Contemporaneity of Ancient Greece

A study of texts by Aristotle and Plato reveals the origins of contemporary scientific concepts

BEL FALLEIROSWhen confronted by two theories to explain a problem, of which one is simple and the other complex, most people do not hesitate in favoring the former, which is also described as more elegant. “However, in many cases, the complex theory can be more interesting,” notes philosopher Marco Zingano, of the University of São Paulo (USP). According to him, this choice is so natural in contemporary western culture because the thinking of those civilizations was molded by Aristotle and Plato, the most important philosophers in Ancient Greece, for whom the paradigm for the metaphysics of a unit was simplicity. To understand to what degree the ideas developed some 2,400 years ago still serve as the basis for how we see the world is what keeps Zingano immersed in ancient texts. And he is far from alone in this. In a series of projects that has now been going on for ten years, he has been bringing together a rich and diverse group of researchers from different Brazilian and foreign universities in seminars to discuss texts and ideas.

The main line of thought for this group consists of recognizing the influence of Aristotle and Plato, his teacher for 20 years, on contemporary thought. “When we study the Ancient Greeks, we find current themes,” says Luiz Henrique Lopes dos Santos, a philosopher from USP, and one of the researchers associated with this project. “To study the history of philosophy is to study philosophy,” he adds. “Scientific time is cumulative, while philosophical time is mythical, and is characterized by continually returning to the same basic themes from different historical perspectives.” The focus of this study goes beyond the most common examinations of the writings of Ancient Greece, which at times involve pure historiography, and at other times consider that even today, Aristotle would be considered to be at the forefront of philosophical thought, if it were possible to resuscitate him. “It would be just as naive to limit him to the past as it would be to bring him into the present to correct us,” says Zingano.

Taken literally, bringing back the contributions of the Ancient World in a purely historiographical way might seem folkloric, almost laughable, compared to our current levels of knowledge. There are interesting examples in the field of biology, which accounts for a third of Aristotle’s writings that we have access to today. He described a series of species, like fish and coral, but he also went further, and sought to explain patterns that he saw in nature. Why, for example, do certain animals have cloven hooves? The explanation given by this Greek philosopher is based on the principle that each organism has a given amount of bone matter available to build its body. For example, since they need to defend themselves, deer used part of this material for their antlers, and did not have enough for their hooves, which are therefore incomplete. This is a completely discarded explanation given our current knowledge, but it is not necessarily totally irrelevant.

BEL FALLEIROSThinking of the permanence of ideas, Zingano mentions Aristotle’s search to understand why humans produce humans and plants produce plants.  This is an apparently obvious observation, but at his time it guided observations that went against what his predecessors believed. Organisms, he affirmed, are made of matter and form. What gives structure to a living being is the form, which is transmitted from one generation to the next, and which governs matter. “The idea that form does not come from matter, but rather governs it, has become so familiar that even today, the concept of DNA, in a certain way, reflects it ,” explains the philosopher from USP, making an analogy between the ancient concept with what is known today about heredity.

Another theory that might not seem useful at first sight refers to the cosmos, which for the Ancient Greeks was one, with only one Sun, and with all the planets rotating around the Earth. Besides the four basic elements that make up matter: earth, air, water and fire, everything that seems empty in space is said to be composed of a fifth element: ether. Invisible, unalterable, and with its uniform circular movement, ether was said to define the so-called supralunar world. Apparently completely divorced from modern cosmological understanding, the concept of ether was nonetheless reexamined by physicist Albert Einstein some 23 centuries later in the construction of his space-time model, which is today the centerpiece of astrophysics.

Hence, Aristotle is present, albeit disguised, in the way in which thought governs the intellectual habits of modern civilization. This is true for more specific areas of knowledge like biology and physics, but it is even truer for the broader bases of both science and thought in general, like logic, ethics and metaphysics.

One of the problems that concerned Plato and Aristotle was akrasia, which leads a person to act in a way that goes against what he knows to be correct. For example, if it is clear that a moderate amount of daily exercise is sufficient to prevent many serious illnesses and to bring noticeable health benefits, why would someone choose to spend hours and hours lying on the couch, go everywhere by car, and never go to the gym? For Socrates, who was Plato’s teacher, the response was simple: guided by reason, humans would only fail to do what was best if they lacked the necessary knowledge.

