Way of Seeming for their probationary period, to be discarded later, like Wittgenstein's ladder. The eventual outcome of this line of reasoning was Plato's theory of Ideas, in which the material world was allowed to enjoy a derivative existence as an imperfect image of the ideal. In the meantime important advances were being made in the study of knowledge.

The conclusion of Parmenides, that motion and change cannot exist because they are contrary to reason, was reaffirmed in opposition to the pluralists by his disciple, Zenon of Elea, in a series of paradoxes. The best‑known is the following:

Achilles will never overtake the tortoise. He must first reach the point from which the tortoise started out. By that time the tortoise will be some way ahead. He must then cover that distance, but by that time the tortoise will be still further ahead. He is always getting nearer, but he never catches up. [27]

The premiss is that a line consists of an infinite number of points, which, being infinite, cannot be traversed in a finite time. He used similar reasoning to argue that a flying arrow does not move:

The flying arrow is at rest. For, given that everything is at rest when it occupies a space equal to itself, and that what is in flight at a given moment always occupies a space equal to itself, then it cannot move. [28]

Zenon dismissed the concept of motion as an illusion, because it contains a contradiction; for, like his master, lie maintained that only what is free from contradictions is real. The truth is, of course, that, just because it contains a contradiction, the concept of motion is a faithful reflection of reality. If we examine motion, not in abstraction, but as we encounter it in reality, we find that it is the mode of existence of matter:

Pure distance is a meaningless conception, because it is unknowable. Distance can only be known by the motion of something between relata, for physical distance involves a physical relation. Such a relation must be motion. In this sense distance is secondary to motion; motion is a prerequisite for spatial relations as such. Motion is therefore existence; the contradiction rooted in it, the inner activity of what constitutes the space and time in it, is the existence of the atom. [29]

So with the concept of infinity:

It is clear that the infinity which has an end but no beginning is neither more nor less infinite than that which has a beginning but no end. . . . The whole fraud would be impossible but for the mathematical usage of working with infinite series. Because in mathematics it is necessary to start from definite, finite terms in order to reach the indefinite, the infinite, all mathematical series, positive or negative, must start from 1, or they cannot be used for calculation. The abstract requirements of a mathematician are, however, very far from being a compulsory law for the world of reality. . . .

Infinity is a contradiction, and is full of contradictions. From the outset it is a contradiction that an infinity is composed of nothing but finites, and yet this is the case. The finiteness of the material world leads no less to contradictions than its infiniteness, and every attempt to get over these contradictions leads, as we have seen, to new and worse contradictions. It is just because infinity is a contradiction that it is an infinite process, unrolling endlessly in time and in space. The removal of the contradiction would be the end of infinity. Hegel saw this correctly, and for that reason treated with well‑merited contempt the gentlemen who subtilise over this contradiction. [30]

The Eleatic paradoxes were countered in ancient times by Protagoras of Abdera: 'Man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are; of things that are not, that they are not.' [31] From this we understand, in the first place, that knowledge is a relation between two terms, knower and known, subject and object. Moreover, the object of knowledge is the perceptual world. If we reject the evidence of the senses, there can be no knowledge of anything. Hence the Eleatics knew nothing. That this is what Protagoras meant is clear from his attitude to the gods. The gods are not normally perceptible to the senses, though some men have claimed to have seen or heard them. Are they, or are they not? Protagoras did not know: 'Concerning the gods, I cannot know either that they exist nor that they do not exist, nor what shape they have; for there are many obstacles to knowledge, such as the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life.’ [32] In the second place, in so far as both man himself and the world around him are subject to change, to that extent all knowledge is necessarily relative. The same thing will appear different to the same person at different times and at the same time to different persons. This, however, is far from being pure relativism. Thanks to our common humanity, including speech, which enables us to exchange our experiences, we have a large measure of common ground. Thus, knowledge is a social product.

This was the stage at which the term 'dialectics' was invented. The Greek dialektiké, from dialégomai, 'converse' or 'discuss', means 'the art of discussion'. The democratic city‑state offered unlimited opportunities for discussion in the assembly and the law‑courts, and there arose a new type of philosopher, the sophist, a professional teacher who imparted to his pupils a general education with special attention to public speaking and debate, including the study of grammar. This 'art of discussion' was invented by Zenon and developed by Sokrates and Plato. Its best‑known products are the Platonic dialogues. The procedure is that a proposition is stated by one of the two principals, opposed by the other, and finally either rejected altogether or else re‑stated in a form acceptable to both parties. Thus the discussion proceeds to its conclusion by the resolution of contradictions. [33] This is only a summary description of the procedure, but no more is needed, because it is only mentioned here as preparing the way for the subjective dialectics of Plato and Aristotle.

