19 MAY 1950, Page 23


T least since the Renaissance and the revival of classical learning it has been possible to study the development of

European thought from its first sources and natural beginnings. It must always have seemed an extraordinary and not quite credible accident that European thought should have a definite and recognisable beginning of any kind, even more that it should suddenly emerge, fully formed and adult, principally in the works of two men of unsurpassed genius, Plato and Aristotle, tracing patterns of philosophical argument which are still retraced today. The splendid, decisive beginning with Socrates has been gradually pushed back into a penumbra of cosmological myths and half-deciphered speculations, even the Greeks being absorbed into the anthropologists' dark world of magic and metaphor. Socrates himself appears in the new perspective as a late philosopher, turning away in conscious reaction from imaginative metaphysics to the plain problems of the individual conscience. The late F. M. Corn- ford was one of the scholars who helped to place Greek thought and literature in its longer perspective by groping for the origins of some of its forms in half-buried myth and ritual ; he was one of the last pioneers in the new archaeology of thought. Its sug- gestiveness can be appreciated in a posthumous book of essays, to which the editor, Mr. Guthrie, has attached a sympathetic memoir of Cornford.*

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Mr. Guthrie himself has written a little " Home Study Book " t on Greek -philosophy, from the now conventionally accepted first beginning, 'with Thales' abrupt statement that everything is water, to the fully elaborated system of Aristotle, which was to give employment to academics and schoolmen for thousands of years. This is exactly the ground well trodden in hundreds of university lectures every year. The fact of these lectures and the appearance of this little book provoke large questions: What is now the place of the study of Greek thought in a general education, and, more narrowly, what is now the place of the study of Greek philosophy in the study of philosophy itself ? Whatever were the appropriate answers twenty and fifty years ago are certainly not the answers today. All-important conditions have changed.

* * * * The ancient Greeks were a strange people with ways of thought and sources of enjoyment utterly unlike our own. We recognise ourselves to be divided from them by two great chasms—the advent of Christianity and the Industrial Revolution. We are further conscious of a long history of various and contradictory misinter- pretations of Greek thought, allowing each age and creed to identify in the original texts its own particular interests ; and we no longer have the simple rationalists' faith, which largely sustained earlier classical revivalists taking the men of the ancient world as their model, that human nature and its essential problems must be everywhere the same, and all languages translatable. There are therefore genuine reasons, for despair of the understanding of Greek thought as a possible part of general education, as education becomes more and more widely diffused from its older centres in scholarship. It is natural to compute what may be lost in this diffusion, at least in its effects on philosophy and the study of abstract thinking. * * * * Perhaps the greatest loss, as these two books in their different ways suggest, would be just the language itself ; and not principally because it is an intricate and subtle language, but because, at least for the purposes of abstract thought, it was new, not tired, battered and overburdened as is our own. Professor Gilbert Murray once wrote in another connection : " They (the Greeks) had practically no experience, but were doing every- thing for the first time." Among other things they were asking metaphysical questions and creating the instruments of abstract

• The Unwritten Philosophy and Other Essays. By F. M. Cornford. (Cambridge University Press. 12s. 6d.) t The Greek Philosophers from Tholes to Aristotle. By W. K. C. Guthrie. (Methuen. 5s.) thought for the first time. They can actually be watched as they torture their particles and twist their grammar in the effort to make the first technical terms of logic and theory of knowledge, the first fatal abstractions. A reader of Greek can follow almost the whole trajectory—and fortunately not in much detail—which leads from the first, natural perplexities about existence and the concealing tricks of language to the formation of academies and doctrines. Before about 390 B.C. it was strictly impossible to be academic in thought, and after the death of Aristotle it has required almost genius to escape. Every subsequent advance in philosophical thought has begun as an effort to shake off the dead weight of inherited doctrine in the hope of going back to the primitive roots of perplexity and of building a new clarity from first founda- tions. The Greeks are there to show what the first foundations are. One more of these efforts of discarding and forgetting has been made in the last thirty years, an. effort of rejecting the formed doctrines of the schools, as Descartes and Hume and Kant each in his turn rejected them. Philosophers are now trying to break through all inherited doctrines and to go straight to their ultimate origins in confused interpretations of the varying forms of ordinary speech.

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Against this background the value of a knowledge of Greek, both to the common reader of philosophy and to the philosopher, must appear incomparably great. Nowhere can one see the primi- tive, contrasting types of philosophical temperament and method so well illustrated as in Heraclitus and Parmenides, the fragmentary survivals of them and the other pre-Socratics being enough to show how philosophy begins when " done for the first time." But although a student may understand early pre-Socratic philosophy without a knowledge of Greek and with the aid of such a Home Study Book as Mr. Guthrie's, he must helplessly collapse before Plato's dialogues. No translation nor commentary can re-create the plausibility and variety of the original, or even protect him from plain misunder- standings, when so few of the words mean what their nearest English equivalent means. " Virtue " did not mean " virtue," and " the soul " did not mean " the soul " in the common Greek use ; but the philosophical strength of Plato precisely consists in taking such words from the common currency and laying his own sophistication upon them. The many-sided cleverness of Plato in developing almost every now familiar line of philosophical argument with the aid of some conjuring trick played on the forms of ordinary speech cannot be altogether reproduced in translation. We need to know the vernacular use of the words before we can see how all the now well-trodden paths to mysticism or scepticism were first indicated in almost cynical profusion. Plato as a moralist thought of himself as old in experience, having the terrible cycle of Athenian history behind him ; but as a pure abstract thinker he was absolutely new, and it is this fact which makes his actual words of such great value.

* * * * But perhaps the Greek language will be less widely known and Plato and Aristotle more and more synthesised in text-books. This will be a definite loss for which there are certainly definite com- pensations in other directions. It can be argued that the closer association of philosophy with the social sciences, with psychology and with mathematics is affording a greater stimulus than could now be provided by the traditional study of the literary sources of Western thought. English academic philosophy, revolving around the problems set by Plato and Aristotle and Kant, was tending to become a sterile and insular word-play, until it was violently disturbed by Russell's mathematical logic and by the new methodologists of science. But a loss which has compensations is still a loss, and philosophy uniquely depends on making the best of all world* on the study of the formative languages no less than on mathematics and empirical science. At all times anyone who enjoys the use of language in abstract argument for its own sake will wish to return to the ultimate source in Greek. STUART HAMPSHIRE.