Plato disagreed, and settled this dilemma by dividing the soul into three parts, represented by a pair of winged horses led by a coachman who represents one of them, which is reason. One of the horses is unbroken and can only be controlled through the use of a whip; it represents our appetites. The other, more docile, is the irascible part of our souls. It is impulse, which generally obeys reason, but which can lead to impetuous decisions in certain situations. “What determines actions are said to be different sources of motivation,” notes Zingano. Plato thought of conflict as internal to the soul, giving rise to akrasia. Aristotle dedicated a book from his Ethics to this phenomenon. The struggle between passion and reason, which is so familiar today, has its roots in the reflections by these two Greeks on the sources of motivation for actions.

BEL FALLEIROSSome of the contributions of ancient thought are essential to scientific development. “Aristotle left a set of texts on how to argue, and how these argumentative forms can be used in general,” says Roberto Bolzani, also from the Philosophy Department at USP. The focus of his research is Plato’s Socratic dialogues, above all in regards to rebuttal and persuasion. In the research group he compares the ideas of the Master to the modes of arguing described by Aristotle in his topics. These include induction and deduction, which have become central elements of the scientific method still used today. “Before Aristotle and Plato, the idea of ‘knowledge’ had no meaning,” he explains. “They defined knowledge as something unchangeable, eternally true and which can be demonstrated.” This definition served as the basis for the modern concept, which takes into consideration the use of experiments to test hypotheses.

For Bolzani, the encounter among  ethics, logic, metaphysics and the theory of knowledge is natural in the search to learn about the thought of Plato and Aristotle. “The world view of these two Greek authors ties things together,” he affirms. “For them, the search for knowledge is an ethical search.” Today, science has become more and more compartmentalized, a characteristic that also ends up defining modern philosophy. “Today, unlike in Ancient times, it is possible to study physics without there being a moral aspect to the study.”

According to Bolzani, the relationship with modern thought gives the project a certain vivaciousness. “It is more than just a study of erudition.” Aristotle and Plato played an important and persistent role because they were great organizers of knowledge. They sought to understand the most diverse concepts in the Universe about mind and body, to understand how they work and to record this knowledge for future use. Bringing back these texts, explains Zingano, besides helping to maintain knowledge, is a search to understand how western culture describes the world and sees itself. For this reason, he follows a busy schedule of seminars, which bring together the members of the project to analyze a text every week. Some of the group’s members come from far away, like a post-doctoral student from Venezuela, an Italian, an American and a Frenchman. In addition, the structure of a major project allows him to bring researchers from other countries to present and discuss the work underway, as well as to send students to spend periods of time for learning and discussion away from São Paulo and even abroad.

BEL FALLEIROSAs he has created an environment of investigation and made USP a recognized center for the study of ancient philosophy, Zingano has created a new culture at the department. At first, students found it strange to see a professor fill up the blackboard with Greek writing during classes. “Today, it’s seen as natural,” says the philosopher, who considers it to be essential to integrate the expression of the language into thought.

In fact, translation is a central part of the study group and ends up being indissociable from the philosophical questions. Daniel Lopes, professor of Greek language and literature at USP, is a researcher associated with the project and has focused his career on translation of Greek texts, although his background is in philosophy. In the seminars, he contributes to the discussion of aspects of translation and interpreting of the texts, but his particular research is on a specific philosophical problem: hedonism in the Gorgias and Protagoras dialogues by Plato. Last year he published a translation of the former through the publishing house Perspectiva, and he is currently translating the latter. “In Gorgias, the Socrates character condemns pleasure and in Protagoras, he seems to consider pleasure and pain as the criteria for action,” Lopes explains. He has not yet finished analyzing the texts, but for now Lopes believes that the contradiction is only apparent, since Socrates was not committed to the Protagoras’s idea of hedonism. “The options a translator has in interpreting a text make all the difference,” he concludes.

For those who find the idea of an international group that constantly pores over texts written more than 20 centuries ago in a dead language strange, just remember: their content is far from outdated, when you look deeper.

Classical Greek Philosophy: Plato, Aristotle and their influence on the Ancient World (nº 2009/16877-3); Grant mechanism Thematic Project; Coordinator Marco Antonio de Avila Zingano; Investment R$ 379,440.00 (FAPESP).