Plato agreed with Parmenides that only what is free from contradictions is knowable, and that, since both motion and change contain contradictions, therefore the sensible world is not knowable. In working out this theory he made some important advances, not in the study of the material world, but in the study of ideas. Some of the sophists had argued that man cannot learn anything:

It is not possible for a man to enquire after either what he knows or what he does not know. He would not enquire after what he knows, because he knows it already and does not need to enquire; nor would he enquire after what he does not know, because he does not know what to enquire after. [34]

Here the sophists were applying to the theory of knowledge the Parmenidean conception of being. just as being excludes not‑being, so knowledge excludes ignorance and ignorance excludes knowledge. They excluded learning, the transition from ignorance to knowledge, by the same reasoning as Zenon excluded motion: it involves a contradiction. Plato's solution of the problem was as follows. Knowledge is a faculty of the soul, which is immortal. When it is incarnated in a human body, its knowledge is overlaid through contact with the body and temporarily forgotten, but it can be recovered, even in life, by theoretical study and above all by the pursuit of philosophy, which is designed to free the soul from the contamination of the body. Thus learning is the recovery of knowledge that has been lost. Hence, a man who is learning something may be said both to know it and not to know it. Thus the idea of learning contains a contradiction; it is a unity of opposites.

Another problem of the same kind was, how can a man communicate his experiences to others? You have your experience and I have mine; your experience cannot be mine. If we are capable of sharing our experiences with one another, it must be that they are not only different for each of us, but also somehow the same. Each concrete case differs from every other. A1 is A1 and not A2; A2 is A2 and not A3; and so on. And yet they are all A. They are the same and not the same. This is the unity of the particular and the universal, which was recognised by Plato. though in an idealist form. He believed that different houses exist only in so far as they all participate in the idea 'house', which exists absolutely, because, being abstract and universal. it is exempt from motion and change. Thus, in place of the Parmenidean world of being, opposed to the world of seeming, which does not really exist at all, Plato postulated two worlds, the world of ideas, corresponding to the Parmenidean world of being, and the sensible world, which differs from the Parmenidean world of seeming in that it is not pure illusion but exists as an imperfect copy of the ideal. This misconception of the relation between ideas and things was corrected by Aristotle, who wrote, in opposition to Plato: 'We should not suppose that "house" exists apart from certain houses.' [35] In other words, the universal does not exist apart from the particulars. And this is the position of dialectical materialism, as explained by Lenin:

The opposites (the particular as opposed to the general) are identical: the particular exists only in the connection that leads to the general. The general exists only in and through the particular. Every particular is (in one way or another) a general. Every general is (a fragment or a side or the essence of) a particular. Every general comprises only approximately all the particular objects. Every particular enters into the general incompletely, etc. etc. Every particular is connected by thousands of transitions with other kinds of particulars (things, phenomena, processes), etc. Here already we have the elements, the germs, the concepts, of necessity, of objective connection in nature, etc. Here already we have the contingent and the necessary, the appearance and the essence; for when we say 'John is a man', 'Fido is a dog', 'This is a leaf of a tree' etc., we disregard a number of characteristics as contingent; we separate the essence from the appearance, and put one in opposition to the other. [36]

How far Plato had advanced towards this comprehension of the unity of opposites represented by the general and the particular, may be judged from the following passage:

—Dividing according to kinds, not taking the same form for a different one or a different form for the same—is not that the business of the art of dialectics? Yes.—And the man who can do that discerns clearly one form everywhere extended throughout many, where each one lies apart, and many forms, different from one another, embraced from without by one form . . . . [37]

On this passage Taylor remarked:

Logic is here, for the first time in literature, contemplated as an autonomous science with the task of ascertaining the supreme principles of affirmative and negative propositions (the combinations and 'separations'). [38]

It is an open question, which need not be discussed here, whether the invention of formal logic should be credited to Plato or to his pupil Aristotle. [39] All that concerns us for our present purpose is to note that it was something new.

Thus, the dialectical nature of being, which had been recognised by Herakleitos in the material world, and then denied by Parmenides, was reasserted by Plato, but only in the realm of ideas. And yet his work was an advance; for, whereas Herakleitos had only been able to express his sense of dialectics in the semi‑mystical form of the logos, Plato's dialectical method was a systematic procedure of synthesis and analysis. It is not an accident, therefore, that the term 'dialectics' was invented for the study of the ideas in which the external world is reflected rather than for the study of the external world itself.

Again we ask, how had this advance been effected? And, following our general principle, that men's ideas are determined by their relations of production, we look for the answer in the further development of those relations which we have already seen to be decisive in the history of philosophy. The fire of Herakleitos serves in his system as universal equivalent; but How does this universal stand in relation to its particular embodiments, and how do these particulars stand in relation to one another? To these questions Herakleitos could only give the general answer, that they are transformed into one another 'as goods are exchanged for gold and gold for goods'. Plato's answer is much subtler, and in order to understand it historically we must turn once again to Marx's analysis of commodities:

