Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Anthropocentric Greek Ideal versus Biology

It has been said that the Greek Ideal of Humanism is rooted almost entirely in the Homeric Epic and the Greek hero.  Indeed, everywhere the Greek people went before and during the classical age they brought with them Homer and set up schools to teach his epic of Odysseus.  The Greek hero, first accounted for by Homer, and exemplified by characters such as Achilles, were not the heroes we speak of today, they were strong minded obstinately self-centered, or so the work of Moses Hadas, in "Humanism; the Greek ideal and its survival," suggests.  Hadas, whose book was published in 1960, cleanly defines the Greek ideal of Humanism with a quote from Homer, "To strive always for excellence and to surpass all others."  It is man, and his accomplishments, who is the center of all things within this philosophy. How then does Greek Humanism stand up to current trends in society and with our broader understanding of the world brought about by our scientific understanding of biology? 

Humanism by Moses Hadas
What are the virtues of humanism?   Hadas points out that everywhere a Grecian went they would see statues of their heroes.  These statues were meant to stand as examples to the living on ways to live.  Indeed, many of the heroes were depicted as plowing straight fields and tended to domestic choirs, indicating that it was not just amazing accolades that were lauded in their heroes but day to day superiority.  They stood as exemplars for achievement and led eventually to the contests such as the Olympics, which is still held in some form today, as well as many other contests that weighed the prowess of athletes, poets, and playwrights, as well as potters and other fine craftsmen.  It was through this type of  competition that the Greek people became the most informed and skilled people in the world at the time.  As such, there is some value in the Humanist perspective in creating better men.

However, "man as the measure" as Hadas calls this type of belief, does not necessarily follow from a closer scrutiny of the biome.  Indeed, if man is a measure, he is only one measure, not the only one.  Others include the atoms that make up each cell; described first in ancient Greece as well, and the cells that make up each man.  Furthermore, an extrapolation of these measures suggests that we are only one potential product of atoms and one potential product of cells.  This fundamental understanding begins to erode the individualist center with which this philosophy is based.  If we are only one potentiality, then to fully understand our place in the world, we must measure ourselves by these other existing potentialities, as well as all of those potentials that have yet to manifest.  More clearly, our prowess  and success in not only measured by the yardstick of other men.  Additionally, we are not only measured by the components that make men whole; the smaller scale, but by the whole of which we are a component; the larger scale.  Indeed, men make up groups, which range from small circles of friends, to countries, to ethnicity, and one can even consider a man just a very small component, therefore, of the entire human race. These groups have identities of their own; we call ourselves 'Americans,' or 'Christians,' or 'Viking Fans,' and so on.  We are 'Humans,' but not 'Canines' in one regard, but 'Mammals' in another, including both forms and many others. 

How then are we measured?  Biologically speaking we are measured at all levels that impinge upon us.  The Greek theologians and philosophers believed in the separation of body and soul; Descartes comes to mind.  Our body was guided by our soul and by the outside world; which in classical Greek thought included the environment and the gods.  Gods in ancient Greece did not determine right or wrong as they do in Judea-Christian theology, they did their thing and man did his.  Sometimes the gods interfered in man's goals by their own doings, but they didn't purposefully intervene, except to tell men of their own potential.  Placing thoughts in a person's head for instance (kind of like we do with our Sims in the popular game.)  From a contemporary standpoint, we can consider nature to include both the environment and gods; the environment, what the Athenians understood; and the gods, what they did not.  All together they contain the factors that impinge upon us today as well.  All of which we can call nature or the environment.  The only difference is that we may be able to forgo the concept of the soul.  (this is of course a controversial thought, but we have not found a soul yet, and we may consider it like the luminiferous either; unnecessary for all the functions and rules by which we are governed.)  If so, we are not separated from the environment in any way.  We are the environment and therefore are a measure of it, and are measured by it as well.

Biology suggests that the Darwinian survival of the fittest plays out on the global stage, and at all levels.  It is therefore not a wonder that those who believed in "surpassing all others," as the Heroic Greeks did, would have made great strides on this stage, despite only measuring themselves against one measure. 

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