An Approach to the Greek Genius

Two opposite attitudes towards the Greeks are common at the present day. One, which was practically universal from the Renaissance until very recent times, views the Greeks with almost superstitious reverence, as the inventors of all that is best, and as men of superhuman genius whom the moderns cannot hope to equal. The other attitude, inspired by the triumphs of science and by an optimistic belief in progress, considers the authority of the ancients an incubus, and maintains that most of their contributions to thought are now best forgotten. I cannot myself take either of these extreme views; each, I should say, is partly right and partly wrong.

...As to the nature and structure of the world, various hypotheses are possible. Progress in metaphysics, so far as it has existed, has consisted in a gradual refinement of all these hypotheses, a development of their implications, and a reformulation of each to meet the objections urged by adherents of rival hypotheses. To learn to conceive the universe according to each of these systems is an imaginative delight and an antidote to dogmatism. Moreover, even if no one of the hypotheses can be demonstrated, there is genuine knowledge in the discovery of what is involved in making each of them consistent with itself and with known facts. Now almost all the hypotheses that have dominated modern philosophy were first thought of by the Greeks; their imaginative inventiveness in abstract matters can hardly be too highly praised. What I shall have to say about the Greeks will be said mainly from this point of view; I shall regard them as giving birth to theories which have had an independent life and growth, and which, though at first somewhat infantile, have proved capable of surviving and developing throughout more than two thousand years.

The Greeks contributed, it is true, something else which proved of more permanent value to abstract thought: they discovered mathematics and the art of deductive reasoning. Geometry, in particular, is a Greek invention, without which modern science would have been impossible. But in connection with mathematics the one-sidedness of the Greek genius appears: it reasoned deductively from what appeared self-evident, not inductively from what had been observed. Its amazing successes in the employment of this method misled not only the ancient world, but the greater part of the modern world also. It has only been very slowly that scientific method, which seeks to reach principles inductively from observation of particular facts, has replaced the Hellenic belief in deduction from luminous axioms derived from the mind of the philosopher. For this reason, apart from others, it is a mistake to treat the Greeks with superstitious reverence. Scientific method, though some few among them were the first men who had an inkling of it, is, on the whole, alien to their temper of mind, and the attempt to glorify them by belittling the intellectual progress of the last four centuries has a cramping effect upon modern thought.

There is, however, a more general argument against reverence, whether for the Greeks or for anyone else. In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.

The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Chapter 4

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