Let us look at the matter a little closer. To the owner of a commodity, every other commodity is, in regard to his own, a particular equivalent, and consequently his own commodity is the universal equivalent for all the others. But since this applies to every owner, there is in fact no commodity acting as universal equivalent, and the relative value of commodities possesses no general form under which they can be equated as values and have the magnitude of their values compared. So far, therefore, they do not confront each other as commodities, but only as products or use‑values. In their difficulties our commodity‑owners think like Faust: Im Anfang war die Tat. They therefore acted and transacted before they thought. Instinctively they conform to the laws imposed by the nature of commodities. They cannot bring their commodities into relation as values, and therefore as commodities, except by comparing them with some other commodity as universal equivalent. That we saw from the analysis of a commodity. But a particular commodity cannot become the universal equivalent except by a social act. The social action, therefore, of all other commodities sets apart the particular commodity in which they all represent their values. Thereby the bodily form of this commodity becomes, by this social process, the specific function of the commodity thus excluded by the rest. Thus it becomes—money. [40]

The power of abstraction embodied in the Platonic theory of Ideas and in Aristotelian logic was an intellectual product of the social relations created by the abstract process of commodity exchange. In saying that the rules of logic are socially determined, we do not impugn their objective truth, but, on the contrary, affirm it; for truth is a social product.

4. The Battle of Gods and Giants

The basic question of philosophy, wrote Engels, 'is that concerning the relation of thinking to being':

The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and therefore in the last instance assumed world creation in one form or another (and among philosophers—Hegel, for example—this creation often becomes even more intricate and impossible than in Christianity) comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism. [41]

The Ionians and the Atomists were materialists. The position of Pythagoras and Parmenides was transitional. The Pythagoreans taught that matter is composed of numbers; the Eleatics denied that it was perceptible to the senses. The first to assert the primacy of spirit to matter was Plato, the founder of philosophical idealism.

Idealism has nothing in common with science. It is a product of 'ideology' in the special sense of that term used by Marx to denote the metaphysical mystification of reality which is a constantly recurring phenomenon in the thought of class society. His study of this subject, which has a direct bearing on the Platonic theory of ideas, deserves to be read in full; but here it must suffice to give the bare outline of his argument.

Ideology begins by removing from beings and things the reality that belongs to them and confers it on abstractions; then it sets out from these abstractions to reconstruct the world, producing from them concrete being and reality. Take the idea of fruit. If we reduce all the different fruits—apples, pears, peaches, and so on—to the concept fruit, and if we consider that this concept, existing apart from them, constitutes their essence, we have then established this concept as the 'substance' of the fruit; and consequently we may describe apples or pears as nothing more than modes of existence of that substance. Accordingly, the essence of the apple or pear does not reside in its concrete being but in the abstract entity or concept which we have substituted for it. Real, particular fruits are only apparent fruits; their essence is the substance, the fruit considered in itself. If fruit, which exists really only as substance, appears under different forms—a fact which contradicts the unity of substance—the reason is that fruit considered as a concept is not an abstract idea but a living entity, of which the varieties of fruit are only different manifestations. Real fruits, such as apples and pears, are only different degrees of development of the concept fruit. And so, having reduced real objects to a substance, we recreate them by treating them as incarnations of that substance. The idea of a thing has become its reality, and the thing itself has become an idea. [42]

Plato worked out his theory of Ideas in conscious opposition to materialism. In the Sophist he wrote:

—Why, this dispute about reality is a sort of Battle of Gods and Giants. One side drags everything down to earth, literally laying hands on rocks and trees, arguing that only what can be felt and touched is real, defining reality as body, and if anyone says that something without body is real, they treat him with contempt and will not listen to another word.

—Yes, they are clever fellows: I've met a lot of them.

—So their opponents in the heights of the unseen defend their position with great skill, maintaining forcibly that true existence consists in certain intelligible, incorporeal forms, describing the so‑called truth of the others as a mere flowing sort of becoming, not reality at all, and smashing their so‑called bodies to pieces. On this issue there is a terrific battle always going on. [43]

The Giants are the materialists. The Gods are, of course, the idealists, including Plato. In the Laws he shows that his interest in the controversy is not merely theoretical:

—They say that earth, air, fire and water all exist by nature or chance, not by art, and that by means of these wholly inanimate substances there have come into being the secondary bodies—the earth, sun, moon and stars. Set in motion by their individual properties and mutual affinities, such as hot and cold, wet and dry, hard and soft, and all the other combinations formed by necessity from. the chance admixture of opposites—in this way heaven has been created and everything that is in it, together with all the animals and plants, and the seasons too are of the same origin—not by means of mind or God or art but, as I said, by nature and chance. Art arose after these and out of them, mortal in origin, producing certain toys which do not really partake of truth but consist of related images, such as those produced by painting, music and the accompanying arts, while the arts which do have some serious purpose, co‑operate actively with nature, such as medicine, agriculture and gymnastics; and so does politics too to some extent, but it is mostly art; and so with legislation—it is entirely art, not nature, and its assumptions are not true.

—How do you mean?

—The Gods, my friend, according to these people, have no existence in nature but only in art, being a product of laws, which differ from place to place according to the conventions of the lawgivers; and natural goodness is different from what is good by law; and there is no such thing as natural justice; they are constantly discussing it and changing it; and, since it is a matter of art and law and not of nature, whatever changes they make in it from time to time are valid for the moment. This is what our young people hear from professional poets and private persons, who assert that might is right; and the result is, they fall into sin, believing that the gods are not what the law bids them imagine them to be, and into civil strife, being induced to live according to nature, that is, by exercising actual dominion over others instead of living in legal subjection to them.

—What a dreadful story, and what an outrage to the public and private morals of the young! [44]

And how did Plato propose to rescue the young from this godless materialism? By bringing them up on lies. In the same dialogue, having demonstrated to his own satisfaction that the unjust life—that is, the life which does not conform to his legislative programme—is actually less agreeable than the just life, he is at pains to dispel any doubt that may linger in the reader's mind about the efficacy of this conclusion:

—And even if this were not true, as our argument has proved it to be, could a legislator, who was any good at all and prepared to tell the young a beneficial falsehood, have invented a falsehood more profitable than this, more likely to persuade them of their own free will to do always what was right?

—The truth is a fine thing and lasting; yet it is not easy to make people believe it.

—Well, was it hard to make people believe the myth of Kadmos, and hundreds of others equally incredible?

Which do you mean?

—The sowing of the dragon's teeth and the appearance of the warriors. What an instructive example that is to the legislator of his power to win the hearts of the young! It shows that all he needs to do is to find out what belief is most beneficial to the state and then use all the resources at his command to ensure that throughout their lives, in speech, story and song, the people all sing to the same tune. [46]

Scrap the achievements of Ionian natural philosophy and back to mythology—that was Plato's final remedy for the evils of the dying city‑state. No wonder he admired the petrified culture of the Egyptians, still living in the mentality of the Bronze Age:

—What are the legal provisions for such matters in Egypt?

—Most remarkable. They recognised long ago the principle we are discussing, that the young must be habituated to the use of beautiful designs and melodies. They have established their norms and displayed them in the temples, and no artist is permitted in any of the arts to make any innovation or introduce any new forms in place of the traditional ones. You will find that the works of art produced there to‑day are made in the same style, neither better nor worse, as those which were made ten thousand years ago—without any exaggeration, ten thousand years ago.

—Very remarkable.

Rather, I should say, extremely politic and statesmanlike. You will find weaknesses there too, but what I have said about music is true and important, because it shows that it is possible for a legislator to establish melodies based on natural truth with full confidence in the result. True, it can only be done by a god or a divine being. The Egyptians say that the ancient chants which they have preserved for so long were composed for them by Isis. Hence, I say, if only the right melodies can be discovered, there is no difficulty in establishing them by law, because the craving after novelty is not strong enough to corrupt the officially consecrated music. At any rate, it has not been corrupted in Egypt.

Yes, this evidence seems to establish your point. [46]

Those who denounce communism as immoral would do well to ponder these sayings from the father of philosophical idealism.

Some scholars have sought to extenuate Plato's educational programme on the ground that, when he wrote the Laws, he was a disillusioned and embittered old man. This is true enough, but it should not be overlooked that his disillusionment resulted from his failure to realise in practice the very similar ideas which he had already advocated in the Republic. A word about the 'noble lie' of the Republic is necessary here in order to counter a recent attempt to whitewash it on the principle Plato veritate amicior.

Having divided the governing class of his ideal state into two sections, the Rulers, in whom the governing authority is vested, and the Auxiliaries, whose duty it is to see that their decisions are enforced, Plato goes on:

—Well, said I, how can we contrive one of those expedient falsehoods we were speaking of just now, one noble falsehood, which we may persuade the whole community, including the Rulers themselves, if possible, to accept?

—What sort of thing?

—Nothing new; one of those Phoenician stories of what has happened before now in many parts of the world, if the poets are to be believed, and they are believed; but it has not happened in our day, and it would be hard to persuade anybody that it could.

—You seem to be hesitating.

—Yes, and with good reason, as you will see when I tell you what it is.

—Tell me; don't be afraid.

—Well, I will tell you, though I don't know how to find the heart or the words to do it. I shall try to persuade first of all the Rulers and the soldiers and after them the rest of the community, that all this upbringing and education they have had from us was really nothing but a dream; that really they were beneath the earth all the time, being shaped and nursed and their weapons and the rest of their equipment manufactured for them, until at last the earth their mother released them all complete into the light of day; and therefore they must take thought for their country and defend it against aggressors as their mother and nurse, and treat their fellow‑citizens as their earth‑born brothers.

—No wonder you were ashamed to tell your falsehood.

—Yes, but wait till you have heard the end of the story. All of you, we shall tell them, are brothers; but, when God was fashioning those of you who are fit to rule, he mixed in some gold, so these are the most valuable; and he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and bronze in the farmers and other craftsmen. Since you are all akin, your children will mostly be like their parents, but occasionally a golden parent may have a silver child or a silver parent a golden child, and so on; and therefore the first and foremost task that God has laid upon the Rulers is, of all their functions as Guardians, to pay the most careful attention to the mixture of metals in the souls of the children, so that, if one of their own children is born with an alloy of iron or bronze, they must not give way to pity but cast it out among the craftsmen and farmers, thus assigning it to the station appropriate to its nature; and conversely, if one of these should produce a child with silver or gold in it, they must promote him to the Guardians or Auxiliaries,, according to his value, in the belief that it has been foretold that, if ever the state should fall into the keeping of a bronze or iron guardian, it will be ruined. That is the story. Can you suggest any device by which we can get them to believe it?

—Not the first generation, but perhaps their sons and descendants and eventually their whole posterity.

—Well, even that would help to make them care for one another and for the community. I think I see what you mean. [47]

The only significant difference between this passage and the one already quoted is that, whereas in the Laws he condones the use of lies without any apparent scruple, here he still shows a certain hesitancy.

The opening words of this passage are translated by Cornford as follows:

Now, said I, can we devise something in the way of those convenient fictions we spoke of earlier, a single bold flight of invention, which we may induce the community in general, and if possible the Rulers themselves, to accept? [48]

He attempted to justify this version in a footnote:

This phrase gennaîón ti hen pseudoménous is commonly rendered by 'noble lie', a self‑contradictory expression no more applicable to Plato's harmless allegory than to a New Testament parable or the Pilgrim's Progress, and liable to suggest that he would countenance the lies, for the most part ignoble, now called propaganda. [40]

It is regrettable that so fine a scholar should have lent his name to this perversion of the Greek. The word gennaîós means (1) true‑born, high‑born, noble; (2) honest, genuine; (3) of good quality, high‑grade; (4) whole‑hearted, intense, vehement. There is no evidence that it could mean 'on a generous scale', as he asserted, and the  phrase mázas gennaîas, which he cited from another passage of the Republic in support of this interpretation, means probably something equivalent to our 'plain bread and butter', just as we say 'good honest beer', máza being the traditional type of the simple diet, as I have shown in my commentary on the Oresteia. [50] The expression is certainly self‑contradictory, but expressions of this kind are familiar to every Greek student under the name oxymoron (p. 13 5, n. 14), and the present example is merely a variant of the proverbial kalòn pseûdos, a lie which brings an immediate advantage, but is nevertheless unprofitable, because it cannot last. [51] What Plato wants is a falsehood which will be both profitable and lasting. Cornford adduced no evidence to show that pseûdos could mean ‘allegory', or indeed anything else but 'falsehood'; and in any case this fable cannot be so described. It is of the very nature of an allegory that it does not, as such, require to be believed: it is merely a symbolical illustration of an alleged truth. But Plato admits that it will take several generations before the people can be got to accept this pseûdos, which shows that he wants them to accept it, not as an allegory, but as a fact. And he admits himself it is not a fact. It is, therefore, a lie, and noble only to those who share his class prejudices.

In an earlier chapter, after referring to Cornford's claim that the Ionian philosophers 'made the formation of the world a natural and no longer a supernatural event' and that 'this has become the universal premiss of all modern science', it was pointed out that Cornford failed to explain why some of their successors, including Plato, renounced this premiss and reverted to the supernatural. It is now clear what the reason was. As a member of the old nobility who was bitterly opposed to democracy, Plato could see no hope for society except to undo all that had been done by the merchant class and re‑establish the rule of the landed aristocracy: in other words, to restore the past in such a way that it will remain henceforth as it was and suffer no further change. His whole philosophy is inspired by this antipathy to change, and hence it is not surprising that he felt such an admiration for the Egyptian priesthood, which had succeeded so well in laying a dead hand on the cultural development of their people. He and his fellow oligarchs would have done the same for Athens. As Caudwell has said:

Such a culture shores up the past in which they were strong. This ideal past does not bear much resemblance to the real past, for it is carefully arranged so that, unlike the real past, it will not again generate the present. For Plato this past is idealised in his Republic, ruled by aristocrats and practising a primitive communism which is the way Plato hopes to undermine the trade by which the rival class has come to power. [52]

Granted that in his theory of Ideas Plato made important contributions to epistemology, and that all his writings (except the Laws) are presented with superb literary skill, his philosophy expresses the reactionary outlook of a selfish oligarchy clinging blindly to its privileges at a time when their social and economic basis was crumbling away. It is a philosophy founded on the denial of motion and change and hence of life itself.

5. The End of Natural Philosophy

During the fifth century B.C. there grew up in the country immediately to the west of the Strymon a kingdom which resembled in some respects the early military monarchies of the type described in the Homeric poems. The dominant people was the Macedonians, who were closely akin to the Greeks, and, after consolidating their hold over their neighbours, the Illyrian and Thracian tribes, they extended their sway along the whole north coast of the Aegean and began to expand southwards into Greece. In 360 B.C. Philip became their king. Thirty years later his son, Alexander the Great, had made himself master of Greece, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia. The Persian Empire lay at his feet. In 323 B.C. he died of a fever at thirty‑three years of age, having extended his empire as far as Upper Egypt in the south and the Indus valley in the east.

In Greece itself, the Macedonians were opposed by the ruling clique in each city, who had a vested interest in maintaining the autonomy of these petty states. They succeeded because their expansionist policy provided the only means whereby the Greek propertied class of money‑lending landowners could maintain their wealth and power against the pressure of the poor freemen, who, afflicted by mass unemployment, 'went about as armed rovers, attached to no city, hiring themselves out to any state that needed fighting men, a constant menace to society'. [53] The urgency of the problem and its solution were seen very clearly by Isokrates (436‑338 B.C.), who was born eight years before Plato and died only sixteen years before Aristotle. He was a mediocre thinker and a tedious orator, but he was more alert than either of the philosophers to the interests of his class:

This is the only war preferable to peace, being more like a pilgrimage than a campaign, and beneficial alike to lovers of fighting and lovers of quiet, enabling the former to make fortunes abroad and securing for the latter the enjoyment of what they have. [54]

The military conquests of Alexander the Great were followed by developments in the technique of production more rapid and radical than any the world had seen since the beginning of the Bronze Age. New cities sprang up throughout the Middle East, all the territories of the old Persian Empire being now open to the free circulation of commodities. The movement of economic expansion was not essentially different from that which had radiated from the Aegean in the seventh century B.C., but its scale was much larger; and, since it included Egypt and Mesopotamia, these ancient centres of civilisation were now united for the first time politically and culturally with Greece. The product of this unification was the civilisation called Hellenistic, in which, although it comprised many different peoples, who continued to use their own languages among themselves, the Greek language was recognised as the international medium for administration, commerce, and culture. It was in this period that science broke loose from the apron‑strings of natural philosophy.

As Plato's pupil and Alexander's tutor, the giant figure of Aristotle stands astride the transition from the old era to the new. He was the last of the great philosophers, except Epicurus, and he was the first great scientist. His philosophical studies reveal his gradual but incomplete emancipation from Platonic idealism. His unique claim to greatness is one that his master would have despised. He organised and conducted systematic research into biology, zoology, botany, history, and economics. In his zoological treatises he describes several hundred different species of animals according to the specimens collected and dissected by himself and his fellow‑workers. His analysis of the function of money is without parallel in antiquity. It is referred to repeatedly by Marx, who acclaimed him as 'the great thinker who was the first to analyse so many forms, whether of thought, society or nature, and amongst them also the form of value'. As the function of money is vital to the history of philosophy, it is worth while to recall Marx's estimate of his contribution to this subject:

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that to attribute value to commodities is merely a mode  of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had therefore for its natural basis the inequality of men and of their labour powers. The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent because and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man is that of owners of commodities. The brilliancy of Aristotle's genius is shown by this alone, that he discovered in the expression of the value of commodities a relation of equality. [55]

Aristotle founded a school, the Lyceum, which produced, in the two centuries following his death, several scientists comparable with himself and a mass of research covering, in addition to the subjects mentioned, mechanics, mathematics, astronomy, music, and grammar. These men may be regarded as pioneers of experimental science. Only one of them concerns us here, Theophrastos of Lesbos, who succeeded Aristotle as head of the Lyceum. He attacked the basic assumptions of the natural philosophers, idealist and materialist alike. As against the idealists, he reasserted the truth that motion is a property of matter. As against the materialists, he showed that the doctrine of the four elements, as employed by them, could not be correct. He did this by arguing that fire is not a substance at all, like earth or air or water, but a 'form of motion':

The other elements are self‑subsistent; they do not require a substratum. Fire does—at least such fire as is perceptible by our senses. . . . Flame is burning smoke. A coal is an earthy solid. It makes no difference whether the fire is in the sky or on the earth. In the first case fire is burning air; in the second case it is either all the other three elements burning or two of them. Speaking generally, fire is always coming into being. It is a form of motion. It perishes as it comes into being. As it leaves its substratum, it perishes itself. That is what those ancients meant who said that fire is always in search of nutriment. They saw that it could not subsist of itself without its material. What is the sense then of calling fire a first principle if it cannot subsist without some material? For, as we have seen, it is not a simple thing, nor can it exist before its substratum and material. One might of course assert that in the outermost sphere there exists a kind of fire which is pure and unmixed heat. If so, it could not burn, and burning is the nature of fire. [56]

This, and other similar conclusions equally well founded, did not of course prevent the philosophers from carrying on their disputations; but, so far as the discovery of truth was concerned, their occupation was gone. They turned their attention increasingly to ethics, by which they understood the knowledge required by a man of leisure, whose material needs were provided by his slaves, to lead a tranquil life devoted to intellectual pursuits, indifferent to the sufferings of all but his personal friends. Even for Epicurus, the study of nature was only a means to this end:

If we were not troubled by the misgivings aroused by celestial phenomena, or the fear that death may mean something to us after all, or neglect of the limits of pains and desires, we should have no need to study nature. . . .

Given a certain degree of security against our fellow men, we may, with the power to support ourselves and with affluence in its most genuine form, enjoy the security of a quiet life secluded from the multitude. [57]

Whereas the Epicureans studied nature in order to rid themselves of their fears of the supernatural, the Stoics studied her in order that they might discover her underlying law and live their lives in conformity with it:

Zenon of Kition was the first to designate as the end living in agreement with nature, that is, living according to virtue, for nature leads us to virtue. . . . And this is why the end is living consistently with the nature of the universe and of ourselves, a life in which we refrain from all actions commonly forbidden by the universal law, that is, the right reason pervading all things, which is the same as Zeus, who is the supreme administrator of the world. Herein lies the virtue of the happy man and the smooth course of his life, when all his actions tend to bring his indwelling spirit into harmony with the will of the lord and governor of all. [58]

Whether materialist or idealist, these philosophers had one thing in common—their abstract aloofness from the labour of production.

Two centuries after Alexander had reached the Indus, the impetus which his conquests had given to the world was well‑nigh exhausted, and, under Roman rule, the slave‑states of the Mediterranean and the Middle East entered into their last period of decline. The causes which brought about the decay of Hellenistic civilisation have been well summarised by Walbank:

Once slavery has spread from the home to the mine and the workshop, it appears to rule out the development of an advanced industrial technique. For the kind of slaves employed in the big productive processes, such as agriculture or mining, are not capable of operating complicated machinery or advanced methods of natural exploitation, still less of improving them. Hence slavery militates against the development of mechanical power; and at the same time it brings few advantages in the concentration of industry, and therefore offers little opposition to the tendency of production to fly outwards to the periphery of the economic area. Furthermore, when slaves are there as an alternative, the producer has no incentive to economise labour; and the bargaining power of the poor free worker is automatically reduced where the two classes are in competition, as they frequently were in the Hellenistic Age. [59]

The profits made from the exploitation of slave labour were not, for the most part, reinvested in production, because, being fixed on a slave basis, the mode of production was incapable of expansion. They were simply spent. The ruling class entered on a career of disgusting luxury and extravagance, from which the philosophers turned away politely without protest. They had no more to offer to the masses of the people than had the official religion, with which indeed they became closely identified, with its threadbare puppets and stale Olympian myths.

The hope of the future lay then, as always, with the people, who, in virtue of their status as manual labourers, preserved from primitive society one precious asset, which their sophisticated masters had lost­ the capacity to apprehend reality 'as sensuous human activity, as practice'—and together with this an instinctive sense of dialectics drawn from their own experience of the class struggle:

My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath looked upon the lowliness of his handmaiden: For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me; And holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him Throughout all generations. He hath shewed strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, And hath exalted the humble and meek. The hungry he hath filled with good things, And the rich he hath sent empty away. He, remembering his mercy, hath holpen his servant Israel, As he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever. [60]

Christianity started as only one creed among many, and, in the form in which we know it, it is a complex product of many diverse cults—Egyptian, Syrian, Mesopotamian. It began in Palestine as an expression of the Jewish national movement, which, as has been explained in the foregoing pages, was a unique phenomenon in the ancient world, and was now stimulated to renewed activity through contact with Greek political ideas. Thus, as the combined product of Judaism and Hellenism, the two most distinctive cultures of the Mediterranean world, opposed to one another in many ways and hence complementary, Christianity was the proper ideological outcome of the whole course of ancient civilisation. Later, as it was taken over by the ruling class, it absorbed, mainly from Greek philosophy and rhetoric, many ideas originally alien to it; but the primitive dialectics could not be effaced and survives to this day embalmed in the liturgy, pouring scorn on the philosophers who are incapable of grasping a truth so simple and self‑evident as the unity of opposites:

Hail, room confining boundless God; hail, door to holy mysteries!

Hail, doubtful rumour of the infidel; hail, undoubted glory of the faithful!

Hail, holy chariot of him who rides the Cherubim; hail, excellent mansion of him who mounts the Seraphim!

Hail, thou who hast brought the opposites together; hail, thou who hast coupled chastity with childbirth!

Hail, thou through whom transgression is redeemed; hail, thou through whom Paradise is opened!

Hail, key to Christ's kingdom; hail, hope of eternal bliss!

Hail, bride unwed!

The whole nature of Angels was amazed at thy great work of incarnation; for they saw their unapproachable God a man approachable to all, living with us and thus addressed by all:


We see the wordy orators like dumb fishes before thee, Virgin, for they are at a loss to tell how being still a Virgin thou hadst power to bear a child; but we, in wonder at the Mystery, cry faithfully:

Hail, receptacle of God's wisdom; hail, treasury of his providence!

Hail, thou who hast refuted the philosophers; hail thou who hast struck the clever speakers speechless!

Hail, thou who hast confounded the subtle debaters; hail, thou who hast fooled the false myth‑makers!

Hail, thou who hast torn the weavings of the Athenians; hail, thou who hast filled the fishermen's nets!

Hail, thou who hast dragged us out of the depths of ignorance; hail, thou who hast illuminated many in knowledge!

Hail, frigate of those who wish to be saved; hail, haven of life's seafarersl

Hail, bride unwed! [61]

In the Middle Ages, when slave society had been superseded by feudalism, some of the schoolmen, experts in ecclesiastical doctrine, raised the question, whether matter could think? Of them Marx and Engels wrote:

Materialism is the natural son of Great Britain. Already the British schoolman, Duns Scotus, asked, 'whether it was impossible for matter to think?' In order to effect this miracle he took refuge in God's omnipotence, i.e. he made theology preach materialism. [62]

Thus, in its modern form, as in the ancient, materialism came into being within the bosom of Mother Church.


1 Hdt. 1. 60. 3.

2 Hp. Morb. Sacr. 1‑2.

3 Alcmaeo B 1a.

4 Hp. Aer. 1.

5 Hp. VM. 1.

6 Ib. 15.

7 Ib. 20.

8 Pl. Rp. 406; Farrington HHAG 35‑6. [Head and Hand in Ancient Greece. London, 1947.]

9 Arist. Pol. 1282a.

10 W. H. S. Jones 1. 8. [Hippocrates. London/New York, 1923-1931.]

11 Emped. B 112 Diels.

12 Tim. 81, Suid. s.v., Ath. 5e.

13 Emped. B 105.

14 Arist. Met. 1075b. 3.

15 Arist. Rhet. 1398b. 15.

16 Anax. B 6, 11, A 97 Diels.

17 Anax. B 17.

18 Meliss. B 8.

19 Leuc. A 7.

20 Marx DDEN. [Ueber die Differenz der demokratischen und epikurischen Naturphilosophie. Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe 1. 1.]

21 Farrington GS 1. 60. [Greek Science. London, 1944-9.]

22 D.L. 10. 150‑2.

23 Ib. 10. 75.

24 Marx DDEN 29.

25 Caudwell CP 48‑9. [The Crisis in Physics. London, 1938.] The particle derives its mobility from the divine impulse, just as the individual liberty of the bourgeois is a gift from God.

26 Lenin PN 181, 187‑8. [Aus dem philosophischen Nachlass. Vienna, 1932.]

27 Arist. Phys. 239b. 14.        

28 A. 239b. 30.

29 Caudwell CP 171.

30 Engels AD 61. [Anti-Dühring. London, 1934]

31 Pl. Tht. 151e‑152a.

32 Pl. Rp. 600c sch.

33 Burnet GP 134‑5, 164. [Greek Philosophy, Thales to Plato. London, 1914.]

34 Pl. Mno 80e.

35 Arist. Met. 3. 4. 8‑9.

36 Lenin D 83.['On Dialectics'. SW 11. 81.]

37 Pl. Soph. 253c.

38 Taylor 387. [Plato, the Man and His Work. 2 ed. London, 1927.]

39 Cornford PTK 264. [Plato's Theory of Knowledge. London, 1935.]

40 Marx C 1. 58. [Capital. Vol. 1. London, 1946]

41 Engels LF 31.[Ludwig Feuerbach. London.]

42 Marx HF 228. [Die heilige Familie. Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe 1. 3.]

43 Pl. Soph. 246a‑c.

44 Pl. Lg. 889b‑90b.

45 Ib. 663d‑4a.

46 1b. 656d­657b.

47 Pl. Rp. 414b‑415d.

48 Cornford RP 103. [The Republic of Plato. Oxford, 1941.]

49 1b.

50 Thomson AO 2. 109-10. [Aeschylus, Oresteia. Cambridge, 1938.]

51 A. Ag. 625‑6=620‑1, S. fr. 59, Theog. 607‑9, Thomson AO 2. 73‑4.

52 Caudwell IR 47. [Illusion and Reality. 2 ed. London, 1947]

53 Bury HG 714. [History of Greece. 3 ed. London, 1951]

54 Isoc. 4. 182.

55 Marx C 1. 29.

56 Theoph. Ign., tr. Farrington GS 2. 25‑6.

57 D.L. 10. 142‑3.

58 Ib. 7. 87‑8.

59 Walbank 16. ['The Causes of Greek Decline'. Journal of Hellenic Studies 64. 10.]

60 Luke 1, 46‑55

61 From the Akathistos Imnos: Cantarella 1. 90‑1. [I poeti bizantini. Milan, 1948]

62 Marx‑Engels HF (SW 1. 395).

SOURCE: Thomson, George. The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972. (First published 1955, 2nd ed. 1961, reprinted with corrections, 1972.) Chapter XV, "Materialism and Idealism," pp. 302-335.

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society (Contents & Prefaces) by George Thomson

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society: Chapter XIV: Being (§5 & 6) by George Thomson

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society: Chapter XVI: False Consciousness by George Thomson

Intellectual and Manual Labor: Contents by Alfred Sohn-Rethel

The Thunderbolt, Interpenetration and Heraclitus” by David H. DeGrood

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

British Marxism in Philosophy, Science, and Culture Before the New Left:
Essential Historical Surveys

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